A church community holds itself aloof from the rest of the world, willfully isolated and inward in its outlook. Lead by a stern preacher, this community is strict, puritanical and willfully circumscribed.
But Ella, the preacher’s daughter, has a secret. And when it comes out, its impact is explosive within such a small, quiet community, its reverberations unraveling the community in an unexpected way.
Director Dean Puckett’s folkloric horror-thriller has its roots in a strand of British horror films of the 60s and 70s, locating its feeling of strangeness and uncanny dread within a seemingly idyllic countryside that is captured in gorgeous and lush 35mm cinematography both rich in color and austere in its framing.
Even the camerawork seems to capture a sense of timeless nostalgia, with its almost old-fashioned push-ins and statically framed wide shots, which underscore the rigidity of the community it captures. The result is a ravishing visual experience that adds an elegant and incisive level of meaning to a film already rich with allegory.
The script itself is remarkably quiet, and with spare dialogue, subtle but effective performances and archetypal characters, the story feels very much like a folktale or fairy tale, exploring issues of sexuality and oppression. It’s aided by quicksilver editing that moves the audiences through the twists and turns adeptly, though it offers ample opportunity for reflection and reverie.
But when the narrative hits its disturbing, repulsive twist, it takes on an almost surreal quality that feels somewhat like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, with its wide scale containing miniature details of human cruelty and punishment.
This short sits firmly in the horror category, but with its crystalline cinematography and its well-drawn atmosphere of both nostalgia and timelessness, it feels literary in scale and quality and begs for further exploration. Puckett is developing the film as a feature, which will give the story ample room to explore its powerful evocation of puritanism, seduction, violence and ideology. Juxtaposing almost voluptuously sensual images against a story of sexual repression, “The Sermon” is full of rich contrasts, provocative ideas and haunting moments that take viewers to a strangely uncanny time and place, all while illuminating parallels to our own moment in history.