According to a 2021 YouGov study, only about 43% of Americans believe in the existence of demons. That’s a little less than half the country, but as Hollywood’s recent output would suggest, it would seem to be the half that buys a lot of movie tickets. In 2023 alone, theaters from coast to coast have been inundated with the likes of The Pope’s Exorcist, Smile, Evil Dead Rise, Insidious: The Red Door, The Nun 2, and, of course, the upcoming sequel to the grande dame of all demon possession movies, The Exorcist: Believer. And that’s just the major studio releases.
As to be expected with such an overabundance of product, some of those movies have been good, some … not so much. What they all do have in common, however, is quite a bit of artistic license taken on the part of the filmmakers regarding the physical manifestations of demonic possession. With their superhuman strength, ability to levitate, telekinesis, and other such supernatural abilities, most possessed people in motion pictures wouldn’t feel out of place in a Marvel super-hero movie. It’s understandable Hollywood would go that route as spectacle makes for good box office; just ask the Roman Empire. Still, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a film that takes a more theologically grounded approach to the subject matter?
Enter Nefarious, the latest movie from the writing/directing duo of Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman. Nefarious tells the story of psychiatrist Dr. James Martin (Jordan Belfi) who is summoned to a prison to determine if convicted serial killer Edward Brady (Sean Patrick Flanery) remains competent enough to face execution later that evening. It should be a simple enough task, but the interview immediately goes off the rails when the prisoner identifies himself as the demon Nefarious, a prince of Hell who has long possessed Brady as part of a master plan to further destroy belief in God.
A staunch atheist, Martin scoffs at such an idea, suggesting instead that Brady is simply faking dissociative identity disorder to avoid his trip to the electric chair. As the session continues, though, Brady/Nefarious begins to exhibit preternatural knowledge of things he shouldn’t know, even some hidden personal details about Martin himself, causing the doctor to become less convinced of exactly what is going on. With mounting confusion, Martin isn’t sure if he’s encountered the world’s most talented con artist, or if there really is something to Brady’s claims of being possessed after all.
The movie plays out like something of a two man play ala Waiting for Godot, with probably 75% of the film taking place around a table in one room of the prison. It’s the kind of setup that could quickly descend into boredom but, fortunately, the two leads are engaging enough that this never happens. That being said, Nefarious still might not be exciting enough for those viewers expecting the standard tropes typically found in a possession flick. As Martin demands proof from Nefarious that he truly is a demon, there is no floating, no crawling about the walls and ceiling, no projectile vomiting. No, for the most part, there’s just conversation.
Thankfully, it’s interesting conversation. As it in no way endangers his infernal machinations, Nefarious gleefully walks Martin through the rather mundane process that culminates in demonic possession. What’s remarkable is how closely what Nefarious describes mirrors the actual teaching of the Church on the subject matter. Possession, he explains, is a long game, a patient prodding of weaknesses and offering of temptations that eventually leads to a surrendering of the will on the part of the possessed. It’s an insidious undertaking, but not a very cinematic one.
Nefarious makes it work, though. Or at least it may do so for those willing to go along with the movie’s conceit that the traditional Christian worldview is true. As Nefarious has already had a theatrical run, there is no shortage of professional reviews out there and a lot of them appear to be negative. This is primarily due to the film’s unequivocal religious stance on certain hot button topics. For example, there is a scene in which the demon feverously describes to Martin the abortion process, ascending to near orgasmic levels of excitement until he reaches the moment where the spark of life leaves the fetus, at which point Nefarious ecstatically proclaims that all of Hell rejoices. This is not the type of soliloquy that earns favor with most secular critics.
Their outrage is somewhat disingenuous, however. In a way, Nefarious is akin to a film such as The Northman, which posits a world in which everything the Vikings believed is true, Valhalla and all, and asks us to judge the characters and their actions accordingly. This is not to suggest that Nefarious is as artistically well-crafted as The Northman (it’s not), but only to point out that critics fell all over themselves praising The Northman’s commitment to its premise, while now condemning Nefarious for doing the exact same thing. I suppose the difference is that nobody really believes in Thor anymore, while Jesus and his teachings stubbornly remain a thorn in the side of secularists everywhere.
So, yes, Nefarious is a Christian film, but it’s one of the better-made ones. Despite the constraints of its relatively miniscule budget and a couple of unfortunate minor missteps in its third act that I won’t spoil, the film is a fairly well done little cat-and-mouse thriller, and it deserves a bit more attention from the 43% of potential viewers who take such subject matter seriously.
Nefarious is now available for rent or purchase for home viewing.