Popular Christian fiction author Frank Peretti finally makes it to celluloid as screenwriters Kathy Mackel and Stan Foster turn his novel Hangman's Curse into a (nearly) straight-to-video movie. Peretti also won a small acting role, turning in the film’s only noteworthy performance as a "mad scientist" determined to save the day through superior chemical analysis.
The story begins with a hanging. Shadows on the wall reveal that a teenage boy has gone through with his desperate, life-ending plan. Since he does it at school, the entire student body is, naturally, traumatized, and a mystique begins to build around the now-expired Abel Frye. Then students begin to hallucinate and fall ill. But not just any students—jocks. While alive, Abel was bullied mercilessly by the athletic types at the school, so now that they’re, one by one, falling victim to a strange malady, it’s quickly established that they’re being cursed by Abel’s ghost. (Satanic worship being carried on by the school’s "goth" crowd only serves to confirm suspicions.) Enter Nate, Sarah, Elijah and Elisha Springfield, all members of a family that travels the country on assignment from the Veritas Group, investigating unexplained supernatural phenomena. Sixteen-year-old brother and sister Elijah and Elisha go undercover at the school, attempting to blend in with the locals and extract the real reason this high school has been cursed.
positive elements: The Springfield family has become a crime-fighting machine, devoted to truth and justice. Though fixated on the dark side of the paranormal, subtle clues reveal that their motivations are rooted in the Light. Elijah and Elisha exchange playful barbs from time to time, but they’ve always got each other’s backs when the going gets tough.
Tempted to take the family car without permission (and without a license), Elijah does the right thing and zooms away ... on his trusty scooter.
Bullying is condemned as the story navigates the chasm sometimes present between juvenile cliques. While the movie’s treatment of bullying is more two-dimensional than one might want (and the best deterrent it proffers is that victims might rise up and destroy you for humiliating them), the basic point comes across loud and clear.
Key characters are shown cleaned up and reformed at the end of the movie. The inclusion of one suicide (and two attempts) will upset some viewers, but the portrayals are intended to give value to life, not death.
spiritual content: Sarah kids her husband about him not having known how to pray when they first met (the implication is that now he does). Then, when Elisha develops something of a crush on one of the boys at school, Mom welcomes him with open arms even though (because?) he’s spiritually underdeveloped just like her husband was years earlier. The family and its newfound friends hold hands and pray over a picnic lunch in a concluding scene. In trouble and fighting for her life, Elisha quotes Psalm 23 and sings "Jesus Loves Me."
Conversely, a pentagram, animal skulls and an effigy of Abel form the focal points for teenage Satan worshippers who are shown parading around in black robes and masks. One teen calls on the "power of Abel." Some of those involved in the rituals later forsake them, but no clear indication is given that God is involved in their transformation.
sexual content: A forward classmate steals a kiss from Elisha. But while she seems to like him, she reprimands him for "taking liberties." That same classmate thanks God that Elisha is "so hot."
violent content: Abel’s suicide launches the movie (shadows show his limp torso dangling in midair). One of the "goth" guys attempts to follow Abel’s example, and manages to go so far as putting a rope around his neck and stepping off a ledge before friends save him. When kids succumb to the mysterious "curse," they see scary visions that cause them to writhe around on the ground and scream. Elisha falls from a great height, breaking her leg. To get away from an attacker, she struggles with him, bites him on the arm and kicks him in the crotch. In a later confrontation, the same attacker comes at her with a knife. Firearms make appearances at a drug bust (working undercover and pretending to be a dealer, Nate puts a shotgun to a teen’s head). Abel’s sister also brandishes a gun, jabbing it into Elijah’s throat. "Jocks" are shown intimidating, roughing up and bullying "goths" and "geeks" at school. Sticking up for a new friend, Elijah slams one of the bullies into a table. Nate twists a man’s hand to the point of breaking his fingers. There is talk of a stabbing.
Suspenseful moments involve "things that go bump in the night," scary masks and eerie audio effects. Hordes of marauding spiders ratchet up the movie’s creepy vibe. In a climactic scene, a boy crushes one of the poisonous beasties against his chest, making it bite him.
crude or profane language: Elijah blurts, "What the ...," and then stops himself before finishing the thought.
drug and alcohol content: No drugs are used or exchanged onscreen, but a teen boy is apprehended for selling them at school.
other negative elements: Elijah tells a "little white lie" to his sister.
conclusion: Here are the unvarnished facts about Hangman's Curse: It's a B-grade horror flick that melds elements of Arachnophobia, Pax TV's short-lived exploration of supernatural phenomena Mysterious Ways (or ABC's even shorter-lived Miracles) and an auditorium full of diehard Marilyn Manson fans. Then, to celebrate, it concludes with a rousing rendition of "Doxology," a stunt that feels about as fluid as postscripting Scream 3 with the "Hallelujah Chorus." On the plus side, this film is exceedingly tame by today’s "horror movie" standards, and the creators went out of their way to avoid gore, profanity and sexual content. "If we can get something out there that will still scare the kids, and give them a thrill, but give the parents a better choice, that's what we're trying to do," says Hangman's Curse media representative Melany Ethridge.
When an author builds up a strong reputation in the book world, it’s hard as cinder blocks to make a smooth transition to the big screen. One has only to look as far as secular horror maven Stephen King and his early stabs at big screen glory to see just how hard. So it's beyond this critic's conscience to spend too much time weighing the cinematic plusses and minuses of Hangman's Curse. But fans of Peretti's supercharged supernatural novels (especially his early ones), know that he practically reinvented the contemporary Christian understanding of supernatural conflict. And they’ll want to know why his first movie doesn’t emphatically pin the tail on the demon. So Plugged In asked Mr. Peretti that exact question: "Why doesn’t Hangman’s Curse make a big deal out of spiritual warfare?" He responded, "I’m not really writing about spiritual conflict in the same way I was years ago. Hangman’s Curse [published in 2001] never was a book about spiritual warfare. It was a book about bullying. I guess one way to look at it is that we’re almost doing these movies in reverse. The choice of Hangman’s Curse for the first movie was purely a matter of money, of ability, of resources."
In Frank Peretti’s mind, Hangman’s Curse isn’t about creating an evangelistic tool. It’s about getting a thriller out there that’s not chock full of blood, lust and foul language. And it’s about confronting viewers with the pain bullying causes. Anyone looking for anything more will be sorely disappointed.