Harold (Bruce Davison), his wife Betty (Arianne Zucker) and their daughters Maggie and Sarah (Holly Taylor and Rita Volk) live in an isolated farmhouse, many miles from their nearest neighbours. Harold rules over the family, enforcing a rigidly patriarchal interpretation of the bible. When three young men turn up at their door after getting a puncture, Maggie senses an opportunity to get away from her controlling and increasingly dangerous father.
We have seen a wide variety of horror film villains who are religious fundamentalists, whether it’s as far back as someone like Witchfinder General’s Matthew Hopkins or more recent examples like the Westboro Baptist Church inspired group in Kevin Smith’s Red State, or the Jim Jones like cult in The Sacrament, or any number of others over the years. We Still Say Grace doesn’t do much new with the plot machinations its setting and characters throw up, nor does it have anything especially radical to say; criticising the patriarchal and exploitative nature of fundamentalist religion is certainly valid, to say nothing of depressingly topical, but it’s hardly novel.
Writer/director team Brad Helmink and John Rauschelbach deliver the chills effectively. Their camerawork isn’t overstylised, but the simple composition draws the contrast between the family and their ‘guests’ in short order, especially over lemonade when they first arrive and across the dinner table later on. The danger is established immediately with a disturbing opening scene of a rehearsal for ritual suicide, which again uses simple shot construction to solid effect, forcing our attention on the character’s faces. It’s a scene that looms over the entire film. To some degree, this threat that hangs over everything is so effective that the film almost doesn’t need its other little twists — one could almost argue that it would be more horrific without one of them.
The opening scene and the threat inherent in it also heavily informs Holly Taylor’s performance. We get the sense that some of her feelings may have been growing for a while, but that the opening scene marks a distinct shift; an urgency that finds a glimmer of hope for an outlet when the outsiders (especially Fisher, played with charm, but little chance to bring much more to the table, by Dallas Hart) arrive. There isn’t, of course, the space for the sort of expansive character arc that she carried off so well on The Americans, but the sense that Maggie is always holding something in, scared to take action even when there might be an opening, comes across strongly. With smaller roles, Volk and Zucker have less to work with, but Volk’s take on Sarah’s thoroughly brainwashed and controlled state is especially sad and not a little unnerving.
Bruce Davison, like the film itself, gradually ramps up his performance. Initially he’s controlled; playing quiet menace, usually the dynamic would be that we expect this to boil over into real threat, but the opening makes explicit that it is just a matter of time before that happens with the family, the real question is about Fisher and his friends. Davison’s slow cracking of this man’s mask, beginning with objections to the beer in the guys car and to their swearing and becoming more extreme and frightening with each scene, never goes too far. By the end he’s definitely crazy, but Davison never just shouts and rants, and combined with the credible build that makes his performance grounded enough to stay scary.
We Still Say Grace is a rather low key experience. It’s never less than engaging; the performances are all good; it’s shot with a decent amount of atmosphere and there is tension throughout, despite the fact that where it’s headed is never much in doubt. What it lacks is ultimately that one thing to make it truly stand out, to push it over the edge from something you’ll likely watch and enjoy to something that will linger long in your mind.