Tyler Smith's 'Valley of the Shadow' Rebrands Horror as Spiritually Rich Food for Thought

Film historian and professor Tyler Smith sees the spiritual value in horror films and takes on the challenge of proving it in his sophomore film essay, Valley of the Shadow. Smith co-wrote the script with Reed Lackey, laying out the case for horror like a legal team ready to act as advocate in court. The trick – they want to convince perhaps the toughest film audience of all – Christians.

In Tyler Smith's first film essay, Reel Redemption, he sought to bridge the gap between the film industry at large and Christians, detailing the history behind the sometimes contentious relationship between the two, as well as a deep appreciation for the many affirming depictions of faith and spirituality found on screen. A lifelong lover of cinema and an expert in film history, Smith's passion for his projects rings out loud and clear. He's well-informed and articulate and knows how to converse with his intended audience on their level.

A man talks from a stairwell
Bill Oberst, Jr. narrates VALLEY OF THE SHADOW, directed by Tyler Smith

Smith brings that same energy to Valley of the Shadow, but takes on a more challenging task by standing up for the value of horror, a genre that many Christians avoid on principle. As someone who grew up in a Christian household, I know all these arguments well: "It's scary … evil … demonic." Whatever the adjective, it's something to avoid. Smith eliminates the adjectives and rebrands horror movies as stories that might deserve a second look. Reminding viewers that the Bible contains stories of demonic possession, witchcraft, and bones rising from the dead, chosen narrator, character actor Bill Oberst, Jr. (Take This Lollipop) takes us on a whirlwind tour of over 100 years of horror movie history.

Valley of the Shadow adopts a framework for making the spiritual case for horror by dividing these movies into four categories – The Unstoppable (Evil Intruders), The Inevitable (Death/Suffering), The Abominable (Depravity), and the Unknowable (Beyond the Grave). Bill Oberst, Jr. introduces these themes, showing examples of films that match the category and interpreting how one could find truth and conviction within the gruesome and haunting genre. The focus shifts from just seeing movies as portrayals of evil to safe outlets for exploring how mortals should face evil when it comes knocking. For instance, in the Unstoppable section, which includes films like The Blob and Godzilla, the on-screen threats often start small or arise because of human pride or carelessness. Over time, the threats grow and become harder to control or eradicate. Viewers watching these films experience what not to do. We face evil vicariously and may be more prepared to face it in real life.

The framework allows for intelligent dialogue and easy-to-understand commentary on the points Tyler wants to make, but the categories aren't truly distinct. Many movies could theoretically fit in several boxes. Their value lies in creating a structure for matching these stories by theme. While the points raised, don't necessarily nail the ending, the analysis is theologically sound and thought-provoking.

Tyler chooses movie clips that general audiences will feel comfortable watching, so there's no need to worry about seeing offensive images during this essay. The hardest barrier to overcome might be the almost 2.5 hour runtime. But could one expect to get a detailed historical overview of the horror genre along with an effective case for said genre's value in less time? An easy fix: divide the viewing into two parts and watch with a partner or group. Viewers wanting to engage with the material will benefit from discussion. 

Having Bill Oberst, Jr. as narrator is an added bonus and offered a nice alternative to Tyler narrating in voiceover, even if it was sometimes comical to see him emerging from behind a bush or hovering above us on a stairwell.

If nothing else, Valley of the Shadow offers a satisfying overview of the genre. Horror novices will come out with a deeper knowledge of films they have heard only rumors about, without having to watch any movies in full. Some may even emerge with a watchlist. Fans of horror will appreciate Tyler's love and knowledge for these movies and the way he articulates the good that can come from a genre often denigrated by naysayers. Even if Valley of the Shadow doesn't convince those who shy away from horror to begin indulging, it may help doubters to look at things with a different set of eyes.

It seems to me that Tyler Smith is creating the antidote to the fearmongering educational films made by Eric Holmberg in the 1980s-90s. Many a Sunday School class sat through films like Hell's Bells and Hollywood: Lights, Camera Blasphemy! – scathing attacks on both rock music and the Hollywood film industry, labeling them as tools of Satan. Tyler flips the script and says movies are in the eye of the beholder. The viewer chooses what they get out of something. Look for evil, and you will find evil. Look for God in everything, and God will be found.

Release info: Rent or buy on Vimeo here or stream on the ReDiscover Television platform.

Final score: 4 out of 5