Possession cinema and spiritual thrillers are a dying breed of filmmaking. Perhaps the death kneel of the genre has come at the feet of political correctness. Maybe it’s because William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin already birthed the definitive volume on the subject. Still, that hasn’t stopped legions of filmmakers from plundering the shallow depths of other popular sub-sects. Zombie films pop up and shuffle (ok, sometimes they run) around every few years and Vampire lore is rewritten almost weekly. So what makes Santeria anything other than another entry in a category of films that has lost some, id not all of it’s credibility after the Exorcist prequel fiasco? Well, the answer is not much, but at the same time, a lot.
Right up front, don’t be shy, and let’s get things going by tossing off the film’s title, since the production has virtually nothing to do with the Cubano/Catholic hybrid that is Santeria. This film is more a marked study on the nature of spirituality and mass hysteria than it is a lesson plan on the logistics of a cultural ideology. The story is centered on Ricky (Nito Perez Jr.) a young neighborhood kid who may be having visions of The Virgin Mary. As the story of Ricky’s holy encounters spread, pilgrims from all around begin to descend on his close-knit community to share in the joy and wonder of the sacrament. But, Ricky’s cousin does not believe that all is as it appears and with the help of a small group of religious crusaders, she begins to unravel the sinister mystery behind the seemingly sanctified events.
What makes a film like Santeria work is hardly in the brilliance of its filmmaking; this type of movie is purely a creature of plot – a screenwriters dream project, filled with juicy social criticism and razor sharp controversy. Regardless of your own pious proclivities, the characters and the situations must feel real; they must transcend the obvious so much more than the extraordinary creatures of fantasy and science fiction. Santeria must make you believe in something that you may or may not already accept as fact – a haughty task for a horror film? It worked wonders in The Omen. To this degree, filmmaker Benny Matthews has succeeded. I feel for his characters, I share their fears, and although the ending is a foregone conclusion, I still ponder its final moments. But all of this faith that is instilled in his cast and story cannot save Matthews’ film from being astonishingly boring.
Fans looking for the stock-in-trade devices of past films will be left wholly unsatisfied with the virtual absence of visual stimuli. As far as horror goes, Santeria hardly qualifies since it plays out as pure melodrama. The Exorcism of Emily Rose showed that the two could be co-mingled to produce a quality film, but Santeria is not financially sound enough to elicit the type of harsh set pieces that Emily Rose boasted during her epic climax.
Clearly shot on a low budget, Santeria is proficiently photographed, showing Matthew’s ability at staging scenes. But with virtually no action to speak of, the audience is forced to integrate themselves into the lives of people; the bulk of us will hardly be able to relate to. Where this fails the casual viewer, is that Matthews’ does little to make Ricky’s family or the protagonists relevant. It may sound contradictory to my pervious statements, but I can not argue one simple fact, with the pacing of the film, and almost no major revelations until the final reels, the bulk of Matthews’ core audience is going to wish they had just skipped the film and headed straight to church..