Review: Children of Sorrow (dir. Jourdan McClure, 2012)

Children of Sorrow

Children of Sorrow
UK, 2015
Director: Jourdan McClure
Writers: Ryan Finnerty and Jourdan McClure

Review by N Emmett.

Out in the Texas desert, Father Simon Leach (Bill Oberst Jr.) maintains a reclusive religious community. He regards his youthful followers as his children, and promises them a happy, wholesome life and a ticket to Heaven.

What at first seems like a clean, earthy lifestyle turns out to have a much darker edge. Father Simon has placed himself in a position of total authority over his flock, and begins exacting harsh punishments on those who step out of line. And God forbid any of them try to escape…

Praise the Lord, Children of Sorrow is one of those rare miracles: a found footage horror film that has managed to escape from the shadow of The Blair Witch Project. The camera is passed between multiple members of the cult, including Father Simon himself, in a joint effort to chronicle day-to-day life on the religious compound; the end result is closer to a mockumentary than the typical lost-in-the-woods fare.

The film follows the steady breakdown of the cult. Things start out cheerful enough: Father Simon assembles the Spartan furnishings of his lodge, while the cultists gather for a folksy feel-good session in which they demonstrate their particular talents – singing, juggling, knitting and so forth. From here, everything begins go swiftly downhill; one of the first signs that something is seriously wrong comes when a cultist admits to being gay and is punished by having his head shoved into a tub of water.

csor1Sexism, too, is part of the cult’s values. Father Simon films himself making advances towards a cult member named Robin (Liesel Hanson); the fact that Robin has come to view Simon as a father figure adds an incestuous touch to the already sordid scene. Simon then forces a male cultist to sexually assault Robin, telling him that women are obliged to serve as the property of men.

Enclosed religious communities are a recurring theme in horror films; examples range from the well-known (The Wicker Man) to the obscure (Where the Devil Hides). Often, such films have it both ways by intriguing, even tempting us with the way of life on show, before revealing the underlying rottenness. Watching The Wicker Man we are captivated by the richness and festivity of Summerisle, only to be shown the horror of human sacrifice. Children of Sorrow shows us the appealing side of the down-to-earth, communal society – only csor3to demonstrate that this existence, likewise, comes at a cost.

Father Simon’s cult shows a mixture of real world influences. He claims that his previous compound fell to a police siege, an obvious reference to the Waco incident. Meanwhile, a key scene shows one cultist drinking poison in full view of the congregation, clearly reminiscent of the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown mass-suicides. It is also quite possible that Bill Oberst Jr. was cast in the role of Father Simon because one of his most distinctive qualities – his vacant yet piercing stare – is reminiscent of Heaven’s Gate founder Marshall Applewhite.

While the film scarcely makes an attempt to hide its inspirations, it does a good job of avoiding obvious stereotypes. For example, given his homophobia and mistrust of the outside world, it would have been all too easy to turn Father csor2Simon into a caricature of Fred Phelps. Instead, director Jourdan McClure has taken the time to create a more thoughtful and engaging visualisation of a cult leader, one who is both a charismatic (if eccentric) preacher who has managed to attract a flock of devotees, and a clearly unhinged man who rants about his parents while standing in front of the camera naked.

One of the better touches in the film is the way that it varies the points of view held by the cultists. After the suicide-by-poison scene, the reaction is mixed. Some are horrified, while others support the dead cultist’s move: one woman describes his suicide as the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Another speaker simply sits and plays with a toy tractor, his mind apparently unable to come to terms with what just happened.

This is a well-observed and convincing portrayal of cultish behaviour. The members of the cult are not portrayed as mindless acolytes, but rather as individuals who have each turned to Father csor4Simon because they find his way of life fulfilling in one way or another. Only some stick to this point of view, however, while others start to see the disastrous place where the cult is headed.

With the genre having been driven into the ground, it is often easy to forget how much potential there is in found footage horror. Children of Sorrow is a film that builds on that potential by combining a solid premise with a good grasp of both horror and documentary aesthetics. A commendable addition to the genre.