A Pentecostal rogue preacher attempting to perform a dubious gay conversion “therapy” session ends up summoning a demon instead. Whoops! Filled with colorful characters, this South African possession tale weaves a well-connected tale with some fun and occasionally brutal story threads.
Great genre productions out of South Africa that make a dent in the U.S. market are rare. The most prominent film being the allegorical alien internment camp that was Neil Blomkamp’s District 9. The horror genre doesn’t have a big South African hit, but it does have a few notable films, beginning with the Zakes Mokae starring horror/mystery, Dust Devil, and last year’s festival darling The Soul Collector (a.k.a. 8), and the slow burn ghost story The Tokoloshe. Given the right International distribution, Parable has earned the right to be a benchmark horror outing for South African Film. It has clean and interesting visuals, charismatic and complex characters, a number of interesting plot hooks, and most importantly for this film, a great horror conclusion.
We open the movie with a kiss between teenage Esther (Jane De Wet) and her girlfriend, only to have the moment broken up by Esther’s father who ships her off to a Christian Camp where Esther will receive treatment to “cure” Esther of her homosexual tendencies. The skeevy cowboy presence of Reverend Day (Michael Richard) has Esther tied up to a makeshift stockade and begins a cleansing ritual, but rather than exorcising a non-existing demon, he manages to summon a demon into Esther. Whoops.
The film then moves to The Eye of Africa, and upscale gated golf community, where we are introduced to our trio of resident protagonists. Jay Hlatshwayo (in his film debut) is Kasper, who is learning the hard way about how not to be a bad boyfriend. Lina (Carla Classen) is the socialite and the common sense of our trio. The third member of this group is Loyd (Danny Meaker) who is a spoiled slacker and low-level drug dealer. As we are introduced to these teenage protagonists, Reverend Day is checking in to the community, and the captured Esther manages to scratch Kasper, creating a psychic bond between the two.
Day is holding up in a largely unfinished new modern housing unit in the community, and has strong-armed one of his susceptible parishioners, Julian (Thapelo Aphiri) to be his acolyte in the exorcism. Julian believes, quite correctly, that this is kidnapping, but the Reverend convinces Julian to do some unsavory business for the Lord. They keep Esther tied up to a bed, but she manages to enter into Kasper’s dreams, and manages to manipulate Kasper’s sexual frustration to have him find her and rescue her.
Little does Kasper know that the demon who claims Esther is hoping for a mass murder/suicide sacrifice and that this community will do just fine for that purpose. As the demon begins to expand her reach to possess others in the community, the teens have to battle the demon, the preacher, the community security, and the possessed neighbors. The third act uses all the great character development and draws the film to a wild conclusion, which is admittedly, a bit of a gut punch.
What I appreciate the most about Parable is how cleverly all of the characters are woven into the fabric of this story. The characters aren’t really fleshed out, but the characteristics that they are given are used to their fullest. Even the supporting players have essential roles to play. Further to that, the actors fully embrace their roles, and amplify the personalities without becoming cliche.
All of the characters have baggage. Nobody is pure, and even the villainous characters have more texture than I would have expected. Hlatshwayo gives a resonant performance as the lead protagonist. His youthful frustrations are nuanced, and he struggles with whether he’s a good young man or not. There’s a chance that this role could lead to something bigger for him, if this movie gets picked up by Amazon, Netflix, or Shudder.
I was also really impressed with Michael Richard’s portrayal of Reverend Day. He gives off real snake oil vibes like a crooked politician, but he allows glimpses of his televangelist persona to yield at times. He is still trying to convince himself that he is capable of an exorcism, but has found himself out of his league, and cannot reach out for help. He’s a nasty villain, but a tragic one as well.
Something that is interesting is that this is clearly shown as South Africa, but it is not a South Africa that many of us would recognize. It’s a mixed-race upper-class enclave that looks like it could be in Colorado or Texas. I’m always curious to see visions of cultures from abroad that show us a different side of what we normally see.
Adrianaanse framed some terrific moments as well. The angles he chose are provocative, and his set-pieces vary from wonderfully silly (a group possession of Lina’s big house party) to horrifying (a possession of a neighborhood pool party gathering).
Parable was playing at the New Orleans Horror Film Fest and has not yet been picked up by a US Distributor. Though this film is technically a foreign offering, because it is in English, it has the potential to find streaming success state-side. It is not rated, but would certainly be Rated-R for language, drug use, torture, and violence.