Goodbye Hollywood

That’s it. I just can’t take any more!

I’m done with Hollywood.

As an avid movie fan, I thought that statement would be a painful one to write, but to be honest I’m glad to have finally gotten it out of my system. I feel free, cleansed, liberated. Already I can feel my mind repairing itself, my critical faculties renewed and reinvigorated.

The break has been coming for a long time, and it’s not the latest round of revelations, accusations and denials swirling around Los Angeles that have hardened my resolve. Instead it’s the increasingly shrill, haughty, condescending and downright hypocritical finger wagging from an embattled and self-regarding gated community. Who the hell told a bunch of pampered actors that they have a duty to harangue the unwashed masses about exactly what they should think on any given social, moral or political issue?

The uncomfortable truth is that Tinseltown has been sick for some years now, becoming psychologically isolated, increasingly embittered and disdainful of the very audience on whom it ultimately relies. We’ve all noticed it, even though we politely pretend that we haven’t. The dizzying blur of remakes, reboots, prequels, sequels and spin-offs has had us all a little worried for a quite a while now. Like an increasingly forgetful relative, we pretend that the mounting evidence of creative constipation is nothing serious, hoping it’s a phase…although deep down we know it isn’t.

Hollywood is done, diminishing fast as a cultural force. Nobody wants to hear yet another multi-millionaire railing at this or that supposed injustice while the guy driving his limo sweats on minimum wage. The Oscars audience steadily shrinks as more and more moviegoers have come to see the A-list glitterati as they really are; a decaying, out of touch and increasingly parasitical class who have no right to lecture anybody about anything.

For me though, the final straw came when I discovered I couldn’t simply rent Rogue One from Amazon. I had a choice of either buying it outright or taking a hike. Talk about service with a sneer.

That was the moment I realised I am no longer viewed as a consumer with choice and agency, I am merely a cash cow to be herded and farmed by both the big studios and tech giants at will. In short, Hollywood thinks nothing of me, yet still believes it has some kind of divine right to pocket my hard earned cash while I give thanks for whatever overly loud, formulaic schlock they condescend to dollop in front of me.

Screw you, Hollywood. You’ve treated me like crap for the last time.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My Top 10 Occult Movies – Full List

Having been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of this short review series, I’ve received several requests for the full list of my favourite occult movies in a single, convenient blog post…so here they are in all their otherworldly glory! Just hit the links below to see each separate review. Maybe you’ll find something new, or maybe you’ll discover a different way of looking at an old favourite. Enjoy the reviews and thank you all for your continued support.

1 – Excalibur (1981) “They made themselves God, and Christ has abandoned us!”

2 – The Mothman Prophecies (2002) “You will see her, in time.”

3 – The Ninth Gate (1999) “Some books are dangerous, not to be opened with impunity.”

4 – The Sin Eater (2003) “The terrible thing about the truth is that sometimes you find it.”

5 – The Medusa Touch (1978) “He sounded quite mad, and yet I believed every word he said.”

6 – Signs (2002) “Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

7 – The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) “There are no injections against the Devil.”

8 – Lord of Illusions (1995) “I escaped from the grave, so I have to give something to the grave in return.”

9 – The Keep (1983) “You can’t stay here…no-one stays here.”

10 – The Believers (1987) “One life is all we ask.”

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 1

Excalibur (1981)

“They made themselves God, and Christ has abandoned us!”

Perhaps my choice of number one occult movie will be a surprise to some readers of this blog, but nonetheless, John Boorman’s adaptation of Thomas Malory’s famous Morte d’Arthur stands head and shoulders above the rest of its class. Excalibur is so overflowing with symbolism, synchronicity and occult references that it’s difficult to truly do it justice in a short blog post such as this.

Boorman’s first and undoubtedly best decision was to abandon any attempt at historical accuracy and concentrate on the archetypal themes explored in this most famous of the chivalric romances. His second and even braver decision was to incorporate the music of Richard Wagner into the score. Thus Excalibur helps to re-establish one of Western art’s greatest triumphs in its true context by wrestling it away from the National Socialists who had so selfishly appropriated it for their own dark and desperate ends.

A stellar cast including Gabriel Byrne,
Liam Neeson,
Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren bring this timeless archetypal tale to life as each character struggles to find wisdom, bring peace and wreak vengeance in a world governed by the rules of blood, magic and honour.

What makes this film so very, very special is its endless attention to detail and the ever-deepening spirals of symbolism that can easily be lost on first, second or even third viewing. For example, the ever present and endlessly shifting symbolism of water is brilliantly exploited as both the sword and the young king rise from water. This idea of birth and rebirth is echoed later as Percival drowns and is yet saved, cleansed and reborn, emerging from depths to finally claim the Holy Grail which he has sought for so long. When considered in the light of Carl Jung’s remarkable work on the symbolic and psychological importance of water, this aspect alone can lead to many hours of thought, discussion and research.

Students of the tarot will delight in just how many of the Major Arcana are hidden in plain sight as the seekers of truth are hung from “the tree” while the exiled Lancelot is re-imagined as the embittered and yet hugely important hermit. The jaded hero re-imagines ancient rites of passage by throwing the blood of Christ into Percival’s face, before sending him on his journey to the mystical Grail castle. Indeed, cups are yet another theme that seems to radiate out from the archetypal Grail to echo and repeat through Arthur’s world.

Of course Lancelot is himself a walking, talking archetype in his own right, easily finding his place somewhere between Achilles and Darth Vader as the fallen hero at last redeemed through self-knowledge and ultimately self-sacrifice. The significance of his self-inflicted wound will not be lost on students of Christian mysticism either.

Indeed, so heavy is the harvest of hidden wisdom within this movie that an entire book would be required to explore it all fully and do it justice. Suffice to say that Excalibur is a story that evolves and develops just as the watcher evolves and develops. What was once thought settled and understood is suddenly seen through different eyes as the viewer brings his own history and knowledge to the experience of watching.

This movie is a truly timeless and archetypal work, and this is what sets it apart from its contemporaries and elevates it to the position of my all-time favourite occult movie.

Watch the re-imagined trailer by HiDef.com and enjoy what is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories ever told.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 2

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

“You will see her, in time.”

Director Mark Pellington’s hugely disturbing exploration of prophesy, obsession, grief and loss is one of the subtlest and most unsettling examples of the modern storyteller’s art. Slowly brought to the boil by some excellent cinematography and the expert use of a non-musical sound score, The Mothman Prophecies manages to make the fantastical feel entirely credible.

Loosely based on accounts of the real-life Silver Bridge disaster, The Mothman Prophecies follows the story of a troubled man searching for answers that simply do not exist. Expertly shot in the freezing emptiness of flyover country, the bleak photography and slow-burn storyline somehow produce an ambient grey chill that seeps out of the screen and settles on the necks and spines of an unsuspecting audience.

Richard Gere steps outside his normal typecast boundaries to deliver a good performance as John Klein, a high-flying journalist who is haunted by the sudden death of his wife. That haunting takes a dangerous turn as it begins to manifest outside of Klein’s own imagination, inexplicably drawing him to an obscure town and leaving him with no knowledge of how he arrived there. As he probes deeper into his own experiences, Klein is forced to accept that the course of his life has been influenced by the same psychological contagion that’s consuming this icy backwater Virginian backwater.

The ever reliable Laura Linney plays the Main Street sheriff who’s struggling to come to terms with the strange sightings and bizarre events that are so unsettling her once peaceful community. Her well rounded character brings her own brand of hard-won wisdom to the increasingly sinister events as they unfold. However, the unsung star of this movie is undoubtedly Will Patton. His portrayal of a small town working man is the very antithesis of the learned mystic who seeks out prophetic powers. This makes Patton’s portrayal of Gordon Smallwood all the more compelling as the luckless labourer is driven first out of his mind and then into his grave by the Mothman’s obscure prophecies, predictions and pronouncements.

This is a brilliantly conceived movie that embraces the Mothman symbolism as somehow both cause and warning of impending disaster. The on-screen action constantly recycles and re-imagines that symbolism to form an overarching pattern that can be felt intuitively but never understood rationally. The Mothman is everywhere, and yet nowhere to be found. His eyes shine through the warning lights of our safety-obsessed world, whilst his voice echoes through the static buzz of phone lines and electrical systems, with no point of origin and no observable design.

Perhaps more than anything else, The Mothman Prophecies is an examination of chance and chaos, those universal forces we attempt to extinguish through learning, reason and ever-increasing organisation. Just like the point, the line and the circle, the Mothman’s mark is an integral part the Divine language, meaning that we unwittingly codify him into our collective experience, and sometimes find him waiting in the shadows of the seemingly ordered world we make for ourselves. We will never be free of the Mothman because we carry him with us wherever we go.

The great strength of the Mothman Prophecies is its unwavering commitment to a real and enduring mystery. The otherworldly prognosticator known only as Indrid Cold is never explained or justified, nor can he be. Is he real or imagined, angel or demon, benign or malevolent? The only certainty is that his appearance heralds disaster for both the communities he blights and those unlucky souls who hear his call from beyond the veil. This stubborn but well-judged refusal to allow the viewer any satisfying conclusion infuses the idea of the inexplicable into the viewer’s mind, where it lingers long after the credits have rolled.

Watch the trailer here and enjoy one of the most unremittingly creepy movies of modern times.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 3

The Ninth Gate (1999)

“Some books are dangerous, not to be opened with impunity.”

Controversial director Roman Polanski manages to pull off the difficult Hitchcock-esque trick of keeping the viewer enthralled by the fairly sedate story of a search for forbidden knowledge hidden among the closely guarded manuscript collections of Europe’s ageing dynasties.

Johnny Depp actually plays a character, rather than a caricature in his portrayal of Dean Corso, a mercenary freelance bibliophile. Concerned only with profit, Corso is employed to authenticate a rare and valuable occult work, which is itself steeped in rumour and folklore. As his investigations continue, a formerly hidden, and yet altogether darker design slowly reveals itself, finally crossing the boundary between historical curiosity and contemporary reality.

Veteran actor Frank Langella is definitely the unsung hero of The Ninth Gate, and he’s more than a match for Depp on screen. His understated menace as the pathologically cold publishing magnate Boris Balkan completely convinces the viewer that they are in the presence of a man who has already gone to, and will go to any lengths to achieve his dark design. He is the shadowy and obsessive puppet master, controlling events from within his private library or from the end of the phone line, seemingly much closer to the action than he appears to be.

The excellent screenwriting and direction effectively immerses the viewer in Corso’s journey from disinterested sceptic to fervent believer, as he is drawn ever deeper into a hidden world of secret power, and those archetypal ideas from whence that power flows. Every clue followed and revelation discovered is skilfully crafted to convince both character and viewer that there is indeed a vein of fundamental truth running through these esoteric texts that the modern world has deliberately chosen first to ignore and then to forget.

Any casual or serious student of occultism will have a field day with the symbolism so skilfully woven throughout this feast of hidden metaphors and mixed messages. At the same time, the Ninth Gate is also a very playful movie, which somehow manages to exploit endless clichés of the genre while still remaining fresh and entertaining. The homages to both Hammer and Wheatley as the movie builds to its conclusion are some personal favourites.

The Ninth Gate also reminds us of the old adage that the destination is nothing without the journey, as Dean Corso undergoes his own everyday initiation into the black arts, fearing neither noose nor fire, to play the greatest of games and win.

Like all great occult books and movies, The Ninth Gate can be revisited time and time again, always offering something new and fresh as life’s journey changes, shapes and influences the eyes through which we see it. Watch the trailer here, and also a nice clip of Dean Corso and Baroness Kessler and find yourself immersed inside the inescapable riddles of the dark arts before you even know it’s happened.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 4

The Sin Eater* (2003)

“The terrible thing about the truth is that sometimes you find it.”

With this stylishly shot tale of intrigue and Vatican politics, the modern movie industry shines a technicolour spotlight on what had previously been an obscure and secretive folk ritual. Screenwriter and director Brian Helgeland expertly blends arcane ritual with Catholic chic as it lifts the lid on a timeless world of forbidden knowledge and those mortals who seek it out.

The late Heath Ledger heads up a cast of well-crafted and entertaining characters as he attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding his mentor’s apparent suicide, a cardinal sin for a man who was already excommunicated. Ledger’s portrayal of Alex Bernier puts an accessible face on this tale of high ritual and realpolitik.

Bernier and his friend Thomas Garrett are the last of the Carolingians, a Catholic order that still embraces the unsanitised church of angels and demons, possession and exorcism. Although something of an embarrassment to the modern Vatican orthodoxy, the two young priests are tasked with investigating rumours that their excommunicated mentor had found redemption through the Other, the Sin Eater.

Peter Weller is aging brilliantly, and he’s never looked or sounded better as Cardinal Driscoll, the Vatican power broker and papal pretender who tasks the two priests with confirming the rumours. The church believes that the existence of a man who can bypass papal authority and guide a heretic soul into heaven is something of a theological loose end, a loose end which should’ve been tied up some centuries before.

As their search drags the two friends ever further into darkness, Bernier begins to understand that tracking down the Sin Eater is just the start of his own personal pilgrimage. As he discovers more about that hidden side door into the afterlife, he also sees that same truth reflected in himself, the course of his own life and the church that set him on his path so many years before. Eventually that newfound knowledge will force him to re-examine all that he believes to be true, and sends his life in an altogether different direction.

Billed as a pretty standard tale of murky goings on in the heart of the Vatican, the profound ideas driving this movie and its wonderfully stylised execution elevate it far above your average Catholicism-is-really-not-that-great yawn fest.

This movie barely seems to be trying as it effortlessly explores the age-old idea of redemption through sacrifice. In this case the Sin Eater assumes the burden of sin himself, thus releasing the soul of the dying and allowing its progression to the afterlife. It also neatly crystallises the endless struggle for truth, and hammers home the stark warning that once discovered, the truth will never allow life to continue as it did before.

Although admittedly on the fanciful side, The Sin Eater is a move that manages to entertain and yet still holds true to its more profound message. Behind the lavish backdrops and frightening effects is a very human story of life, death and self-discovery; beautifully revealed as the aging, world weary Other at last finds peace and is thus reborn and re-imagined for a more modern age.

Watch the trailer here and enjoy number 4 in my occult top 10.

* Also known as “The Order.”

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 5

The Medusa Touch (1978)

“He sounded quite mad, and yet I believed every word he said.”

The late Richard Burton is in fine form as the tortured and occasionally repentant bringer of death and mayhem to those unfortunates who become entangled with his own dark destiny. It’s often been said that Hollywood’s gain was literature’s loss as Burton decided to follow the call of the stage over the comfort of the study. The Medusa Touch gave him the unique chance to blend both roles as he brilliantly portrays conflicted and misanthropic author, John Morlar.

Bludgeoned beyond hope of recovery in the opening scene, Morlar’s strange and haunted life is retraced through a series of interviews and encounters, doggedly unravelled by world weary French detective Inspector Brunel. Director Jack Gold deftly builds and maintains an omnipresent and growing sense of menace in every mundane scene as Brunel slowly wrings the hidden truth from a reluctant cast of characters including barristers, publishers and neighbours, who are all deathly afraid of the nearly dead man without really knowing why. Lee Remick’s performance as the rational therapist who begins to doubt everything she knows is crucial to drawing both Brunel and the viewer into Morlar’s own inevitable descent into insanity.

When Morlar launches his final catastrophic assault on God from the twilight between life and death, Brunel has no choice but to act. Knowing that Morlar’s crimes are beyond any corporal authority, the protector of justice is forced to forsake that which he has sworn to defend by committing murder.

The Medusa Touch’s great strength flows from its sheer ordinariness in the face of the inexplicable, as the characters who cross Morlar’s path are at once relieved and yet hesitant to speak of the supernatural force they somehow sense has touched their ordered, rational lives. Michael J. Lewis’ quirky but will crafted soundtrack brilliantly supports a series of compelling cameos by Derek Jacobi,
Jeremy Brett and Michael Hordern as Morlar’s chill shadow darkens their lives.

Watch the trailer here and enjoy a brilliantly crafted, scripted and sadly underrated film.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 6

Signs (2002)

“Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

Perhaps not a movie that readily springs to mind when considering the subject of occultism, but nonetheless M. Night Shyamalan’s tale of mystic revelation is just filled with archetypal drama. The power of things unseen is experienced through the losses and struggles of very ordinary people with very ordinary lives. It’s just a case of digging below the surface and looking beyond the rural farming community in which this fantastical yet very human story is told.

Indeed, it is to Shyamalan’s credit that he chose a community tied to the earth within which to base his story of extra-terrestrial aggression. Indeed it is the very isolation of the Hess family which makes their story all the more compelling, as it gives a refreshing perspective on the whole alien invasion drama, as the central characters are both far removed from and yet at the very epicentre of the action.

A pre-meltdown Mel Gibson puts in a very believable performance as the embittered Graham Hess, a lapsed preacher who’s come to believe there is little more to this world than what our own senses can reveal. Having lost his wife in a tragic accident, he can no longer accept the idea that there could possibly be a beneficent presence in the world which transcends our rational understanding. God is a ghost to him now. In philosophical terms, Hess has been forced to face the problem of suffering, and he cannot reconcile his own personal pain with the idea that redemption can be found even in the darkness.

The ever reliable Joaquin Phoenix puts in a wisely understated role as Merrill Hess, who can’t stand to see his older brother abandoning the spiritual centre around which his entire existence had previously revolved.

The seemingly routine story of loss leads to an unexpected turn of events as the Hess family find themselves barricaded inside their isolated farm while alien raiders descend upon the globe. With no real training or weapons, they are forced to rely upon their wits and each other to survive, and it slowly begins to dawn on Graham Hess that they might not be completely alone in their struggle after all. They won’t be rescued by any avenging angel, but the signs were always there.

Atmospherically shot and expertly scored, this film’s philosophical strength lies in its ability to bestow profundity upon the mundane, and to remind the viewer that all action and reaction has meaning, suggesting a higher if obscure purpose for all things. This revelation unfolds as Graham Hess finally begins to understand that he, Merrill and even the children have been subtly guided to a time and place where they can at last read the signs and save the day.

Shyamalan expertly exploits the crop circle craze of the nineties and noughties to tap into the timeless idea of an alien invasion. This psychological sleight of hand fools the viewer into thinking he’s watching a monster movie, when the real story is that much quieter and more subtle; as easy to miss as the signs themselves unless you’re really paying attention.

Although not really intended as an occult movie, the perennial message of the wondrous hiding in plain sight is extremely satisfying. It also serves as an important reminder that archetypal influences are often so subtle that it’s very hard to distinguish them from the simple activity of life itself.

Above all, this is a film that teases the viewer with the possibility that life’s coincidences are part of a larger, more complex design we are seldom able to discern. However, every now and then the veil may part, showing us a glimpse of those forces we often dismiss as mere chance or blind luck.

Watch the trailer here and enjoy Signs, the most subtle of occult movies.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 7

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

“There are no injections against the Devil”

Possession or Psychosis? Free will or doctor’s orders? Prayer or pills?

Director Scott Derrickson expertly walks the tightrope between supernatural scares and insightful drama to craft a movie that both frightens and thinks in equal measure. No mean feat in such a genre, but solid performances from Tom Wilkinson as Father Richard Moore and Laura Linney as his reluctant yet ambitious attorney add a layer of gravitas to what might otherwise have become a run-of-the-mill supernatural shocker. Jennifer Carpenter deserves a special mention for her brilliant performance in the title role. Her stomach-churning contortions and screeching profanities are a compelling contrast to the demure and modest family girl who makes her first pious appearance on screen. A challenging and far from glamourous role for an aspiring actress, and she rises to the occasion brilliantly.

Although probably a turnoff for hardcore horror fans, the sparing yet expertly imagined special effects produce their fair share of popcorn spilling shocks. This movie is a great reminder to Hollywood that sometimes less is more. Perhaps it’s the incongruous courtroom atmosphere that enables these supernatural scares to punch well above their weight as the story of Emily’s descent into darkness and death is retold through anecdote and testimony, both inside and outside the courtroom.

The storyline is further strengthened as Father Moore slowly becomes counsel to his own lawyer, warning that the darkness is already working hard to discredit both himself and the church. While initially sceptical, all her old certainties are overshadowed by doubt as she is increasingly haunted by terrifying visions herself. Although faith is still wanting, she is gradually overcome by a genuine desire to learn the truth, and to defend a man whose greatest sin was to respect the wish of a soul in his care.

Based loosely on the true and harrowing story of Annelies Michel,
The Exorcism of Emily Rose expertly drags questions of faith, free will and self-sacrifice away from the abstract orbit of the bar discussion and makes them the central pivot around which the lives and deaths of the characters revolve. This very real examination of faith and freedom is excellently expressed in the relationships between Emily and those around her. The script wisely abandons the yawningly stereotypical fundamentalist father in favour of some far more believable family and friends. Emily’s folks may have lived by the Good Book, but the scriptwriters have resisted the urge to sneer at them for it. In turn the finished movie has rewarded their self-control with a solidity which is often absent in similar works.

This is most definitely a film which captures the vexed and dishonest spirit of our age. We entrust ourselves wholly to medical science, professing blind faith in that which can possess no wisdom. We exult the sovereignty of the self, yet turn viciously on heretics when that sovereign self dissents from secular dogma. In a world where priestly robes are transformed into white coats, a man might still risk all if he crosses the Establishment. It may yet cost him his reputation, his liberty and even his life!

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 8

Lord of Illusions (1995)

“I escaped from the grave, so I have to give something to the grave in return.”

A pre Star Trek Scott Bakula stars as Harry D’Amour, Clive Barker’s occult gumshoe who’s often up to his neck in dark and dirty deeds, whether he likes it or not. When the glamorous wife of a world-class illusionist asks for his help, D’Amour finds himself pitted against the entertainment establishment, moneyed interests and a conspiracy of silence surrounding the life and death of a mysterious man known only as Nix. D’Amour is forced to conclude that he has landed in the middle of something a lot more sinister than a few artistic types playing adult Illuminati games.

As seems to be common with many such movies, Barker’s sunbleached story of the life, death and rebirth of Nix’s nihilistic cult received mixed reviews upon its release, but has quietly gained a sizeable following over the ensuing decades. Here we have another example of great work largely ignored by the entertainment establishment, only to be supported by a growing and appreciative audience. Politically speaking, films like Lord of Illusions confirm that the democratisation of opinion is alive and well.

As is so often the case with Clive Barker’s work, this movie’s greatest strength flows from its cast of well-formed and decidedly dark characters. In this world there are no good guys, and the only force which can challenge the psychotic Nix is erstwhile acolyte and confirmed anti-hero Philip Swann, the only living man to have learned at least some of his secrets. These two adepts are supported and opposed by the world-weary D’Amour, the sadistic Butterfield and the elegant yet mendacious Valentin.

Not always easy on the conscience, Lord of Illusions is a dark parody of the archetypal resurrection, of journeying beyond the veil, to return as something more than merely human. However, it also makes plain that there is no supreme arbiter of good and evil. There is only free will, and the very human failings that are exposed and multiplied once unbridled power is granted or stolen.

Visually, Lord of Illusions is a great piece of work, and the opening shots of Nix’s dusty domain wonderfully set the scene for the seemingly straightforward yet deeply profound events that follow. There are admittedly some experimental CGI shots that have not aged well, but these are more than compensated for by Barker’s skill in bringing the lawless badlands of the Mojave desert to life. A useful reminder that even the sunshine can be creepy as hell.

The cinema trailer is notable for its Dead Can Dance soundtrack, although it’s given greater prominence in the LaserDisc teaser. It’s also interesting to note that the current standard rental release has been cut, omitting original and some might say unacceptable scenes of familial murder by Nix’s acolytes as they return to the dark church to witness their insane master’s ultimate escape act.

Although not as visceral as Barker’s wildly successful Hellraiser or Candyman series, there is still enough of his trademark toe-curling body terrorism to keep the splatter gang entertained. However, his use of occult symbolism in the right places, coupled with his successful manipulation of archetypal themes mark this movie out as a cut above your average teen slasher or inverted cross shocker. Above all, this is a tale of what happens when seemingly limitless power ends up in the hands of very, very limited people.