Viewer’s Discretion: ‘Ministry of Evil’ and ‘The Nightmare’

‘MINISTRY OF EVIL: THE TWISTED CULT OF TONY ALAMO’ (SUNDANCE)

We live in a golden age of documentaries about cults and one of the unavoidable thoughts to have once you’ve seen a bunch of them is to wonder when people are going to learn their lesson. Even if the circumstances of the cults are signposts enough — the sacrifice of personal lives and even familial structures, the violence and assault that is typically a part of the experience, the paranoid worldview that frames everything the members do, the brushes with the law, and the focus on one person in the spiritual view — you’d think the fact that cult leaders are so often gross and homely and wear the ugliest clothes would indicate you should keep your distance.

That’s what immediately came to mind with this series about Tony and Susan Alamo, who are two of the most unappealing looking gargoyles I’ve ever seen, but somehow charmed their way into a flock and millions of dollars, not to mention the friendship of Dolly Parton and Bill Clinton. Yuck.

This is a compelling series if you suspend your disbelief, and it’s a tawdry tale of snake oil and abuse, particularly of children, as well as pedophilia, with a law enforcement, true crime side to it, as well as some gaudy fashion design aspects that are more shocking than anything else. It benefits from interviews with former cult members — some of whom, I have to point out, were loyal to the group even after Tony Alamo married a bunch of pre-teen girls, including an 8-year-old. But that’s the world we live in, I guess, where ordinary people are capable of putting on huge blinders to the evil that’s right in their face.

At the very least, the exposes of people like the Alamos have further highlighted the idea of Christian cults, which at one time was less accepted in society’s view of what a cult is like. The lesson here is simple: If a person who looks like a toad with big hair tells you that they are your savior, just run. And don’t look back.

‘THE NIGHTMARE’ (AMAZON, OVIDTV, SHUDDER)

This German coming-of-age film takes horror as its reference point, but as it explores the cause of the terror, it suggests that the real nightmare is actually how we spend our lives in our waking hours.

Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) is out for a night with her friends at a private rave when she a bad experience escalates into a traumatic night of hallucinations and blackouts. In the time following, she begins to hear strange sounds in her house, culminating in a confrontation with a grotesque creature — which is foreshadowed the night of the rave — and unhinged encounters with her parents, who become convinced that she is having a breakdown. At the challenge of her therapist, Tina takes an unorthodox approach to being stalked by a monster — she decides to speak to it.

The monster, difficult though it is and with some unnerving revelations, still provides a contemplative counterpoint to the rest of Tina’s life. Her friends seem aloof in that way that teenagers naturally are as they also battle against peer-think and self-involvement, and this sends waves of self-doubt through Tina. Nights out are consist of sensory-numbing, with disorienting strobes and pounding electronic music that muffle out the sounds of her friends. At home, Tina struggles with what her relationship with her parents is supposed to be.

“The Nightmare” is edited in such a way that the timeline of the narrative becomes disorienting, and that mirrors Tina’s experience, muddling not only the sequence in which things happen but whether they happen at all. Turning 18, she’s hit that point where she’s had to posture that she knows it all, but she doesn’t and is entering into that phase of life where she has to figure it out. Part of that involves embracing yourself, even your worst image of yourself, as a mode to self-assurance and actual experience. “The Nightmare” turns out to be a kind, almost gentle horror movie, one where the monster and victim beg the same amount of sympathy.


Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on July 26, 2019.

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