Monday, December 5, 2016

"A Mockery of Order and Beauty" - A Day of Judgment (1981) - Part 1 of 3

Our next classic film is 1981's A Day of Judgment, also known as Stormbringer. This horror film follows the structure of the slasher films popular in 1981 but cleverly takes the moralistic nature of those films to what might be called an extreme level. In fact, the film is a slasher movie with an important moral message.

As always, your universe's critics fail to understand the message. The redoubtable Justin Kerswell on The Hysteria Lives writes that the film is "like Little House on the Prairie with slight slasher trappings. The trouble is, Little House was often scarier." At A Slash Above, Luisito Joaquin writes, "Unless you are a sadist and enjoy boredom as a form of torture, there is very little here for you to bother with." Finally, stunt_rock at The Betamax Rundown writes, "an 80s version of a liturgical drama with inadequate lighting set in the 1920s....We can assume the production company knew they had a fairly miserable movie on their hands and put most of the remaining budget into making the poster look awesome." Again, these "criticisms" miss the point of the film and must be corrected immediately.

The film opens with a bearded minister, played by the film's director, Charles Reynolds, speaking to a bright silver cross, blaming himself that the people of his town have no faith. Later, he gives a sermon recounting how he started at the church during the War to End All Wars. Cleverly, the filmmakers have suggested that the film is set sometime between World War I and World War II.

He ends the sermon by vowing that the townspeople will pay for breaking the Lord's commandments, and adding that next week a new minister will be giving the sermon in the church.

In a wide shot, the camera reveals that the only people listening to the reverend are three old women wearing black. These women, the only members of the congregation, will appear repeatedly in the beginning the film, observing the action like a Greek chorus, though completely mute.

After the sermon, the minister--Reverend Cage--drives his horse buggy down a well-paved, freshly-lined street. A man nearly runs into him with a 1920s-era automobile, calling the minister "stupid," but then apologizing after recognizing the man he almost ran over.

We follow the driver, Charlie, as he pilots his automobile through the streets while drinking liquor from a flask. A pistol rests on the seat next to Charlie.

Within the space of a few minutes we see more of what the minister would likely call sin--not just Charlie's drunkenness and possible intention to commit murder, but also a department store where the clerk flirts salaciously with a young woman, a little girl appears ready to steal a stick of candy, and a woman, shockingly, takes money from her husband. The town is clearly a hotbed of iniquity and vice.

(In an artistic touch, the filmmakers emulate the minimalism of a Beckett play, with a large bare-walled room decorated only with a few cabinets and a closet organizer standing in for a department store.)

Meanwhile, Reverend Cage visits the town bank. He sits down with the banker, Mr. Sharpe, whose desk is pushed up against a wall next to the teller's cage. The banker tells him, "We do have the two most important buildings in town, mine being perhaps somewhat the more important." The minister ignores this sacrilege and tells the banker he has resigned his position with the church and needs the banker to close his accounts. Mr. Sharpe reminds the minister that he still owes $360 on a loan, but Reverend Cage can only throw himself on the mercy of the bank; he cannot pay the money back.

Mr. Sharpe offers a 60-day extension of the loan but Reverend Cage is clearly disappointed, and more than a little angry, that his debt was not completely forgiven. Treating the reverend as just another customer is another clear indicator that the town is full of sin--in the banker's case, surprisingly, the sin of greed.

(In another minimalistic touch, the bank set appears to be the same as  the department store set, with some more desks and partitions. Additionally, the filmmakers use sound effects exceedingly well, as hoof beats, presumably from outside, can be heard continuously during the entire bank scene.)

After the debacle at the bank, the reverend drives his carriage to the local Go-Mor gas station to berate the attendant George about his relationship with his girlfriend.

We follow George into the gas station, whose interior looks remarkably similar to the bank, where George insults the reverend behind his back and acts disrespectfully to his parents, suggesting he would rather marry his girlfriend than take over the family business. (It is here that, perhaps, some sensitive viewers might find the evil of the townspeople, especially George, too exaggerated to be believable--surely only the devil himself would make such a suggestion to his poor, elderly parents.)

We continue to see the private lives of the people of this small town. When a group of children and their pet goat throw a ball into her yard, an old woman phones the sheriff to complain. Then the woman accuses her maid of stealing liquor. "I would be better off alone," the old woman says. "I don't need people around making a mockery of order and beauty."

As night falls, the minister continues driving the carriage out of town. At a covered bridge, he sees another horse and carriage coming from the other direction. In a flash of lightning, the cloaked driver is revealed to be disfigured and carrying a scythe. As this figure rides toward town, the minister prays.

With the dark figure's arrival, A Day of Judgment has moved into its second act. How will this scythe-wielding stranger affect the people of this small town? Who can tell? We will have to wait until Part 2 of our review.