Occultober – Day 21 – The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead
Bound in human flesh and inked in human blood, the iconic Necronomicon – The Book of the Dead – is the source of releasing some sort of demon from hell in the debut film from Sam Raimi in 1981.

Not as overtly occult as some of the others on this list, nevertheless, the original ‘cabin in the woods’ picture has become a sub-genre of sorts, spawned a few sequels and a soulless glossy remake, influenced horror culture and video games alike. A bunch of 20-somethings rent a remote cabin, read a a demonic text, and are picked off and possessed by the aggressive spirits in the woods that look a lot like a POV from a camera mounted on a dirt bike. Innovative camera work aside, do not underestimate the purity of The Evil Dead. It scratched an itch that needed to be scratched in the early 1980s coming off a rash of drive-in satanism horror films, and against all odds got a theatrical release that launched a pretty formidable career in hollywood, from Dark Man to Spider Man to A Simple Plan. And the lead actor with the memorable chin, Bruce Campbell, became a cult genre icon who has published several books and regularly tours the Comic-con circuit.

Goopy, goofy, and kind of groty, the film stands up pretty well today, barring the shockingly vulgar tree-rape in the middle. It’s always worth a look, even if the more overtly hilarious sequel, 1984’s Evil Dead II, is a wee bit more satisfying.

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Occultober – Day 20 – Santa Sangre

Santa Sangre
Circuses, swimming pools of blood, mind control and amputee-ism are but a few of the striking elements on display in Alejandro Jodorowski’s late 1980s picture, Santa Sangre. Of course, many of those elements figure into his previous pictures, all of which have healthy doses of surreal and religious imagery (and amputees).

Because the film doesn’t offer itself to easy synopsis, I refer to Wikipedia for the first five minutes of the film:

Concha is the leader of a religious cult that considers, as its patron saint, a little girl who was raped and had her arms cut off by two brothers. Their church is about to be bulldozed at the behest of the owner of the land, and the followers make one last stand against the police and the bulldozers. A Roman Catholic monsignor drives into the conflict, saying that he will prevent its demolition, but after he enters the temple to inspect it he deems it blasphemous and unworthy (the girl worshipped is no saint, he says, and the supposed pool of “holy blood” at the center of the edifice contains just red paint), so the demolition is carried out. Fenix leads Concha back to the circus, where she finds out about Orgo’s affair, but Orgo, being also a hypnotist, puts Concha in a trance and has sex with her.

Suffice it to say, Santa Sangre is dense but carries itself with a sense of large-scale filmmaking and wonderful production design. It is unabashedly vulgar and full of human oddities (being only a hairs-breadth less exploitive than yesterday’s The Sentinel) and is cast with a veritable host of the director’s offspring. There are lots of arms severed, and the most morbid take on the old comedy-gag of having one person stand behind another and be their ‘arms.’ I cannot say much more, just go out and watch it, because, in its own fashion, this is Jodorowski’s most accessible film.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Hellmouth

 

Ubiquitous character actor Stephen McHattie is always a pleasure to see up on the big screen. From supporting roles in Hollywood films like The Fountain, Watchmen and A History of Violence, to central performances in indie Canadian productions like the criminally underrated Pontypool, and now John Geddes’ Hellmouth. At 67, there are entire lifetimes written on his face, even as the rest of him remains lean and spry. McHattie is a conundrum, seemingly young and ancient at the same time, and is perfect here as the reluctant Charlie Baker, caretaker of his own personal abyss. Given more than three quarters of the script to himself in the film, his quivering yet authoritative gravelly voice is beyond reproach. If all of the artifice in the green screen CGI around him, is not entirely as engrossing as the man standing in front of it, it mostly is in service of the lead character, and that is miracle enough these days.

“Keep this box within 10 feet of you, at all times.” An instruction that several characters keep giving Charlie Baker, but it is more of a state of mind than a direct order. Having worked all of his life as a grave digger and maintenance man in a remote (and digital-backlot stylized) cemetery, Baker is minutes from retirement and still worried about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s regarding the local vandals might be moving around the tombstones in the cemetery. The ensuing countdown is wrought with both humiliation and diffidence that the film might be also called “About Soavi” (that is, for fans of Dellamorte Dellamore). The box is given to him by his overbearing employer, as he browbeats Baker into ‘one more job.’ As much as it is a literal object, the box is his lonely trapped career, his spent life and impending death.

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Occultober – Day 19 – The Sentinel

The Sentinel
Clearly designed as a studio knock-off with the intent of ‘raising-the-bar’ on the horror of both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, with Death Wish helmer Micheal Winner bringing a puerile trash-factor to the proceedings, The Sentinel is not lacking in crazy moments. From being over-cast to the point of ludicrousness (characters played by Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Jose Ferrer, Eli Wallach, and Jerry Orbach add very little to the story considering their star power), to dress-up parties for cats, to graphic onscreen masturbation, to using bonafide disfigured people to represent the minions of satan. The film has it all if you are looking for an exploitive bit of insensitivity to just about, well, everyone.

Allison Parker (Cristina Raines), a young fashion model looking for her own apartment in New York City, stumbles across the best deal in town, an spacious, fully furnished brownstone in Brooklyn with a wicked view. A gracefully aging Ava Gardner is her realtor in a small role.

In short order, Allison discovers the place has some of the craziest inhabitants in the city, including a ghoulish priest that does nothing but stare out the window, some crazy ballerinas and a chatty old fellow (Burgess Meredith, fantastic) who is never seen without a bird on his shoulder, and a pussy cat in his arms. These downsides she discovers over the course of a punishing several weeks culminate in an increasing series of feinting spells, flashbacks to her suicidal teenage years, and hallucinations of naked old men wandering into her bedroom. As they pile up, her lawyer boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) not only seems useless at helping her cope, but might even be in league with all of the crazy people. Everyone in her current state of reality seems hell-bent (literally) on terrorizing her, except a younger priest (John Carradine) who looks over the elderly priest in the attic, and has some longterm plans for Alison.

The Sentinel culminates in a whopper of a climax, that is as nutty as anything ever put on film in the 1970s, and that is saying something. In other words, the film is never boring.
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Occultober – Day 18 – Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut
The password is “Fidelio.”

This might be a stretch, but there is no denying the visual and sonic power of the super-elite secret society meeting that is at the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s final film masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut. Naked women are bathed in incense smoke before pairing off for frenzied sexual encounters for the viewing pleasure of grey-haired and Venetian masked ‘Illuminati’ in a massive New York Estate mansion.

This is only one incident in a night filled with so many potential sexual encounters and prostitution oddities, that the phrase ‘dream-logic’ is often applied when describing the experience. But then again, everything looks stranger and sexier at night. Most especially so for the state of Dr. Bill (Tom Cruise) just after told by his wife (Nicole Kidman) in an evenings indulgence with marijuana, that she almost ended their relationship years ago solely from sexual heat generated by merely a glance of a passing naval officer – and this while on holiday with their baby girl. While there is nothing overtly (or concretely) occult about Eyes Wide Shut, the whole film emanates a paranoid ‘other-ness’ of a man un-moored from what he thought was his perfect life. It has that ‘everyone is watching me’ conspiracy feel that is generated so effectively in classic Satan-pictures like Race With The Devil and Rosemary’s Baby. You’re not paranoid, Tom Cruise, if they’re really following you.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Housebound

 

As horror comedies go, I cannot think of a better one in the past 5 years than Kiwi directed Housebound. Not only is the film impressively shot and written, but the overall attention to production design and geography is a marvel. The film’s primary location, an old suburban mansion (evocative of the manor-home in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive) we get to explore from the inside out as characters are often crawling through the walls and ceilings, as well as snooping around the property outside. It is a safe bet that somewhere director Gerard Johnstone has a sheaf of graph papers with all the measurements. For a first time filmmaker, to direct with this kind of confidence in both the film language, twisty plotting, well timed character reveals, and a love of call-backs, is a sure sign of a major up and coming talent. He even nails some tricky emotional beats late in the film which give the otherwise manic film, a bit of heart.

Bad girl, Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is first seen knocking off an ATM vestibule with her less than competent partner and some home made explosives. The botched job (and lengthy petty crime rap-sheet) lands her in a prolonged house arrest with her busy-body prattling mother and her spacey step-father. After the security company straps the electronic bracelet to her ankle, she cannot leave the house for any reason without risking landing in prison. Kylie is used to running away from her problems, but here she is stuck, with only a couple TV channels, and god-forbid, dial-up internet, so this is flat out torture, which she is more than happy to take out her pain on everyone around her.

A great set up, both for a haunted house movie and a riff on Rear Window. Admittedly the latter was done before with the mildly shitty Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia, but Housebound is playing far more on the plate of character-based territory of Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, with a dollop of Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs and a soupçon of The Innkeepers. That Johnstone is well versed in the cues and beats of these types of films, and is willing to exploit them for laughs and legit horror makes things also run in the same ultra-fun circles as Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. The difference is that Raimi was a master-craftsman when he made that 2009 film as kind of a lark executed with precise editing skill, where this is Johnstone busting right out of the gate fully formed. To wit: the tension and comedy mileage he gets out of a character simply taking a piss (or holding a tape recorder) and you will know what I mean.

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Occultober – Day 17 – Prince of Darkness

Prince Of Darkness
Perhaps John Carpenter’s most underrated film, Prince of Darkness deals with both the catholic church and quantum theory in equal measure. While it doesn’t really sweat the details in either department, there is a sustained mood in the film, most embodied by a piece of video footage, possibly sent from the future as a warning. In this interlaced, very fuzzy video, which also doubles as a kind of collective, recurring dream for many of the characters, you see a dark shape, thought to be the anti-christ, coming out of a rather nondescript Los Angeles church, which happens to the principle location of the film.

A team of scientists (comprised of pretty much all of Carpenter’s stock players of the 1980s, sans Kurt Russell) is investigating the origin of a mysterious green fluid in the basement of this church. The beginning of the film is all bustle as the work-group carts in instruments, and has discussions in the hallways. But sinister, very supernatural craziness starts happening, and perhaps the border between earth and hell is breached.

It’s a doozy.

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Occultober – Day 14 – Paradise Lost 3

Paradise Lost: Purgatory
The third West Memphis 3 documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky was made in 2011. This was now 18 years after the three young children were killed and hog-tied in a ditch on the side of the road in small-town Arkansas. While the filmmakers were diligently following the legal proceedings, and coming to grips that John Mark Byers, as tantalizingly over-the-top as a suspect, was really not guilty, some DNA testing was performed and in some degree disputed the guilt of Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin of the crime.

Before another appeals trial could be put together, the state of Arkansas offered a plea deal allowing them to go free, but they had to agree to be ‘guilty’ and not further press legal charges of their own for wrongful prosecution. All of this happened just as Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was about to debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, and thus, the whole trilogy had an ending of sorts which contradicted the ‘Purgatory’ subtitle.

The third part in the chapter is more of a summation of everything to date, with apologies to John Mark Byers, and a focus on another suspect, Terry Hobbs, a different step-father one of the three murdered boys. The film is not as aggressive as the second one, and lacks focus, often is too repetitive. I do not necessarily recommend watching the trilogy in a single binge, or you will be a bit frustrated with these repetitions.

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Occultober – Day 13 – Paradise Lost 2

Paradise Lost: Revelations
The second documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky on the West Memphis Three was made seven years after the three young children were killed and hog-tied in a ditch on the side of the road. This follow-up, taking place in the middle of the lengthy legal appellate process, is one of the most emotionally powerful movies ever made. It’s power comes at the expense of any kind of objective reality, however, as the filmmakers set out to make a very strong case against one of the victims’ step-father, John Mark Byers. Cherry picking evidence, simultaneously inflating importance of things while deflating others, the filmmakers fall exactly into the trap that they accuse the community and law-enforcement in their first film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

Here we get to see Byers perform (apparently whacked out on mediation) for the camera. He spits fire and brimstone, give church sermons and raise holy hell against the convicted teenagers Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. Meanwhile, Damien Echols, who got by far the most media attention of the three, has matured considerably on death-row for 6 years, and is far more articulate to the camera. Equal parts regretful of his naivetĂ© during the original trial and grateful of the support of activists, celebrities, and others on the outside who are helping his legal team make sense of all the evidence – or lackthereof in terms of ‘reasonable doubt.’

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