For those who recognize the name Bill Oberst, Jr., the name likely conjures up visions of such indie horror flicks as Circus of the Dead, Valley of the Sasquatch, Scary or Die, and Nude Nuns with Big Guns. Easily considered one of the contemporary icons of indie horror, Oberst is not an actor I have reviewed frequently but he's always been a name I remember fondly because his responses are nearly always respectful, kind, and extraordinarily compassionate for a man whose filmography has found him portraying monsters, murderers, vampires, and cannibals.
Oberst is, unsurprisingly to me but perhaps surprisingly to many, a person of faith who is aware that sometimes his filmography can appear to be at odds with his chosen profession and his chosen roles. Thus, Oberst is an ideal host and narrator for director Tyler Smith's sophomore feature film Valley of the Shadow, an intelligent and insightful exploration of the intersection of horror and faith, seemingly incomprehensible violence and a deeper meaning available to those patient enough to surrender themselves to it.
As a film journalist and an ordained minister myself, I've long had an apprecation for the spiritual value of horror. Some of the kindest and most insightful people I know work in indie horror and, yes, as a survivor of significant trauma myself I've found safe places to heal and process my own life experiences within the realm of both indie and studio horror films. From films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the original I Spit On Your Grave to the practically unheard of Hellroller, I have, at times, immersed myself in the world of horror and been rewarded with deep and meaningful experiences, spiritual truths and a deepened faith that communicated through me just like God reached out to me as a child when I would be locked and bound in closets awaiting a terror I always knew would return.
Distributed by ReDiscover Television, Valley of the Shadow is an in-depth examination and celebration of film and its ability to engage and challenge its audience. If you follow faith-based cinema, then you already know that the vast majority of attempts to explore the horror genre have been laughable at best. Faith-based moviegoers are a complex lot, simultaneously wanting real-world application yet often absolutely convinced that anything that truly shakes them up can't possibly be of God.
I mean, seriously. Have they actually read the Bible? (I have, yes. And in the original languages).
The structure of Valley of the Shadow as introduced by Oberst sets forth an exploration of themes applicable to our real lives and our reel lives - The Unstoppable, The Inevitable, The Abominable, and the Unknowable. Working within these themes, Oberst intelligently and in great depth explores how they play out in horror and how this remains applicable to our daily lives and lives of faith. It is clear throughout Valley of the Shadow that Oberst has given these matters great thought, yet it is also clear that co-writers Smith and Reed Lackey have researched for this film incredibly well.
How did I survive years of sexual violence as a child and young adult with significant disabilities? It was, in reality, a realization that I've never been separate from God and a realization that the real horror came when I was separated from love and God and family of choice.
The same was true through my own suicide attempts as a young adult and my wife's successful death by suicide that also ended the life of our newborn.
Horror? Unquestionably. Life-changing? Most assuredly.
Horror films, or films with similar themes including Philip Seymour Hoffman's remarkable Love, Liza gave me a place to process and understand and scream and weep and realize that even in my greatest darkness there was always light and I was never, ever alone.
My healing wasn't overnight. It's still not perfect. I'm a weird-ass human being with enough quirks to be an exhibit in a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.
But, I'm here. And I love.
These similar ideas arise again and again throughout Valley of the Shadow, a compelling film that is hindered only by a need for somewhat tighter editing and some variation in pacing that would help maintain engagement.
Yet, for those who've contemplated these very issues, persons of faith or not, Valley of the Shadow is a film that adds critical thought to what has likely always been personal exploration and experience.
Oberst is simply a gem. He's a consummate indie horror actor and also an icon of humanity amidst it all. Valley of the Shadow is a valuable, and I'd dare say necessary, exploration of the spiritual value of horror that is engaging, intelligent, insightful, well-researched, and the kind of film that will likely have you exploring these concepts for days and weeks to come.
If you've ever wanted to be able to intelligently discuss why horror is a valuable part of your life, Valley of the Shadow is a terrific place to start.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic