Genre mashups don’t come much odder than “The Remaining,” a theologically questionable but fitfully exciting melodrama about fear and loathing among the non-Raptured. It’s kind of a disaster movie, sort of a horror-thriller, and entirely faith-based entertainment, a mix that may find an appreciative audience once this small-budget indie finishes its limited theatrical run and is resurrected in homescreen platforms.
Director and co-scripter Casey La Scala strikes dim echoes of “Left Behind,” “The Leftovers” and Michael Tolkin’s overdue-for-rediscovery “The Rapture” while focused on a cross-section of unfortunates who don’t make the final cut when God separates the wheat from the chaff. During La Scala’s version of Judgment Day, souls are separated from their bodies and whisked up to heaven — leaving behind an unsettling abundance of corpses, and triggering panicky news accounts of an “Instant Death Syndrome” pandemic that is “both troubling and foreboding.”
This sudden accumulation of cadavers — accompanied by earthquakes, loud thunder, downpours of fire and ice, and sundry other biblical portents — puts a serious damper on the festivities at a wedding party in an unnamed North American city. (“The Remaining” was filmed on location in Wilmington, N.C.) The bride’s parents are transported to their eternal reward, but other celebrants are left to fend for themselves and seek shelter elsewhere.
Among the anxious survivors: Newlyweds Skylar (Alexa Vega) and Dan (Bryan Dechart), significant others Allison (Italia Ricci) and Jack (Shaun Sipos), and videographer Tommy (Johnny Pacar), whose longtime secret crush on Allison seems evident to everybody but Allison and Jack. Joined by Sam (Liz E. Morgan), a feisty young lady they meet along the way, the group makes a mad dash toward the sanctuary of a nearby church, all the while trying — not always successfully, alas — to avoid winged demons and other terrors that have been loosed upon mankind.
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Not unlike your garden-variety horror and disaster movies, “The Remaining” generates suspense by gradually decimating an ensemble of increasingly desperate characters. The big difference here is, the primary threat is posed not by anything so mundane as zombies, climate change or ginormous tidal waves, but rather by agents of hell set on tormenting what’s left of humanity.
It takes a while for some characters to accept the notion that there isn’t a more “logical” explanation — like, say, extraterrestrials — for their misfortune. Others immediately make the connection between cause and effect, but that doesn’t make them any less upset. “I shouldn’t be here,” Skylar whines. “I went to church. I did everything right.” Not surprisingly, she is among the first to have a close encounter with something satanic.
La Scala achieves some mildly impressive effects on an obviously limited budget, relying heavily on the power of suggestion to indicate winged demons and other nuisances, but also coming through with passably persuasive depictions of a post-Rapture landscape littered with crashed aircraft and demolished buildings.
True, he occasionally resorts to the visual cliches of found-footage thrillers by presenting events as viewed through Tommy’s vidcamera. And he can’t resist the most tiresome of those cliches, the inevitable scene where someone is abruptly dragged off by an unseen presence to a violent quietus. Still La Scala is able to maintain interest and sustain narrative momentum throughout his fantastical narrative, even while he covers overly familiar territory. In this, he gets immeasurable aid from the sincere performances by his game cast.
Many nonbelievers, and even some devout Christians, may be tempted to snicker whenever “The Remaining” hints at various reasons why its central characters weren’t caught up in the Rapture. (Their disqualifying transgressions include premarital sex, failures of faith, and dancing to hip-hop music. No, seriously.) And as the movie amps up the preaching during its third act, much of its dialogue, speechifying and unabashed proselytizing is too ham-handed by half.
In the midst of this overkill, however, John Pyper-Ferguson earns credit for doing something borderline miraculous. Cast as a clergyman who develops a personal relationship with God only after viewing hell on earth, the actor delivers an impassioned sermon with a truly infectious fervor.