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 and enjoy what is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories ever told.

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.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 9

The Keep (1983)

“You can’t stay here…no-one stays here.”

Set in the Carpathian Mountains during the Nazi occupation, The Keep follows the failing fortunes of a German patrol tasked with controlling an ageing military outpost which the outside world seems to have deliberately forgotten. This is a place untouched by time, where the locals still shiver in their beds as the ghosts of those ancient mountain passes howl through that barren and lonely landscape. A heady brew of greed, arrogance and ignorance soon reveals the Keep’s true purpose, and the real reason why its unknown builders constructed that crumbling complex inside out.

By the time the soldiers have accepted the truth it’s far too late, and they find themselves caught between an ancient darkness awakened from its slumber, and a far more recent and recognisable evil. Even the SS discover that they are way out of their league.

Like so many films of this period, Michael Mann’s archetypal tale of an ancient evil released upon the world is a feast of photographic gorgeousness and wonderfully self-indulgent direction. What could easily have been a pretty predictable monster movie is transformed into a visually stimulating story of arrogance, deceit and manipulation, all choreographed to Tangerine Dream’s notable and sought after soundtrack. Some great performances by Jurgen Prochnow, Ian McKellan and Gabriel Byrne see one of recent history’s most destructive forces staring into the abyss through a far darker and more ancient lens.

As a movie, The Keep’s great strengths are undoubtedly its cinematography and the atmospheric tension that Michael Mann builds into the film, as the conquering army finds itself both controlling and yet lost inside an ancient society governed by arcane rules and opaque tradition. It brilliantly exposes the rifts within the German security machine during that tumultuous period, and lays bare the lengths to which desperate and damned men will go for the merest hope of salvation. Also, this is a movie that doesn’t feel the need to explain everything, which leaves the viewer’s imagination so much more space to move around and explore outside the confines of the screen.

The metaphysical and philosophical message of The Keep is profound, as an ancient, knowing evil is nourished first by ignorance and then later by other, lesser evil-doers. The terror within the walls of the Keep had been powerless for centuries and held in check by the simple faith and acceptance of an unarmed and technologically backward people…but modern society always thinks it knows better.

Seemingly lost and almost forgotten for many years, The Keep has enjoyed something of a recent resurgence, now taking its rightful place alongside the other niche movies of the avid collector. Too low budget to be a blockbusting spectacular and yet too well-crafted to be dismissed as a B-movie, The Keep’s archetypal themes and impressive visual design have aged well, bestowing on the viewer the pleasing experience of watching a retro movie that doesn’t feel a hundred years old.

The Keep was constructed by those who came before us, and we can still shudder at the menace and mystery it exudes.

Watch the trailer here and enjoy another gem crammed with arcane wisdom.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 10

The Believers (1987)

“One life is all we ask.”

A sprightly Martin Sheen plays psychologist Cal Jamison in this almost forgotten tale of dark power and ruthless ambition. The movie’s more unsettling scenes are fearlessly portrayed by Oscar winning director John Schlesinger, even though they might’ve struggled to make it past the present day’s more politicised censors.

Not for the squeamish or the easily offended, The Believers tells the story of a professional psychologist who finds himself drawn ever deeper into the shadowy, obsessively secretive worlds of Santeria and Palo Mayombe,* its even darker cousin. The themes of group loyalty and unquestioning faith are squarely interrogated by the film’s unflinching portrayal of blood sacrifice, both animal and human.

Almost as though drawn by some invisible force, Jamison finds himself inside a world hidden behind barriers of blood, custom and language, where the forces of light and darkness wage their unceasing war through Santeria’s hybrid system of African, Latin American and Catholic ritual. The result is a deliciously dark and exotic experience, where even the work of the right hand path feels somehow perilous and forbidden.

The Abrahamic theme of sacrifice through devotion are given a compelling and modern makeover as Jamison is forced to the precipice of trading his son’s soul for a future free from pain, unhappiness and doubt. All that is required for this Faustian bargain is a single life, his firstborn.

The archetypal and metaphysical strength of this movie is often lost behind the disguise of a by-the-numbers thriller, but hidden behind that facade is a deeper, more fundamental and far more disturbing narrative flow. Cal Jamison’s fate is sealed early on when he feels compelled to make a pact with the gods of Santeria in order to protect his son. Of course the father will triumph in the final reel, but a bargain is a bargain and the price must be paid. Regla de Ocha will forever cast a shadow across the life of the father, and the lives of his line.

Now sadly consigned to a few dusty VHS tapes and some short footnotes in filmographies, The Believers’ negative reviews by the great and the good have made it certain that those independent thinkers involved in its creation would make a conscious effort to forget it. Although the Eoin Sprott Studio is clearly credited for special effects, the simulated suffering of animals has probably more than played its part in this underrated film’s unusually rapid and almost contrived slide into obscurity.

This is a great shame, because although the movie features some lurid depictions of deals with the divine, the infamous cases of “Adam” and Mark Kilroy should remind us that life and art are often more closely entwined than we care to admit.

Watch the trailer here, and enjoy a movie that may not rank among the greatest ever made, but deserves a lot more respect than it’s hitherto been given.

* – Some practitioners vehemently dispute the negative perception of Palo Mayombe, claiming it is a media construction based on ignorance and misunderstanding. This is a spiritual and moral discussion, and readers must draw their own conclusions.