Cults in Horror Movies: End of the Line (2007)
(Thanks to Benjamin Gibson – @CoastalRoadNine on Twitter – for reminding me about this great film, and giving me an excuse to re-watch it.)
There are days when I have to remind myself that I was (and always will be, I guess) a preacher’s kid. From early childhood into my teenage years, Sundays were a regimen of early wake-up calls for Sunday School and worship, but strict enforcement of the lessons never fit into the equation of my upbringing.
In the end, I think my presence in the pew each week had more to do with moral and familial support than a rigid, literal-minded intake of Christianity. After all, nothing turns impressionable kids on to heavy metal faster than giving them a single, unquestionable option when it comes to spiritual beliefs. My father was analytical and introspective when he wrote his sermons and delivered the Sunday message in a manner that recalled the even tones of a liberal-arts professor, not some televangelist raging about fire and brimstone until they’re red in the face.
An important lesson I learned from watching my father all those years was that, if you approach spirituality from a place of honesty and humility, you will never become a celebrity…but you will possess a greater curiosity toward matters of faith that will assist in your dealings with the curveballs life throws on a daily basis.
Perhaps the most fascinating exploration of religion and faith in a post-millennial horror film is Canadian director Maurice Devereaux’s End of the Line. The title carries a dual meaning: on one hand, it’s North American slang for death; on the other, it ties in with the setting: a subway train that finds itself stopped unexpectedly and besieged by a group of homicidal religious fanatics. The visual metaphors are obvious but apt: early on, we assume the POV of the moving train as it travels from a well-lit, clean platform and plows straight into foreboding darkness, where light – and hope – grows scarce. Later, after our protagonists abandon the conveyance in search of an exit, the tunnels take on an otherworldly quality – odd-colored lights; ominous mist; and cryptic graffiti emphasize a world that no longer seems based in reality.
Assisted by cinematographer Denis Noel-Mostert, Devereaux (who also edited the film) is strategic in his staging: early on in their trek through the tunnels, the camera is poised in front of the group, thus leaving the viewer to experience any nasty shocks in sync with the characters. There is a thin sheen of grit overlaying the image throughout, but especially in the darker scenes – while an overused stylistic device in many films, its inclusion here adds to the gritty mood while complementing the subterranean setting.
Which leads to another stroke of genius: like the characters in other great siege flicks, there is a pervasive feeling of isolation, dread, and hopelessness. With all technology – phones, television, and radio – cut off, and being stranded underground, what really is happening up on the surface? Are the murmurs of Armageddon the mere hyperbolic musings of the brainwashed sect, or something far more dire? When Neil (Neil Napier – Riddick) breaks off from the group and finds himself in the train station lobby, the lack of humanity not only makes the space feel eerily vast, but the bright lighting carries a sense of exposure and vulnerability. The punchline of this sequence – which utilizes Devereaux’s recurring motif of contrasting light and darkness – is stomach-churning in its irony.
It begs the question: were the passengers on the train fated to meet with this reckoning, and does that tie into a commentary on the secular grappling with the spiritual? Outside of Karen (Ilona Elkin) and Mike (Nicolas Wright), who briefly discuss beliefs (and the nature thereof), the other main characters are undefined in their religious persuasions. As a refreshing contrast, the True Believers contain shades of gray that are conveyed by the fine, chilling performances – Jerry (Robert Vezina), an older member of the sect, has doubts about the group’s actions, while the matronly Betty (Joan McBride) chills with her glassy-eyed self-assurance. The fact that even children – from the unborn to the school-age – are potential sacrificial fodder is an especially fearless decision on the director’s part – after all, how many Biblical tales hinged on a test of faith at the potential expense of one’s offspring? A lesser filmmaker would have used these elements to elicit cheap suspense or mere shock value, but Devereaux isn’t afraid to push boundaries, rendering the fallout of his characters’ actions with a moral and visceral impact.
And, as a keen aside on the End Times being a chance to let loose with some Purge-style ultraviolence, Devereaux’s most loathsome creation is Patrick (Robin Wilcock), a smarmy TB who uses his calling as an opportunity to (near-)rape and murder with impunity. Wilcock oozes a sleazy, amoral charisma that renders the character grotesquely fascinating.
The pacing is adept and skillful, massaging beats cribbed from George Romero and John Carpenter into a fluid, unpredictable, and suspense-driven experience. In the early going, there is some stumbling as the actors find their footing and the characters are introduced, and a couple jump-scares that hinge on loud musical cues are distracting. The “good news” is: once the sect gets their signals from the mysterious Reverend Hope (David L. McCallum) to “save” the souls of the unsuspecting passengers, the film starts moving in a major way.
Devereaux’s grasp of action choreography is also refreshing and ties into his skills as an editor. An altercation at the midpoint cuts between different characters and angles but is conveyed more clearly than most efforts in latter-day horror cinema. The lack of slick, stylistic gestures at moments like this keeps the viewer in the moment and renders the suspense almost unbearable. And in a commitment to the horror craft, the decision to stage the scenes of bloodshed practically makes the violence even more shocking and affecting. The act of stabbing figures prominently in End of the Line, but there is no corner-cutting to be found.
This was my third time watching the film (I blind-bought the DVD many years ago), and I had forgotten how it ended. Only when the screen abruptly went to black did I realize how invested I was in the characters, events, and themes Devereaux conjured up…and how much I wanted the story to press onward. The director inserts some sight-gags in the margins (a poster for “Individual Protection” on a subway tunnel door; a magazine called “Hear the Voice”; a passenger reading Carl Sagan), but the tone is so urgent that they’re easy to miss. As tales of the “End Times” go, End of the Line is less Armageddon and more akin to a kernel of wisdom an early Internet acquaintance once imparted to me: “there will be no grand Apocalypse – just a series of smaller, personal Apocalypses.” In the brilliant final minutes of this film, Devereaux shows that that’s the most terrifying thing of all.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 8 out of 10