Thursday, October 06, 2016

Occult Streams of the Amazon (Prime): 13 Witching Hour Picks

The welcome and most unholy arrival of this year's big new horror classic, THE WITCH, onto Amazon Prime last week signaled the month (my favorite) of all unholy magic has arrived. Time for great hauntings and macabre classics to come streaming like a running flow of witches o'er town and dale.  Lucky then that--as I wrote re: their Vampiredeliction last week--though Netflix has shied away from the ratty old rarities and sideshow bargain basement found objects, Amazon Prime has more than picked up the slack. Every micro-genre category of October horror now can now hold its own special list, were a man mad enough to make it. This here one, the Occult-themed film list, stretches from silent films from 1922 up until present day, linking Middle Ages gynocide to 70s ouija boards and forward to modern direct-to-DVD scrappy indie gems with surfeit of imagination and paucity of purse. So let the fall foliage crumble in lovely dark red and purples in the crispness of your knobby knuckle caress! We shall collect them for a recliner to plant before our tombstone screens. Wake thy imps from their velvet cloth slumber --the tape's unwound! So to speak.

PS  - as before, each film is rated both for film quality (factoring personal preferences) and image quality (as in the HD clarity, restored crispness/color, etc of Prime's streaming print --which is subject to change)

(1989) Dir. Michele Soavi
**1/2 (Image- B)
It's long (feels longer than it is), convoluted, and it tries to keep too many balls in the air, but this DEMONS variation makes great use of a vast ancient church set, and involves a treasure map mystery, Templar massacre, and Rube Goldberg-esque Freemason contraptions stirring to dusty life after half a millennia, opening the pit and releasing a horde of long-buried evil spirits and then springing ancient magical masonry traps that close every exit so no evil can escape --but neither can the assortment of tourists, archivists, restoration curators, priests and--as luck would have it--a school field trip and a fashion shoot--that all happened to be in the church at the time the gates and locks swung shut. Like so many horror films dealing with witchcraft, this has its cake (those Templar murderers were wrong to slaughter cute hippie chicks), eats it too (but they were/are real, and evil), and then brings it right back to the store complaining its stale and demanding a refund (so we have to kill them again). As with Soavi's other masterpieces, Stagefright: Aquarius and The Sect, there's a gorgeous olive green tinge to the darkness and a weird playful sense of metatextual humor if you know where to dig for it, as all sorts of little side plots set themselves up and then resolve themselves differently at the last minute from how your sixth horror film sense tells you it will. The model from the shoot (Antonella Vitale) is nearly suffocated in an expensive, beautiful white wedding dress after it's caught up in the gears locking the front gate (with the wardrobe mistress cutting each stitch with tiny scissors while Vitale complains and slowly strangles). There's a Rosemary-style devil copulation (a running theme in Soavi's late 80s-early 90s work), unsettling near-incest with Asia (as her character's working slob father is possessed), hallucinations, gory murders, and a relatively keen sense of who is where in the cavernous space at any given time, which is no easy feat of continuity in an Italian film with so many little bits of business.

Co-written with Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento, this stars Argento company regulars Barbara Cupisti, Asia Argento (when she was still a kid), and Thomas Arana. The music is credited to Phillip Glass and "The Goblins." There's occasionally some annoying prog courtesy Keith Emerson, but most of the time it's quiet enough you can pray to the blessed virgin sans distraction (yet still in vain). The image is a little fuzzy but I think it's always looked like that - on par with Soavi's other films - lots of gray and dust filtering the light. If the CHURCH isn't very good when held up against Soavi's STAGEFRIGHT, THE SECT, or CEMETERY MAN, it still holds up better than most everything else in its league, genre, and field.

(1962) Directed by Sidney Hayers 
***1/2 / Image - A

What makes this film work is its moody black and white photography and AIP talent roster, including Corman Poe screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, who always instill 'classic' material with an edge of modern wit that does nothing to dispel the unease and terror. It's directed by Sidney Hayers, a TV director who's worked on The Avengers, and Baywatch, among others, but hey - it's all about the script and the actors, and these are top flight, even if there's nary a familiar face in the bunch: Janet Blair is the wife, Peter Wyngarde the brooding Rod Taylor-ish lead, Margeret Johnson the limping rival; Judith Stott an amazing and odd face as the charmed co-ed.

I've been shy about this film since I was afraid half of the running time would be spent with the husband condescendingly lecturing and belittling his wife about her black magic habits. He does, but she fights back with scathing wit and makes her conversion to logic something that's a result of her own self-doubt, rather than his stern paternal berating. Part and parcel to this left brain belittling the right thing is the whole code-enforced demoting of women from sexy independent thinkers to smiling slave drone Stepford wives. I love women! I think they're great / they're a solace to a world in a terrible state. What a nightmare to have no women in the world (Lou Reed). Or as BWB shows, it's a nightmare either way, but beautiful (Bing Crosby). Filmed in black and white, BURN has the arty photography of the British countryside, rocky beaches, and cloudy English skies of the British new wave, and stands up against the cream of Hollywood's post-Lewton / Tourneur ambiguous shadowy whispering.

(1973) Dir. Ted V. Mikels
 ** (Stream quality - B+)

For this alcoholic, a great simple throbbing synthesizer score goes a long long way towards paving over rough spots (what Carpenter called a 'carpet score' - i.e. it avoids micromanaging). Good old De Palma's preference for high-falutin' longhairs like Hermann and Rota can get a little overwrought, like one long music video for the orchestra, but here in Mikels country a nutcase named Carl Zittrer plays 'special electronic music' that's just one crude sustained repetitive drone that's occasionally broken in on by organ and drums. It works with the crude imagery, like some magic enchantment. Mikels directs the whole thing like he's ingested too much mandrake root and didn't pay his light bill. Lucky for us, this Amazon print/image has blacks so dark and deep they seem to creep down some dreamy dangerous and dusty cinematic alleyway between Kenneth Anger's ceremonial magick outsider art and a Sam Fuller primitivist pulp nightmare. You start to get that Temple Drake-style 'being really wasted at a party and suddenly you look around and everyone you know has left and the room is now filled with sketchy strangers giving you weird looks-style feeling. It's a feeling embodied the high strangeness of the lead witch Mara (Lila Zaborin), who stresses every word of her weird rhyming spells as if channeling Mickey Rooney's Puck in the 1935 Rienhardt film version of Midsummer Night's Dream Together with that Zittrer drone, Zaborin's intense, drawn-out, vaguely amphetamine-tinged hypnotic trance chanting can make even you--at home and half-asleep--a believer.

The scenes of her group of sexy acolytes dancing around prone male victims with spears, their hot midriffs and long legs driving innocent Christian viewers into the embraceable flames, connects it all in some vague way to Hammer's Prehistoric Women (1967), in a good way. What I mean is, I could have used more of these dancers, less of the weird bouncer guy with the fur hat (he looks like he could be Tom Savini's dad screen-testing for The Hills have Eyes) who just stands around looking inscrutable. Before and after these dances, various coven members stare into mirrors and hallucinate their past lives as witches being persecuted by intolerant sadistic townsfolk, priests, or knights. A scene of a girl forced to watch her child mercilessly flogged while she's burned alive is pretty vividly etched and quite painful to endure. There's also Native American dances, and a pope trying to exorcise a woman and then having her stoned to death by the locals when he fails. It's all very appalling and surprisingly well done, with decent crowd scenes. Since the bulk of the film looks all super cheap in dark and dingy rooms in Mara's mansion, these strong scenes offer a curious juxtaposition.

One tangent has Mara accepting a contract to rub out a crusading politician at a cocktail party via totem telepathy. It works, but the client tries to kill her rather than pay up! What kind of idiot doesn't honor a contract with a woman who can kill through telepathy and voodoo doll torture? A dead idiot, that's what kind. There's also a pretty weird seance, maybe the most amateur-creepy since Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls. In other words, this is clearly a 'can't-miss' Halloween option, perfect for that coveted 4 AM slot. Interesting too that the film so covertly judges the 'good' guys: a normal hetero couple visit Mara's house for some cheap thrills, but then run for their lives when they realize it's legit. They tell a 'good; doctor, known for his ability to "psychometrize" objects ("Some people devote their entire lifetime to study of the mind!") Though we're never sure why this 'average' couple deem her such threat, the Christian doctor is determined to bring Mara down. "There's a sabbath going on in this house at this time" he notes from down on the street as her cool LA pad glows in the dark. Surrounding the house on all four sides with powerful 'good guy' warlocks, he shoots some painted-on lightning and kills everyone inside. After all, he had a right to! Their politics disagreed with his! Christendom is 'saved.' Not even a rubber bat shall be suffered to live.  

(2016) Dir. Robert Eggers
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Shrouded in portentous gloom and ominous droning electric cello, THE WITCH (2015) is the first great woodsy pre-Salem devil film in 300 years, a SHINING for the ANTICHRIST x BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW subdivision of the HAXAN community (with a dash of the recent HONEYMOON if you're keeping track). Set in 1630s New England on a small patch of farm and field, surrounded by deep (if leafless) woods, it's a character piece that delves into the same dark patch of the soul that many witch and devil movies make feints at but then run away from, i.e. the actual dark superstitions and folk tales, court records, and the twisted folk horror stories of zonked-out American mystics like Hawthorne, Poe and Ambrose Bierce. First time-writer/director Robert Eggers shows flair for the milieu and the genre both, making the narrative work by being straightforward with the paranoia and the reality. Not unlike ROSEMARY'S BABY it functions on both conscious and unconscious levels. It's an historical look at repressed female psychic energy in a patriarchy and the validation of that patriarchy's fear of the dark.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin (above, amidst deepdreamgenerator pareidolia), a naif to the menstrual age, who prays valiantly for deliverance from sinful thoughts but nonetheless falls prey to shady woodsy pagan strangeness, especially once the baby disappears on her watch. Kate Dickie, brilliantly unhinged, is the salt of the earth mom slowly dissolving into the dirt from the loss. The loving yet ineffectual dad (the nicely deep-voiced Ralph Ineson) can do nothing but try, fail, and then shy away from all blame. The son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is the sacrificial Barleycorn offering of a young lad starting--since there are no other options--to lust for his developing sister. Running rings around them all are moppet evil twins and a strapping horned goat named Black Phillip who is possibly the embodiment of Goat of Mendes i.e. Baphomet, or maybe just a buck in heat or in the early stages of rabies. Somehow, that goat steals the show and miraculously never seems CGI fake or badly cut-in to appear to not be doing naturally the eerie stuff he's up to. There's also a rabbit and a raven, filmed in such a thin grey light we feel the ominous ambivalence in their empty eyes. They might remind you, as the did me, of being a small child terrified by some strange small (but big to you) animal. That THE WITCH conjures such tremulous memories via just showing a frickin' hare just sittin' there in the deep dusky woods speaks to the film's unholy power. (more)

(1973) TVM ( Aaron Spelling & Leonard Goldberg)
*** (Image - C)

A smooth occult TV movie prelude to both Charlie's Angels (1976) and Suspiria (1977), this Spelling/Goldberg joint stems from the halcyon days of relaxed morality, a time when free love and occult practice alike were mainstream-sanctified and girls' schools were allowed to have their male teachers host wine parties, and tell the students to "condemn nothing.... embrace everything... and hang loose" and it was all alright. Future Angels Cheryl Ladd and Kate Jackson are students at an all-girls college where there seems to be only two teachers: both groovy men--Dr. Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner)--who goes crazy imparting the secrets of mind control via a relentlessly-squeaking rat maze--and Dr. Clampett (Roy Thinnes), who teaches art and encourages the girls to embrace their own hallucinatory perceptions: "What we think we see is as real as what we actually see." Dude, that was like our mantra in my 4th-5th grade combined (artistic-minded) class! And maybe in the 70s in general. The less-cool Delacroix meanwhile talks about how terror makes rats and humans alike irrational and suggestive. Jaime Smith-Jackson (who'd just come off Go Ask Alice!) worries she may be next and drops to the hallway floor shrieking in terror between classes for no conceivable reason. Pamela Franklin (the girl-child in The Innocents who'd just come off shooting Legend of Hell House) is Elizabeth, secretly investigating the supposed suicide of her sister (Terry Lumley) whose ironed dirty blonde hair and red sweater / denim jacket ensemble kick things off perfectly in the paranoid opener. Jackson--wearing devilishly long straight black hair is the smart girl who helps Elizabeth with the mystery while espousing the wondrous powers of professor Clampett ("he can't help you if you fight him" she tells her). The all-of-a-piece low-key acting (only Jo Van Fleet's conflicted headmistress hams it up) and lengthy scenes of crackling thunder and blowing wind, girls walking around in their nightgowns in the dark, with a lantern illuminating their scared but determined young faces, all add up to laid-back 70s TV horror movie heaven, or... the other place... Satan, where do I sign?

The print on Amazon isn't great but it's the best we've got and at least the bulk of the artifacts are actual celluloid damage--green lines, cigarette burns, inconsistent color, blotches etc. with very faded color, but it's not blurry or obviously a VHS tape-transfer like some other TV movies floating around. It's over pretty fast and there's nary an uncool moment, so if I were you I'd join them.


(1944) Dir. William "One Shot" Beaudine
** / Amazon Image: B

It might be hard to appreciate the beauty of Voodoo Man without the background of having being what Forrest Ackerman called "a monster kid" in 1960s-70s, when it was on local TV in Saturday afternoons a lot, introduced by various horror hosts or just flung onto screens with no warning. If you decided to stay inside and watch it, expecting Lugosi and company to make it worth your while, you'd be forced to admit you made a mistake. But to understand why that mistake was still worth making, and why we look back on this movie now so fondly now, first you must know the combined pain of artsy introversion, blase parents, clingy little brothers, and allergies. OR maybe, if it was in the theater, you needed to understand  the pain of losing sweethearts to Nazi or Japanese gunfire, the pain of soldiers heading overseas to face death at the hand of foreigners and hoping their young brides or sweethearts stay 'on ice' as it were. If you understand either audience, and the way strict censorship tried to wheedle every drop of horror out of horror movies, then maybe you will know the joy we all found in Bela Lugosi's insane megalomania as he broke through all restrictions to do whatever he wanted. Here he hypnotizes, and dresses young women in ceremonial robes and then uses them in weird soul energy transfer voodoo rites to bring his catatonic or dead wife back to life. Sound familiar? He did the same thing in Monogram's Corpse Vanishes a few years earlier, but that time he was truly evil -here he's sympathetic. The film itself isn't very clear about if it's supposed to be the victim's souls going into the wife's body, or vice versa, making it incoherent to a nine year-old Lugosi fan. Where's the monster, we wondered? Why is George Zucco wearing the funny hat with the feathers? Who does voodoo happen in a remote house instead of the jungle? Had the studio no potted fronds?

VOODOO MAN suffers from disrespect and the hostile derision not only of critics but itself (the writer hero disparages even his own past 'voodoo movie' scripts) but we monster kids were used to being told stuff we liked was crap. And we raged against boredom and against every bedtime and in this refusal to kowtow to life's petty rules we really found a kinsman in Lugosi. It didn't matter how bad everyone else was in front of and behind the camera in these dull murky dramas, Bela was the star and he 'got' our pain. He was how we imagined we'd be as adults, for we couldn't imagine life without our world-conquering mania. Bela never phoned it in. His banal surroundings made him glow that much brighter - not unlike ourselves trapped in the tedium of suburbia! 

And this has George Zucco.... in a headdress, acting up a solid 1/2 a shit storm of no tomorrow with mouthfuls of gobble di-gook probably made up on the spot. In these scenes lies the bliss kernel inside the bland screenwriter headed to a wedding shell. Not even John Carradine's painful hamming as an imbecile assistant (which I realize is for the censors--so he scans too childish to molest the zombie brides beyond petting their hair)--or the condescending attitude of the hero-- can dampen the glow, the passion, the moistening in Bela's eyes when he thinks he's finally waking up his sleeping beauty. Life.... to.. death! (more)

(1922) Dir. Benjamin Christensen
**** / Amazon Image - A

The definitive documentary / dramatization on the 'science' of the Middle Ages, this weird but essential tract on hysteria examines one surefire cure to the problems of overpopulation and unmarried old bitches in the days before women had rights --witchcraft accusations. We follow two different relatively minor incidents which balloon into wholesale slaughter and torture of the innocents. In the first, the father is dying of some unnamed malady; the wife suspects witchcraft; a passing old lady makes the mistake of dropping by to steal bread, and that's all it takes. Event follows event, and soon the entire household is rounded up and burnt at the stake. In the other: a horny young monk can't stop fantasizing about some local girl, so he renounces her as a witch.. Sooner or later all the women confess to lurid fantasias of midnight orgies in the middle of the woods, orgies vividly brought to life as Bosch-style horrors coupled to a Bruegel drunken peasant woodcut facial wrinkles. It might have been made in 1922 but the scenes of the monks laughing and drinking while torturing poor old women to death are pretty Eli Roth-style gut-wrenching. Luckily, there is also a scene of witches kissing the devil's filthy ass like it's a new bride at a wedding reception line; a devil feverishly churning his witch pole and flicking his tongue with enough lascivious obscenity to shame a Pazuzu-possessed Regan McNeil; flying witches on brooms; stop motion imps breaking through doors; flying gold pieces always just out of reach and banquet morsels that turn to squirming toads at first bite --all of it brilliantly-rendered, like some wild datura root nightmare come to life.

On Amazon Prime we have the (to me, superior) 1968 rerelease restored version --the one with a strange and wondrous free-form jazz score (crazy avant garde percussion and the violin of Jean Luc Ponty) with the intertitles replaced by narration from William S. Burroughs! He not only covers both the intolerance, hysteria and the fantasy but begs further thought, especially as regards modern Satanic panic / conspiracy theory / UFO abductions and so forth, as they survive to this day. Did the constant heart-wrenching torture these girls endured unlock past memories through the shattering of the mind and body? Supposedly this how the CIA creates split personalities in its sex slaves and assassins! I muse more on this all over on Divonorum Psychonauticus. 

For those of us familiar with the film through old shitty grey dupes, the Prime transfer is a whole other beast. See it and shudder at the fathomless depths of your own crazy species and all we do not know about where our narrow space-time dependent conception of reality ends and the timeless madness of the collective subconscious begins. 

(2015) Dir. by Roxanne Benjamin, Radio Silence,
David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath
*** (Amazon Print: A)

Immeasurably fueled by the Gifted's wildly retro-analog synth score, this scrappy anthology offers an array of southwestern Satanists, demons, strange voices on radios and cell phones, and world-weary bartenders, all aiding and abetting various characters driving down a stretch of American Southwestern highway someone calls the 'ass end of purgatory.'  Some characters are mere innocents on the wrong turn of their lives, some stuck on endless loops of karma and demonic pursuit, and do they even know which is which? It's as if the idea of watching a film obsessively over and over is more than just the strategy of neurotic film lovers striving to avoid their own existential mortality, it's what lies beyond as well. Some of the vignettes are scarier or funnier than others, but the cumulative effect is one of droll pleasure mixed with that anything-can-happen WTF dread we used to get from Tarantino and his spawn back in the 90s, back when our genre narrative expectations were first used against us with some regularity.

To be honest, those narrative expectations are why I've never been a huge fan of anthology horror films. Too often they rely on lazy scripts full of banal set-up and see-it-coming-a-mile-away twists, by which I mean all the stuff from Britain's Amicus or America's EC comics. Soutbound on the other hand, is more Sin City than either of those, albeit with a quietly remarkable absence of misogyny (there's even a girl director for one segment). Stories range from a Satan-worshipping 'normal' family recruiting most of an all-grrl rock band, to a very chilling and nightmarish trip to a deserted ER, a misguided 'rescue' by some old crazy brother for his long-missing biker tattoo-artist sister, and a murkily-motivated assault on a vacationing family that is almost--but never quite--explained. The patter of the local DJ (rockin' Larry Fessenden) ever-present on all the vehicular radios, unites the tales, not in theme or direction, but in Wolfman Jack-cum-Red Sovine highway philosophizing. But unlike the Crypt Keeper or Alfred Hitchcock, Fessenden's DJ doesn't add bad puns or plothole putty, just keeps the existential road homilies flowin' like a steamy asphalt ribbon down the line. Drive on, good buddy, whether you can't get off the highway and home before dawn, remember one thing: If yer an American, the endless highway already is home. Drive it and never look back, good buddy, because the Bickle freeze-frame rearview glance might be y'alls last, or already was.

(1996) Dir. Jane Simpson
*** (Image - B)

It's in full screen if you can believe that but damn, maybe it was never in anything else. I certainly don't remember it in theaters though I imagine it tried to ride the success of the very similar high school girl clique coven flick, The Craft. Much as I like that film and much as critics disparage this one online, I think Little Witches is better. The only advantage The Craft has over this is that career-defining badass performance by Fairuza Balk. Well, this one has a great evil witch performance too, from the lovely dark-haired Sheeri Rappaport. Rocking an insane midriff and baring her (thankfully un-augmented) breasts with diegetic abandon (but sans ickiness), Rappaport is quite a heart-stealer., and it doesn't have the yucky Skeet Ulrich either, adhering more to a Satan's School for Girls format, set an all-girls boarding school, this time Catholic, but with the same chosen coven of orphans and kids whose parents don't want them home for the Easter holiday, i.e. spring solstice!

Unlike SSFG, there is one boy toy character to deal with: a dumb hunk construction guy whose crew uncovers a walled-off room off the campus rectory, exposing a deep well/pit to caverns leading to the sea, and a gaggle of skeletons of missing girls from decades earlier. The (living) students--bored and under-chaperoned--find themselves returning to the uncovered room in the dead of night, again and again, driven to perform unholy rites for reasons that wouldn't make sense to the sober layman (dormant evil has the ability to make you think summoning it forth is your own idea, that is to say, some evil witch made you notice the Ouija board for sale and think it would be 'a lark' to try it --and that witch is the one who answers your attempt to contact those who've 'gone on').

Horror royalty Jennifer Rubin (Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Bad Dreams) is the cool nun in charge of the girls; Jack Nance is the priest; Poltergeists's Zelda ("this house.... is clean") Rubenstein is the requisite blind nun tasked with the holy Sentinel-style duty; one of the assembled girls is a very young Clea Duvall. Allow it.

Anyway, where we we, again? Oh yeah --the unholy powers are summoned. The Good Friday solstice convergence threatens reality as we know it and the Lovecraftian tentacles from beyond the door loom like a checkered flag.  Rather hostilely, Arrow in the Head notes that the film is too on the fence about what it wants to give us: "the sex is too soft (no lesbian scenes or sex scenes) to satisfy the [XXX] hounds and the horror too weak to thrill the genre fiends. I don’t even know if the film is supposed to be a comedy or not." But to some of us, Arrow in the Head, that's the very thing (or lack of) that makes it great! Once it's one or the the other, a comedy, a sex film, or a gore fest, it's boring. What Little Witches has that's unique is the in-between, the fluid genre-traversing. I also appreciate the hard-to-duplicate naturalistic Hawksian overlapping rapport between the girls, and the film's refreshing freedom from all the typical characterization shorthand we associate with the boarding school supernatural misadventure. There are no dumb pranks, gross gags; there's no slut-shaming, doofus boys leering through keyholes and snickering about scoring, or dullard parents loping in at the wrong moment. I like the sense of the supernatural arising slowly and naturally, almost like a joke at first but then, like the frog in the boiling water, too late to escape. I'd say anyone who hates on this film is a misogynist idiot whose fate is decreed by the unholy raiment of the Illuminati Sistren shish boom blah blah blah.

Probably, I'd be wrong.

Rapport sexy Linda Fiorentino eyes
Dig Rappaport's Linda Fiorentino-ish brunette feline fierceness
(1935) Starring: Bela Lugosi
**1/2 (Amazon stream Image -D+)

It's sometimes hard to figure why Bela Lugosi got such mean treatment from the studio system, but films like this may offer a clue: the unsteadiness of opiate dependence (so vividly, if compassionately, chronicled in Ed Wood). A lifelong drug addiction can be controlled, even harnessed, with an endless prescription from a connected quack with the ability to prevent the star from taking either too much (which would make him nod off and miss his cue) or too little (which would turn him into a twitching, sweaty, wild-eyed basket case). The 'too-little' part seems to be Bela's lot for Return of Chandu, the serial from which Magic Island was edited. Perhaps a simple "booster" from a studio doctor (if you were at a studio big enough to have one on call) could have knocked Bela into the outfield of calm, centered brilliance (as he demonstrated in The Black Cat the same year at Universal) but there was likely no studio doctor on a B-movie serial set like this one.

I generally warn you away from Amazon streams with the poor image quality--and this is one of the worst in this list-- but I've never seen a good version of  Magic Island's source material (my old two-tape set of the original serial looked just as bad) and, at any rate, the condensing of 12 dull chapters, keeps it lively; and the blurry pixelation gives weird accidental oomph tto all the shimmering spellcasting. Everyone has a glowing aura/halo and the crystal ball, stirred fountain effects, and fire pit all shimmer like some kind of yard sale surplus Max Reinhardt fairy dust.

Adding to the weirdness is that Bela plays Chandu instead of the villain (confusing those of us who loved him as the evil Roxor in Fox's Chandu the Magician from 1932) and even has a girlfriend in Princess Nadi (Maria Alba). Bela, with a girlfriend? He's more the dead wife type. Sweating, overwhelmed, wild-eyed and messy-haired, in ill-fitting white khakis, Bela can be hard to look at unless you do as I do, and pretend Bela's Chandu really is a junkie and that his (good) magic is the power of mightly Narc-Anon and the evil black magic is centered around opiates; the imprisoned white magician Tyba (Jospeh Swickard) is a friend Bela's Chandu makes in rehab; Chandu/s ancient guru is always reachable via crystal ball, i.e. like a sponsor available on speed dial; and scenes like where he's tied up and tortured with the crushing stone almost an exact mirror of the tortures of withdrawal. So even if --at times-- you'll want to bitch slap Lugosi's character for just standing around letting people get hurt rather than speaking up or launching a spell; and you'll wonder why he keeps toting a big ungainly diplomat family all over the Far East and subjecting them to danger nonstop while he just stands around sweaty and horrified and passive. I say, forgive him, as I have via your magical fourth step. Then keep this film on your Prime watchlist for emergencies.

 Sometimes just taking the edge off is paradise.

(1999) Dir. David DeCoteau
*** (Amazon Image: B)

A simple story set in a very cool mansion about a solstice celebration, thrown by well-heeled Goth girl Margaret (Ashley McKinney) for a disparate bunch of Dunwich schoolmates, who come heedless of the fact they don't like her. Do they know their Puritan ancestors burnt her ancestor, Lilith (Arian Aulbright), as a witch 300 years earlier, and Lilith's been revived for the party? The pentagram is drawn. The lights are low. The mansion is gorgeous, and yet some don't give this DeCoteau-via-Charles Band joint a chance since it's shot on video and the witch make-up is kind of Sid and Marty Kroft rudimentary. Actually, Witchhouse looks fantastic once you give it a chance, thanks to patient Romanian craftsmen who use a stunning array of candles and oil lamps instead of unnatural electric light (Band had set up shop there, hiring talented local crews for cheap). There's all the requisite types for that film's totemic sacrifice: the stoner comic relief, the sex addict couple, the dumb jock and his hot blonde punk rock girlfriend, the bookworm hero and the hot-but-doesn't-know-it bespectacled girl. It might be the lamest party ever (pot and whiskey are nixed by buzzkill girlfriends) but the basement seance works like a charm and that natural lighting compensates one hell of a lot, as does woozy camera work (when magic is afoot the camera sways drunkenly) and there's a great sense that the whole mansion is lit up for running around in, rather than just in some static scenes - so the camera goes careening after the actors as they tear all over the place in this huge beautiful house and it's all in a very grand. I love that the uptight smug film major is the first to get zapped and he's the loudest at just saying no - preferring to stay all tense and bothersome--and clearly we're meant to cheer his demise --and we do! And I love that the stoner's girlfriend gets to knock out Lilith with one punch ("I coldcocked her," she flatly declares "and locked her in the other room"). Even the magic laser effects are well done.

L-R: ---Brooke Mueller (the rocker type); seance; Monica Serene Garnich (the cute nerdy type)

So, like Little Witches (above), what we have here is a lesser-known, underappreciated spookshow that's neither all the way sexy, funny or scary. That may bother some folks but I appreciate how unburdened by covertly-misogynistic it is. It may not be that great, story-wise, but so what? It's not trying for anything it can't achieve--it knows the spell we want to see it make, and it makes it. I dig the low-key acting of some of the characters, the engaged acting and clever writing--how innocuously yet lovingly the cinematographer keeps the candlelight in proper atmospheric balance (total termite). There's nothing to upset your babysitting charge's Puritan ancestors, with just enough aching "c'mon and kiss her already" tension that one five second kiss is all the affirmation they need to die for each other even though they just met. Ah kids.

Maybe I'm just partial to the ancestor-of-Salem vibe as I myself am the grand child of Dorothy Perkins, therefore a "direct" (?) descendent of several Salem community 'witches', including Mary Easty and Mary Edwards. Seeing films like this I wonder if I should enact some kind of unholy black magic revenge on their behalf? The simple fact is, 320 years is a long time to hold a grudge. Just to be safe, though, I bore witness against the thinness of Sherri Moon Zombie's lips in my review of Lords of Salem.

Lastly, it might help to have grown up reading/watching shit like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew to really resent (as I do) the way gore and graphic sex and sexual assaults are so regularly rubbed in our faces, sex demeaned through pathetic dog-like rutting smash-cuts employed as a cheap shortcut to amping up the intensity. Then again, I'm very particular - the list of things I dislike in my go-to horror films gets longer every year, especially if there's any depressing imprisonment, puerile douchebag snickering, misogyny, or garlic. Witchhouse may not be as stealth great as The Eternal, but it's similar enough that I forgive it all trespasses. Plus the bond between Lilith and Margaret is cute -it's like she's the cool 320 year-old eccentric aunt who visits on the holidays once a year and the niece falls under her sway and gets into crystals and the tarot or something. You know the type? Neither turns on the other as a final bloody twist and the nerds win in the end, but who gets to rock out? Margaret and Lillith. Witches give snitches stitches and damn right they'll be back in another 320 years, whether anyone shows up to fuckin' ever drink that whiskey or not! Fuckin' lightweights

(2014) Dir. Jason Bognacki
**1/2 (IQ -A)

Proof you don't need a huge budget and a ton of scenes or even a sense of linear time in your film, you just need to have done enough drugs, meditation, therapy, or arguing with a manipulative mother to know how slippery identity and self perception really is. This film by newcomer Jason Bognacki shows us he may qualify.  His 2014 debut has q cute young pharmaceutical intern's 18th birthday shift interrupted by the sudden arrival of her absentee body-hopping immortal mother. Guess whose body she wants to inhabit? Lynchian para-sympathetic matriarchal ellipses and horror hallucinations and dreams-within-dreams, make it harder and harder for us to figure out what's real as our plucky intern tries to learns the truth about her coven heritage. For witches, it seems, blood is not only thicker than water, it's the sewer tunnel through which immortal spirits scurry like rats under the river of the centuries. If you have access to a pharmacy, so much the richer.

Newcomer Paulie Redding brings a marvelous range of expressions as the possessed intern: we can instantly tell who's possessing her at any given time. The Skelton Knaggs-nosed Maria Olsen--playing either her mother or herself or her ancient ancestor, makes a terrifying shadow/devouring mother archetype. We feel the futility of trying to fight one's genetic matriarchal heritage (even with rebel 'good witch' guardian Nancy Wolfe trying to help), the same way we feel it's futile trying to convince relatives their politics are wrong at Xmas dinner. Bognacki trusts his imagery to structure a story within the viewer's paranois, sparing him the duty of linear explanation (which seems counter to the workings of real druggie magic anyway). 

Clearly this was originally a short, being stretched to feature length by any means necessary (dig the way the director bides for time by slowing the end credit scroll to ten minutes!) but that's not to denigrate a very promising and unusual debut. Even possessed by Lymcjoam tropes, it remains quite itself.

(1998) Dir. Michael Almereyda
**** (IQ - B)
Like a few other films on this list, I'm shocked at the afforded hostility of the average critic over the loose drunkard druid revisionist  meditation on Irish horror novelist Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars that is The Eternal. Have they even seen it? Blood from the Mummy's Tohand that winds up possessing a young Victorian daughter of a catatonic Egyptologist. The book is great, like Dracula, Stoker seems obsessed with a kind round the clock vigil over endangered hotties whose past lives either are these ancient demons or were in love with them. Either way, that ridiculous faux K-horror erotic video cover is terrible, the title is meaningless, and even the other title 'TRANCE' is bad. Michael! Call me I can help! You could have called it She-druid Drunks of the Iron Age - that's just off the top of m'head. And whatever you have against this film, film critics at large, admit that Allison Elliott is sublime in an array of roles, and the idea of a devouring matriarchal druid ancestor jibes very well with the other films on this list, so even though I've written about it a dozen times already (see: Inescapably Her Iron Age Druid Bog Mummy Telekinetic Alcoholic Hottie Self) I had to include it, do you understand? I didn't have a choice!! 

And for Almereyda heads out there, Prime has his first feature, favorite of everyone ever in the world who's seen it (all sixteen of us), 1989's TWISTER, (no relation to the 1996 Jan De Bont action movie), a strange family movie with Crispin Glover, Harry Dean Stanton, Dylan McDermott.... hell yeah.

(2016) Dir. Christian Grillo
*4/5 (Image - A)

If Phil Tucker (the 'genius' behind Cat Women of the Moon and Robot Monster) took a bet he could film an all-ages girl power spookshow with just his daughter and her slumber party friends, a few very odd guest stars (such as Michael Hills Have Eyes Berryman) over a single weekend, then this is proof he won that bet. For "adults" of all ages, this is perfect for parents who are trying to turn their ten year-old daughters away from the Neon Demon and the hentai watched by their peers and towards their own Labyrinth / Power Rangers past. It's a demonic Power Puff contingent for the freshly pierced, something the less mature children can show their younger siblings after trick-or-treating - to both laugh at and with, and even get the gist of what good Brechtian so-amateur-it's-genius is all about.

As Prospero says in Corman's Masque of the Red Death, the best swordsman in Europe wouldn't fear the second best, he would fear the worst.  SSG is proof that terrible pacing, clunky editing, amateur acting and muddled writing can be overcome through pure muttonheaded moxy.

I also will ascertain at this juncture I know no one in the cast or crew, have not been sent a copy or courted via emails to review this, I just found it floating in the Amazon stream, like all the rest. Let us give thanks this day, for in my childhood this kind of distribution was a foolhardy dream. The label putting this out is 'Potent media' and their symbol is an inverted pentagram. Something is amok, I mean amiss. Yet I found it - floating in the 'similar titles on Prime' and for a hot sec I felt once again like a single digit-aged Ed Wood fan finding a surreal K. Gordon Murray kiddie import on the 5 AM movie as I waited for ISIS... and SHAZAM.

(1962) Dir. William J. Hole
I have tried to see this all the way through a few times but it seems like little more than an Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Karloff 'Thriller' episode padded with a lengthy scene of coven members sprawled on divans watching a floor show of devilish beatnik jazz dancing and bongos. That said, mileage may yet vary if one day feathers prove the ploy. Bruno ve Sota lurks amidst the divans, the Satanic honey trap (above) has excellent posture and look fast for...nah I won't spoil it.

(1987) TVM - Dir. Carl Schenkel 
** (IQ - C)

The mid-to-late 1980s TV movie was mired in a lot of regretful fashion choices: pastels, shoulder-pads, Ray Bans; perms, sweatbands and spandex bouncing to aerobics videos, and Armani narcissists like Tom Cruise and Richard Gere who honestly thought that by playing narcissists who finally get their heads out of their own asses, they're somehow 'heroes', that any step forward out of their narcissistic materialism should be accompanied by a parade of gorgeous women's admiring tears. That said, by 1987 we were wising up to such tinny bombast, and we had the abortion affidavits to prove it.

What we needed was a fresh start. Really fresh. We needed to get out of the city, with its boardrooms and Venetian blind-and-cigarette diffused lighting, and get back to small upscale communities with sinful secrets, and farther back still, to harvest sacrifices and chanting covens.

So come thee, hetero DINC couples, to Bay Coven, or Cove as they call it (to throw the persecution-crazy Christians off the scent). Here in this isolated island community ("only" 45 minutes away from San Francisco!), an unholy pact has resulted in all the original members being still alive after 300 years. Their secret: sacrificing the descendants of their olde thyme persecutors. You know, business as usual.. in the '90s... the 1690s. But now they need new blood for the circle, so its time to recruit Timothy Hutton and and his sexy wife (Pamela Sue Martin!), and to welcome them to easy Bay Coven!

We're left with many unanswered questions. The main one: who the hell does the script think Woody Harrelson is? Did the citizens use their magic to kill Pamela's brother and why no mention Woody was her brother until after he's dead? Confused? I am.

Well, I know it's a lot to ask, but if you can handle Pamela Sue Martin's post-New Wave shoulder pads and unflattering Cherry Hill perm and don't mind the movie's stubborn refusal to try even one original plot point of its own instead of "borrowing" everything (right down to the dream sequences) from 70s touchstones like: Let's Scare Jessica to DeathCrowhaven Farm, The Stepford Wives and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, (and of course, the one they all borrow from -- Rosemary's Baby) and if you're not dissuaded by its dated ersatz neo-noir look (the muted blue-and-grey shot-on-video colors) and you're doing something else at the same time, like laundry or homework, to keep yourself distracted, then you may like Bay Coven or Cove.... whichever.

Maybe that's the whole reason the whole family used to love these old TV movies in the 70s: they were never meant to be original or riveting - never meant to absorb our full attention, never meant to disturb us, or bum us out. They were designed solely to keep us watching through the next commercial, to keep us mildly absorbed but never fully enthralled. We'd joke about lame dialogue or inept special effects while sharing popcorn, guzzling Coke (for the kids) and highballs fort the parents and being able to follow the plot while eight other things were going on--Monopoly games, babysitter pony rides, general carrying on (see also: Satan's School for Girls), talking on the phone (and when a bit older, making out on the couch).

Now that we can watch entire seasons of disturbingly violent and vivid TV shows in one sitting--no commercials, no respite, no return from reality--all that social connection is fading.  The sheer number of options leaves our attention span too short to watch anything less than instantaneously riveting.

Maybe what we need is a fresh start. Really fresh. We needed to get off of TIVO with its brutal SVUs and back to the simple joys of 70s TV horror movies. That said, this is from 1980s.... hand me the sacrificial scythe.

AKA "Hungry Wives"
(1972) Dir. George Romero
 ** / IQ - C
This doesn't get a lot of love due its hopelessly trite surrealism, depressing aesthetic (terrible greasy paleface make-up that everyone seems visibly sweating under, close-ups of middle-aged faces with yellowed long teeth), and dialogue way too close to how annoying friends of your mom actually used to talk. Sure it's directed by George Romero, sure it was made between Living Dead and The Crazies. Nonetheless, it's too dingy and too didactic to work as either horror or 'cracker factory' polemic. It's like hey, we get it: like so many women in the early days of "women's lib," housewife Joan (Jan White) is bored and sexually frustrated. Her bland husband barely seems to notice her (and vice versa) and she's got nothing to do all day--she thinks--but laze around dreaming in surreal shorthand. Even her witchiness is boring. Honey, we all have to suffer against the sucking tide of societal indifference towards our own inertia. Toying around with New Age accoutrements like it's not just another form of isolation consumerism is not 'doing' anything. And no offense to Romero, but do we really need another man telling a story about the troubles faced by women at man's hands? Instead of just laying around in bed all day dreaming of being led around on a leash by an uncaring bored (impotent) husband, why not get a job, or write your own damned movie? Go work as a dominatrix in the afternoons and you can lead the men around on the leash instead like Catherine Deneuve. Or at the very least, maybe volunteer at the animal shelter.

Since this post more cool titles worth seeing have come out on Prime:
THE LOVE WITCH (review/essay here)
THE WITCHING starring Pamela Franklin! 


  1. I don't know why, but I've always considered Richard Elfman's THE FORBIDDEN ZONE an occult movie. Its probably not, but it sure feels like one.

  2. Thnx Okum - almost made the list but there's too much vomit in it to make the list. In the spirit of Cab Calloway and Betty Boop though, I'm glad you brought it up

  3. My sides are hurting. I plan to watch some of these, but your commentary is the best and funniest I have read in ages!

    1. James, your laughter is like music to me

  4. Well I'm going to have to watch The Witch again. I loved it, but you got a lot more out of it than I did. Time for a closer look.

  5. Bay cove stars Tim Matheson, not Timothy Hutton. Am watching it right now. It's so eighties!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...