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Finding God at the Grindhouse: A Personal Reflection on Faith, Sleaze, and the Darkness of the Soul

Full disclosure to start this one off. I was raised Christian, the son of a pastor. The churches I belonged to (two different ones, dependent on where my mother — the pastor — was working at the time) were both American Baptist, but I always identified as a Christian first, in terms of my faith, and being Baptist didn’t mean a hell of a lot to me. Fast forward to 2017, I continue to believe in God. I even still dig Jesus. The institution of the Church and I, though, don’t get along so well. That’s the super abbreviated version of where my faith lies.

So, “Why is that relevant?” you ask. Well, let’s put this in perspective… the Jesus Freak crowd in this country is perceived to be a bunch of gay-hating, backwoods, Trump-loving Bible bangers (of course, many of my more conservative friends are as far from this label as I, mind you, otherwise I wouldn’t consider them to be friends). I, on the other hand, say the “fuck” word regularly, watch tons of gory horror movies, voted for Obama twice, had a gay man in my wedding party, and edit a blog on some of the sleaziest films this side of your grimy local XXX shop. The focus here, though, is my taste in art… those horror films I watch, the films we talk about on this site, the sex-filled TV shows I enjoy, etc. etc. How can I, a man who claims to believe in God — attempts to follow the teachings of Jesus, even — watch these films with bloody murders, full frontal nudity, graphic sex, and sometimes even rape scenes?

I’ve thought about this many times; and, I think that rather than enjoying these films DESPITE my faith, I watch them BECAUSE OF my faith. The darker side of genre film — horror, thriller, black comedy, various forms of “extreme” cinema — grapples with the darkness in humanity, the existence and nature of God, and spiritual warfare in ways that no other type of film does or can. Films like the recent extreme horror film We are the Flesh dive into the darkest desires of the human heart, with graphic depictions of incest, decapitation, and necrophilia — including non-simulated fellatio and full penetration. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain contemplates the meaning of life and art, while showing extremely disturbing scenes of exploding animals, graphic death, and psychedelic imagery. The Exorcist is far less gory and graphic, but in its time was considered perverse by many; yet, very few films wrestle with the battle between good and evil like the classic Blatty/Friedkin collaboration does.

Some may look at my examples here and suggest that they are high art examples, anomalies in the genre, easy examples to point to… however, they are but a few examples of how the dark and sleazy side of genre film take on topics relevant to faith and spiritual life. Looking at the selection of films we host on this site, you will find the Ilsa films, A Clockwork Orange, and Strangeland. Of these, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is the only one regarded highly by the greater film community. However, to some degree or another, all of them deal with the themes of human torture, free will, and self-fulfilling prophecies. They explore the coexisting humanity and monsterousness with our souls. We sympathize with the victims. We sympathize with the villains. In some cases, it’s not clear who is the victim, which adds a layer of truth that so many mainstream films refuse to explore. Yet, in these films, nothing is too taboo or off-limits, which allows the films to get at the root of humanity’s suffering and pain.

For many, the grindhouse was simply a place for titillation and entertainment. For me, these films provide a lens into the souls of mankind and a method to explore the grand design of this fucked up, confusing, and beautiful universe. Consider today’s brief manifesto and introduction. In the next few weeks, I will tackle specific themes that feel important to my life and to the time we live in by discussing films often relegated to the grindhouses and midnight movie programs. Of course, as a person of faith, these themes will be relevant to my beliefs and questions about the nature of God, the morality of the world, and the reality of being. So, I hope you’ll join me in the upcoming weeks to explore just a bit more of my draw to these films. And, please, feel encouraged to share your thoughts on this. I don’t mind being told I’m full of shit.

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Justin Harlan

Justin Harlan

founder of farsightedblog.com, writer for cinapse.co and grumpire.com, father, husband, Sixers and Eagles fan, lover of film and music, just some dude