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 – 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 – 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.

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.