Last night Lifetime ran one of their much-ballyhooed “world premiere” showings, this time of a film called Ungodly Acts, which is supposedly based on a true story but whose real-life basis, if any, I couldn’t find in an attempt to do a quick on-line search. (One imdb.com message-board contributor said he’d seen the real cult leader on whom the leading character was based being interviewed on TV, but alas the message-board poster neglected to mention the man’s name.) The story opens with a young woman named Melissa Cooper Smith (Megan Park, the only person in the cast I’d heard of before, though I suspect only from other Lifetime movies) found hanged in the woods near a local town. The police initially judge her death to be suicide, but then a heavy-set white woman named Paula Martin from the Church of the Blessed Light Ministry (which actually exists — I did an online search for them and turned up their Facebook page, though I doubt that they’re the real church organization on which Paul Ziller based his script) comes to the two detectives investigating the case (a white man and a Black woman, played respectively by William Vaughan and Rukiya Bernard) with a young red-haired, bearded man named Adam Crider (Iain Belcher) in tow. Adam says that he killed Melissa and made it look like suicide, and he did this on the instruction of her husband, Daniel Cooper (Brant Daugherty), who was the “end-times prophet” and religious leader of a prayer group Daniel first organized in college and continued after graduation, and who said Melissa was full of sin and needed to be killed so God could reclaim her soul. The main portion of the film after that consists of flashbacks, as the police interrogate both Adam and Daniel and we cut back and forth between their stories to see what happened, starting five years earlier when Daniel was leading a prayer group at college and attracting a following of seriously Christian students who didn’t think the other religious student groups on campus were strict enough. Melissa has the hots for Daniel as soon as she sees him but as a good Christian is willing to wait until she attracts his attentions and he offers to marry her. She also recruits Adam to join Daniel’s group and Adam, who’s established early on as a standard-issue schizophrenic (“I hear voices,” he admits, and we all know what that means in this context) who’s much more in need of therapy (and possibly medications) than religiosity, is put through an exorcism by Daniel and feels something pop out of his mouth when Daniel announces he has exorcised at least one of the demons that was haunting Adam.
The students win a scholarship to study with the leader of the Church of the Blessed Light and his deputy, Paula Martin (the person we met in the framing sequence taking Adam into the police station to confess and nail Daniel — though why the church is so desperate to nail Daniel doesn’t become apparent until later), at their agricultural compound in Georgia, and Daniel eventually sets up his own communal living space. He also gets more authoritarian, more of a cult leader (having just heard the abridged audio book of Pete Earley’s Prophet of Death the formula was almost too familiar), ordering one of his members out of the group for having spoken at a meeting and challenged him. When the person he ordered out is found dead a few days later, Daniel tells his followers that God took his revenge against him for defying the will of the prophet. Daniel announces to his flock that from now on they’re going to pool all their money, one member, Ryan (Cole Vigue), objects, and instead of doing the sensible thing and getting the hell out of there, Ryan meekly accepts Daniel’s decision to “shame” him. This means making him stay in one room of the house without any food, water or contact with the others — and when one of the others asks how long Daniel is going to do that to Ryan, Daniel says, “Until God tells me he’s healed.” Daniel has applied himself enough to Church of the Inner Light doctrine that they’ve declared him an official “Prophet of the End Times,” with the idea that Christ’s return is imminent and Daniel is one of the people God has designated as the ones who will lead the community and keep it safe through the end of the world as we know it (and they’ll feel fine). Meanwhile Melissa keeps trying to get Daniel to notice her as a woman and not just a faithful follower of his cult, telling him she’s received “marriage prophecies” that they’re destined to get hitched and spend eternity together, and Daniel couldn’t be less interested in her that way. We eventually find out why when a young man named Eric joins the cult and admits he’s “struggling with homosexual urges,” and Daniel — who’s already staged so-called “cuddling sessions” in which his charges can touch each other and embrace even though they have their clothes on throughout and it’s not supposed to get any more intimate than that — latches on to Eric and says that Eric will just have to learn how to make love with a woman, and Daniel can help him do that by having sex with him himself.
Eventually we catch on that Daniel is also Gay and that’s the real reason he hasn’t wanted to marry Melissa — and so do the leaders of the Church of the Inner Light, who like most people of their religious ilk believe that homosexual experience is a deadly sin and anyone who indulges in it should be severely punished and is definitely not kingdom-of-heaven material. One peculiarity of the radical Christian Right — and Paul Ziller’s script gets this point right — is they don’t believe in the existence of Gay or Lesbian people. According to the Christian Right, everyone is naturally heterosexual, and the only reasons people ever have sex with members of their own sex is either they’re deliberately rebelling against God’s authority or they’re “broken” in some way, which leads in turn to the concept of “trauma-induced sexual sin” (in which they lump together homosexuality and child molestation), the idea that people act out homosexually because of horrible things that happened to them in the past and those things need to be brought to light and “cured” with “reparative therapy” so the people who are acting out with same-sex partners can be turned either heterosexual or celibate, and therefore will have a chance to reach heaven. The film’s key scene occurs when Paula Martin knocks on Daniel’s door early one morning and demands to see him immediately — and he slowly and dimly comes back to consciousness after a night in which he had sex with Eric and woke up in the same bed. He gets up, throws some clothes on and greets Paula, who much to Daniel’s discomfiture knows exactly what’s been going on between him and Eric — at least the broad outlines, if not all the gory details — and demands that Daniel turn away from this sinful lifestyle and get right with God … at once. Accordingly Daniel announces that he has finally been told by God that it’s time for him to marry Melissa, and he does so. They take a honeymoon in Hawai’i, but even that doesn’t move Daniel to want to take Melissa’s virginity (he can’t even do what Mel White said he did in his memoir — rouse himself to have sex with his wife by thinking of men the whole time), and that’s what leads Daniel to declare that Melissa is full of sin and only her death can redeem her. There’s a chilling postscript in which Adam is put on trial for Melissa’s murder but, despite his confession, he’s acquitted and Melissa’s death is ruled a suicide at long last, thereby getting not only Adam but Daniel and the Church of the Inner Light off the hook — though there’s a final scene in which Daniel applies for a job as a Bible teacher and is told he’s otherwise qualified but their “routine background check” has turned up information about the case that indicates he wouldn’t fit in.
Ungodly Acts isn’t a particularly creative or original story, but it’s well written and effectively directed by Carl Bessai, who uses a surprising number of oblique camera angles to make it seem like a latter-day Orson Welles film sired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (even though the sets are realistic instead of stylized), which in other hands (or another type of story) might seem like gimmickry but here is used effectively to add to the atmospherics and claustrophobia inherent in a story about a close-knit religious community being slowly driven collectively crazy by the increasing megalomania and paranoia of its founder. One weakness of the film is that it doesn’t do as good a job as other cult movies have of answering the question, “Why don’t they just leave?” — certainly with someone as borderline crazy as Adam, we can readily believe that Daniel’s version of religion has offered him a refuge not only from the voices in his head but what the rest of the world would want him to do about them (basically check himself into a hospital and let modern doctors drug and/or shock virtually all of his consciousness — the sane parts as well as the insane ones — into oblivion). But when someone who seems as grounded as Ryan is shown meekly submitting to Daniel’s authority and letting Daniel keep him in that room even with no visible security preventing him from leaving any time he wants to, it’s clear we’re missing something we need to know about the power of Daniel’s hold over him and the others in the group. But that one flaw can’t keep Ungodly Acts from being legitimately powerful drama, incisively written, vividly directed and powerfully acted, especially by Brant Daugherty (who nails both Daniel’s megalomania and the superficial charm with which he attracts his followers) and whoever the actor was who played Eric (imdb.com doesn’t identify him but on the basis of their head shots I’m guessing it was Edward Ruttle), especially in the heartbreaking scene in which Daniel is jilting him and we realize that Eric loved Daniel as deeply, if not more so, than Melissa ever did, and he’d already begun emotionally to identify himself and Daniel as a couple no matter what the overall church they were supposedly a part of had to say about “homosexual urges.”