Crazy cults are a fertile subject for horror films, and that sub-genre has produced some notable entries: I Drink Your Blood, Red State, Rosemary's Baby, and more. Creepy ceremonies, an insular clan, emotional manipulation: all of these can contribute to a feeling of dread. Children of Sorrow is the latest in this line of cult-centric films, and while it's structured differently than most, and has a rather deliberate pace, it certainly delivers the goods.
Simon Leach (Bill Oberst Jr. in an astonishingly intense turn) is the charismatic leader of a small sect. He and his most loyal follower Mary (Whitney Nielsen) have had to relocate to an isolated compound in a Mexican desert after an unexplained event in the United States forced them to flee. They have a small but dedicated group of believers who join them, and they seem to be quite happy. Potentially upsetting the apparent tranquility, Ellen (Hannah Levien) infiltrates the cult, attempting to discover what happened to her sister Janet, a previous member of the group.
It's clear from the get go that Simon is a fraud. He insists that Mary video everything (including with a network of surveillance cameras around the compound), and when they are alone regales her with tips on how to fool, intrigue and manipulate his followers. He is without question a dynamic man, and exudes a presence and a hold on his followers that is uncanny. Oberst is quite convincing as the cynical spiritual leader, and appears to relish the role.
The film is something of a slow burn. At first, the group's activities are anodyne: playing kickball, innocuous interviews with Simon, sewing their religious outfits, with the occasional sermon thrown in. Things grow more and more off putting and tense as time moves on, and Simon tightens his grip on his followers. (The scene with the "chore wheel" is particularly chilling.) Even Ellen, set in her mind to be suspicious, begins to fall under his influence. Simon begins to talk about their "transitions", when they will leave this earthly life and rise up to a higher plane. We find out exactly what that means soon enough.
This being a horror movie, things take a turn for the worse, with each "transition" being more graphic and disturbing than the last, even when seen only in glimpses. One of the strengths of Children of Sorrow, actually, is the aversion to showing the blood and gore straight on and clear. The hints and quick looks we get are much more disturbing than even the most accomplished special effect under the bright light of day. That said, the effects are actually done quite well. There's no goofiness, bendy knife blades or cheesy looking blood here. Everything looks all too real.
Now, Children of Sorrow is a hand held, found footage type of film, and at times the herky jerky, chaotic movement of the camera is very, very annoying. It doesn't have too many of the "why are they filming all of this" problems of many of these efforts, and there are few moments that it jars the viewer out of the suspension of disbelief. One of the reasons for this is the exceptional performances. As stated before, Oberst is superb, and really carries the film. But every one of the supporting players is operating on nearly the same level. Martha Brigham as the fragile and shy Veronica (who is so talented, I was surprised by the low number of acting credits she has), Whitney Nielsen as the cold and vicious Mary, Jefferson Rogers as the simple and earnest southern boy Brian. They are uniformly excellent.
The found footage gag may be a little worn out, and the film certainly has what can be called a deliberate pace, but it gains steam as it carries on, and delivers a sustained level of tension throughout, as well as one or two genuine jump scares and an aggressive climax. Recommended.