THE VEIL, dir. Phil Joanou (2016)

Director: Phil Joanou
Producer: Jason Blum
Writer: Robert Ben Garant
Stars: Lily Rabe, Jessica Alba, Thomas Jane

When ambitious young filmmaker Maggie Price (Jessica Alba) asks Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe) to be a part of her latest documentary, we get the impression that she doesn’t quite know what she’s asking. The film is intended to be an exploration of the site of the mass suicide of Heaven’s Veil, a radical Christian cult…a tragedy that only Sarah Hope survived.

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THE VEIL (2016)

When the crew of seven—significantly, the same number of people that founded Heaven’s Veil, including the cult’s leader, Jim Jacobs (played by an unconvincing Thomas Jane)—arrives on the scene, the landscape is relatively nondescript, so they resort to filming Sarah wandering around the site, reacquainting herself in a deeply personal moment. The next day, Sarah—who has been withdrawn and cryptic from the start—leads them away from the campsite, without explaining herself. They arrive at an old house, which is, for some reason, uninvestigated. Sarah refers to the house only as “Jim’s Special Place”—yikes—and inside, they stumble upon the ultimate prize—more camera footage!—in the form of at least twenty reels of film left behind by the cult. The gang spends most of the rest of the film crowded into the dank projector room, watching the footage. Between what the crew unknowingly records and what Jim has left behind, the story of the cult of Heaven’s Veil unfolds and, before long, it becomes clear that Sarah is not the only one who isn’t what she seems.

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Maggie Price (Jessica Alba, LEFT) describing the project to a seemingly already-regretful Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe, RIGHT). Photo courtesy of Phil Joanou, Steeven Petitteville

In a way, THE VEIL (2016) could be read as a parable of how far you can (or should) push someone with PTSD, as so many horror films could be. Sarah Hope is the sole survivor of a mass suicide that not only took her mother and two siblings, but catalyzed in a media frenzy that stole her privacy and her ability to fully move on. It is already a little incredible that she agreed to participate in the documentary in the first place, but we can buy that maybe she did genuinely see the film as a way to confront the site of her trauma and move on. But Sarah is forced into an arrangement that is less than ideal, to say the least—the crew  is fenced in to the property, surrounded by barbed wire. They sleep outside, in the wilderness. They spend days exploring the house, stumbling upon not only the corpse of Sarah’s mother, but also upon her childhood doll, the kitchen table where she ate growing up—familiar markers of a life long gone. The really surprising thing about Sarah’s reaction to her surroundings is that it takes over an hour in the film for her to truly begin to break down.

Maggie, occupying the same role as Heather Donahue in Blair Witch and Daniel Rey in Paranormal Activity 2—exists to insistently keep the characters in the worst possible circumstances for as long as is plausibly possible. Her determination to stay, at least, is fueled not just by journalistic curiosity, but also by her personal stake in the matter: the suicide of her father, one of the police officers who first arrived at the scene of the crime as the members of Heaven’s Veil were dying. Still, their foray in the site seems ridiculously prolonged—even after the brunt of the crew has disappeared, a dead body has been uncovered, and they have several reels of film they could take away and examine, still they stay, when all logic seems to suggest the opposite. In horror, it’s not unbelievable for characters to remain in terrifying circumstances out of curiosity—this is an element of human nature that horror is designed to examine. It is unbelievable that a film crew with enough information to make an earth-shattering documentary and then some, would still stay, “to find answers,” as Sarah and Maggie vaguely insist. To state the obvious: the film should have encompassed a shorter period of time than several consecutive days.

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And, predictably, the doll is creepy as f***. Yes, that is a body under that tarp. Photo courtesy of Phil Joanou, Steeven Petitteville

If you can’t already tell, the plot is flimsy at best. There are far too many predictable turns—what? the person who drove away to get help died?—for the film to make any claims on originality. There are no surprises here and although there is a twist, it’s far from shocking. Even the stylistic choices are bland—Steeven Petitteville’s cinematographic choice to film in blues and grays dulls the picture more than anything, less gothic than merely uninteresting and, while the image of Lily Rabe brooding and smoking a cigarette wearing her requisite flannel, perched on a tree stump, is easy on the eyes, it’s also repetitive and—do I have to say it?—uncreative.

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I’d be chain-smoking, too. Also, this is the color scheme for the entire film. Photo courtesy of Phil Joanou, Steeven Petitteville

 

I would be lying if I said that THE VEIL didn’t elicit a few hearty shrieks from me, or that every venture into the house didn’t set my heart pounding. After all, this is Jason Blum we’re talking about—it wouldn’t be a Blumhouse picture without a few healthy scares. I had just hoped for this picture to carry more artistic value—because it’s Blumhouse and because cultic imagery is nothing if not eerie and gothic. Instead of ramping up the creepiness of the death cult itself, Joanou relies on tired imagery and cliché. (“Jim Jacobs” even wears an entirely white suit and sunglasses…sound familiar?)

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An unconvincing performance of a rip-off Charlie Manson by Thomas Jane. Photo courtesy of Phil Joanou, Steeven Petitteville

By the time you hit the too-long ending of this one, when Jim Jones begins to ramble about “eating souls” (terrible in itself, worse in that this phenomenon was never once mentioned in the rest of the film), I’m sorry to say, you’ll be more than ready for the credits to roll.

The Verdict

Gore: ★★★
There isn’t much gore, but what gore there is can be impressively disgusting, if not particularly creative.

Horror: ★
Didn’t disturb or shock me by any means…

Suspense: ★★★
There was one point when I was covering my eyes, which I don’t do often. They got this right at times.

Terror: ★★
Mild spooks, nothing too thrilling.

Quality: ★★★
Overall, moments of visual interest were overshadowed by poor cinematographic choices and plot weaknesses.

I screened THE VEIL on Netflix (instant stream) with a subscription. You can also rent THE VEIL on YouTube or iTunes, starting at $3.99.

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