Let’s start with a brief Bible lesson. “The Binding,” or “The Binding of Isaac,” is the story in Genesis, Chapter 22, where God instructs Abraham to prove his love and obedience through sacrificing his son, Isaac. Abraham prepares for the sacrifice before God, pleased with Abraham’s willingness to do anything to prove himself, sends an angel to stop him. The end.
The story is one where scholars wrestle and disagree about the details and meaning. Did God ever intend for Isaac to be sacrificed? Did He use this as an example to warn against the practices of sacrificing? Did Abraham misinterpret God’s command? Is the story just an allegory?
No matter the take, the basic details present a framework for The Binding, a 2015 horror/thriller released by Scream Factory on Blu-ray and DVD in August. The inherent horror in the story of a supernatural being telling someone that they must kill their child is brought into modern times, where an Episcopal priest wrestles with a recurring prophetic dream that requires him to sacrifice his only daughter. The difference between Abraham and Bram (the aforementioned priest) is that God wished for Abraham to sacrifice his son as proof of obedience, while God tells Bram to sacrifice his daughter in order to save the world from a literal apocalypse.
It is revealed early that Bram is an alcoholic. He claims to be sober but shows evidence of still having some drinking issues. This piece of information brings up questions of whether Bram’s visions could be related to his alcoholism. The film then spends time trying to decipher if the visions are related to this addiction, are bad dreams, or are legitimately from a supernatural being (such as God or Satan). Ultimately, the decision is made that the issue is a psychological one, and Bram moves out of the home for awhile, while also attending therapy in order to get his head right and keep his daughter safe.
The tension built through these family interactions, struggles of faith, and looming sense of dread is palpable, to say the least. Bram gets his head straight and heads back home… what happens next is the payoff, but one that many people probably won’t see coming. Yet, what I’m left with is less about this payoff, and more about the psychology of the film; the implications of The Binding‘s faith narrative, specifically how if affects me as a parent.
A central theme of this film is the power of the human mind. When Bram and his wife, Sarah, are first introduced, Bram’s visions has been going on for a while already. Bram is certain that these visions are from God, though virtually everyone else assumes that the visions are a manifestation of either alcohol abuse or mental instability. The other possibility that one of his fellow clergy suggests is that, if he’s certain the visions are real, it must be Lucifer or one of his minions. This, of course, means that he has to undergo not only psychotherapy but also an exorcism.
This plays directly into another major theme of the film, the understanding of faith and how it manifests in real life. Could God really ask a man to kill his own daughter? This question is one that has haunted me since my introduction to the biblical passage years ago, and seeing it play out in a modern context on screen made it hit me even harder. The God that I have believed in couldn’t possibly fuck with our minds just to test our faith, could He? The God that I have put my trust in couldn’t actually desire a human sacrifice, could He? Even before the sacrifice of His own son, I can’t believe He would do this. However, is my desire to see the story as false or allegorical simply a rejection of the truth? This plagues me, and, moreover, watching this film plagued me. Is it a demonic request that was misinterpreted? This feels more plausible… yet, maybe mental illness still feels the most plausible.
The implications of no one believing Bram also makes me question what would happen if God did truly reveal Himself (or Herself, though truth be told, I don’t see God with any gender but have always said He by habit) to someone in 2016? Would anyone believe them? Would we all simply shrug them off and assume the person seeing the vision is a crazy son of a bitch? It can be troubling if you are someone who has faith in a higher power or is unsure what they believe.
Faith and the human mind are two fascinating intertwined themes, both in this film and in real life. How do the supernatural and the natural interact in how I look at the world? It’s hard to fully grasp. And, when I think about this film, it is very powerful. Psychological thrillers and religious horror films are two of the subgenres that affect me the most. This film is both. Thus, while it’s not The Wicker Man (my favorite religious horror film) or Session 9 (likely my favorite psychological thriller/horror), it hits all of the notes it needs to in order to horrify me. The true gauge of how effective and affecting these films are for me is if they get scarier for me when I think more about them after the fact. And, to this end, The Binding is one of the more terrifying entries in the horror or thriller subgenres in the past few years.
The film itself could be likely be improved with a stronger actor in the Bram role, albeit Amy Gumenick’s Sarah is pitch perfect throughout in my estimation. This being said, Max Adler’s performance as Bram is more than adequate. The film looked great for it lower budget and, as per usual, Shout Factory/Scream Factory’s release is packaged to the nines, featuring great artwork and packed full of great features. The film, specifically Scream’s Blu-ray release, is highly recommended for fans of religious genre films that are craving something other than a standard exorcism or armageddon story. For me, it’s a film that I’ll revisit for years to come.