Occultober – Day 31 – The Exorcist

The Exorcist
What more can be said about the undisputed big-daddy of possession horror? The mega-hit that has endured decades, in fact it is still scary as hell; movie magic at its most fine. I won’t belabour the quality of the film, but if you haven’t seen it on the big screen with an audience, you should really get on that.

When young Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) starts behaving very, very oddly, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) enlists the help of a young priest (Jason Miller) and an old priest (Max Von Sydow) to do battle with the demon inside the child. Vomit is spewed, there is masturbation with a crucifix, rattling and levitating beds, near-subliminal devil-imagery, and anything else shocking that wunderkind filmmaker William Friedkin can throw out at the camera. For my money, the sequence where Regan gets a carotid angiography in the hospital, which is shot as realistic as possible, might be the most difficult to watch.

The legacy of The Exorcist is huge, not only the sequels, and lesser knock-offs, but also in terms of kickstarting (with help from Rosemary’s Baby) by way of the huge financial success, the entire occult subgenre in the 1970s, which more than likely planted the seeds in the cultural consciousness for the Satanic Panic hysterias of the 1980s and 1990s. Amongst other things, was an indirect cause behind the West Memphis 3 miscarriage of justice. It was the basis and the tipping point for this series which ran the entire month.

We hope you enjoyed.

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Occultober – Day 30 – The Omen

The Omen
T he ultimate film in the ‘demon seed’ subgenre, has the son of Satan being adopted by an American ambassador to Britain, played by a greying Gregory Peck. Even as a child, this baby-faced anti-christ is willing to exert supernatural influence to murder in the pursuit of grabbing power. The Omen was directed by Richard Donner, just prior to him landing the Superman gig and coming off decades churning out TV episodes in all genres. It was one of many films that made a play to ride the coattails of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Marginally less exploitive than Michael Winner’s gonzo freakshow, The Sentinel, but not afraid of graphic imagery, and disturbing juxtapositions; for instance a woman hangs herself at a children’s birthday party in one scene.

Shadowy satanist organizations, American political powers, and everyones favourite villain David Warner (here playing a shaggy haired photographer who figures out the truth), Rottweiler and Baboon attacks, the mark of the devil 666, and a creepy performance from child actor Harvey Spencer Stephens insured that The Omen was a huge success at the time. Even at the Oscars, it won prolific composer Jerry Goldsmith his only Oscar. The film spawned many sequels (bringing actor Sam Neill over from New Zealand to Hollywood in the process) and a 2006 remake, as well as a plethora of homages. including the church steeple kill in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.

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Occultober – Day 29 – Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby
A film that has stood the test of time better than most, Roman Polanski’s second film focusing on a woman slowly devolving into hysteria (the first being Repulsion), the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 is paramount in the rise of the modern incarnation occult film in the 1970s. This is patient, if not entirely subtle filmmaking that also mark the vibe of the decade to follow.

In the first few moments of the film, there are enough portent signs and signifiers and waiting for the eventual reveal is a painful kind of bliss with only the soothing balm of Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer’s performances, both goofy and slick (respectfully). I find it difficult to find fault with this rather unique approach, and the whole proceedings have a hell of a capstone.

But really, the first 15 minutes of the film is where it is at. That ‘seeking’ pan across the New York City skyline set to an off-kilter lullaby version of Que Sera Sera. Score rather than song is absent the lyrics and inspires dread rather than hope, but the question is nevertheless, “when I was just a little girl, I asked my mother what I would be…” The answer, is apparently the mother of Satan. If Doris Day can belt that song out in Hitchcock’s , surely it can be subverted here as an anthem for the woman who knew too little, too late.

I took a huge amount of pleasure in noir-staple character actor Elisha Cook Jr. fastidiously showing off the grand old apartment (of spook central) to the young married couple. His question – and the first actual line of dialogue in the film – is whether John Cassavetes’ character is a Doctor or an Actor. The film will feature many doctors (and more than a few midwives) who are indeed more actors than doctors. A stray scrap of paper is shown belonging to the former, quite deceased, owner of the apartment whose last act was to block a closet door on the thin shared wall of her creepy and nosy neighbors with a heavy wardrobe. It reads “I can no longer associate myself.” Perhaps a hint of Mia Farrow’s soon-to-be overwhelming paranoia and powerlessness. A magazine cover will later query, “Is God Dead?” Never has a film so front-loaded its purpose only to then draw out and tease the audience for nearly two hours as surely as Farrow’s body (and hairdo) slowly withers away. But then that kicker of a climax is as surprising as it is inevitable. This is Cinema of Masochism made with exquisite craft – and so many great Polanski films would follow.

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Occultober – Day 28 – The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror
There’s something about those 70s horror films – the steady creep, the look and feel of their surroundings and, as exemplified by the original The Amityville Horror, the pace. This particular film grabs you early and then ever so gradually reels you in with only a very few slow spots (e.g. that sex scene between James Brolin and Margot Kidder went on a bit longer than I was comfortable with…). And to be honest, not much happens for most of the movie…But it still manages to keep you just a little bit nervous throughout and always waiting for the next incident. It’s that compounded and built-up dread that is almost its own reward and forces an engagement with the story and characters. It also hopefully pays off towards the end…In this case, the ending sort of gets away from the film a bit and it sputters just when it should be vrooming, but when a movie can build the tension this well (and throw in a bleeding stairway too), that can be forgiven.

After its release, the movie became the largest grossing independent film ever and held the record for a good 4-5 years afterwards. Short of the lovely job it does in building up that fear throughout, the reasons are pretty obvious. The film (and its book) purport to be about a “true story” of a family living in a possessed house which tries to make them leave (“GET OUT!!”). The occult was certainly a trendy thing at the time and with a storyline that feels so relatable (big rambling old houses do seem rather spooky…), you can understand how word of mouth spread as many people wondered if their own house’s bumps and creaks during the night may be similarly attributable to restless spirits and demons.

I put off seeing this box office winner until just recently as I had always assumed it would be a fairly tedious affair with much mumbo-jumbo. Instead it’s quite intriguing…And though there certainly is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo spewed (with a whole lot of gusto from both Rod Steiger and Helen Shaver), just like many of the occult practices and beliefs, it’s all in service of tightening its grip on its audience. Not so great if that’s done to suck in unsuspecting people to believe in demonic acts, but perfect for a horror movie.

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Occultober – Day 27 – Lemora: A Child’s Tale Of The Supernatural

Lemora: A Child’s Tale Of The Supernatural
The full title of the film is the key to its real meaning (and is much more accurate than the straight up horror title Lady Dracula that it is also known as). The supernatural is certainly afoot in the movie, but this is a young girl’s viewpoint and it’s her own impression as to what the temptations and changes are that she is facing as she moves towards womanhood and how they manifest themselves. Though not quite as gorgeous and creative as something like the amazing Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders was in depicting a teenage girl’s whirlwind of life changes or as scary and bloody as that same aspect is depicted in Ginger Snaps, Lemora does bring a dreamlike, slightly off-kilter feel to the story of the very sheltered and religious 13 year-old Lila.

She leaves her hometown after receiving a cryptic letter from a woman named Lemora asking her to come see her sick father. He had recently run off without a trace after murdering his wife and her lover. On the way there, she experiences a creepy bus trip, sees ghoulish creatures chasing them and witnesses a battle between those ghouls and a group of cloaked dracula-like beings after the bus breaks down. After passing out, she ends up at Lemora’s house and winds up being kept in a cell. She is eventually welcomed inside the proper house after being told the cell was to protect her from what was outside – not to keep her inside. Lemora, though extremely pale and with dead eyes (possibly just a side-effect of her terribly wooden acting), claims that after a ceremony the following day she will be able to see her diseased father. Lila is swept up in the witch-like Lemora’s promises, but when she catches her sucking the blood from a young boy, the jig appears to be up…

The blood-like wine, the blue moonlit nights and the danger that seems to be everywhere around her all serve as stand-ins for Lila’s confusion over her changing body and the number of choices she now has as a growing young lady. Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, who became quite the B-movie queen, is very good as the young Lila and perfectly captures that transition from innocence to awakening. The film ran afoul of many Catholic groups for its immoral attributes (a lecherous priest, implied lesbianism, Lila’s fall from grace, etc.), but seems to have found traction with many film fans. Go ahead and give in to the temptation…

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Occultober – Day 26 – Şeytan

Şeytan
Turkey has a long history of ripping off and shoddily remaking American Blockbusters from the 1970s and 1980s. Titles range from Star Wars to E.T. to Superman to Predator, and the Turkish versions are cult oddities (for those who like watching ineptness of the highest order) in part due their Hollywood counterparts are big budget blockbusters with some of the best filmmaking talent behind them. By comparison, these remakes can only be seen as shoddy product to be consumed by less critical local filmgoers with only vague notions of the original films.

Şeytan was released in 1974, and while it doesn’t follow exactly the plot of William Friedkin’s masterpiece, The Exorcist it borrows the floating bed, the turning head, and many other images. Of course it all looks a bit silly if you don’t have enough talent to get past the threshold of suspension of disbelief. A young girl named Gul, from a well off family in Istanbul plays with an Ouija Board, gets possessed by Satan and requires a psychiatrist and a priest to set her soul free. Silly special effects and hysterical over-acting ensue.

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Occultober – Day 25 – The Devil’s Mark

Mark of The Devil
This rather graphic German exploitation film from 1970 stars Herbert Lom and a very young Udo Kier as witchfinders wandering the Austrian countryside looking to root out the work of Satan. Much like Vincent Price in Witchfinder General (or The Spanish Inquisition in general) people in this position of power generally get out of control, become selfish and are worse (or at least as bad) as the monsters they are trying to root out.

The Mark of the Devil is quite famous seriously getting its jolly’s in torturing suspected witches. It’s not for the faint of heart, but there is a fair bit of talent behind the production to not write it completely off.

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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.

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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.

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