By KEVIN HOOVER
Starring Meredith Mohler, Lewis Hines, and Jo-Ann Robinson
Written and directed by Christopher Wesley Moore
There’s a portion of horror cinema that often goes unrealized because fans are so incessantly bombarded with new releases, re-releases, and restorations – not to mention the all-encompassing content mill that horror has evolved into over the years. It’s a wonder how horror’s burgeoning indie scene – and burgeoning it is, my brethren-in-blood – ever gets any attention at all. If you’re one of those knee-deep in a back catalog of films, pondering what your next move should be, be sure that Christopher Wesley Moore’s CHILDREN OF SIN makes it into your “to be considered” pile.
Hell’s stacked high with the souls of the lost, and Robbie (Jeff Buchwald) will be damned if his soon-to-be stepchildren, Emma (Meredith Mohler) and Jackson (Lewis Hines), will find theirs interspersed with the wretched rank-and-file. Or at least, they won’t be living under his roof while they willingly turn a blind eye to all the bounty of the promised land. Robbie believes the siblings are among the wicked and has convinced their mom and his fiancé, Tammy (Keni Bounds), that a stayover at the Abraham House could be just what it takes to cleanse their sins in the blood of the lamb. The omnipresent Mary Esther (Jo-Ann Robinson) reigns supreme over the Children of Abraham, and her approach to instilling the fear of God within her charges is the embodiment of cruel and unusual. As far as Mary Esther is concerned, if those souls can’t be saved by the Gospel, then she’ll pull no quarter in extracting them firsthand from their sinfully embattled flesh.
First things first: Come into CHILDREN OF SIN for the dastardly delightful Mary Esther, portrayed by journeyman performer Jo-Ann Robinson. Bearing a resemblance to Jessica Lange and seemingly inspired by the actress’ performance in American Horror Story: Asylum, her turn as the matriarchal maniac at the helm of Abraham House infuses a Jim Jones perversion into someone who genuinely believes she’s walking the straight-and-narrow all the way to the pearly gates. The first time she commands a character to unsheathe his “sin stick” will immediately gain the attention of anyone left in the room, as male viewers may feel the urge to step away for a moment. And while Mary Esther’s excellent performance may resonate as the most arresting, don’t sleep on the rest of the cast. Siblings Emma and Jackson both have secrets, and they behave just as you’d expect their real-world inspirations to act. Allow yourself to get emotionally involved in their plight (as you should) and the core of what they’re dealing with on a personal level will feel heartbreaking, as their stories seem only mere degrees removed from situations that any one of us could encounter. Serving as an equally offensive counterpart to Mary Esther is Robbie, who hides his own deviance underneath the cloak of religion and operates as a slimy, disgusting sort whose carnal knowledge of Emma could easily transpire into your own personal Regan-esque moment of gastrointestinal evacuation.
Moore pulls off an impressive feat by adhering to the golden rule of indie filmmaking: Accentuate your positives while hiding your negatives. His exposition of a religious sanctuary trying to right the paths of the perceived lost stretches out every last penny of its purported meager budget into a story that’s far better than you’ll probably expect it to be. The negatives are few and far between, relegated to choice instances that seem odd and may leave viewers questioning creative decisions. Jackson’s insistence on trying to get into Robbie’s good graces, considering his admonitions for his lifestyle, feels a little misguided. Of all the spiritual “transgressions” that Mary Esther is committed to abolishing (there’s a literal septuplet of sins ripe for the picking) the narrative is driven chiefly by that of sexual orientation. And for a cast of characters portraying high school kids but played by actors that are obviously much older, some of the dialogue is a little awkward. Consider these quibbles minor. They will not detract from the overall viewing pleasure of the film.
Organized religion is an easily exploitable trope in horror, but CHILDREN OF SIN avoids outright mockery and instead frames its narrative within theological parameters. An indie outing with all the accompanying trappings, Moore’s film builds out a storyline that cleverly eschews obvious devices to craft a plot this is the director’s very own – a vision that he had a clear grasp of from the onset and knew exactly how to execute. It’s a trajectory that’s punctuated with notes of cringe, sadness, and hopelessness, and is carried between sentiments by a cast that knows who they are and how they want you to feel. Some pretty heinous murder scenes with a splash or two of the red stuff will likely appease the gorehounds, and a late play shot of Mary Esther’s face as she seemingly realizes that perception isn’t necessarily always reality, especially when crossing over, may likely challenge your own beliefs for days to come. For the unjust and unruly, The House of Abraham is always open and accepting. Just be sure to leave your “sin stick” exactly where it is.
CHILDREN OF SIN is available on major streaming platforms, including Prime Video.