Written by Kendall Clark
Directed by Darin Scott
Megachurch Murder is a pretty keen take on Hamlet played in the world of church politics, complete with a ton of Shakespeare references tossed in. Hannah Spears (Shanica Knowles) is our Hamlet, her father, Hamilton Spears (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), winds up mysteriously dead, and the new church leader both announces a massive expansion of the church and also moves in on Hamilton’s widow, Martha Spears (Tamala Jones).
It’s important to note that Shaker Point, the church, is not a megachurch. The megachurch is the concept that new church leader Clay King (Michael Beach) proposes after his ascent to power. He’s supported by his son Marcus King (Corbin Bleu), while black sheep son Oliver King (Romeo Miller) is assigned to look after Hannah. Hannah has not taken her father’s death well, as highlighted by her showing up drunk to the church service that announces the expansion and ranting at the audience about disrespecting her father’s memory. No one takes Hannah seriously due to her constant drunken state (even Hannah), until she discovers a flash drive with a video message from Hamilton Spears to her detailing the shady goings on in the church leadership, and how he fears he’s in danger. But that drunk Hannah spills her wine all over the flash drive, meaning she has to enlist her computer-savy friend Harlow Gillman (Santana Dempsey ) to recover the message, which will take most of the film.
While that waits, Hannah tips her hand a few times with her suspicions, leading Clay to target her for elimination. Marcus’s scheme to drug her fails (Hannah has decided to remain sober during her investigation, but only pretend to be drunk so no one suspects her, thus she doesn’t ingest anything), and his attempts to grab her in church in front of her mother causes Hannah to fight back and Marcus to fall to his death off the balcony. At this point Hannah’s mom Martha suspects Clay knows more than he’s letting on about Hamilton’s death, and soon all the Spears and King family members are confronting each other on a bridge, and they all won’t get out alive (Though the body count is a bit lower than in actual Hamlet!)
Megachurch Murder does some things very very well, and some things ridiculously weird. The adaptation of Hamlet is fantastic, they even factor in the ghost in a non-terrible way. Hamilton’s ghost appears briefly as a vision to the drunk Hannah, and then as the message in the flash drive. Addressing the church audience allows the characters to give some soliloquies without things getting too weird. That doesn’t mean characters will randomly go off on tangents where they start over-dramatizing things. The biggest offender is Romeo Miller, who is chewing the crap out of the scenery during the finale on the bridge, which was a big contrast to his usual laid back performance. There were plenty of fun name references – it takes place in Denmark, Georgia. The church is called Shaker Point and Hamilton Spears is the pastor. The villains are the King family, as the villain in Hamlet was the king. There is even pseudo-Rosencrantz and Guildensterns with the two youth pastors Marcus enlists to drug Hannah (via blackmail in exposing their gay love affair.)
I grew up in black churches, so this was a nice little flashback to my youth. Malcolm-Jamal Warner plays a good charismatic preacher, and the film is poorer for how little he’s in it. And, yes, there is plenty of church politics going on in whatever sized church you have. The Shakespeare translation fits in well and is a novel take on the tale. Another actor who appears far too little was Dawnn Lewis, who plays a choir leader who doesn’t care for Clay King’s new direction and just leaves. But her being a voice not going along with the chorus following King gives Hannah enough of a boost to carry on. Once Martha Spears begins to suspect Clay, she appears to be barely holding together. She’s willing to believe his tales of how it’s just a big misunderstanding and it was all Marcus’s fault because she’s desperate to believe a scenario that isn’t the worst.
While not featuring the tragedy exploitation of many of the Lifetime films, Megachurch Murder kept my attention better than most because it was a unique take on a classic story. So many things aligned perfectly that the flaws became easy to ignore and you get swept up until the ending, wondering if the tragic ending of Hamlet will get played out as well. As a movie is a success when it makes you want to watch it, Megachurch Murder more than meets that criteria. It’s also the first movie I’ve seen with “Mega-” in the title that didn’t have a giant monster or natural disasters.
Rated 7/10 (maybe ghost, dinosaur sweater, church hat, evidence drive, random robot head, stylized pastor, Jesus in glass form)
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