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Outside of the exorcism subgenre, today’s horror movies don’t show much interest in religion beyond using it as a plot device.  This is a shame because there is rich thematic ground to be explored in finding where the genre meets up with this topic.  The Binding is an interesting new film that takes the concept of religion-themed Binding-bluhorror head on and it manages to be tense and unnerving in ways that bloodier, more flamboyant horrors can’t be.

The premise of The Binding keeps its variables simple.  The main focus is a religious married couple, Bram (Josh Heisler) and Sarah (Amy Gumenick).  They’ve been through hard times but relied on their religion to get through, with Bram becoming a minister.   They are fresh from celebrating the christening of their new child when Bram tells Sarah that God has appeared to him and told him he must do something very important to save the world.  That thing happens to be killing their newborn child.  As Bram waits for the next sign from above, Sarah does her best to protect her child and get Bram to find help before it is too late… but is the problem in his head or is a holy spirit involved?

This review will divulge no further plot info as part of the film’s strength is the way that it gradually unfolds.  Writer/director Gus Krieger plays up the ambiguity at every point, leaving the viewers to interpret for themselves whether they are watching an intrusion of the supernatural into normal lives or simply a troubled relationship lurching into its death throes.  Along the way, it touches on a variety of hot button themes, like how closely the Bible is to be followed and how effective or not religious counseling is to someone with psychological issues. Though he throws in the periodic jump scare, Krieger mostly goes for a subtle, unadorned style that allows the characterizations to take the lead.

This approach works because Krieger has a strong cast built from actors he already had a working relationship.  Gumenick makes a relatable heroine, strong enough to be proactive in a tough situation but also troubled by her need to do right by her husband. Heisler avoids lapsing into a cliched psycho, instead playing a man who can be both pitiable and frightening as his mind works against him.

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The two performances create a tension that meshes nicely with Krieger’s ambiguous approach, upping the tension within the viewer by forcing them to constantly question and analyze what’s happening even as they are responding to the intensity of the emotions.  There is also nice work by Leon Russom as a minister whose desire to help is challenged by the unearthly situation and Katie Parker as a tragedy survivor who gives Sarah a very specific perspective on her troubles.

If The Binding has a problem, it is that its devotion to subtlety might be too demanding for some viewers.  The plot progression is also notably similar to Take Shelter, an acclaimed indie from a few years past that traffics has a similar mix of family drama and a “vision or mental illness” plot hook (both films have similar codas as well).  That said, the work of Krieger and his cast is undeniably compelling and those who are interested in modern horror films with a strong dramatic core will find The Binding to be a challenging, all too rare example of serious religion-themed horror.

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Blu-Ray Notes: The Binding makes its debut on home video via Scream Factory, who has issued the film in blu-ray and DVD editions.  The blu-ray was utilized for this review and it looks quite good: the transfer does well by the film’s muted color scheme and low-key lighting.  Both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless stereo tracks are included: the 5.1 was used for this review and it’s a subtle affair, using the rear channels to gently add a bit of surround-sound dimension.

A handful of extras are also included.  A commentary track with Krieger is a low-key affair in which he talks about the story’s themes, the challenges of making the film with an “on and off” shooting schedule and how he cast the film primarily with long-time associates from college and the theater world.  “Cast Interviews” (17:20) features Gumenick, Heisler and Russom answering a variety of questions that cover an array of topics ranging from how they were cast to how they would deal with a religious vision. There’s also a lengthy reel of deleted scenes (30:43), each prefaced by an explanation from Krieger for why they were cut.  It’s easy to understand why these were cut for pacing but an extended scene between Gumenick and Parker is worth seeing.  A teaser trailer rounds the package out.