Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view so clear it would scare Dr. Xavier to blind himself

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, 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, but 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. The eerie sense of winding up wasted at a party with sketchy dudes you don't know in some part of town you don't recognize (and you realize your friend has left you there, how long ago you do not know) is 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, her 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). 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, which by contrast make the bulk of the film, all super cheap in dark and dingy rooms in Mara's mansion, 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. "Some people devote their entire lifetime to study of the mind," notes the "good" doctor, known for his ability to "psychometrize objects." He and the 'normal' visiting couple bring down Mara's coven, though we're never sure why this 'average' couple deem her such threat. Mara might be a killer but the Christian doctor and this couple seem like just another batch of violent Puritans determined to kabosh Mara's powerful "demoniacal" presence. "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 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; 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 and fail and 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 --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 eye that they might remind yo 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 kind of funky prelude to both Charlie's Angels (1976) and Suspiria (1977), this Spelling/Goldberg TV movie is groovy meditation on straight dirty blonde hair and 70s girl clothes back in the halcyon days of relaxed morality, a time when free love and occult practice were both mainstream-sanctified (before the Satanic panic/AIDS hysteria of the early 80s). 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 (the ubiquitous TV actor Lloyd Bochner)--who goes crazy imparting the secrets of mind control via a 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. Condemn nothing! Embrace everything!" Dude, my sediments exactly. And yet, murders are happening, letting us know that between Clampett's wholesome message and the mind control rat maze we can't help but feel the writers have done their MONARCH-7 initiation rites. The all-of-a-piece acting works to create a strange vibe somewhere between an old Nancy Drew mystery (starring another of my prepubescent crushes, Pamela Sue Martin) and a Rosemary's Baby style Satanic conspiracy (everything is blamed on suicide and accident, for no one believes 'hysterical' girls).

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.--rather than video streaks, which works for its 70s retro cachet. And in addition to Jackson and Ladd, the students include Pamela Franklin (the girl-child in The Innocents who'd just come off shooting Legend of Hell House) and Jaime Smith-Jackson (who'd just come off Go Ask Alice!)

So look, it's not that great I'll grant you, but there's a certain kind of black magic to this School that defines what I call '70s babysitter cinema:' the hair, clothes and open attitude towards the occult, drugs, danger, and demonic forces, it all conjures precious childhood memories of cute older girl babysitters with straight blonde hair and flared jeans playing with ouija boards on the orange shag rug, framed by macrame owls on wood panelling, the hum of the air hockey game in the corner; staying up late watching scary old movies on the late show (but racing upstairs when we heard the parents' car at her terse whisper, "Go!"), the praying her sketchy boyfriend doesn't roar over on his motorcycle or whatever, and the two end up on the porch half the time smoking and making out rather than playing Monopoly or giving horsey rides. Charlie's Angels was the frosting on the 70s babysitter cinema cake (Spelling was good at making sure the boyfriend never shows up), representing an alchemically-transmuted gold standard of available adult sexuality just achingly beyond our ken, reach, and bedtimes (but reserved for us, when we grew into it), and Spelling's Satan's School for Girls (alongside Death at Love House), was the dark sexy poison cherry always out of reach. Being a TV movie that had come and gone when I was still too young to know about Kate Jackson (I'd have been six when the movie premiered, so barely able to read the TV Guide), Satan's School for Girls rarely came on even in reruns except on nights too late for me to stay up, but not early enough for me to sneak downstairs without waking my parents. The not-seeing it helped make it like a dark jouissance holy relic - even now the titles gives me a dirty roller coaster thrill.

But that's the beauty of a 70s made-for-TV occult movie (and there were a lot), even today they seem designed to be talked over, half-ignored, to become, in the words of King Arthur in Excalibur, "the stuff of future memory." Since one can't review it on youtube or DVD (nothing like that existed yet), the films became talking points, as if lived urban legend experiences, their plots relayed around hushed recess campfires. The actual film became nothing more than a starting point, our imaginations filled in all the blank spots.

Relative to most horror movies made today, the prime time occult TV movie is totally tame, so it's something the whole family can mildly enjoy: there's no kissing or nudity or blood (a few metonymic body parts aside) and there's no kids, or snickering boyfriends to come over and steal our babysitter away to the porch (as they sometimes did), leaving our Monopoly game half-finished for weeks to come. One day, when a first-rate transfer/restoration is undergone, and all that beautiful long straight 70s hair glows like a Terence Malick sunset, me and the seven other people who love this film will chant and dance 'round the altar in ecstatic surrender.

Our unborn demon progeny shall have no bedtime.

(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, and fit the vibe of staying inside and not going out to play with your friends, and expecting Lugosi and company to make it worth your while, and then being 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, 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 god knows where 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, maybe you will know the joy we all found in Bela Lugosi's insane megalomania as he waylays, abducts, 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, but who cares when it's got a nicely skeevy Satanic panic Illuminati-mind control conspiracy subtext to go with its a Monogram pulp energy.

Still it was all rather incoherent to a nine year-old Lugosi fan. Where's the monster? Why is George Zucco wearing the funny hat with the feathers? Who does voodoo in a remote house instead of the jungle? Had the studio no potted fronds?

As an introverted monster kid you just presume you don't understand anything because it's 'adult talk' i.e. gibberish. You never guess that there's nothing there to get, that in fact even as an adult it will still gibberish - but now you love it - now you love the sound of sweet, sweet incoherent... gibberish. It's nostalgic, now, even if it what it reminds you of is those wasted afternoons.

But now I know - it's not Monogram's fault those afternoons were wasted, and with subtext savvy it's also illuminating in the recurring theme with Lugosi movies of the war: the frozen brides waiting under the thumb of some foreigner. This was a kind of forlorn soldier's hope, that his bride's recently awakened sexuality would "keep" in suspended animation until he returned.

For all that, 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); a sad state of affairs when the director and writer admit throughout the film that they don't give a damn about what they're doing and you shouldn't either. But we were used to being told stuff we liked was crap, as kids. 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. 

And he 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. Is it possible to love any movie more? 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 on surefire cure the problem of overpopulation and unmarried old bitches in the days before women had rights: witchcraft accusations. We follow two different relatively minor incidents and follow the thread by which they 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, event follows event, and soon the entire household is rounded up and burnt at the stake. In another a horny young monk can't stop fantasizing about some local girl, therefore rather than pray against temptation, the elder monk flogs him and then denounces the girl as a witch. So of course, she's tortured to death to make her confess. Sooner or later all the women confess to lurid fantasias of midnight orgies in the middle of the woods, all 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's also 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. Dude, I've been there. It's all like some wild datura root nightmare come to life.

On Amazon Prime we have the (to me, superior) 1968 rerelease restored version which was spruced up and given 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 constant heart-wrenching torture unlock past memories through the shattering of the mind and body as modern folklore says happens to create split personalities in CIA assassins ala Sirhan Sirhan? 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, 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. 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. It's always and already been your only home. Drive it and never look back, good buddy, because the Bickle freeze-frame rearview glance might be y'alls last, or already was, or has, or walls.

(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
** (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 skills to keep an actor from taking 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 big studio doctor 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 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 the distillation works to alleviate the crushing boredom of the full serial and the blurry pixelation strangely enough works for the diegetic smoke and mirrors and soul transference (everyone has a glowing aura/halo), crystal ball and stirred fountain effects, and fire pit pixelation like some kind of yard sale surplus Max Reinhardt fairy dust.

Adding to the weirdness is that Bela is Chandu here (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). Me, I can't help but see how poorly that role suits him. Sweating. bloated, overwhelmed, wild-eyed and messy-haired, in ill-fitting white khakis, he can be hard to look at unless you do as I do and pretend Bela's Chandu really is a junkie and that white magic is the power of Ra as we understand him and Black magic is opiates and/or alcohol; the imprisoned white magician Tyba (Jospeh Swickard) is a friend he makes in rehab; his teacher visited in magic smoke is his sponsor (reachable via phone calls / crystal ball) 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 of some kind -- 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, 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 school friends, couples mostly, some who barely know her but come anyway, heedless of the fact their Puritan ancestors burnt her ancestor, Lilith (Arian Aulbright), as a witch 300 years earlier. Lilith's been revived for the party and the Puritan-descended guests dutifully come even though they barely know or don't like Margaret in the first place! The pentagram is drawn. The lights are low. The mansion is gorgeous. You do the math.

Critics decry this DeCoteau-via-Charles Band joint since it's shot on video, the witch make-up is kind of Sid and Marty Kroft-ic, but actually Witchhouse looks fantastic once you give it a chance, thanks to patient Romanian craftsmen (Band had set up shop there at the time, hiring talented local crews and using standing ancient castle locales) who use a stunning array of candles and oil lamps instead of unnatural electric light, giving it has the vibe of some slightly-awry unaired TV movie run at at the four-AM witching hour slot with no mention in the TV Guide. There's all the requisite types for that film's totemic sacrifice: the stoner comic relief, the sex addict normie couple, the dumb jock and his hot blonde punk rock girlfriend; the nebbish bookworm hero and the hot-but-doesn't-know-it bespectacled girl destined to fall in love by night's end, etc. 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 to great effect 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 Halloween tween-friendly style. 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 the stoner's girlfriend gets to knock out Lilith with one punch ("I coldcocked her and locked her in the other room,") so surprises still abound to make up for the lack of convivial mood. 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 sweet little family-safe spookshow burdened by covertly-misogynistic and generally unwarranted negative reviews on imdb and elsewhere. Didn't they notice the lighting? 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, so what are they complaining about? I ain't so brittle. 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), and I let Witchhouse work its magic as a PG-14 spook show with nothing to upset your babysitting charge's Puritan ancestors. Some sex might be implied and there's some gore, but there's no nudity and the romance budding between engineering major super-nerd and the lovely glasses-wearing long blonde hair-wearing history major is actually very nicely acted, with just enough aching "c'mon and kiss her already" tension that we're fully engaged when finally they do. I like seeing the engaged way he figures out how to zap Lilith, and the attraction between the two nerd actors. They feel it as well, so 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 gross eating scenes or any depressing imprisonment, puerile douchebag snickering, 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. Neither turns on the other as a final bloody twist and the nerds win in the end, but who gets to rock out? They do. 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!

(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, and be able to convey that successfully, or at least artistically. This film by newcomer Jason Bognacki shows us that every time we 'let go' of ourselves--even to sleep--there's no proof it will be the same 'us' who wakes up. Telling a surprisingly easy-to-follow tale of a cute young pharmaceutical intern's 18th birthday and the sudden arrival of body-hopping immortal imp witch mother hoping to possess her, Bognacki cycles through a series of Lynchian para-sympathetic matriarchal ellipses and horror hallucinations and dreams-within-dreams, making it harder and harder for us to figure out what's real or for our plucky intern to escape as she learns the truth about her coven heritage. For witches, 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, 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 with so much David Lynch and Lucretia Martel encoded in its bones, it's 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 who finds this loose drunkard druid meditation on Irish horror novelist Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars about a mysterious ring on a perfectly preserved lady mummy hand 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 80s TV movie was mired in Michael Mannish-Miami pastel, shoulder-padded jackets, Ray Bans, perms bouncing to spandex aerobics videos or MTV, Armani, narcissists like Tom Cruise and Richard Gere thinking that playing narcissists who finally get their heads out of their asses absolves them of their past douchebaggery. That said, by 1987 we were wise to that boyish crap, and we had the abortion affidavits to prove it. What we needed was a fresh start, to go back to the Wicker Man paganism, to go back to harvest sacrifice and covens (Children of the Corn came out in 1984) and get away from the rat race.

So come thee, hetero DINC couples to Bay Coven, or Cove as they call it to keep the persecution-crazy Christians away. Here in this isolated island community (only 45 minutes away from San Francisco), an unholy pact has resulted in all the original members still living after 300 years, sacrificing descendants of their auld persecutors and not forgiving them a single fiery trespass. You know, business as usual.. in the '90s... the 1690s. But now they need new blood so its time to recruit Timothy Hutton and and his sexy wife (Pamela Sue Martin!), and to welcome them a little too thoroughly for comfort. So many unanswered questions: Like who the hell does Woody Harrelson think he is and why is he so third-wheeling? Did the citizens use their magic to kill her 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 take 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 on its own instead of "borrowing" everything (right down to the dream sequences) from 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) or its dated ersatz neo-noir look (the muted blue-and-grey shot-on-video colors and venetian blind lighting) and you're doing something else at the same time, like laundry or homework, 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 knew what they were designed solely to keep us watching through the next commercial, mildly absorbed but never fully enthralled, still able to joke about lame dialogue or inept special effects while sharing popcorn mom made by mom or the babysitter on the stove, 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 fooling around, general carrying on (see also: Satan's School for Girls) and talking on the phone. Now that we can watch entire seasons of engrossing, disturbingly vivid TV in one sitting, no commercials, no respite, no return from reality, all that social connection is fading. The TV movie now has to rivet us or it's stopped and the next title on the cue begun.

Now I am become Tivo, the destroyer of thy socializing world.

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), and glum acting. 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 and our own inertia, toying around with New Age accoutrements like it's not just another form of isolation consumerism. 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? Go work as a dominatrix in the afternoons and you can lead the men around on the leash instead like Catherine Deneuve. Wouldn't you like that, huh girl? Who's a good doggie? As Pete Townsend put it in "A Quick One (While He's Away)", "Clangg! Clangg! / Clang / Clanggg!"

You are forgiven.

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.


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