Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.

 – William Shakespeare

Inescapable circumstances, familial traps, and fear of eternal suffering combine with dark humor in writer-actor-director Christopher Wesley Moore’s (CWM Entertainment) independent horror-thriller “Children of Sin” (2022). 

When I think of horror that features religious elements, I often default to possession films (William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” Alberto De Martino’s “The Antichrist,” etc). A strong Christian presence, usually an older male priest, casts the evil from the unfortunate soul and the credits roll. But “Children of Sin” is not a possession story – it’s about religious zealots using the threat of eternal damnation as a weapon to control “sinners” who don’t fit with their ideals. The film is set in the Deep South and follows a group of young people (condemned for being LGBTQ+ or for being “promiscuous”) as they yearn for a more authentic life, to escape from parents, the church, and authorities who wish to change them.

“Children of Sin” also caters to the slasher crowd, but there’s a buildup to the blood and violence so when it does happen, it has shock and impact. I’ll be honest – the buildup is often my favorite part. If we don’t get time to acquaint ourselves with the characters and their world before it goes to hell, what’s the point? Moore gives us room to connect with the cast before they’re “cleansed” by the film’s main antagonist, Mary Esther (Jo-Ann Robinson), matron of Abraham House – a reform facility for those needing religious intervention.

Children of Sin Poster by Marc Schoenbach

Siblings of Sin

I knew early on that “Children of Sin” was going to be something special because I was simultaneously on edge and cackling (at one point I had to pause to pull myself together). Some of the funniest moments in the film often come from the more serious scenes. Our gutsy heroine Emma (Meredith Mohler, a frequent collaborator with Moore) doesn’t take her stepfather Robbie’s (Jeff Buchwald) criticisms or her mother’s (Keni Bounds) words silently – she calls them out on their bullshit, and she always dishes it back. After her mother discovers her pregnancy and condemns her for wanting an abortion, Emma boldly highlights her mother’s hypocrisy. Her mother’s reaction emitted from me a dramatic gasp, followed by “Ohhh!”

Emma’s brother Jackson (Lewis Hines) is caught watching gay porn, and we see horrified reactions juxtaposed with sounds from the video. While we know the situation is dire for both Jackson and Emma, we can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the worst-possible-scenario reveals. Jackson’s situation in particular is a real and relatable fear for many closeted gay men – “What if I’m caught?” Unfortunately, he was caught in the worst way, but it’s done in a highly comical fashion that dims the gloom factor. There are plenty of these “Oh my God, this is dark but I’m laughing” moments, especially after the siblings arrive at Abraham House.

Children of Sin

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There’s Something About Mary

Mary Esther is this film’s “Hansel and Gretel” witch. Abraham House is the “gingerbread house in the woods” that Emma and Jackson are unfortunately dumped off at. Mary’s exterior is welcoming and friendly, somewhat mother-hen, maybe a little eccentric. She runs a tight ship, but there’s nothing ultra-alarming about her at first glance. But what you see isn’t what you get (I think the same can be said about Robbie, and about most zealots behind closed doors). Mary’s intentions seem noble – she’s a savior to these children who have “strayed,” and she’s providing a service to prepare them to re-enter society. But early on, we get a glimpse of the sinner with her own repressions lingering just under the surface.

Mary’s grip on her holy mission becomes personal. Her behavior fits with “fake Christians” setting high standards and strict rules for others, only to break them themselves. I think that’s one of the many things “Children of Sin” does well – calling out fake Christians and their highly selective and hypocritical nature (“If I’m not caught sinning, it doesn’t count”). Mary is also a great example of someone using God as a front or cover to hate and condemn in an evil way. But I think Mary genuinely believes she is doing the right thing, which makes her behavior all the more unsettling.

Jo-Ann Robinson has a remarkable onscreen presence, and she wears many hats. She has to play charismatic and serious – a believable retreat leader that these kids could look up to – and at the flip of a switch, she has to go dark and a bit camp and completely bonkers. She definitely takes the viewer for a ride. While I wouldn’t label this movie a strict slasher, it contains some of those elements and Robinson fully embraces those elements. Side-note: I browsed Robinson’s IMDb and was pleasantly surprised to find that I’ve seen some of her other horror films – “The Devil’s Dolls” (2016, on Blu-ray from Scream Factory) and “Malicious” (2018). After “Children of Sin” I’m very interested in checking out more of her material.

Children of Sin

The Devils Are Here

One of the most prominent themes in “Children of Sin” is the feeling of entrapment. Most of the characters are stuck in horrible situations, and while some of them like Emma rebel and want to escape from the get-go, there are others who are full of doubt and just on the edge, not quite so sure. Emma’s and Jackson’s mother is a great example of someone who is just on the edge of “staying,” and she has a choice to make. Her ties to the church and to Robbie offer her security, status, money, and protection – but this Heaven is Hell for her children.

Another theme explored is “Are we damned?” Some of the guests at Abraham House question if it’s better to “suffer now” than to suffer for eternity later. Hell hangs over everyone’s heads, especially Jackson. He is constantly tempted to give in to the demands of those who want him to conform. He wants to convince himself that homosexuality is a sin so he can win his stepfather’s affection and approval. I think that scenario will feel painfully relatable to many LGBTQ+ viewers. As a fellow “sinner” I wanted to change and be “normal,” become someone else to get love and acceptance. But I think many of us who’ve gone through that know ultimately you do yourself harm in the long run by beating down your authentic self. 

There’s a great scene between Jackson and one of the other guests where they question if they’re damned. And it’s suggested that if Hell is real, it can’t be any worse than what they’ve gone through. I think a many LGBTQ+ people can relate to that. We’ve experienced so much shame and fear and inner turmoil – our own internal hells – in addition to judgment and hostility and hell from others. (I can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s quote, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”) So, should we really be so terrified of a biblical Christian Hell, red robes and pitchforks included? “Children of Sin” is clearly more than a horror movie as it digs deep to explore these themes.

Children of Sin

“Are You Ready to Ask God for Forgiveness?”

Well, are you? Grab some popcorn and red fruit punch (you’ll understand later) and stream “Children of Sin” on Amazon VOD starting April 22nd, 2022. It’s a horror movie with slasher elements, but it’s also funny and satirical and rich in subtext during those moments where religion and family loyalty are concerned. If you’re an English-major nerd like me or just analytical in nature, you’ll have lots to chew on, but if you’re a slasher fan, you’ll be more than fine as well (there are some fantastic death scenes). 

“Children of Sin” had its World Premiere at the Malco Grandview in Madison, Mississippi on March 23rd. As I expected, it had a standing ovation and was well received. I plan to watch Moore’s other projects soon, including “Confessions of a Horror Baby,” “A Stranger Among the Living” and “Triggered.”

Bret Laurie

Bret Laurie

Author

Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan living in Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in English at Worcester State University and currently has six years of editing and social media marketing experience.

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