Trailer: Last Days In The Desert

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Visually splendid, but by the feel of this trailer, also seemingly facile and dunderheaded, Ewan McGregor plays Jesus and Satan in a story of The Christ’s temptation in Last Days In The Desert. Cinematographer turned director, Rodrigo García (Thing You Can Tell By Looking At Her, Mother And Child) tells a story Jesus in an imagined chapter from his 40 days of fasting and praying in the desert, which will likely evoke memories of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 classic, with Willem DaFoe in the lead role. On his way out of the wilderness, he struggles with the Devil over the fate of an ordinary family in crisis, setting for himself a dramatic test with distinctly human conflicts.

Tye Sheridan, Ciarán Hinds and Ayelet Zurer also star in the film that got a pretty low-key response coming out of Sundance 2015. The film will be released in May 2016.

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 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 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 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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Occultober – Day 12 – Paradise Lost 1

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
The West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were positive proof that the “Satanic Panic” that held 1980s America looking behind every corner for Ritual Abuse of children did not fade away completely with the end of that decade. In Arkansas in 1993 three very young boys were murdered in a grisly fashion and their bodies disposed of in a forested gully just off the highway. A year later, with the full weight of law enforcement and the local judiciary, the blame was placed on the shoulders of three other boys, themselves all under 18, with no hard evidence.

The victims were hog-tied and left in a ditch, for animals to chew on, but by the time the corpses were discovered, it certainly looked like some kind of ritualistic mutilation to the local law enforcement in need of a quick closure on the crime due to the young age of the boys. So, they grabbed a pair of kids that listened to Metallica, wore black, and occasionally checked Aleister Crowley from the library along with another that had an IQ so low, it was almost debilitating.

The resulting miscarriage of justice, botched police work, eccentric members of the community and other bits of true crime drama were captured by an HBO crew, and the appeals process went on for 17 years.

The first part in a trilogy of documentaries (more to come in this space for the next few days) is horrifying, engrossing, and illuminating all at the same time as the filmmakers become more and more involved in the trial.

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