Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CinemArchetype #5: The Human Sacrifice

"To the primitive mind, good and evil, life and death are in the nature of materialistic qualities capable of transference or expulsion by quasi-mechanical operations... Sacrifice then is the normal means of transferring life and power to mortal deities to keep them vigorous and beneficent."- E.O. James
The innocence lost as a maiden leaps into an active volcano or a heart comes out in an Aztec human sacrifice, the ripping to shreds of a recently deflowered forest nymph boy to ensure a good harvest--where does it--the 'innocent' property--go? It's all deeply archetypal, with Jesus on the cross being the most glaring instance. The whole notion of 'he died for our sins' is deeply linked to the sacrifice of the virgin boy at harvest time in pagan matriarchies. His blood is spilled over the fields to water them with nutrients in an agrarian rendition of the sacrament. Come spring, a terrible beauty is born... again.
Bird of Paradise (1932)
In a sense the sacrifice takes the scythe swipe meant for us. But what did they use before Jesus? And what if you believe that God is dead and that someone, some... thing rules in his place? You would need to get someone else to take the fall, or worse, be forced to take the fall for someone else. Such offered lives are our candles tossed into the wind of the other, our shadow beyond the wall of mortality, and the elder gods are waiting for us to join them... but we're hoping we can just keep stalling it by tossing more virgins on the fire. Don't say it doesn't happen, because it does, but then again they don't have to be virgins, sometimes debauched libertines are just as useful. And according to David Icke, virgin really just mean child. It got translated wrong over the aeons.

The (symbolic / mythic) killing of these virgins, children, and debauched libertines serves many purposes --I would argue they need not die in the traditional sense, but are wed through the process of death to the anima mundi, a bride or groom for the unseen spirit-- their perspective vanishes but is not dead, merely diffused. Sometimes it takes a few weird happenings to make them realize they are already dead, so they hang in mid-air like a cruciform beacon before finding their way back to the foot of the throne. They are death's 'test case' - we hope death will like the present of their soul, accept it as an appetizer, rather than dig right into us. But then again, according to Jung, the sacrifice isn't useful unless your ego is totally wrapped up in the sacrificial object/person. That's why Abraham was expected to kill his son, or Wally Lamb's brother chopped off his hand in the library, or the Yakuza still dice off their little fingers as a way of apology to their bosses for failed kills.

In the movies the sacrificial subject creates a great unease because it hits so close to home; the death is intrinsically tied into the act of viewing itself. The tribe always gathers to watch the sacrifice, otherwise what's the point? Watching these sacrifices now stirs up deep archetypal responses from our past lives still seeing through the two-way crystal ball eye. If the film is clever about it the whole process sneaks up on us and suddenly, too late to do anything about it, we feel the big black body bag suddenly close over our heads and the credits roll us right into the cremation furnace. Sometimes we're led by the nose ring of desire, sometimes we're manacled unwillingly to the Satanic altar, either way it's like a spin the bottle game where sooner or later the bottle is going to point to us... and then when it does we're always hoping for that last minute rescue and when that last minute's up we try one last gambit: take my wife, please.


1. Blood on Satan's Claw (1970)
"The Blood on Satan’s Claw dabbles in an idea The Wicker Man was to enlarge upon, transmuting the licentiousness of the hippie era into a meditation on a return to a pagan Britain based in an earthy, unfettered, inescapably corporeal creed, where bodies are the truest barometer of spirituality in substance. In a concept later stolen by movies like The Mummy (1999), Satan is literally assembled bit by bit from the pieces grown on sundry villagers, some willing converts to Angel’s cult, others innocent bystanders. Ralph’s initial discovery of the beast buried within earth releases a long-dormant yet sustained and readily infectious pagan force which seems indivisible from the scenery, and when Angel’s coven is glimpsed it comes garbed not in black cloaks and stygian paraphernalia but in nature-child garlands of flowers. The rampant miasma of sexuality sees the unholy mark spreading on the locals like the tell-tale stigmata of venereal diseases. Hayden, who gained initial stature as a horror starlet in Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) playing a respectable Victorian daughter turned into a vessel of vengeful sexuality to punish a hypocritical father, here plays the teenage girl as the embodiment of everything destructive to the settled order." (Ferdy on Films)

2. Suddenly Last Summer (1958)

"Williams' own real life sexual interests follow the Greek ideal, testifying to his profound grasp of Greek tragedy's ability to explain the cosmos in terms of rabid rentboys. With his body sacrificed to ensure the harvest, the ghost of Sebastian is free to hover over the fertile action like Poe's Lost Lenore or the dominating spirit of REBECCA. What does he look like? We don't even know, never see a picutre, and that gives the film extra power: we have to create his image for ourselves, and the only comparison would be Oscar Wilde, someone long ago from the past like that - Poe or Marquis de Sade or Anais Nin, someone too modern for their time, and who we think of as blood relatives of the terrible future. In short, ourselves." (August, 2009)

3. Bird of Paradise (1932)

This tale of a Polynesian princess Dolores Del Rio's love for hunky white man Joel McCrea is emblematic of Hollywood's fear of miscegenation. The climax involves McCrea and Dolores Del Rio escaping being sacrificed to Pele, the volcano god. But on the yacht ride back home--while McCrea's life hangs in the balance from some mysterious illness and the captain debates the horror and shame bound to strike Joel's family if he brings home this non-white girl--a deux ex machina solves the miscegenation issue for them, as Joanne Hershfield notes in Cinema Journal #37:
 "Luckily Luana's father arrives to reclaim his daughter and the crew doesn't have to make the final decision. The captain translates the king's speech for the other crew members: "The volcano curse has been put on Johnny. Unless Luana returns, Johnny will die." (...) Luana decides she must sacrifice hers to save his life; she chooses to return to the island with her people. The film's final sequence shows Luana in her royal robe and feathers climbing up toward Pele, the volcano's flames superimposed over her. It is clear that she will burn in hell for her sins... However Johnny, the white male hero, is acquitted. His male sexual potency is ultimately preserved for his family, his future progeny, the white race, and America." (p. 10-11)

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

If you've always thought the big masked orgy center of Kubrick's last film seems like much ado about nothing (i.e. tons of security for an event that's masked and barely R-rated anyway so who cares if a non-member crashes the party) and if you never quite buy the the proposed theory that the event is supposed to be stale and 'safe' to comment on desire's ultimate emptiness, then maybe you're not surprised to learn the whole 'British' cut of the orgy was just PR to distract from the deeper cuts, of footage that may have caused Kubrick's death. According to some in-the-know paranoid conspiracy theorists there was quite a lot cut from the ceremonial scenes, i.e. child sacrifice, which would bear out all the stuffy preparations for this descent into posh spice hell. Well, of course I'm talking about all those horrific visions recounted by hypnotized children in the early 1990s of rich powerful people in the throes of reptillian bloodlust at top secret black magick ceremonies torturing young girls and children to create compartmentalized split personalities through ritual trauma, debasing them and killing them and drinking their fear. According to Carlee on the Freedom from Reptilian Mind Control message board:
The reptilian-illuminati hybrids are obsessed with sexual aggression and domination, which is evidenced by their sex magic rituals. Humans are routinely taken and programmed to serve them as familiars and sex slaves; more evidence of their desire to control and "own" others. Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is probably an accurate representation of what takes place in one of these rituals. He was certainly involved with some of their circles and must have been exposed to things like this on more than a few occasions.. As a side note, he was apparently killed because he refused to cut a scene which contained subliminal triggers that were intended to break the mind-control programs of the people in the audience. Following his death, the scene was cut and never made it to the final film.

I neither believe or disbelieve such a paranoid tale, but it's pretty weird that he always got these unlimited budgets and all the time in the world to make his little movies. And it does always seem like he knows more about the cold, brutal, shiny inner workings of the world than we ever will.

5. Lindsay Lohan  and Frances Farmer

The Hollywood system preaches freedom while constraining it, and the Sacrificial Woman is their bible. In the 1930s, Farmer was driven insane and hauled off the nuthouse for daring to speak her mind and not kowtow to the dull patriarchal scoldings of law and order. Lohan, with her missed court appointments and relapses, also knows the way Hollywood exploits hot mess 'truth' even while sacrificing it on the altar of insurance premium fiction, requiring daily drug tests on the set of a movie about drugs, and/or otherwise getting mad when their actresses stop acting like gentle doormats and start breaking windows, even though if their male actors do the same thing it's just boys being 'spirited.'

This is partly due to gynophobia and partly due to the sacrificial knife always needing a victim. They hope for a Marilyn overdose to turn their creative property into dorm poster legend, but they'll settle for a public burning, the threat of the witch, the chthonic feminine symbolically scorched from the Earth so sexually frustrated housewives don't have to worry they're missing something while they outfit their cages in the latest gilding.

6. Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1997)

Nordic wunkerkind Lars Von Trier gets accused of being misogynist by people who don't know the difference between addressing an issue and championing it, and they probably think Ken Russel's The Devils is pro-Catholic. No ma'am. The women LVT nails to the crosses of his films are martyrs who harken back to the women's pictures of the 1910s-40s, films made for the most coveted demographic in an age before TV soap operas: bored housewives heading to matinees before husbands come home.

The films these women liked were masochistic tales of suffering and redemption, wherein a naive country girl follows a smooth-talking slicker (usually played by Ricardo Cortez or Monroe Owsley) into the big city, believes his lies, and immediately finds herself penniless, pregnant, and unwed, forced into a choice between prostitution or starvation. So her out-of-wedlock baby goes up for adoption and grows up to become District Attorney, and our heroine doesn't tell him she's his mother while she's on trial for murder preferring a martyr's death in the electric chair to compromising his reputation.

Those plots are long gone, but Von Trier hasn't forgotten them and, in his breakthrough English language movie, Watson's sexual degradation on behalf of her injured husband's health is just an alchemical X-rated upgrade of the same dark sacrificial gesture. Ditto Bjork's letting herself get hung so her son can have an eye operation in Dancer in the Dark. It's not 'sexism' per se underneath this but the nature of true persona sacrifice, and faith that God (or the Devil) never misses a payment so long as you follow through on giving up every last thing you hold dear. It's not until Dogville that this sacrificial chain is finally broken, and the wrenching pain of every woman's sacrifice on the altar of their selfless love comes roaring back with a vengeance, like ripping the new testament out of the bible and using it to light a fire under a bound-and-thorn-crowned Rick Santorum.

7. The Wicker Man (1973 and 2006) + Burning Man
+ Dark Secret of Harvest Home 
(spoiler alert!)

Some Wiccans will argue that John Barleycorn was never meant to be a real human 'virgin' sacrifice, and Burning Man is just a place to inhale DMT and chalky desert dust. One of Christianity's most noble aspects is its complete hatred of human (and animal) sacrifice. Perhaps they knew way back that only demons feed on souls, so sacrificing a virgin to Satan is like popping open a amyl nitrate under a dying man's nose, or rescuing him from drowning, or pulling a thorn out of the lion's paw. Not only that, David Icke says the term sacrificial virgin is just a mistranslation of the word 'child' by some ancient squeamish scroll decoder. Child sacrifice would be a bit TOO creepy to represent in either film, so we're willing to accept a full-grown uptight Christian in the original WM (1973) and a full-grown chauvanistic dillweed in the remake. The child is just the ruse to get him interested.

See, the Christian bible HAD to make polytheistic agrarian matriarchal societies into a threat, otherwise we'd never have invented the car --we'd still be dancing around maypoles and killing our own livestock instead of buying 'meat' with a clean conscience (no sad porcine eyes to look into as you raise the axe). That may sound harsh but I'm serious: we had a few thousand years of agrarian pastoral happiness and a few thousand years is enough. And most of all, men needed to take back control because literally they had nothing else to do. Shut outside of all the group decision making they became little more than stud service workhorses, all but tethered in the barn when they weren't working themselves to death under the merciless one-eyed devil sun. (See: Port of Call Summer's Isle)

8. Venus in Furs (1969)

(SPOILER ALeRT) "Venus in furs will be smiling / when the moment arrives" sings Barbara McNair every time another of Wanda's victims die in this swingin' sixties X-ploitation from Jess Franco. The plot has Jimmy (James Darren), a jazz trumpet player who jams with Manfred Man before accidentally witnessing the kinky sex murder of the white fur coat-wearing, blank-eyed party girl, Wanda (Maria Rohm). Jimmy splits the scene for a job in Rio during Carnivale so that he can get away from the death and weirdness, hah! Apparently Jess Franco loves Carnivale since it means he can include lots of handheld footage of street celebrations, which he then cuts in with interior shots of Jimmy and his Euro-funk compatriots jamming in a rich dude's red suite. As Jimmy jams, his lady Barbara McNair sings, and then sulks as the ghost of Wanda shows up in the crowd to lure him afield.

Jimmy fools around with Wanda, now reborn (he's sure it can't be the same dame), and after they fool around she gets up grabs her fur coat and wanders out to seduce and destroy another one of the party people who thrill-killed her back in Europe. Imagine if the dead prostitute from Eyes Wide Shut came back to kill Sydney Pollack and everyone else at that Long Island party, one at a time, via seduction, and she shacked up with Cruise in between kills while wife Nicole Kidman sobbed and sang "Eyes Wide Shut will be Closin' / When the credits arrive!" Cheap as it is in spots, the sacrificial archetype aspect ensures that everyone but the outclassed McNair is at one point killed and the truly horrific aspect is the realization that Jimmy might not even know he's dead too, until his body finally washes ashore --- and the moment arrives. As Weldon put it, "far out."

9. Cherie Currie as Annie in Foxes (1980)

From the first time we see Annie bouncing around with a sultry smile and platinum blonde short hair, we know she's doomed. She's too free and easy to last to the end of the film, anymore than Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, or Matt Dillon in Over the Edge, or Mickey Rourke in Bullet. Her dad is a mean cop who chases her all over town while her mom sits paralyzed with fear and rage at home, flanked by two large Rottweilers to keep him from beating on her (Annie never goes to school, which is the cop's excuse run around trying to smash her face in). Currie's performance here is startlingly open, conveying the way some girls deal with childhood horror by just letting go of all fear, living from minute to minute, hopping from the back of one shady motorcycle to another, always one step ahead of their brutal demonic pursuers. But as is the case so often with hot mess beauty in the movies, freedom equals death. As much as Jodie Foster tries to protect her, you know Annie will be dead by the end of the film. She is the self-aware sacrifice, always one breath from the Aztec knife. To bear out the connection with agrarian matriarchal blood crop 'watering,' towards the end Jodie Foster mentions Annie wanted to be buried under a pear tree, sans coffin, so her friends could hang out above her resting place every year, eat a pear and have a taste of Annie, Jesus wine blood Virgin Spring-style!  

10. Don't Look Now (1973)

With his obsessive montage editing, Nicolas Roeg has always been the auteur version of one of Dali's melting clocks: time runs backwards, seldom forwards, and life bleeds out of the margins of a page crowded by notes on ancient architecture. In Look, Donald Sutherland plays an art restorer in denial of his psychic abilities, even though the sight of red ink leaking off one of his slides is enough for him to realize his red raincoat-wearing daughter has just drowned outside in the back yard. Flush with grief, Donald and wife Julie Christie head to Venice where a psychic old lady tells them their daughter's spirit is sitting right next to them at brunch. Donald is obsessed with denying it even though he's got the gift of second sight himself.

The way it's supposed to go down in life is that death attacks the oldest first--your grandparents--and gradually works it's way down the generations while you squirm helplessly on the wheel of time. You see the reaper take your grandfather, then your father, then.... suddenly the trail goes blank until you notice your daughter is alone and crying over a grave with your name on it. But if the daughter goes first, your sense of preparedness is thrown way off. Now death can come at any time, it may have already come and you don't know it, like for poor Jimmy in the previous film in this list. In one chilling scene Sutherland witnesses his own Viking funeral passing him on a black ship in the other direction as he sails down a Venice canal. That's the definition of the archetypal sacrifice: the scythe is already always in mid-swipe so you must offer someone else in your place or take it yourself. Because he can't stop pursuing that tiny figure in the elusive red raincoat and because he doesn't heed the warnings all around him, doesn't sacrifice his own obsession with reality and embrace the unknown, Sutherland's known collapses until its as ground down by gravity as the inter-dimensional red dwarfs of PHANTASM, literally.


11. Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960) /
Venetia Stevenson in Horror Hotel (1960)

There's so many strange similarities between these two films that, were they not made in the exact same year on opposite sides of the Atlantic you'd swear they were emulating each other. Both involve pretty blondes who wear their hair moddishly short and leave their comfort zones on big adventures, alone, against other people's advice or good common sense, and wind up staying at decrepit inns where they are killed, by a knife, in the middle of the night, and the middle of the picture. Then follows the boyfriend and/or detectives to investigate and eliminate the threat, but the damage has been done; our locus of identification is forever shattered. Welcome to the 60s.

The cute, inquiring Alice in Wonderland-like blonde who inadvertently winds up way out of her depth is an archetype we're familiar with, and we naturally assume we'll be riding with these babes all the way to the finish, and the evil will go up in flames, woodsman to the rescue, etc. Psycho and Horror Hotel betray that assumption, slicing of our eye's apple in half right when we least expect it. The experience is jarring, emblematic of the loss of innocence. The sacrifice of these curious blonde kittens is a wake-up call not to the chaotic uncertainty to come, the trading in of buried secrets and friendly barbecue rocketship suburban dream for corruption, hippies, and liberals who let killers go free on technicalities. Justice is gone. Only the victim's immediate family, usually father, boyfriend, her sister, can stop the menace.
Leigh careens from sex kitten to virginal bride and back, sometimes in the space of a single shot . . . and when she vanishes or appears, we hold onto our seats for fear of spinning out of control, reminded with a jolt just how easily our locus of identification can become uncalibrated. The second half of Psycho is haunted by her absence; she vanishes down the rabbit hole ink drain of her pupil and emerges a year or so later — none the worse for wear and much more worldly for the trip — in Manchurian Candidate, coolly coming on to a shattered Frank Sinatra in a train car doorway.(Bright Lights #59, 2/08)

12. The girls of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

The Australian outback is a very old, mysterious place - and if you send beautiful, virginal repressed budding flowers in between the old mysterious rock formations in the 19th century, well, you're basically just opening up a giant Wicker Mouth of Madness - a dimensional gateway into the unknown as only the super weird Peter Weir can suss them. Caught between his LAST WAVE - about a white lawyer struggling with the Aboriginal apocalypse - and GALLIPOLI, with its turn-of-the-century tale of beautiful Aussie youth needlessly ground down by Turkish machine guns, The HANGING ROCK is a mesmerizing tale of coming of  outback mystery (partly based on a real place, revered by the Aborigines) and the dangers of sexual repression, where all the search parties in the world won't bring your sacrificial blonde lambs back from the beyond, even if that beyond isn't death, but some strange sort of marriage.

13. Famke Janssen as Phoenix/ Jean Grey - X-Men: Last Stand (2006)

As a kid who collected X-Men comics in the 1980s I too was in love with Jean Grey and dreamed of one day owning the big double issue wherein she died in Cyclops' arms. Such romantic deaths / double issues are what dreams are made of for virginal 15 year-old boys. No one single real-life non-fictional girl can encompass the vast amount of longing and hormonal emotion we feel, nor would they want to, nor would we be able to talk to them without stuttering if they were to try. But in comics we're manly and confident and love at an operatic pitch, and that's why the death of Jean Grey was so wrenching. We loved her so much they had to bring her back. Her return was then partly our fault, the way Elektra couldn't stay dead in Daredevil and the bionic woman Lindsay Wagner couldn't stay dead after her two episode arc in The Six Million Dollar Man and so was given her own show, The Bionic Woman. Our gaze sends young girls into the abyss by instinct, but true love can draw them back out again, for sometimes whole story arcs.

Still, Jean Grey was different: our collective fanboy longing brought her back in her all consuming phoenix form, but the 'return' of Phoenix, while grand and death-drive fascinating, was a mistake, a kind of Monkey's Paw Deathdream moment that undid the nature of sacrifice and tried to 'take back' what was already been given. The phoenix from the sacrificial flames is, in the end, nobody's idea of a good time. She destroys the good, the bad, and everything else in her path, including those of us who still love her. With this heartbreaking reality in mind, we have no choice: we man up, take a shot of bonded courage, and ask a real live girl for an actual date.... gods help us...


  1. A most excellent list, definitely agree with Eyes Wide Shut and Breaking The Waves. Bird of Paradise looks fascinating, I will make a note to check it out.

  2. This was a fantastic read!!!


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