Occultober – Day 24 – Hellraiser

Hellraiser
Clive Barker’s original 1987 film Hellraiser trades in extreme images of sadomasochism and gore. A man discovers a puzzle-box, and upon solving it, opens a gateway to some kind of hell, where the locals (colloquially known as the Cenobites) seem to get off on having human flesh rended by fishing hooks on long linked chains. The film is one of extreme pain, and extreme sexual desire, but it is neither erotic, nor particularly scary. It’s a odd duck, really, one more of vulgarity masquerading as terror. In that regard, it has aged particularly well.

Part Twilight Zone, part Grand Guignol, Hellraiser’s chief images are its mascot, “Pinhead” and his fellow angels of pain, all of which have meticulous and interesting costume design and make-up, but fall just short of being actually scary. More compelling is the man with the puzzle-box who uses his ex-girlfriend to bring him flesh to rebuild his corporeal body and escape from hell. This offers again, some pretty spectacular make-up that is as much ‘anatomy class’ as it is icky.

The film has spawned countless sequels, graphic novels and other ancillary media, but still has never achieved any kind of mainstream success beyond the gore hounds and other curators of 1980s eccentricities. Those who like it, seem to like it a lot, for me the experience is simply baffling.

Would you like to know more…?

Occultober – Day 23 – The Serpent And The Rainbow

The Serpent And The Rainbow
“Don’t let them bury me…I’m not dead!” Who does get a slight chill when they consider the idea of being though dead and put into the earth still conscious? Wes Craven delivers a lot of exotic-sploitation in the 1988 voodoo-psychological horror picture, The Serpent And The Rainbow. The film is loosely based on the exploits of ethnobotanist Wade Davis, a man who by his own account was ‘turned into a zombie’ and recovered from the experience.

Looking for a ‘natural anesthesia’ for big Pharma, Dennis Alan bounces around in the Amazon jungle, eventually landing in Haiti, where he tries to buy a potent powder from a voodoo priest. Instead he is captured by the paramilitary officers and tortured before being kicked out of the country. But his persistence gets himself back into Port au Prince, for the ‘full experience’ of the powder, which culminates in a trip into his own madness.

Craven layers on a plethora of WTF moments and crazy imagery, mainly because portions of the film take place in Alan’s nightmares — coming off A Nightmare On Elm Street, it becomes clear why Wes got the directing job from Universal Studios after Peter Weir passed on it. In the full Sam Raimi sense, it certainly tortures the hell out of a very game Bill Pullman who is very convincing in the Indiana Jones-esque lead role. In a hollywood kind of co-incidence, Pullman also played a Han Solo character in Mel Brooks Spaceballs which came out within the year of the release of The Serpent And The Rainbow, but of course, has a much less scary vibe join on.

Far from perfect, there is enough going on in The Serpent And The Rainbow to fuel more than a few nightmares for those who discover this forgotten, slightly-unpolished gem.

Would you like to know more…?

Occultober – Day 22 – Witching And Bitching

Witching And Bitching
Indulge me with Álex de la Iglesia’s gender warfare picture, Witching and Bitching. A coven of witches captures a gang of robbers and proceeds to emasculate them in their lair. The film leans far more towards comedy than any sort of occult terror, but the devil is in the detailsl

The film features the small town of Zugarramurdi, world famous as one of the central European hubs of Witchcraft, and judging by the local bar in the film, the townsfolk are none to shy about hiding things. The key witches are played three generations established actresses who, besides being semi-regulars for this director, often appear in Pedro Almodovar films. The film is batshit crazy and shows not an ounce of restraint, anywhere, but man oh man, it’s worth it for the opening heist involving a silver painted Jesus with a shotgun and a compact getaway car.

The real Basque-region locals are all extras in the big action-set piece climax which might be a tad heavy on CGI (at times resembling the Matrix sequels with all its complex wire-work) but makes wonderful use of Zugarramurdi’s spectacular witch-caves (“The Devil has no tail, but his pussy is like a cave”) and features enough practical location work to evoke everything from Peter Jackson’s Braindead to Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances. Like those films, there is a manic energy on display co-existing with a reverence for the tiniest details in any given scene. The sense of escalation achieved is a marvellous thing.

It’s a lark, but don’t let that stop you.

Would you like to know more…?

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.

Would you like to know more…?

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.

Would you like to know more…?

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.
Would you like to know more…?

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.

Would you like to know more…?

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.

Would you like to know more…?

Occultober – Day 16 – House Of The Devil

House Of The Devil
As with yesterday’s look at Suspiria, Ti West’s break out film could be viewed as an exercise in style. Pure 70s horror film style. From its opening freeze-frame credits through the loooooong build-up of tension, the movie quite deliberately calls to mind the aesthetic of many occult thrillers and slow burn horror films of the Me Decade. But it’s more than that…

Many fans of the film put an asterisk on their love for it – ie. “It’s great…*except for the last 20 minutes”. The complaint is that the movie throws away its devotion to the 70s films (the grain seems less and the colours seem richer in this last section) and goes for the gusto with a sudden switch to more gory scenes and a straight up reading of the title. I would argue that West quenches the thirst derived from stretching the tension and does so in a novel and eye-popping fashion. If the sacrificial ceremony isn’t wholly unexpected, it certainly is handled with aplomb (and how great was the casting of Tom Noonan?) and the film ends with a perfect dark, devil-worshipping, oh-you-thought-you-were-safe moment that also recalls occult and horror films of the past. But again, the movie is more than that…

The real strength of House Of The Devil is its characters – in particular its main character Samantha. You could apply most of the standard qualities of horror movie final girls to her – plucky, cute, virginal (if you’re going to target someone for a sacrifice…) – but the best quality of her character is that you can feel empathy for her. So as the dread starts in (especially around the time she is bopping around the house to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another”), you begin to feel anxious for her. And so you become invested in the outcome of the film.

And that’s why this movie works like gangbusters.

Would you like to know more…?