The Ungodly a.k.a The Perfect Witness. 2007. Directed by Thomas C. Dunn. Written by Dunn & Mark Borkowski.
Starring Wes Bentley, Mark Borkowski, Joanne Baron, Marina Gatell, Albert Lopez Murtra, Kenny Johnson, and Beth Grant. Dreamz Entertainment/Zip Films. Rated 18A. 96 minutes.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Serial killer films are a dime a dozen. Thomas C. Dunn’s The Ungodly is anything but standard fare, even if it’s seldom talked about by horror film lovers. It’s a disturbing piece of work that doesn’t shy away from difficult and uncomfortable horror. The film’s central theme deals with the ethics of true crime and how filmmakers treat the lived traumatic experiences of others as entertainment or an outlet for their art. Dunn also looks at the cliche troubled relationship between a serial killer son and his domineering mother. Yet there’s something different about how The Ungodly portrays that relationship, opting to touch on Freudian themes concerning the archaic mother but never falling into misogyny like other similar portrayals in horror cinema history.
Mickey Gravatski (Wes Bentley) lives at home with his mother. He’s an aspiring filmmaker. He’s also an alcoholic and addict trying the best he can to deal with his issues, going to Alcoholics Anonymous and making documentaries. While tracking a working serial killer, or a man he thinks to be one, Mickey inadvertently catches the guy on video committing a murder. Blinded by the thought of fame, the young documentary filmmaker blackmails the killer—James Lemac (Mark Borkowski)—into letting Mickey film his life. Once James turns the tables on the younger man, the waters get deeper, darker, and things spin out of control. Mickey’s documentary goes from a simple talking head style documentary to a real live murder spree, fast descending into violent chaos.
James: “Conscience is a sick bed. Under its filthy sheets lay all our fears. It’s not conscience that prevents men from killing and raping, it’s consequence; fear of death, jails, God.“
The Ungodly explores the ethics of true crime through Mickey, a filmmaker willing to jeopardise the lives of women to hopefully make himself famous. Right from the start, Mickey knows James is a serial killer. He’s been tracking the guy for months, and we immediately see him witness one of the killings. He doesn’t go to the cops, only doing so when he feels himself and his family are being threatened. Mickey’s a microcosm of Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole, putting women in danger for the sake of men’s goals. Mickey also preceded the big true crime bust in entertainment, before podcasts were a significant thing and prior to Netflix dropping a new true crime series every week. Today we often question what line certain true crime crosses; some culprits are worse than others. The Ungodly was already asking these questions in 2007, wondering just how far a person’s willing to go in order to make ‘content.’
Something The Ungodly does well and with disturbing force, in its interrogation of true crime ethics, is confront the uncomfortable humanity of serial killers, which I’ve written about already a few times in different film essays, most prominently in a recent essay on No Man of God, the latest cinematic character study of Ted Bundy. James is not romanticised, he’s portrayed as human. He reads William Blake and enjoys classical music. He plays chess with sick kids from the hospital. We see him not as an inhuman monster, like so many other portrayals of serial killers, but as a very human monster.
The film’s careful not to actually empathise with James, in spite of showing us his traumatic childhood. James’s mother is his scapegoat, not ours, nor the film’s, either. He’s a typical misogynistic murderer who hates his mother and takes out that rage by displacing it onto other women. The film essentially rests on James’s Freudian struggle to escape the shadow of his mother and her haunting legacy.
At one point, James asks Mickey, like a Freudian echo of Alan Moore’s famous “Who watches the Watchmen?” phrase: “But who watches the mothers?” James’s terror of his mother is a fear of what psychoanalysis has termed the archaic mother, whose identity stems from what Barbara Creed in her book The Monstrous Feminine calls “patriarchal signifying practices” and how the patriarchy views the mother as “the abyss, the all–incorporating black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (27). At the same time, James’s mother is the only parental figure mentioned in his traumatic family history. Although he surely had a father, obviously, this again speaks to The Ungodly presenting James’s mother as the archaic mother: a force that both gives life—”the mother who conceives all by herself, the original parent, the godhead of all fertility and the origin of procreation” (Creed 27)—and threatens to consume it. This is played off and subverted brilliantly near the end of the film when James’s mother says “I brought you into this world” and he replies “I‘m going to take you out.” Yet James isn’t the one to kill his mother. He’s forever haunted by his mother, he’s incapable of breaking past that fear. But the film never sides with the killer, refusing to validate James’s misogyny unlike other horror films that have featured killer sons and bad mothers.
“If these walls could talk they’d cry.”
Mickey’s journey in The Ungodly is ultimately about confronting the role media plays in glorifying serial killers. The media often gives serial killers their names, which only serves to give them more power. Similarly, many documentaries about serial killers and fictional stories about them romanticise rather than criticise. Dunn and Borkowski’s screenplay explores this cleverly through how Mickey approaches his serial killer documentary, not only ignoring a moral obligation to turn in a murderer but eventually actively participating in James’s killings and even killing a couple people himself. Perhaps my favourite scene is when James is about to murder a victim and she calls out to Mickey, who’s filming the whole thing: “Do something!” This is the scream of female victims, calling out to the media, asking them to do something other than romanticise the men who’ve killed them. The best part of the film exploring media’s role in the creation of serial killer personas is right at the end of the film. James talks about taking responsibility for one’s actions and Mickey asks him “Do you?” before he retorts “Do you?” A fitting, chilling end.
Certain films never leave us. For me, The Ungodly is one of those films. It’s a bleak, disturbing piece of work. It’s not a well-known film, mostly due to the fact it didn’t get any major distribution and remains a somewhat rare DVD. I feel it’s an important mid-2000s horror, especially because in an era of found footage—this came out the same year as Paranormal Activity—Dunn’s film also involves ideas of perception versus reality, using the camera lens and TV screen as important objects; something I could write a whole other essay on eventually. All in all, an underrated film more should see.
The Ungodly is one of many, many horror films to feature a monstrous mother, though the way Dunn’s film figures the archaic mother into the plot is unique. Part of the film involves the horror of the archaic mother, along with James using her as his scapegoat for his awful crimes. The other part of the film asks important questions about true crime and the ethics involved in using deeply traumatic stories as fodder for entertainment. The Ungodly has a lot going on, but its most enduring horror is the misogyny that drives James and, more subtly, Mickey—the terrifying loathing of women that propels entertainment and male violence alike.