SAN DIEGO — A psychiatrist is called in to conduct a last-minute psychological evaluation of a condemned prisoner who, mere hours before his scheduled execution, is claiming to be a demon.
Is he insane? Is it a ploy to evade the death penalty? Or is something supernatural at work?
That’s the premise behind “Nefarious,” a gripping, 98-minute thriller that debuted in theaters last April and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as on streaming services.
Though the film’s promotional materials might suggest that it’s yet another schlocky exorcism flick, and its trailer plays up the horror elements of the story, appearances can be deceiving.
“Do not be thrown off by the poster, and do not be thrown off by the trailer,” advises Catholic filmmaker Cary Solomon, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced the movie with Chuck Konzelman. The latter is a fellow Catholic with whom he also co-wrote the first two films in the “God’s Not Dead” series.
In an Aug. 2 interview with The Southern Cross, Solomon explained that the poster and trailer were designed to “lure in” 15- to 29-year-olds who are “obsessed” with demonic horror movies, but who are unlikely to buy a ticket to an overtly Christian film.
“We figured that, if we could bring them in, we could flip them to righteousness, to the light,” said Solomon, who compared the film to C.S. Lewis’ epistolary novel “The Screwtape Letters,” in which an experienced devil mentors a novice demon in the art of tempting.
Inspired by talk-radio host Steve Deace’s novel “A Nefarious Plot,” the film doesn’t contain the sort of satanic imagery, gore or scares that one might expect from a film in this genre.
Solomon noted that the film has received kudos from respected Church figures, including the exorcist Father Carlos Martins, and some have told him that it’s “the best film on possession that has ever been made.”
The film’s set-up is simple. In fact, for much of its runtime, it’s little more than two men sitting across a table from one another — one, a death-row inmate played by Sean Patrick Flanery in a mesmerizing performance; the other, an atheistic psychiatrist portrayed by Jordan Belfi — engaged in a conversation that covers a lot of theological ground.
But that conversation is absorbing.
Solomon shared that people who “can’t sit still for 90 seconds” have told him that they “never once fidgeted” while watching the film and were “riveted” throughout.
The hot-button issues of abortion and euthanasia come up during the intense dialogue, giving audiences the opportunity to see them from a demon’s perspective.
In another memorable scene, a priest who serves as a prison chaplain stops by to make himself available to the prisoner, who reacts in abject terror to the priest’s appearance.
“We wanted to show the power and authority of the Catholic Church and how powerful a priest is,” said Solomon, who noted that this is “the only time the demon literally jumps out of his chair, pulls the chains as far back as he can” and goes into a “defensive posture.”
But within a few moments, the priest “cedes his authority,” revealing himself to be a modernist who considers demonic possession a relic of a less enlightened time before mental illness was properly understood. The demon relaxes upon discovering this and is overjoyed.
Solomon recalled recent firsthand experience of a priest’s power over the forces of evil.
He said that, at the film’s premiere in Texas last April, the filmmakers had recorded a video testimonial from Father Martins in support of the movie. But after the priest left, lights started to flicker, the camera and sound mixer stopped working, and even disembodied voices were heard.
The veteran exorcist was asked to come back.
Solomon said that, while Father Martins is “a jovial, wonderful guy,” he didn’t look that way when he returned with his crucifix, holy water and exorcism prayers. Rather, he said, the priest looked “like somebody who’s going into battle.” After Father Martins reached the part of the prayer where he commanded evil spirits to “bow now before the holy and terrible name of Jesus,” all of the disturbances ceased.
“That’s the power that the Church has got,” said Solomon. “That’s the authority that we were showing that was being ceded by that foolish priest (in the film).”
Solomon said that he and Konzelman consider their filmmaking to be a form of ministry.
“In our way, we’re preaching the Gospel,” he said, adding that he feels fortunate to be called to make movies rather than to preach in a foreign country where his life might be in danger.
“I’ve got a latte and air-conditioning when I’m doing it,” he said. “The Apostles certainly had a harder job than we did, but we’re preaching the Gospel through the media.”