One subtopic of horror cinema that never grows stale (when done right) is folktale-sourced religious mania. I don't mean the dull misogynist witch burning and repressed hysteria, I mean the hallucinating, stigmata-and-schizophrenia ecstasy and torment of the holy fools. I also like the literal interpretations of bygone era's living mythology, ala 2015's The Witch,
transferring to the audience the mentality that may well leave us all to believing witches were real. and the Catholic Inquisition saved humanity from a pervasive barbarous pagan evil that might otherwise have rendered mankind into a state of perpetual fear and savagery (instead of just being sexually frustrated maniacs unable to tell when they're projecting because Freud is still centuries away).
Myth is more alive than ever; just check out the supernatural documentary on the Tavel Channel, the plethora of ghosts, aliens, shrouds of Turin exposed to radiation, miracles and youtube videos run through idiotic talking head commentary. Ghosts, demons, sea serpents, yetis, and aliens hover ever on the edge of scientifically consensual reality. Like true mythology, the best shows never quite cross over to fiction (and being dismissed as hoaxes, paredoloia or mental illness) or scientifically-consensual reality (and moving wholesale into some world-shattering new reality paradigm). The best supernatural horror films tap into that 'maybe' - ala The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist. As long as there's no ultimate signifier 'real' to contrast our protagonist's experience, we never know what is real or imaginary (i.e. if Shelly Duvall walked past the Gold Room and saw Jack at the bar, talking to an empty Shining air, for example, which would put a damper on the scary ambiguity. Without that outsider/sane viewpoint, the first person experience of our main character has to be taken as real, in a vivid way we can experience in the safety of the theater or couch. We can, during this sacred temple space/time, believe everything we see kind of. The best campfire tales are the 'true' ones, the ones that happened to a friend of a friend, you swear it; even if we're 95% sure it's just an urban myth, the lingering jolt of fear wakens one's sleeping senses. When we know for sure you just made it up, that you're making it up on the spot--it loses a lot of its cachet. Watching a film, we can feel it's real even when clearly fiction; the same does not hold true in direct experience.
When there's even the remotest chance it's real, Death becomes externalized and thus we become immortal, weightless, enraptured and divine. When there's no chance it's not real, our mortality crushes down on us like a great weight.
Myth, then is truer than reality, because it creates a coherent language out of the randomness of direct experience. In myth, the devil literally lurks within every temptation, appearing in a cloud of smoke when someone mentions selling their soul for a drink. You can't say that devil is purely fiction. After all, the end result is the same. Just because he acts invisibly, his dark energy infusing its way into one's soul via fermentation rather than sulfur and smoke, doesn't make him any less effective. The extremes of light and dark breathe in myth the way they never do in reality (unless you're manic, schizophrenic, insomniac, tripping, and/or an alcoholic). I can't speak for schizophrenics, but I've been or am all the others on that list, and have seen both angels and demons, I've ridden the snake and walked inside the dragon. Once, for several weeks, I experienced that super rare 'pink cloud' where a flickering rose-tint infuses personal perception. AA members who stick the landing long enough to find the 'pink cloud' can tell you the same thing: the same Monday night meeting that at first was kind of a sad shuffle of broken nicotine-scented boredom and percolated coffee one week suddenly glows with a pink-hued love that makes just being there akin to paradise the next. Which one of the two is 'real'?
Knowing these things can happen from firsthand experience, it make sense that the best movies I've seen in all of COVID--the age of internationally mandatory cabin fever--are about saints and spiritual pilgrims. The 2019 Irish horror film SAINT MAUD, one of the few newer films I've seen lately, is a slow-build minor masterpiece (written/directed by the improbably- named Rose Glass!) about a home care nurse (Morfydd Clark) sent to live with and care for Mandy, a terminally-ill dancer/choreographer (Jennifer Ehle) in a big artsy seaside mansion. Deeply lonely and an undiagnosed, the ascetic Maude gets these sexual current waves of pleasure when praying to her Catholic god; when the waves stop, she falls into a harrowing depression and puts broken glass in her shoes or kneels on pebbles for atonement, olidifying with ascetic intensity the link between modern self-cutting high schoolers and Middle Ages flagellants. When Mandy grows afraid in the dead of night she she momentarily rides the Maud god train, and even catches one of the waves (maybe) while they kneel together. Taking this as a sign, Maud takes it on herself to ward off the dancer's partying lesbian hustler (a kind of anti-Maud) in a move I'm sure she doesn't realize is the sort of thing abusive caregivers do. But if you think she's going hobbles and starves Maud, or and makes her write with a broken typewriter or serves her cold parakeets, you're mistaken, I'm glad to say.
So where is this going. Maud, what are you up to?
We can never be sure 100% she's not a modern day Joan of Arc since we see only see and hear what she sees and hears. Thus we know there's no evil in Maud, just what we presume
is her unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic hallucinations, misinterpreted as godly messages and interventions (as they often are). We feel for her especially if we've suffered from manic-depression or drug or alcohol addiction. She's addicted to the thrill of the touch of God, and when it dries up, she reaches out for booze and sex like she's drowning.
Saint Maud veers with deft drunk savant brilliance out of the path of the typical cliches and snags that so often ensnare neo-horror psychotic female-protagonists, avoiding--though exploring--torture porn obsessions with, auto-mutilation / self-cutting (The Skin I'm In, Thirteen), romantic desperation (May), performance/ persona intertwining (Persona, Always Shine, 3 Women, Clouds of Sils Maria, Mulholland Dr.) or incapacitated victim/mentally-ill caregiver endurance tests (Baby Jane, Misery), Saint Maud's only cliche'd element are the usual smash cut ruts (1). The film's dusky cinematographic beauty and wild, cathartic transfigurative ending makes up for any stale passages. And if we've recently seen Dream No Evil (1970) and longed for a Ridley Scott cut (i.e. remove the pedantic voiceover).
VIY is the other of my new mythic religious faves, a 1967 Russian comic-horror piece about a young monk and a witch he winds up ensnared by after a spring break sleepover at a peasant barn. Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, Viy has the rock hard power of genuine myth behind it and a great, wild-eyed hero in clowning Leonid Kuravlyov. A monk in seminary school (with the terrible bowl cut and burlap robe to prove it) he finds himself forced to read prayers over a beautiful dead girl by a cossack landowner whose word is basically law, at her dying request. It does not go well, and by the third night the witch is calling out the big guns, enough trippy demons coming out of the walls to trigger any bad salvia flashback. Luckily, there is an endless supply of vodka... at least if you live until the cock crows.
Though we can see it working just as well in a trilogy ala Black Sabbath
(1963), this short (70 minutes) never seems dull even during the many day and morning scenes of the Philosopher's incessant escape attempts. The Russian folk horror detail is so point we feel like we're hearing this told by the fireside after a hard day at the harvest - deep in the vastness of rural Russia, where the closest law enforcement might be a three days drive away. Scenes such as when the Philosopher (as he's called by the cossacks) is ridden by an old farmer hag through the fields and the dosed sky like a human unicycle, have a fairy tale surrealism that both beguiles and amuses. There's an almost Hemingway-esque--contrast between the cool, ghost-filled nights of terror and the idyllic pastorale of central Russian farm life: singing, whining, and napping in the warm sun, with big peasant food spreads laid out and a never-ending supply of breakfast vodka. The Philosopher keeps trying to escape, but there's only emptiness outside this weird daytime paradise/nighttime Hell. It kept reminding me of being at summer camp in the Maryland woods in the early-80s when our nights were spent in terror of the Goatman, rumored to be loose in the woods, and that terror making every moment of sunlight seem extra precious.
The only drawbacks to Viy are
perhaps how short it is (barely over an hour) and the over-the-top English dub (which is the only option on streaming). Me, watching it on Shudder inspired me to get the Blu-ray so I could watch it in Russian - much better. It reminds me of those days at camp, the way fear of the Goatman in the dark made us laugh and sing in the daytime, made Jesus alive in our hearts. We all slept with our bibles (it was that kind of camp) and the power of the Jesus made us alive with the kind of love and light that only those truly terrified of the dark can have. We heard the Goatman in every rustle of leaves, every noise in the night; we never saw him directly, but he was there. Viy
and Saint Maud
both get it. Believing is seeing. It's never going to be the other way around.
1. You know what I mean, where boy meets girl with a kind of impersonal hello at some dingy bar and we smash cut to the last few seconds of some joyless hand job or mutually demeaning doggy style. Yawn. Maud, you're better than that!!