We’re having a little fun here at Pop Theology as Halloween rolls around. This time of year, we celebrate all things monstrous and horrific, and while evil comes in all shapes and sizes, many of us also know that it often comes dressed in religious garb. Below are a few of our favorite religious baddies, evil characters who are either explicitly religious or feature as the villains in explicitly religious films. These films range from the 1950s to the present day and cover genres from biblical epics to documentaries. The performances themselves are equally varied from laughter-inducing camp to spine-tingling horror. We’ve listed them in chronological order, and I know we’ve no doubt left out more than a few, so share your favorites that we missed.
Nero (Peter Ustinov) from Quo Vadis? (1951)
In 1951, Mervyn Leroy directed a remake of Quo Vadis? for MGM. It was nominated for 8 Oscars, but won none. Consider its competition that year: The African Queen, A Place in the Sun, and A Streetcar Named Desire. The story centers on a Roman officer (Robert Taylor) who falls in love with a Christian girl (Deborah Kerr). Unfortunately, they do so during the persecution of the Christians, lead by Peter Ustinov’s diabolically brilliant turn as Nero. An infantile megalomaniac with delusions of being a great artist, he is petulant, cruel, narcissistic, perverse, hysterical – in other words, magnificent. Ustinov staggers around the set, eyes always in distant focus, braying his odes on his lyre (the famous “fiddling” of Nero.) His burning of Rome is chalked up to sheer artistic ennui—the only subject worthy of his muse is the incineration of the ancient city. Nero is, quite literally, a flaming queen. As a result, it can be hard to be angry with or fear such a character when you’re tempted to laugh so much. Consider Nero’s reaction to the survivors of the fire who rush his palace: “Who asked them to survive?”
Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Baka (Vincent Price), Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), and Rameses (Yul Brenner) from The Ten Commandments (1956)
I was tempted to put Cecil B. DeMille on this list of religious baddies for all of his scandalous treatment of biblical and religious epics. Few directors in the history of the medium have walked so fine a line between the sexy and the sacred quite like DeMille. He directed two versions of The Ten Commandments, and the technicolor 1956 epic is by far the most popular.
The fearsome threesome of The Ten Commandments are the Pharaoh Rameses (Yul Brynner), the master builder Baka (Vincent Price), and Dathan (Edward G. Robinson). They’re avatars for the real bogeyman of the 1950’s – communism.
Rameses—cunning, powerful, arrogant, but ultimately insecure—plays a kind of ancient Khrushchev. He’s the leader of the world’s most hated superpower, and Moses and the Hebrews are the freedom-loving underdogs. He’s most entertainingly gruesome in his scenes with Queen Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) where he reveals a little too much about Cecil B. DeMille’s own misogyny and tendency toward S&M. “You’re a treacherous sharp-clawed little peacock,” as Rameses says, might be an insult to most women, but to Nefretiri, and the kind of women C.B. liked, it was a challenge and a turn-on.
If Rameses is the head of the Egyptian Reds, Baka, played by Price, is the party apparatchik, building massive and useless edifices to the glory of the Pharaoh. Price is entertaining as Baka because of his effeminate brand of evil. In one scene, he manages to kidnap the Hebrew water bearer Lilia (Debra Paget), presumably to sully her honor. We find him, instead, carefully dressing her in one of his favorite gowns. By the end of the scene, he has the buff Joshua (John Derek) strung up shirtless and ready to whip.
If Rameses and Baka are the party regulars, Dathan, played by former gangster movie megastar Robinson, is the mole. He sells out his people for his own gain, leaving him in a role that would have been recognizable to 1950’s Americans as a kind of Hebrew Alger Hiss. In his idolatry of riches and power, he is the one who must be destroyed by those implements of “freedom,” the Ten Commandments. In this case, quite literally, as Moses hurls the stone tablets at Dathan at the end of the film, destroying him and the Golden Calf.
Better Hebrew dead than Egyptian Red.
Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) in Elmer Gantry (1960)
Burt Lancaster earned a Best Actor Oscar for his titular performance as Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman who discovers the lucrative aspect of hell-fire and damnation sermonizing. An adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ attack on commercialized, show-biz revivalism, the film exposes the fake emotionalism and financial wheeling and dealing of big business evangelism. The movie is packed with drama, emotion, and a bit of sex to boot (Shirley Jones plays a prostitute). The highlight, of course, is Lancaster’s performance, which grabs your attention from the moment he first appears and never lets go.
Father Oliver O’Grady (himself) in Deliver Us From Evil (2006)
In this 2006 documentary about the Catholic Church’s refusal to directly and more punatively address its sex abuse scandal, we see the powers that be move known serial pedophile Father Oliver O’Grady (pictured above) from parish to parish. His is a chilling face of evil, especially because he is so completely disarming and at times acts as if he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. As many critics noted, it’s more terrifying than any horror film because it all actually happened. After serving seven years of a 14-year prison sentence in the United States, he returned to his home in Ireland. In January 2012, O’Grady was sentenced to three years in prison in Ireland for possession of child pornography.
Becky Fisher (herself) in Jesus Camp (2006)
Another example of religious abuse, Jesus Camp received much critical acclaim when it released in 2006. Becky Fisher was the director of the now-defunct Pentecostal youth retreat, Kids on Fire School of Ministry, which has since re-grouped as Kids in Ministry International. Her hell fire and brimstone sermonizing whipped young children into a fearful frenzy and had them tearfully confessing their sins in front of rapt congregations and movie audiences. Anyone who stirs up these kinds of emotions in children this young should certainly be brought up on charges of child abuse. As Richard Roeper said in his review, “Jesus would be appalled by what goes on in the these camps.”
Rev. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood (2007)
Written and directed by P.T. Anderson, There Will Be Blood was not only one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2007 but of the entire decade. While Daniel Day-Lewis took home another Best Actor Oscar as the tough-as-nails oil man Daniel Plainview, he was surrounded by formidable talent in the form of Paul Dano, who played Rev. Eli sunday, an up-and-coming minister at the Church of the Third Revelation, who questions not Plainview’s business practices but the destination of his soul. The brilliance of Dano’s performance is in its earnest intensity; however, his financial, emotional, and physical undoing at the end of the film, in which he comes crawling back to Daniel, is the stuff of shocking, bloody legend and reveals the dangers of mixing business and religion.