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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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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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 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.

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Occultober – Day 15 – Suspiria

Suspiria
When most people think of Dario Argento’s delirious candy-coloured 1977 masterpiece, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t normally the occult. It isn’t the witches hiding within the European dance school, the specific powers held by The Mother Of Sighs (aka Mater Suspiriorum) or even the possibility that those powers were assumed by the young American student who defeats the coven leader in the end.

No, what most people immediately bring to mind is the gorgeous style of the film: the Lite-Brite infused cinematography, the tension of the great prog-rock soundtrack by Goblin (essentially Argento’s “house band” for several films) and the onset of a slow burn of an LSD trip. It’s the kind of movie that is praised for each of its film frames possessing the ability to be framed separately as a piece of art. People rhapsodize about its numerous set pieces – like the early hanging that crashes through a glass ceiling or the discovery of the coven towards the end of the film – as well as its many finely crafted images that stick with you (a set of eyes at the window, an invisible shape framed by lightning, etc.). None of it seems to make much sense, but it doesn’t have to…

First of all, the nonsensical nature of the movie just adds to the creep factor. From that first blast of wind as the American student leaves the airport all the way to the last burning embers of the school, there’s an unsettling feeling to this movie. Each new Skittles coloured scene and every “why is there a room filled with barbed wire?” moment just adds to that sense that something is obviously askew here. Which gets us back to that coven of witches…

The supernatural is at play throughout the whole film – it controls the students, commands guide dogs and allows just about anything to happen. And that’s what a good supernatural/occult thriller should do – make you slightly uncomfortable and unsure about everything around you. The genius of Suspiria isn’t its narrative or tale of sorceresses. It’s the ability to make you look at those still frames and, even if just for a second, worry that The Mother Of Sighs might come right out and get you.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 – A Preview

 

As I’ve mentioned before, the Toronto After Dark film festival is quite close to my heart…I was there at its birth in 2006 and have attended every single one of its birthday parties since – whether it was in the old or new Bloor Cinemas, the Toronto Underground or in its recent digs at the Scotiabank. Every year has had its share of great and good films (and yes, a few not so great ones too) as well as memorable moments like the Funky Forest screening, the storm that blew out a projector, the Black Dynamite screening, the after after-parties, closing down Pauper’s Pub every night, and some damn fine Q&As by directors who are genuinely excited to be there.

Even though just about every film festival that has ever existed says “this will be our biggest year ever!”, all signs certainly point to this being a big one in the history of Toronto After Dark. With just a few days to go before the festival kicks off (it runs from Oct. 16-24 and screens 19 feature length films and 28 shorts), there are already 3 sell-outs and, according to their web site, apparently another 3 about to sell out. Good news for the fest to be sure, but not too surprising when you look at their lineup (all trailers can be viewed from the festival’s schedule page):

 

Thursday October 16th

TAD2014Housebound

 

Housebound – This opening night film from New Zealand promises a haunted house set of thrills. Apparently it can back up that claim with an award from another festival as well as numerous good reviews floating around. I haven’t seen a really good haunted house movie in a while, so I’m pretty psyched for this opener and expect the fest will kick off with a rollicking crowd pleaser.

Suburban Gothic – Described as a “ghost-hunting horror comedy”, this could go either way – specifically because of the two words “horror” and “comedy” being put together. Oh sure there have been plenty of good ones, but if the director and cast can’t hit the proper tones, it can all fall apart. The cast looks pretty solid, and since TAD has been pretty good at kicking their festival off strongly, I’ll stay on the optimistic side for this evening.

 

Friday October 17th

Hellmouth – A portal to hell horror starring Stephen McHattie? Sign me up! Written by Tony Burgess of Pontypool fame? I’m doubly excited! Wait…Didn’t Burgess also write last year’s abysmal (at least in my opinion) Septic Man? OK, let’s call it even and just say I’m singly excited…

 

TAD2014ABCsOfDeath2

 

ABCs Of Death 2 – I’m a big fan of horror anthology films, so the first ABCs Of Death sounded like manna from heaven. Turned out to be a mixed bag of Halloween treats – mostly of that crappy candy corn variety. To be fair, there were several really strong stories and rumour has it that this second installment has much more quality control on it and an even more interesting list of directors.

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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 naiveté 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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