This mild-mannered, ‘quality’ horror mystery – scripted by Anthony Horowitz (Stormbreaker), directed by Brian Gilbert (Wilde) – was made in Britain, but took a long time to appear on any format here. It went straight to DVD in the US. Part of this may be down to business woes, but there’s also a sense it’s not quite fit to survive in cinemas, despite half-hearted character-looms-out-of-nowhere-to-get-a-jump scares and a nice widescreen look that (as is now quite common) tries to pass off the Isle of Man as the West Country. Inevitably, no one in the film has anything like a West Country accent – another victory for the ‘Silence of the Wurzels’, that strange phenomenon observable in TV shows like Being Human, Skins and Casualty whereby nobody in Bristol talks as if they actually come from there. It fits in with a bunch of religious-themed supernatural mysteries (cf: The Body, Revenant, The Seventh Sign, The Reaping) but, with its lone Yank star as an outsider among a Brit supporting cast and commitment to clever twists which are still too heavily telegraphed to surprise, feels like the sort of script Brian Clemens delivered for his ITV Thriller series in the ‘70s. With its discovery of an ancient, buried chapel containing a significant sculpture, it prefigures both versions of the Exorcist prequel – but what this set-up really feels like is the dreaded BBC TV disaster Bonekickers, though thankfully the story takes a different direction.
Agnostic archaeologist Simon Kirkman (Stephen Dillane), overdue for having his scepticism tested, is called in by church pal Luke Fraser (a rare movie role for Simon Russell Beale) to investigate the unearthed sculpture, which uniquely shows the crucifixion from behind the cross, all the better to highlight certain faces among the crowd who have shown up out of morbid curiosity to watch Our Redeemer get nailed to a post. Meanwhile, on a rural road, Simon’s wife Marion (Kerry Fox) is distracted by her bratty son Michael (Harry Forrester) kicking the back of her car-seat and knocks down American visitor Cassie Grant (Christina Ricci, exuding maximum perplexed cuteness). Though Cassie has only minor scrapes from the accident, she suffers partial amnesia compounded by intermittent visions – she keeps meeting smiling or scowling ordinary villagers and has flashes of them portions of their anatomy blown away. Despite the dark warnings of a Bishop (Robert Hardy) who clearly Knows What’s Going On, Simon and Luke keep examining the sculpted crowd – and the same faces (one is a young Mackenzie Crook) show up in film footage of 20th century assassinations and disasters and earlier paintings of cataclysms. In a twist on the Wandering Jew story, it seems rubberneckers at the crucifixion were cursed with immortality and are condemned to watch everything awful throughout history. Soon after tumbling to this, Luke glimpses a couple of gatherers on a bridge over a motorway and gets wiped out in a well-staged car crash that is misleading in plot terms – suggesting an Omen-like malignancy to the Gathering, which the script doesn’t follow up (these are sorrowful, not gloating gorehounds).
Meanwhile, Cassie tries to fathom what’s up with the village, noticing the familiar faces among the crowd and deducing something bad will happen. Friendly, decent guy Dan Blakely (Ioan Gruffudd) helps her with some junior Nancy Drew business, breaking into the shack of slow-boiling mechanic Fred Argyle (Peter MacNamara), survivor of a hushed-up scandal at a local children’s home and just on the point of pulling a Hungerford/Dunblane-style shotgun rampage at the local fete, avenging himself on the officials who abused him or helped bury the story but also targeting Michael because the kid reminds him of his younger self. It’s plain from the first that Cassie (named for Bristolian Cary Grant?) will eventually remember that she’s one of the Gathering, and Gruffudd overdoes both the earnest open act that is a dead giveaway he’s in on the conspiracy and the glowering when the is revealed. The workable suspense and character stuff comes when Cassie goes against her curse by trying to intervene and save the boy, perhaps gaining a shot at redemption in the process. In one of those sign-offs which always get on my nerves, the scholar hero goes along with the church’s there-are-some-things-it’s-better-not-to-know policy and buries a priceless archaeological site forever as we see Cassie’s face crumbling from the sculpture.
Horowitz throws a lot into the pot – drawn-from-headlines atrocities and scandals, a new spin on Christian mythology, faith and doubt and free will and determinism, church politics – and manages to avoid being as ridiculous as, say, Bonekickers. Gilbert gets mostly good work from a decent cast, and keeps various balls in the air – but in ensuring that it makes sense and delivers an evenly-told, satisfying story, the film misses on the dementia which might make it terrifying, mind-expanding or particularly memorable.