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 – 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!