Valley Of The Shadow
15 May 2022
Reed Lackey and Tyler Smith
Bill Oberst Jr.
The conservative Christian community of America has a long-standing tradition of censorship. Currently they are succeeding in censoring women's bodies and denying them the civil liberty of making their own choices in relation to abortion. Historically this community have also been at the forefront of calls for book bans in local libraries and places of education, censoring the world around them, for themselves and for others, under the guise of keeping their children safe and their communities free from sin. Falling alongside these forms of dogmatic control has also been the outspoken pronouncement of certain types of film to be blasphemous, sinful or just downright evil. This includes, but is in no way restricted to, their most reviled genre – horror.
You may ask yourself how anyone could have any moral or religious objection to the likes of Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings or The Pirates Of The Caribbean, but to the conservative Christian community the unnatural conjuration of magic, the elevation of alternative races such as dwarves and elves, and the battling of the undead, pirates or otherwise, are all seen to be against God and therefore driven by Satan. While this might be a stretch for most people to comprehend, it is perhaps easier to see why this community might be averse to horror, which deals more directly with demons, cults, possessions, idol worship, ritual sacrifice or indeed the opening of the gates of Hell. The symbolism itself would be enough to have them reaching for their crucifix.
So, it is by no mean feat that film-maker Tyler Smith has decided to reach out to this community, his own, and try to educate them on the merits, and even benefits, of this most misunderstood of genres. In his second Christian community aimed film Valley Of The Shadow: The Spiritual Value Of Horror, (the first being Reel Redemption (2020) which looked at specifically Christian films' place within the wider diaspora) Smith wants to bust open the myths and the untruths of horror and explain why the dark imagery and gruesome happenings have value in strengthening an individual's connection to God or Jesus.
Bill Oberst Jr., veteran actor of nearly two hundred films – most of which stem from the horror genre, and self professed 'man of faith', is our narrator and guide on this journey. His inclusion is meant to put the average Christian conservative at ease, being as he is someone who doesn't find contradiction between his profession and his religion, and his soft voice soothes the way into the discussion of horror as he creeps through ruins and undergrowth and perches within the crooks of trees. He speaks the words of Smith and co-writer Reed Lackey's script, but this could be his own personal introspection of just how useful horror can be in allowing us to face our fears and 'shine a light in the darkness'.
Over the next two hours and twenty-six minutes, Bill leads us through almost the entire gamut of English speaking horror as Smith and Lackey try to make their points, dividing the genre into four distinct sub-sections and dealing with each in turn. The Unstoppable, The Inevitable, The Abominable and The Unknowable are supposedly what we are looking at when we watch a horror film and it is these things which strike the fear into us, when dogmatically the only fear we are allowed to have, is the fear of God.
Within each section Smith and Lackey explain where the fear comes from and provide endless examples from film history to show this in action. The feeling engendered from this kind of extended show-reeling at first starts off as interesting and at times exciting, but very quickly as the viewer realises that this is going to be the entire extent of the discussion, turns into apathy and then eventually boredom.
Basically what results is a documentary of horror film history rather than a spiritual, philosophical or intellectual discussion of the points these films raise. If, for example, once you've said that horror crocodiles instil fear because they keep on coming and are therefore 'Unstoppable', then show a clip from a scary crocodile movie, is it then necessary to show myriad clips from every scary crocodile movie ever just to keep saying that Unstoppable things scare us; then to repeat this ad nauseam with sharks, spiders, snakes, serial killers etc. etc. etc.?
Sadly this is all we get from each section of the documentary with Smith and Lackey continually hammering their point home that certain things scare us, and ultimately in the end only really telling us that we're scared of death, disease and having our comfortable lives overturned. Only in the final section of The Unknowable is God or The Devil really even mentioned and even then they get lost in the mist alongside talk of ghosts and other beyond the grave scenarios.
The viewer has to wait until the last twenty or so minutes of the film to discover what Smith and Lackey have been driving at all this time, when finally there is a link between all we have been shown and how this can be used to strengthen faith or recognise more completely the legacy of Jesus' sacrifice. Ultimately though this feels like it's just been tacked on at the end and shoehorned in to keep the Christian producers happy at spending their money on this horror retrospective.
There is a lot of deep horror knowledge in Valley Of The Shadow but unfortunately not much idea of what to do with it. As an introduction to horror for the uninitiated it works well, with almost every facet of the genre getting some airing on screen, but as a discussion – spiritual, religious or otherwise – it falls flat with no real take-away other than it's okay to face our fears, and of course, only to be fearful of God. If you're looking for a more valuable, concise discourse on the actual components, themes and meanings of horror films you'd have a far better time watching Mark Kermode's Secrets Of Cinema. At least there you might get some answers.