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I don’t think Brian De Palma ever anticipated the effects his brilliant, genuinely subversive but unquestionably compassionate adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie would have on modern film culture. As oppressive as Piper Laurie’s fundamentalist she-devil may have been, she was nowhere near as horrible as the vicious teens that tortured and crucified Sissy Spacek’s titular character on her prom night. From Grease to Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Carrie‘s lousiest rip-offs fail to embrace and reinterpret the spiritual challenge of De Palma’s film. Instead, modern filmmakers seem to be attracted only to the story’s blood lust, using it to appeal to that juvenile sensation that gets off on seeing the social outcast embarrass the abusive bully before a crowd of their peers.

An early contender for the worst film of the year, the painfully unfunny Saved! is every bit as reductive as your average high school underdog fantasy, except it also has a bigger fish to fry than Mandy Moore’s psycho-bitch: Christianity. When Mary (Jena Malone) finds out her boyfriend may be gay, she looks to Jesus and sleeps with Dean (Chad Faust) in order to cure him. Naturally, Mary’s act of mercy fails, and when her boyfriend’s parents find the leather-daddy porn under his bed, the boy is dutifully shipped to the Mercy House for conversion therapy. Pregnant and alone, Mary befriends the school’s outcasts, wheelchair-bound Roland (Macaulay Culkin) and Jewish Goth-freakazoid Cassandra (Eva Amurri), and together they fight the evil forces of Moore’s Christian monster, the racist Hilary Faye (a reference to the evangelical Tammy Faye perhaps?).

From Hilary’s attempts to cure Dean of his “faggotry” to an impromptu exorcism aimed at the virginal Mary, Moore’s ghoul is supposed to symbolize the worst in un-Christian charity, and though director Brian Dannelly has every right to address and relieve his obvious beef with right-wing Christianity and the threat it poses to democracy (especially now that gays are moving ever closer to full civil rights—make that human rights—in this country), he makes absolutely no distinction between the good Christian and the right-wing nut. Like Martin Donovan’s evangelical principal, this is a film that sees only in black and white, and the spectacle of Hilary’s un-Christian behavior exists not to promote kindness among the masses, but to mock a belief system.

The film’s good Christians can’t even be called Christians: they’re crippled (and atheists), they’re Jewish, and in the case of Patrick Fugit’s missionary skater boi, they’re more than happy to eroticize Christ’s crucifixion (how scandalous!). Surely it’s no coincidence that Fugit never mentions Jesus in the film but Moore’s character engages his name a good hundred times. In essence: Good Christians are born by distancing themselves from Christ. By film’s end, Hilary is destroyed but not before taking Jesus down with her (again, scandalous!). Like Mary, perhaps it’s not too late for her. Just as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ looks to connect Christians to God via an unhealthy spectacle of violence, this equally cruel but infinitely more snide Afterschool Special seems to exist only to promote anti-Christian resentment. Here’s hoping the next Christian-aimed film cultivates a theoretical and philosophical aesthetic that isn’t so, well, black and white.

United Artists
92 min
Brian Dannelly
Brian Dannelly, Michael Urban
Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo, Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker, Eva Amurri