‘Thorns’ FrightFest 2023 Review: A Bold New Interpretation Of Hell
Since he was raised Catholic, director Douglas Schulze certainly has an affinity for the Christian afterlife. Just look at his previous films like Hellmaster and Dark Heaven. For his latest project, Schulze once again decided to explore the concept of the afterlife with Thorns, a religious-themed horror film that was clearly designed to make audiences ponder the nature of Hell. And even if Thorns does not leave certain viewers reconsidering their views on life after death, it’s still filled with enough nightmarish imagery to satisfy just about anyone else.
Jon Bennett stars as Gabriel Goodman, a former Catholic priest who is hired by NASA to investigate why a satellite research facility went silent after intercepting a signal from deep space. As you can imagine, Goodman makes some horrific discoveries throughout the course of his investigation.
The former man of the cloth learns that the signal received by the facility was broadcast from a distant planet which the staff believe to actually be Hell. To make matters worse, the chief scientist, Dr. Malik (Bo Shumaker), was transformed into a hideous, demonic being. With his eyes covered by thorns and his face resembling a vision from your darkest nightmares, Malik’s demonic appearance is bound to become iconic after Thorns receives a general release.
Schulze mentioned in his talk after the FrightFest screening that Shumaker was literally blinded by the prosthetics and needed to be guided onto the set by members of the crew. Shumaker certainly deserves praise for his performance as the sinister entity who was once a priest. The ways he tries to tempt Goodman to join him are scarily convincing. At the same time, Bennett also gives his performance as Goodman everything he has, creating a brilliantly engaging performance of a man who desperately wants to believe in a higher power.
Although his name was the first to appear on the poster, Hellraiser star Doug Bradley only appears in a total of four scenes, occasionally showing up as the sophisticated Archbishop Jenkins. With his elegant demeanor and his captivatingly poetic manner of speech, Bradley was undeniably beguiling, and you’ll certainly wish the Pinhead actor had been given more screen time. Cassandra Schomer also shows up as Sister Agnes, a nun who was somehow rendered mute by the radio signal received by the station. Despite her inability to speak, Agnes still did everything she could to help Jenkins out of their situation. And the talented Schomer absolutely sells her character’s bold determination throughout the picture. Because it takes place almost entirely in an isolated research facility, Thorns only features a small cast, but everyone involved did everything they could to elevate the production beyond its low-budget roots.
Thorns also features a philosophical angle, as the film is filled with speeches about whether Hell is actually a state of mind rather than an actual, physical place. Given the evil things that humans are capable of, it would certainly make sense to think of Hell as already being here on Earth. However, anyone who was hoping for a fun practical effects horror movie that didn’t require them to think too hard might be perturbed by these philosophical musings about the nature of Hell. But regardless of whether you want to listen to its ideas about Hell or not, Thorns still presents its audience with a bold new viewpoint on human nature.
But despite its overall grim and somber tone, Thorns was not entirely without its amusing moments. There’s even a sequence where Goodman attempts to flush a slug down the toilet, only for it to mutate into an oversized, screeching monstrosity. This sequence was clearly inspired by the popular Evil Dead franchise, and the sight of Goodman desperately battling the practical effects monstrosity is undeniably hilarious to watch. Even viewers who lost interest in the film’s philosophical debates will wake up when they witness this fight. And despite the horrors she witnesses, Agnes never abandons her Christian mentalities, as evidenced by a scene where she hilariously slaps Jenkins after he drops the F-bomb.
Although the film’s philosophical musings are likely to be lost on some viewers, the dedicated performances from everyone involved and the outstanding makeup and practical effects will still leave you captivated. Even if religious horror films are not your preferred subgenre, you’ll be impressed by Thorns. You may not be truly convinced that Hell can exist on Earth, but you will certainly be convinced that Thorns is one of the best religious horror films to come along in quite some time.
Different viewers will react differently to its ideas about Hell, but Thorns still presents audiences with strong performances from its cast and an assortment of memorable creature effects, making it a bold new entry into the wide plethora of religious horror films.