One of my favorite scenes in horror film history comes at the end of 'Rosemary's Baby.' The titular baby has been delivered and promptly kidnapped. Rosemary, who has begun to suspect that the child is stashed away next door, sneaks into the neighboring apartment brandishing a kitchen knife. There what Polanski's brilliant film has spent two hours suggesting and insinuating is abruptly made explicit. Rosemary peers into the crib and shrinks away in horror. "He has his father's eyes," says Roman Castavet. Rosemary doesn't understand. Then, finally: "Satan is his father, not Guy! He came up from hell and begat the son of a mortal woman." The others in the room cheer, "Hail Satan!" Roman continues, delivering a crazed incantation that culminates in another hearty call and response: "Hail Satan!"
The scene epitomizes the allure and the potential danger of religious horror. 'Rosemary's Baby' and its progeny borrow from a narrative that many (if not most) people in the western world take very seriously. Even non-believers know the story, and come to the film with their own take on it. A lot can go unsaid, such as that Satan begetting a son is a really huge, apocalypse-portending deal. Done well, as 'Rosemary's Baby' most certainly is, this stuff can be immensely creepy. But it can also go south very quickly. Strike the wrong tone and you end up with something cheap and hokey rather than scary. Examples abound. 'End of Days,' anyone? 'Legion'?
'The Rite,' opening tomorrow, is a particularly interesting specimen, since it constantly tightrope-walks that line between eerie and cheesy. 'The Exorcist' is its obvious inspiration, and for good reason. Below the fold, we offer seven less canonical examples of religious horror that works.