Welcome back to the last Let’s Scare Bryan to Death of 2020 (thank god), where we are talking to Trace Thurman, horror writer and podcaster extraordinaire. In addition to bylines at Bloody Disgusting and Consequence of Sound, Thurman of course also co-hosts the fantastic Horror Queers podcast with previous LSBTD guest Joe Lipsett.
As a born-and-raised Texan, Thurman had some southern-fried horror in store for me in the form of Bill Paxton’s feature-length directorial debut, Frailty. The film follows Fenton (Matthew McConaughey), a troubled young man who claims to FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) that his brother Adam is the notorious murderer known as the God’s Hand Killer. Their story goes back to 1979 and the town of Thurman (a fictional town with no relation to this month’s guest), where Fenton’s quietly religious family life is shattered when his father (Paxton) claims to have had a vision of an angel who has charged him with helping fight the holy war by destroying demons on Earth who just happen to look like everyday human beings.
This is one of those movies that has perpetually been on my to-do list, but I just never found the time for, which is a shame because I always had a feeling that I was going to like it. But while I’m late to the game (as usual), Thurman remembers Frailty as one of his first forays into adult horror (as always, spoilers ahead as we’ll be discussing major plot points).
I wasn't allowed to watch R-rated movies as a kid, especially horror films. So I got my rocks off watching things like Tremors and Poltergeist, the normal things you watch as family horror/gateway horror. Around the time I was 13 or 14, my mom loosened the reins a little bit. My parents watched this and they loved Matthew McConaughey, they really loved Bill Paxton. It was an R-rated movie that wasn't gory and didn't have any sex in it, and that was the key. Basically, it’s one of the first R-rated horror films that I was able to watch before the age of 17, and I really, really liked it back then. The twist ending, I thought was really good.
Thurman and I both enjoyed McConaughey’s creepy, measured performance in a role that came just before his shift to romcom mainstay. But even more impressive is Paxton’s directorial approach. He created a very disturbing film that, similar to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, relies on unseen horror that lets the audience fill in the gaps to such an extent that they may remember it being a lot bloodier.
I think it's actually really, really good. With actors-turned-directors, it's kind of a crapshoot in terms of whether they're going to be good or not. I think he shows a remarkably restrained hand. I don't even want to use the phrase “he makes a classy horror film,” but he makes this really understated, super moody and atmospheric Texas-set horror film that I think is really admirable.
One of the edits that even as a kid always stuck with me is where McConaughey and Powers Boothe are in a car, and the camera zooms into the rain on the window. And then it transitions to the static on an old religious cartoon that the kids are watching.
Even, too, with the kill scenes... I mentioned how it is an R-rated horror film. I know other people would come through and say, “Well, it's more of a thriller blah blah blah.” But it isn't a gory film, and this film is rated R, but I really think this is just because there's children involved. I think if there weren't kids involved this would be a PG-13 film. During the first murder when he kills the first woman, [Paxton] shoots it from young Fenton’s POV, showing his face as the shadow of the axe comes down. And we have to see this child's reaction to his father murdering someone.
It's also just a very gross movie. I like the comparison to Texas Chain Saw. Even though this is Texas, they were just always sweaty and dirty. It's just a grimy movie. Like, even McConaughey in the present day looks gross...I mean he always looks greasy. You don't see a lot of Texas-based horror, even though the town that they live in was fictional because Paxton didn't want to tie it into any real-life place and as he says have goth kids go to the rose gardens in these Texas towns.
The tragedy and the horror of the film springs from the fact that, although the movie centers on a religious, small-town Texas family, Paxton and company don’t rely on the stereotypes that often go with such a portrayal.
I think it helps that it had a lot of Texans involved. Matthew McConaughey's from Texas, Bill Paxton is from Texas. They're treading ground that they know. Now granted, I wasn't alive in 1979, so I can't speak to Texas at that time. I also grew up in the suburbs of Houston, so I wasn't in a small farm town where they are. As a gay person it sort of makes me feel really uncomfortable whenever characters are that religious, because I'm just like, “Oof, that brings me back.” I don't think it was an offensive portrayal, and I didn't think they were caricatures. They felt very much like real people and not just Bible-thumpers, if that makes sense.
That the family is so close and loving makes the pivot that much more disturbing after Fenton’s father’s vision, which Thurman notes is particularly jarring because there’s nothing in the opening scenes that indicate the trouble to come.
It's like out of nowhere! Fifteen minutes into this movie, he's like, “Oh by the way, y'all, I got a mission from God.” I do appreciate that the movie does make it more ambiguous until the ending. We're like, “Oh, maybe he is seeing something.” The thing that gets me... and it's actually terrifying, too, I walk away from this movie very creeped out: when he's doing the mechanic stuff in the car and he sees the angel come to him. There is something about the face of that angel that is terrifying, and it's not even because it's religious, because it almost kind of looks like a cherub doll. It looks like a doll, but a man, and it’s just creepy as hell.
In addition to the film’s aesthetics, the narrative elements prove to be deeply disturbing as well. In the story’s climax, after we learn that Fenton killed his father, who he believed was murdering innocent people, McConaughey’s character flips the story on its head by revealing that he is in fact Adam, not Fenton. It turns out Adam picked up the mantle for his father, who we find out was killing very bad people, including murderers and pedophiles. Fenton, on the other hand, has become the God’s Hand Killer, as he started murdering people so that his brother would finally find and “destroy” him.
As Thurman points out, it’s a truly tragic turn of events, particularly for Fenton, as we realize the degree to which the trauma of his childhood pushed him over the edge. Plus, it’s a very murky resolution, not in terms of narrative beats, but in terms of themes and meaning, as it’s unclear as to how we’re supposed to feel about this turn of events. For his part, Thurman’s complicated relationship with religion made his most recent watch particularly disturbing.
I grew up very Catholic, and I think that's also maybe why my mom thought it was okay to watch this movie. I will say that I hadn't seen it for a couple years, and watching it this past weekend I was very uncomfortable watching this movie. I watched it as a kid very much as a surface level, “Oh cool, God’s telling this guy to murder people, to murder sinners. Nothing wrong with that.” And watching it this past weekend, it was like, “Oh, I'm really uncomfortable with what this is.” And I still honestly don't know how I feel about the implications of the ending.
I’ve distanced myself from religion as I've gotten older. I won't go into too much detail about that, but [in this movie] it's 1979. There's no technology, so people have nothing to do. So what people did in these small towns was, they put everything into work and religion. And seeing a three-male household that was very intent on religion… And I'm putting my own things into that, where the religion I grew up with rejected me. Then you're watching this movie, and you watch the first two acts and it almost seems like a scathing critique of religion, where this man is so religious, he thinks, he's saying these things and he's going crazy. That's what religious is y'all. It's a cult. But then when it turns out it's all real?
I'm of two minds about this: either it's saying, “Yeah, religion sucks. Look what this God is doing. He's telling people to go murder sinners/demons, so that's really shitty.” Or you could read it just saying, “Hey, God’s saying to do this and that's righteous, that's the right thing to do.” And I kind of walked away from this viewing taking the latter reading. That's what the film was trying to say. I didn't know how I felt about it. I felt kind of taken aback.
Personally, I gravitated toward the former take, and found the film taking a really creepy turn by depicting a God willing to put people through hell (figuratively) to meet his own ends. Thurman explains that’s certainly not unheard of in certain depictions of God.
It’s a very Old Testament God, as opposed to the New Testament. “Old Testament” is going to be kind of your vengeful, wrathful God. He's the one that flooded the Earth with Noah's Ark. There have been readings that this film is basically like a pseudo adaptation of the Book of Job, where Job is this huge believer in God and he keeps getting all these tests, basically all these trials to wear him down to see if Job will still believe in God. And eventually Job is like, “Hey God, what's going on? Why are you still doing this to me?” It is scary, especially with the times we live in now, the last four years with Trump and everything railing this mindset of hatred. [In Frailty] you don't ever get the idea that Dad and Adam hate the people they're killing. They view them as demons that aren't even people to them. I'm doing a lot of mental somersaults in my mind once the credits roll in this movie.
I think it's one of those things where, like I've said, I've distanced myself from religion. But my God, the God I grew up with, and granted Catholics are more in the New Testament because that's just what happens. But [New Testament] God wouldn't tell someone to murder someone else. We are given these people that we’re told are demons, and by the end we find out they're just really bad sinners. They're definitely terrible people, one of them is like a pedophile. But I just don't buy that God would be like, “Go and kill these people.” That's kind of where I'm coming from. You're changing the God that I grew up with, that I know. Which maybe isn't fair. The movie is playing with its own God, a different kind of God. But it's just like, I don't know... the God I know is all loving, spreading love, “You're supposed to love thy neighbor blah blah blah blah blah.” Yeah, there'll be punishments... in hell!
Ultimately, the film will likely land differently for different people depending on how they interpret certain events, and that’s what makes for a great horror film. For Thurman, that interpretation has even evolved over time as his life experience has shifted, making the film more difficult, but also more compelling to watch.
It's weird, I still really, really like this movie. But it definitely felt more heavy to me watching it as a 31-year-old as opposed to a 13-year-old. I don't wanna say I enjoy it, because it's such a miserable, depressing movie. I used to build this movie up in my mind as, like, it's got a really great twist at the end and it’s just a dark, creepy movie. Now I really like it, but the religious themes, which admittedly run throughout the entire film, weigh a little bit heavier in my mind than they did when I was more religious. And I find that a bit ironic, I guess. It just reminds me of a time when I didn't really know who I was. Now that I think I know who I am, I think this movie is a bit more to grapple with. But I like that, because you can have these conversations about it.