The Heretics begins as an exploration of trauma recovery, but very quickly descends into a supernatural possession/exorcism film with some major character flaws.
Let’s bitch it out…
The Heretics initially presents as a tale about trauma and survival. Gloria (Nina Kiri) and her girlfriend, Joan (Jorja Cadence) are both trauma survivors. Joan was abused by her father, and she has the scars on her back to show. Gloria’s trauma carries no physical signs, but hers is arguably more terrifying: five years before she was abducted by a cult, tied to a table in the middle of the woods and covered in their blood following a suicidal ritual.
Gloria’s experience is visually introduced as a dream, suggesting both an immediacy (it clearly haunts her) as well as a distance (it is only in her mind). Intriguingly the extent of the ritual and the aftermath aren’t revealed until later, much like repressed memories that resurface over time. Even after five years, Gloria’s life is still affected: her mother Ruth (Nina Richmond) is overprotective, even when Gloria is only going to her regular church support group for female victims of violence. Her non-verbal reactions at the meeting are telling: Gloria isn’t ready to address her trauma, and she doesn’t share Joan’s aggressive and confrontational beliefs about fighting back.
These early scenes quickly and expediently introduce all but one of the main characters. They also lay the foundation for what is to come, namely that Gloria will be made to face the phantoms of her traumatic experience and the romantic nature of her relationship with Joan will be revealed. Enter the inciting incident: Thomas (Ry Barrett), a former member of the cult, abducts Gloria on the eve of the ritual’s fifth year anniversary with the intention of “saving her.”
In any other horror film, a man who kidnaps a woman and chains her to a wall in a derelict cabin in the woods is the villain. The Heretics manages to simultaneously lean into and subvert this expectation. Thomas is undeniably painted as mentally unstable and his partially burnt face subconsciously codifies him as a monster. On the other hand, his goal is not to harm Gloria; he only plans to keep her hidden until the deadline of the anniversary has passed and she has no role to play in the end of the world.
Initially this could be interpreted as a twisted male saviour fantasy…until Gloria begins to exhibit symptoms of a physical transformation, including bleeding, vomiting and hallucinations in which she sees members of the cult.
The cabin scenes are intercut with Joan’s own desperate pursuit to find her girlfriend. Unhappy with the subdued efforts of Ruth and Officer Carter (Colin Price), Joan adopts an aggressive strategy to track Gloria down: she flyers the neighbourhood, corrals members of the church to form a search party and confronts a suspicious man with a switchblade.
SPOILERS FOLLOW THE JUMP
And then, in a moment that is both unexpected and handled poorly by the narrative, Joan randomly murders both Carter and Ruth and is revealed to be the cult’s ringleader, Gwen.
Prior to this point, The Heretics is a fascinating (albeit unconventional) study of different approaches to treating trauma. Thomas and “Joan” present conflicting models: Thomas’ abduction forces Gloria to confront her demons directly, while “Joan” advocates aggression but allows Gloria to work through her issues on her own time, offering unconditional love and support. There’s a fascinating argument to be made about the gendered nature of the approach and the LGBT+ element is refreshing and adds complexity to “Joan”s search since her status as a desperate romantic partner must be kept a secret from Ruth.
Once “Joan” is revealed to be Gwen, however, the intriguing subplot about a closeted lesbian relationship is immediately dispensed with. It is eventually revealed that Gwen doesn’t feel anything for Gloria and that her affection was simply a ruse to keep her demonic vessel close by. This is not only disappointing, it verges on offensive. It is undeniably in poor taste to hinge a major plot twist around a sleeper agent who is posing as gay. The Following, the atrocious Kevin Bacon/James Purefoy series about killer Edgar Allen Poe cultists, also used this exact same plot device and – spoiler! – it didn’t play out any better there, either. It’s either a blessing or another stab in the back that the script by Jayme Laforest doesn’t address this betrayal in any substantial way; at one point Gwen briefly confesses to Gloria that she loved her for what she represents, ie: a vessel for the demon Abaddon.
The twist also negatively impacts a reading of Jirja Cadence’s performance. Her unhinged performance works best early on when “Joan”s aggression reads as symptomatic of her trauma. When her true intentions are revealed, her manic reactions to the slightest provocation play far too broadly; the script fails to provide a rational excuse for her to be so angry. It also seems increasingly odd when no one addresses it.
It is at this point that the emotional center of the film shifts back to Thomas and Gloria. Knowing the truth about Gwen, audience sympathy shifts to align with Thomas, who adheres to his promise not to harm Gloria.
Unfortunately Laforest also undermines Thomas’ intentions via a semi-graphic hallucinations wherein Gloria sexually propositions him. It is a needlessly gratuitous scene that debases both characters, even after it is revealed that it was only in Thomas’ mind. It may not have happened, but the editing and the narrative beats suggest that Abaddon is able to use the suggestive thoughts in Thomas’ mind to construct the fantasy, which means he’s a bit of a creep and just adept at hiding it.
The problematic character work even extends to Gloria, who disappointingly never rises to the aggressive occasion hinted at by her early dialogue with “Joan” at the start of the film. Rather Gloria becomes an increasingly pathetic figure, continually framed by her imprisonment and suffering, as well as her slow physical evolution into a monster.
This problematically leaves the audience without a clear protagonist to cheer on: Gwen is obviously the antagonist, Thomas is a male abductor who sexually fetishes the girl he claims to want to save and Gloria’s monstrous evolution suggests two possible outcomes: 1) she will escape unharmed (a narrative cheat) or 2) she will need to be killed. In some circles, this could be construed as moral complexity, but here it merely plays as a failure of character in the script.
In spite of these substantial character issues, I actually really enjoyed The Heretics.
First and foremost, the film looks visually stunning, particularly the set design, the props and the make-up. The wooden cabin where the majority of the film takes place feels rustic, aged and filled with practical objects (several of which become important props). Director Chad Archibald shoots the cabin scenes in dim lighting to emphasize the claustrophobia of the setting and the growing intimacy between Thomas and Gloria as the night progresses. The hallucinatory cut-aways to open fields in full, oversaturated light is a reprieve to both the desperate characters and the audience.
The costuming for the cult garb is plain linen onesies, but the standout component is the masks. Seemingly comprised of twigs and mud, what is most impressive is how each mask is unique and individualized. Even if the identity of the cult members remain obscured, they each have a personality thanks to their masks, which are appropriately insidious.
The film’s most significant achievement, however, is the practical make-up effects used to transform Gloria from a gorgeous girl to a balding, winged demon. This, combined with a booming (and occasionally squishy) sound design, really help to sell Abaddon as a malevolent force to be feared. Couple this with a stunning (sustained) physical performance by Kiri and an understated, wounded performance by Barrett and the film is imminently watchable.
The Bottom Line: Ultimately The Heretics has some character issues that don’t quite work and the speed with which the intriguing lesbian relationship angle is dispensed is frustrating. Despite these problems, the performances by Kiri and Barrett are strong, the visual aesthetics, particularly the practical make-up effects, are stunning and the film is never dull. There’s a lot here to recommend.
The Heretics is playing at Hexploitation Film Festival on Saturday, March 24.