As a cinematic masochist, I will always be interested in any under-the-radar, high-concept thriller with an intriguing hook or gimmick. At best, you might discover an overlooked gem, but at worst you’ll probably still have fun at the expense of something terrible. I’m also a sucker for a movie with basically one location and only a few primary characters, whether it’s the isolation of great thrillers like Wait Until Dark, Misery, and Hush, or the more philosophical drama of plays adapted to films like Tape or The Sunset Limited.
With its promising premise of a convicted serial killer who claims to be a demon prophesying that his court-appointed psychiatric evaluator will commit three murders of his own by the time their session is done, Nefarious would seem to lean more on the thriller side, but is actually closer to The Sunset Limited than any of the others previously mentioned. That is, if The Sunset Limited were created by the two goons behind the God’s Not Dead franchise instead of one of the finest writers of the past century.
I have never seen the three GND movies, or any of Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon’s other work (with telling titles like Do You Believe? and Unplanned), but when I found out that this was going to be the horror movie equivalent of Christian metal, the cinematic masochist in me became even more intrigued. This was sure to be a hilariously obvious polemic with the subtlety and nuance of a rusty sledgehammer, and in that regard Nefarious does not disappoint. As an exciting thriller or a movie of deep, original ideas, though, it’s like getting a dead puppy for Christmas.
Sean Patrick Flanery is all constant facial tics and scenery-chewing as the killer, Edward Wayne Brady (yes, it is funny every time someone says the full name), as well as the demon possessing him, who answers to the name Nefarious (short for Nefariamus). Flanery makes it clear which one is in control at any given moment, but not in an exceptional performance sort of way, like Jeremy Irons as the two leads in Dead Ringers. Instead, he is over-the-top confident evil as the demon, and over-the-top sniveling confusion as Brady. It’s serviceable to the narrative (such as it is), and as close as the movie has to a really commanding, memorable performance, but it’s miles from the genuine class of one of the really great performers of multiple roles in a single movie.
When it is revealed that the first of the three “murders” to be committed by Dr. James Martin (Jordan Belfi) before he leaves the maximum-security prison is actually the euthanasia of his geriatric, terminally ill mother (which has already occurred before he set foot in the prison, you cockadoodie cheaters!), it doesn’t take a genius to guess an abortion will be the second one. I know because I am not a genius, and I guessed it. This time the filmmakers play by their own rules, though, in that the abortion is in progress while the two speak, and Dr. Martin is soon racing to a phone to try and call the whole thing off, showing how much the demon has already gotten through his atheist exterior. Wouldn’t you just know it’s too late, though?
With the purpose of Dr. Martin’s visit being a psychiatric evaluation that determines whether Brady is mentally competent to face his scheduled execution, no points for guessing who the third “murder” will be, as this movie is labored and contrived even by D-list streaming thriller standards. I’ll spare you spoilers for the other convolutions of the main plot in order to briefly cover the absolutely awful tonal shift and even worse standalone scene that is Glenn Beck’s third-act cameo as himself.
Yes, what feels like at least twenty minutes (but is probably actually less than ten) is devoted to a doughy, past-his-prime Beck interviewing Dr. Martin about his spiritual conversion. In what could generously be considered a rather poor decision for the exciting conclusion of a thriller, the filmmakers trade two characters talking in a starkly lit prison room for two characters talking on a daytime talk show. It’s like the notorious scene in Psycho in which everything grinds to a halt while a psychiatrist explains the plot but, again, if it were created by the two goons behind the God’s Not Dead franchise instead of one of the finest filmmakers of the past century.
Catholic priest Father Carlos Martins has declared Nefarious “the best movie portraying demonic possession ever produced.” Yeah, fuck you, The Exorcist, go kick rocks! I’m not sure how much sacramental wine he had before saying that, but the good Father is obviously not a film cricket. However, Michael John Petty of Collider calls it “a great step for faith-based films” and “loads better than anything from the God’s Not Dead batch of ‘sermovies’,” which excites the hell out of the cinematic masochist in me. I just might have to run that trilogy, and risk being sucked down a rabbit hole of faith-based shlock.
Maybe I’ll have a spiritual conversion I can discuss with Glenn Beck.