Catholic exorcism tales have just one serious rival when it comes to “religious horror” movies — the snake handlers of Appalachia.
There’s built-in suspense, the medulla-based terror of the reptile, the tension of not knowing if a rattler will bite, the fear that prayer alone won’t save those bitten.
Who needs zombies, vampires or ghosts when you’ve got a venomous killer draped around the heroine or hero’s neck, a backwoods preacher reciting “They shall take up SERPENTS” from his Bible and a congregation roaring “AMEN” as all this is going on?
“Them That Follow” is “Winter’s Bone” with snake-handlers. It’s a quiet thriller that suggests that the form the violence takes in such remote communities may be different, but its sources can be identical.
Murderous meth trade or patriarchal “spirit touched” preaching, such rigid, hierarchical scenarios suck us in, leaving us as trapped and lost as the antagonists up on the screen we’re meant to identify with.
Mara, played by Alice Englert of “Ginger & Rosa” and “Beautiful Creatures” is our trapped heroine this time. She’s part of a dirt-poor mountaintop community, raised on snake handling, not really looking for a way out.
After all, her stern, charismatic daddy (Walton Goggins, in a role he was born to play) is the preacher. So it’s not like she has a say in the matter, or a choice.
This sect has the 20something Mara hemmed in on all sides. Driving “is not meant for your hands.” Contact with the outside world is circumscribed. We never see a TV or hear a radio. Women in the church gather for sewing and quilting bees while the men search the woods for fresh vipers.
And Daddy’s got her mate, her future, all lined up for her. Her “choice” in the matter seems pro forma.
“Who you choose, girl, chooses your whole life.”
It’s just that Garret (Lewis Pullman) is Daddy’s in-my-congregation idea of a mate. Mara has had eyes for Sister Slaughter’s boy, the atheist Augie (Thomas Mann).
And within minutes of meeting her on the screen, we see Mara and pal Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) hitch into “town” where Mara has to shoplift a pregnancy test from the only store, the one run by Mrs. Slaughter, played by newly-minted Oscar winner Olivia Colman.
Writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage immerse in this wintry, primitive world of quiet, camo, wood stoves, beat-up trucks, mud and damp and clothes hanging on a line behind every house.
There’s so little going on that the barn where the church meets — no altar, no pulpit, no pews — a simple neon cross decorating its outside — is the only game in town.
We’re not going to be surprised that there’s drinking going on.
Dilly’s a teenager looked after by the pastor and community since her mother fled, leaving her to live in a tiny, worn out travel trailer.
But Mara’s condition is not something she’s going to be able to hide, long. It’s not something you can “pray away” any more than you can a rattlesnake bite.
“Take away the awful stain of my transgressions…Let me be pure again!”
“Them That Follow” takes its religion seriously, seeing its practitioners as sincere but misguided, and also hounded by the state. The preacher’s conversations reveal the extent of that.
“Rattler got’em in the neck,” a congregant passes on to him. “Family prayed all night, but he couldn’t fight off the venom.”
And as the victim was a “minor,” the law is on them.
“They out for blood.”
The Southern character actor Goggins (TV’s “Vice Principals”) brings his supervillain’s charm and steely-eyed sense of purpose to Pastor Lemuel. Like many a Red State politician, he’s quick to sell their faith in “us against them” terms.
“They don’t understand it. They look down on it. Down on you! And you, and you!”
“Our struggle is against the Devil who put-em there…This mountain…is our shield!”
The script is better at setting up the contrasts between the dutiful preacher’s daughter and the flattering young non-believer, Augie, than at letting us see real attraction.
“We’re never going to make any sense,” she declares.
“Your daddy’s religion” is all that stands between them, he argues. But it’s her religion, too, all she knows about.
If his mother can’t lure him back to services for a refill in the Holy Spirit, what chance does Mara have?
“Thanks, Ma, but I’m pretty full up today. Any more’d be just plain greedy.”
Mann isn’t the most fiery of performers, and Englert keeps so much of Mara’s struggle internal that it’s hard to work up much empathy for their plight.
Colman is superb as the most faithful woman in that church, explaining what she gets out of it, enforcing its dogma on the women but letting compassion guide her. And comic Jim Gaffigan brings gravitas to her husband, almost as devoted but a man with limits.
But Goggins grounds this picture in reality and makes a compellingly seductive villain, if you can even call him that. He lets us see the dogmatic Lemuel, the fear-monger and the judge in him.
It’s a quietly chilling turn as a man who is absolved of all guilt and all blame. Snake bit you? You didn’t have “the spirit.” Poison takes over your body? Your faith isn’t strong enough.
He’s the best reason to see “Them That Follow,” because his version of Lemuel makes us understand why they follow.
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violence
Cast: Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Jim Gaffigan, Thomas Mann
Credits: Written and directed by Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage. A 1091 Media release.
Running time: 1:38