Thine Ears Shall Bleed review – occult horror-western heads into the wilderness

Estimated read time 3 min read

This year has seen a boom in religious horror, from occult pre-boot The First Omen to Immaculate’s nunsploitation with a feminist twist. The debut feature from writer-director Ben Bigelow follows these illustrious forerunners, but lacks the flair or originality of either. Immaculate serves as a pro-choice parable and the Omen franchise allegorises a destructive lust for power, but Bigelow’s film about a minister seduced by the devil just doesn’t seem to have much to say.

In a somewhat uncertain setup, a family of four led by preacher Ezekiel Thatcher are stranded in the sprawling western wilderness of the 1860s. While they attempt to find their bearings, Thatcher hears a mysterious and apparently miraculous keening sound, and resolves to build a church to what he thinks is the voice of God.

Despite proficient performances from an accomplished cast, the film largely fails to sell its inelegant script. The anachronisms in particular are hard to stomach, with moments of wincingly clumsy political correctness. Thatcher, for example, is incongruously accepting of Indigenous sovereignty of the land, while a lascivious Satanic figure stops short of ravishing the virginal teenaged Abigail Thatcher for fear of “making her uncomfortable”.

But despite these missteps, there are moments of real enjoyment to be found in the deft exposition and the exceptional original score by Jacques Brautbar. The standout performer is Lea Zawada, in the role of the mutinous daughter. Hannah Cabell plays the preacher’s wife, who lives with the most fearsome prospect of all: being married to a man who thinks he’s a prophet.

And the film could have been redeemed by a healthy dose of gross-out and gore. Its early forays into gouged-out eyes and exploding eardrums promise a splendour of grisly violence, but the denouement is regrettably bloodless. And this only draws attention to the deficiencies of the script, which manages neither to convince us of its twist ending nor to justify its indulgence of the film’s least interesting characters.

For a debut feature, Thine Ears Shall Bleed is atmospheric, easy on the eyes, occasionally thrilling and more than occasionally stylish, but it just isn’t as smart as it wants to be. This isn’t a bad thing, per se: the most cerebral horrors can be the most tedious and self-congratulatory. But Bigelow’s picture meanders all over the place, offers only a small portion of the macabre, and demands to be taken seriously even as it treats its own themes with a fumbling disregard.

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