Yes, The Remaining is a religious movie. Specifically, it chronicles the immediate aftermath of the Rapture. End-times Christians love their disaster porn, and Rapture movies are a common staple. I myself have seen several, including both the Kirk Cameron and Nicolas Cage versions of Left Behind, David A.R. White’s Groundhog Day rip-off In the Blink of an Eye, and of course Tim Chey’s brilliant and bluntly titled Final: The Rapture. That’s just a small handful of Rapture movies, but believe me there are countless more available. Uniformly, these movies focus on the troubles of people who have been left behind after God has recalled the True Christians; they wander through worlds ravaged by destruction and confusion in the wake of the inciting event, mostly coming to recognize that they should have just believed harder so they too could be saved. In that basic outline, The Remaining does not differ.
The movie does set itself apart, though, by being a horror movie first and a religious movie second.
Generally, when the True Christians are Raptured in these movies, they disappear completely. They evaporate entirely, usually leaving their clothing behind. These movies always, always make sure to illustrate that children and newborn babies have been Raptured as well, as they are “innocents” who have not yet formed the mental capacity to choose whether or not to reject God. But The Remaining does something different. Instead of the Raptured disappearing completely, it chooses to have only their souls removed from this mortal plane. That is to say that their bodies, their flesh forms, remain behind, immediately slumping over dead with glazed eyes. Throughout the movie, then, the main characters find themselves stumbling over corpses littering the streets.
Admittedly, I tend to view Christian movies through an irreverent lens – and there are certainly elements of this movie worthy of mockery – but the decision to keep the corpses of the saved in the picture is unequivocally genius. It lends an air of creepiness to the entire film, and there is so much mileage gained by scenes like the one where the camera sweeps quickly over a darkened room containing the limp body of a former pastor still sitting at his desk. That is a legitimately scary image. There are a lot of ways in which the movie trods well-worn territory. It relies on Cloverfield-like handheld shaky cam effects near its beginning and unabashedly borrows from The Blair Witch Project later on, but the choice to keep the bodies around is inspired and entirely unique to this film.
With that praise given, the focus on horror over theology severely hampers the movie, too. The God of The Remaining is a monster. It’s not unusual for these movies to have good people left behind because God is more interested in belief than good deeds, but the injustice is particularly apparent here. Every time a person “finds” God and decides that the only answer to their problem is to accept Jesus whole-heartedly, they are soon killed in a spectacularly violent fashion. Most of these deaths are caused by invisible demons that are terrorizing the world, keeping those still left alive trapped in a church. At one point, a man who has found God decides that he must go out to face them. From behind a door, we hear the crunch of his bones and his blood-curdling screams. Late in the movie, a teenage boy is being Baptized when one of the demons lifts him up into the air, then snaps him in half and hurls his lifeless body toward the camera.
Yow. I mean, it’s horrifying, but it’s not exactly the type of thing that makes you feel God’s love. Perhaps the idea is to terrify viewers into accepting Jesus, but the message it sends seems to be that God is a terrible monster. In the most shocking and theologically confusing moment in the film, one of the main characters loses his wife to the demons’ attacks. In grief and rage, he rushes outside and cries out to the Heavens: “I hate you, God! I hate you! Do you hear me?” There’s a brief moment of silence, and with a sharp music cue on the soundtrack that’s enough to make the viewer jump, a huge tendril shoots out of the sky, its end spiked with a hook that impales him through his chest. Blood spurts everywhere. The tendril quickly pulls the now-dead man up into the sky, presumably to Heaven? I’m sorry, but whhhhaaaaat???? Even if the Biblical God were known for having massive, hooked tendrils – and I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but please correct me if I’m wrong – it’s nevertheless difficult to understand the religious message the moment is supposed to impart. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a thrilling moment; yet it’s completely baffling on a number of levels.
The more traditional evangelistic moments are, as usual, unaffecting. They seem entirely out of place here, though, as there is no good reason for any of the characters to find any solace or comfort out of leaning on faith in God. To believe in God in this movie is to submit to the terroristic threats of a madman who will ultimately murder you regardless of your faith. It’s impossible to see the virtue in any of it. Further, there are a number of groan-inducing elements. I’ve mentioned already the film’s shameless lifting of stylistic components from other horror movies. (A more forgiving person might call them homages, I suppose.) Beyond that, the dumb teenage drama between the characters is unbearable. The movie pretty much grinds to a halt for the sake of developing an unnecessary love triangle. And then there’s the laughable actions of the characters generally. It’s a spit-take worthy moment when a woman needs medicine that’s been locked in a car outside the church and despite a warning that it’s too dangerous to leave the building, three male characters offer to make the trek: “I’ll go”; “I’ll go too”; “Me too”.
As a horror movie, The Remaining is surprisingly effective. It does fall prey to some cliches of the genre, but it adds enough pizzazz of its own to feel fresh. As a religious film, and as a dramatic film outside of the horror trappings, it falls flat (at best) or actively contradicts its apparent purpose. It’s probably untrue to say that the highs outnumber the lows, but it is fair to say that the weaknesses aren’t especially egregious – they’re just regularly egregious – and the strengths, by virtue of being unexpected, come across as quite bold.