For someone who loves religious/cult-centered horror movies, I was excited to learn there was one about a Pentecostal sect that practices snake handling. I anticipated seeing Them That Follow in 2019, but it never came to a theater in town. Now it’s on Showtime, and when I finally watched it, my anticipations were no match for the disappointment that ensued.
Co-directed and written by Brittany Poulton and Dan Madison Savagae, Them That Follow is an oversimplified story of religion and the human connections within it.
Mara Childs (Alice Englert) and her father, Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins) live in a remote Appalachian community. Among them are various parishioners including Garret (Lewis Pullman), Hope Slaughter (Olivia Colman), Zeke Slaughter (Jim Gaffigan) and Dilly Picket (Kaitlyn Denver). Mara and Garret are in a serious (marriage serious) relationship that her father approves. But Mara is in love with another man, Hope and Zeke’s non-religious son Augie (Thomas Mann). So when Garret proposes to Mara, she has to choose between love or a religion: a choice with dire consequences
Drama in Appalachia
The movie is a horror drama, heavy on the drama. It has many horror elements, including the tense music, rising suspense, scary creatures and constant threat of death. In whole, it is a story about Mara’s relationships with the people in her life. Oh, and there are a few snakes. Nowhere near the number I was hoping for. Hence my disappointment.
Now, since the story is about a woman in a religion whose practices largely emphasize snakes, you think the animal would have a bigger role in the film. The trailer sure makes it seem so:
Unfortunately, the snakes in Them That Follow are little more than symbolism, particularly phallic symbolism. That becomes clear well within the first ten minutes of the movie. And it gets really old really quick.
Snake handling is a controversial religious rite involving snakes and biblical worship. Since snake handling can be so dangerous (e.g. historically several people have died from the snakebites), the practice is illegal in most states.
Such legal complications are evident when Them That Follow reveals Pastor Lemuel to be under police investigation after a snakebite killed a young boy in his church. This is only a minor detail, until a snake bites another character and the church faces another threat of legal repercussions. Such a subplot should be important, but it never has any real significance. In fact, the movie downplays it so much that even the characters seem to forget about it.
The story is halfhearted. There is little character development, random religious facts and foreshadowing are thrown here and there. And how many foot washing visuals do we need? It is obvious the writers did their research, but their blending of research and fiction fell short.
While the story faltered, the actors and cinematography made it more thrilling to watch. There are some beautiful nature scenes that made me forget what I was watching (is that supposed to happen?).
I desperately want Walton Goggins to be typecast as asshole pastors forever. He absolutely kills it in that department (if you watch Righteous Gemstones you know what I’m talking about). Olivia Coleman of course is stellar, her performance hard and heartbreaking. And Alice Englert, Kaitlin Denver and Thomas Mann were perfect in their emotionally driven roles.
I want to know if Jim Gaffigan got lost and found himself acting in a horror drama. What was he doing here? Is everything okay? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. He did an excellent job portraying a worried, devout Christian father. Still…
Them That Follow is more miss than hit and arguably good. It is not scary, the plot is forgettable and it oversimplifies a complicated and interesting religious practice. Yet I kept watching. In spite of its foibles, the movie pulled me in. For 98 minutes I wanted to know what was going to happen next. The ending leaves something to be desired. However, if you like thrilling, religious dramas, you might like this.(3 / 5)
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*All photos from YouTube video.