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 – 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 clich├ęs 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 – 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.