Extra Ordinary (2020)

It was only a matter of time before Taika Waititi’s brand of sweet, understated humor started registering as a direct influence on other comedic media. I already felt that influence last year on the minor Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers (which was produced by Waititi and featured several of his regular collaborators), but this year’s Extra Ordinary feels like evidence that it’s now reaching out even further into the ether. Borrowing a humble, reserved approach to the horror comedy genre that Waititi previously explored in What We Do in the Shadows, Extra Ordinary is an absurdly polite, underplayed farce about ghost hunters in small-town Ireland. It’s not quite as comedically successful as Waititi’s modern-day vampire comedy (nor the What We Do in the Shadows TV show, nor its closest competitor Los Espookys), but it does nail the lowkey charm that made it such a success. This is an adorably sweet, character-driven comedy about relatable people dealing with a seemingly insurmountable crisis they don’t deserve to suffer; that crisis just happens to involve demons, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena.

A meek, reclusive driving instructor with a past as a paranormal medium (Maeve Higgins) is drawn out of her shell to help stop a washed-up rock star (Will Forte) from completing a Satanic sacrifice that would revive his career. The ghosts she encounters along the way are mostly pretty mundane, taking the shape of animated electrical appliances, squawking birds, and a domestically abusive, chain-smoking housewife. She reluctantly gets back into the rhythm of interacting with these apparitions for the sake of saving her nemesis’s intended virgin sacrifice. That sounds like a heroic cause in the abstract, but the process mostly involves making her equally shy love interest vomit up a semen-like ectoplasm after briefly engaging each ghost in a polite chat. Even the Satanic ritual at the climax is undercut from achieving anything genuinely Cool or Horrific by mundane interruptions like minor traffic accidents, bickering couples, and Chinese food delivery. It’s an extremely silly, absurd movie when considered in totality, but in the moment everything is so aggressively pleasant that its cartoonish qualities don’t immediately register.

It takes a minute for Extra Ordinary’s sense of humor to fully heat up, by which I mean that it takes the audience a minute to adjust to its characters’ peculiarly muted wavelengths. The film is plenty funny once it builds that momentum, though, and it eventually stages a hugely satisfying farcical payoff in its final Satanic showdown that makes everything that preceded feel like a movie-long setup to a remarkably solid punchline. It traffics in grotesque, horrific scenarios involving demonic possessions, domestic abuse, and paranormal sex fluids, but the characters who navigate them are so quietly sweet that you hardly notice how harsh or over-the-top the whole thing feels from afar. It’s close enough to the Waititi formula that you recognize the influence, but specific enough in its own characterizations that it succeeds at being its own distinct thing. It’s also the kind of comedy that likely rewards repeat viewings, since it centers remarkably sweet characters you can’t help but want to spend more time with once you get to know them.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail Satan? (2019)

“It’s a great day to be a Satanist! It’s a great day to be a human being.”

The longer I reflect on the movie in retrospect, the more I appreciate the question mark in Hail Satan?’s title. This is a film that constantly challenges your assumptions about what it means to be a Satanist in the modern world until you start to question whether you’re a Satanist yourself, and how you can strive to be a better one. If I were still a shithead contrarian mall-goth teen with a chip on my shoulder about having been raised Catholic, I might have preferred that titular punctuation to be an explanation point. Fuck yeah, Hail Satan! And down with homework too! The surprise of this half-documentary, half propaganda piece is how it makes you wonder whether that same youthful contrarianism could be weaponized into a genuinely productive tool for political activism. I went into the film expecting to roll my eyes at close-minded Richard Dawkins types who immaturely latch onto atheism as if it’s a belief system rather than an absence of one. I left politically Fired Up and questioning my own core beliefs. Am I a Satanist? Is it moral to be anything else?

As the documentary explains, “Satanist” used to be a pejorative term that political & religious deviants were labeled with by others, not something that was chosen as a prideful belief system. That changed with Anton LaVey’s publicity carnival The Church of Satan, which openly mocked Christian piousness & ritual in a celebration of the self & selfish pleasures. The main subject of this documentary, The Satanic Temple, reconfigures LaVey’s mission into something more purposeful & coherent. The group still values the worship of the self and the fixation on Earthly existence over preparation for an unlikely afterlife that LaVey “preached,” but they take an active, overtly political role in making that Earthly world a better place to live. The entire foundation of the Temple was designed to directly, purposefully oppose the escalation of the Christian Right’s unconstitutional involvement in American politics. They’re just as drawn to troll-job media stunts as The Church of Satan, but in this case the mockery is targeting the way Christian political groups defy the Constitutional separation of Church & State by officially endorsing candidates, erecting Ten Commandments tablets at state capitals, and promoting prayer in public schools. They’re taking a clear stand against the increasingly prevalent lie that “This is a Christian nation,” by countering, “Actually, that’s factually inaccurate and to disagree would be just as un-Christian as it is un-American.”

Of course, there is a certain level of contrarian trolling afoot in this us vs. them dynamic, and that’s partly what makes the documentary such a fun watch. Members of The Satanic Temple are mostly just wholesome, politically conscious nerds who’ve dressed themselves up in Sprit Halloween Store costumes to play the part of wicked Satanists. That’s what makes it so funny when Catholics & Evangelicals take their roles as harbingers of Evil at face value, visibly terrified of the threat they pose to humanity’s collective soul. They deserve the pushback too, as all the Temple is really doing is appropriating Christian Right political tactics to expose them as hateful hypocrisy & unconstitutional bullying, merely by applying them in another religious context. The Temple only wants to install a statue of Baphomet on state capital grounds in cases where the commandments are already represented – unconstitutionally. Their satirical publicity stunts are mostly aimed to draw attention to how often Christian political pundits overstep their bounds because they represent the “dominant religion” in a secular nation. If anyone else pulled this shit, they’d be immediately shut down with an indignant fury, yet we rarely challenge the intrusion because the Christian opposition seems so insurmountable, especially in the American South. Watching their own infuriating political tactics turned back on them like the barrels of Elmer Fudd’s gun is immensely satisfying.

As a documentary, Hail Satan? has very little interest in historical context or unbiased presentation of current events. It dials the clock back to the Christian doubling-down in American politics of the Cold War 1950s and the Satanic Panic 1980s, but only to clarify that the idea that United States is “a Christian Nation” is a relatively recent lie that defies the intent of the Constitution as it was written. Mostly, this is a work of pure propaganda, promoting a single organization’s effort to fight for free speech & political secularism in the US. Some artistic representations of Satan from pop culture touchstones like Häxan, Legend, and The Devil’s Rain illustrate the political platform presented here, but the strongest case the film makes for its allegiance to The Devil is to point out that Satan Himself was a political activist in Christian lore. He dared to challenge God, which sometimes feels just as daunting as challenging the political bullying of the well-funded, over-propagandized Christian Right. It turns out that teenage mall-metal shitheads who hail Satan to annoy their parents are accidentally stumbling into a legitimate, worthwhile political stance that could only benefit modern Western society if it were taken more seriously. So yeah, it’s the kind of propaganda piece that promotes its subject rather than questioning it, unless you count questions like “How could anyone in good conscience be anything but a Satanist?” and “How could I better serve & emulate Satan in my daily life?”

-Brandon Ledet

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

The two things I dislike & distrust most about 1970s grindhouse genre cheapies are the rampant depictions of sexual assault and the lethargic, stoney-baloney pacing. I Drink Your Blood suffers from both, yet the movie charmed me anyway. For all the exploitative & energetic faults I can find in the film as a supposed shock-a-minute gore fest, it’s just too gleefully & gloriously trashy on a conceptual level for me to disregard its merits. A nasty grindhouse gross-out about rabid, Satanic hippie cannibals chowing down on the God-fearing folks of a town just like yours, I Drink Your Blood is perfectly calibrated midnight fare. Even my complaints about its pacing & careless sexual assault issues are more endemic to the era of its genre than indicative of its strengths as an isolated picture; the rape occurs off-screen, not at all played for titillation, and the slow pace allows breathing room for a rowdy public screening party atmosphere (that I was likely missing out on by watching the film alone on my couch via Kanopy). This is one of those curios that’s commendable for the audacity of its own existence, especially considering its ludicrous premise and the extremity of its apparent politics—a movie that’s most entertaining for the disbelief that your watching it all, that it was ever made or distributed.

Satan-worshipping hippies invade a small town, planning to stage sacrificial rituals in the nearby woods. They brutalize & rape eavesdroppers, laugh in the face of local children & elderly, and tiptoe toward graduating from animal sacrifices to their Dark Lord to human ones. Fed up with the adults around him’s unwillingness to confront these youth culture reprobates, a child plans to rid his town of the hippie scum by feeding them meat pies he injects with rabies-infected dog blood. The plan backfires, as the hippies foam at the mouth and become crazed cannibals, eating everyone they can get their mouths on, spreading rabies to survivors. The result is the mayhem typical to a zombie outbreak, with the red acrylic stage blood of most grindhouse productions bathing the town as lives, limbs, and infected rats are liberally strewn about. The rabies is also spread through the hippies’ shameless sexual exploits (such as banging an entire crew of construction workers at once), recalling early stirrings of Cronenberg freak-outs like Shivers. You could probably also track the film as an influence on other mania-driven horrors like George Romero’s The Crazies, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, and even the recent Nic Cage pic Mom & Dad, but ultimately it feels very much like a product of its time, just another batshit insane drive-in horror of the grindhouse era.

Nothing demonstrates I Drink Your Blood’s quality of being of its time quite like the film’s connection to the Manson Family murders. Less than a year after the infamous slaughter of Sharon Tate & house guests, this film shamelessly exploited the public’s fear of acid-dropping, Satan worshipping hippies by making the entire Free Love moment look like a cover for the hedonistic violence that was secretly driving the counterculture. It even makes hippies’ perceived egalitarian racial politics out to be something oddly sinister, with widely varied ethnicities represented among the cannibals’ ranks exaggerated as if they were gangs from The Warriors. And just in case you don’t connect the dots between those killer hippie scum and the killer hippies in the newspapers, the cannibals in the film write “PIG” in lipstick on their first human sacrifice’s stomach, one of the more widely-shared lurid details from the Sharon Tate tragedy, I Drink Your Blood attempts to scare audiences with alarmist depictions of youths gone out of control, the same tactic exploited in later cult pictures like Class of 1999. The irony, of course, is that most of the audience for these shock-a-minute genre pictures is the youth of the day, so that they always play as a kind of perverse, tongue-in-cheek parody of that alarmism.

Despite all of I Drink Your Blood’s shoddiness in craft and laughable attacks on the ills of youth culture & peace-loving (read: Satan-worshipping) hippiedom, the film is still grimy enough to be genuinely upsetting. Its characters’ hyperviolent LSD freak-outs are never accompanied by goofball hallucinatory imagery — instead manifesting as frustrated, sweaty intensity & wide-eyed madness. Even before the LSD or rabies kicks in, the hippies are already at least a little terrifying, especially as they maniacally chase rats out of their new squat with early signs of bloodlust. That mood-setter makes the eventual rabid hippie mayhem feel like a plague of rats spreading through small-town America – a grotesquely reductive, Conservative view of the times (hilariously so). There’s an authenticity to that viewpoint too, as even the crew of this production had territorial fights with the residents of the small town where they filmed, uptight folks who did not want their kind around. I could lie & say that this genuinely disturbing grime & historical context are what makes the film worth a watch, but the truth is that those are just lagniappe textures to the movie’s true bread & rabid dog’s blood-injected butter: the absurdity of its premise. Like most grindhouse fare, this is a movie that’s largely entertaining for its over-the-top conceptual indulgences, something you have to tolerate a little moral unease & impatience to fully appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

The Babysitter (2017)

McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. His unmeasured, over-enthused music video tackiness is perhaps only suitable (or even tolerable) when delivering easy-to-digest, winking at the camera genre thrills at under 90min of violent, over-sexed pop media. I never would have supposed that horror comedy would be the sweet spot that forgave McG’s many, many sins against good taste, but The Babysitter proves just that.

A young, bullied nerd stays awake past his bedtime to spy on his older, cooler, hotter babysitter and discovers that she’s the ringleader of a Satanic blood cult. If this premise sounds like it should have been pitched 30 years ago, don’t worry; McG & writer Brian Duffield pretend as if they’re still operating in a socially & politically tacky 80s horror climate. The Babysitter relies heavily on the high school clique archetypes, lipstick lesbian make-outs, and (most despicably) racial caricature of ancient pop media as a launching point for its gore-soaked horror humor. The morality of this backwards mindset can be periodically icky, but the cartoon energy of the production design and the crazy-eyed performance from Samara Weaving as the titular hot girl villain (which is like a high school age version of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn interpretation) make the occasional bad taste squirm worthwhile. The idea of prurient curiosity from a young nerd spying on their perfect, ideal babysitter in hopes for sexual discovery instead leading him to becoming a targeted witness of a Satanic blood ritual is a solid hook, one McG bizarrely reduces to a gory music video remix of Home Alone. The Babysitter somehow even presents subtle themes about the anxieties of oncoming puberty & sexual awakening in the midst of its gory sugar rush eccentricity, especially in how its older, hornier teenage Satanists look through the eyes of its petrified junior high nerd protagonist. Those themes just aren’t very deep or tastefully executed. That’s not the McG way.

If you can look past its stubbornly dated moral center and eye-bleeding Cat in the Hat production design, The Babysitter works fairly well as a trashy horror comedy for the Riverdale age (just with some Family Guy touches unfortunately peppered in for flavor). The way it turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors is a great backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies. The film could’ve used more screentime exploring the sex & Satanic ritual aspects of its teen villain occultists, but there’s something endearingly perverse about the way McG devolves the premise into Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists instead. The bright colors, eccentric camera work, onscreen text, and lack of moral self-awareness are befitting of a children’s film from decades in the past, but also work surprisingly well in a trashy, direct-to-streaming horror comedy context. McG might have finally found his niche — his tacky, cavity-causing, shamefully amusing niche.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil’s Candy (2017)

Heavy metal & horror seem like an obvious, foolproof combination, but mixing the two comparably macabre mediums for easy cinematic terror without backsliding into clichéd cheese is actually a very difficult balance to strike. For every successful metal-themed horror film, like the recent triumph​ Deathgasm, there’s a thousand corny hair metal & nu-metal failures that make the entire enterprise feel like a cheap, half-cooked financial ploy. As with most hyper-specific fandoms, such as superhero comics or pro wrestling or video game cultures, there’s always a sense with metal that inauthentic outsiders will be eaten alive by those in the know if they aren’t coming from the knowledgeable starting point of a true fan. The metal in Deathgasm and even Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny feels true to the culture in ways that less successful (but enjoyably campy) features like Shock ‘Em Dead & Trick or Treat (1986) don’t and through that authenticity they build a more long-lasting, dedicated fan base. I believe The Devil’s Candy will also strike a chord (heh, heh) with true metal fandom in the same way. It makes a strong case for itself as a title worth being championed by the legions of black leather-clad headbangers out there who’re hungry for authentic metal-themed horror. It even does so without acknowledging the basic silliness of that combo the way the more comedic titles Deathgasm & Pick of Destiny do.

A young family moves into what’s quickly revealed to be a haunted house. The gloomy teen daughter struggles to find footing in her new school, but bonds with her work-at-home artist father (Can’t Hardly Wait/Empire Records‘s all-growed-up Ethan Embry) over a shared love of melt-your-face metal riffs. The mother (UnReal‘s Shiri Appelby) doesn’t share their passion for ear-shattering monster riffs, but the family functions well as an insular unit. This cohesion unravels, of course, as the demons that haunt their new home show themselves as an artistic muse both for the paterfamilias painter and for the mentally disabled man who formerly occupied their home and is revealed very early in the proceedings to be a self-conflicted murderer. The painter loses time while feverishly working on increasingly disturbing art in his new studio space, dropping the ball on his familial obligations while sinking into a hypnotic state. This leaves his wife & daughter vulnerable to the cursed home’s former resident, who’s similarly compelled to hypnotically riff on his candy red, flying-V guitar at unreasonable volumes . . . as well as to chop up children with a hacksaw. As the painter reflects on the young figures that suddenly populate his increasingly violent works, he explains, “It’s like these children are inside of me, begging, screaming to get out. And I don’t know why.” Presumably, the child killer feels the same way about his own unsavory passion, but he much less eloquently states that children “are the sweetest candy of all.” It’s an effectively creepy line.

Story-wise, The Devil’s Candy is a fairly standard haunted house creepshow, not much different from other recent low budget horrors like We Are Still Here or I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. The film is slickly edited, however, especially in scenes where Ethan Embry’s painter loses time in a trance while images of his intensifying artistic process mix with the equally haunted killer’s own mode of expression: dead children. It’s an eerie device for depicting possession, one where ghosts & demons are only felt onscreen through the artistic muse of the people they torment. The metal soundtrack that flavors these scenes is only ever disrupted by the always-creepy sounds of Catholic mass (I feel comfortable saying that as someone who was reluctantly raised in the Church), which pushes the central hauntings beyond basic artistic obsession into a religious (if blasphemous) zealotry. Character actor Leland Oser (who recently killed it as the lead in Faults) appears occasionally as a priest on the killer’s personal collection of VHS tapes to explain that Satan is very much real and that humans are His demons who walk the Earth, allowing Him to express His evil through their bodies. Sometimes this takes the form of oil on canvas; sometimes it looks like hacked-up dead children. The basic premise of the film might be an overly familiar concept, but the way it’s expressed onscreen as artistic muse is still chillingly effective.

Initially premiering at the Toronto International Film Fest in 2015 and being quietly dumped to VOD two years later, The Devil’s Candy isn’t likely to make waves outside eagle-eyed horror circles. Within these clusters of people who obsessively pick over every new horror release, however, the film’s likely to find a significant, dedicated audience, especially with folks who regularly listen to metal. The Devil’s Candy‘s haunted house premise is far from a game changer, but its slick editing style and authentic heavy metal aesthetic is likely to win over a very specific, very dedicated audience in the long run. They might award the film two devil horns way up \m/ \m/ instead of the traditional Siskel & Ebert thumbs, but the sentiment will be all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Mark of the Witch (1970)

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Many moons ago when I was at boarding school, there was a patio restaurant across the main drag from campus that had a detached building containing the restrooms. In the short hallway between latrines, there was a poster for a horror flick I had never heard of, entitled Screams of a Winter Night. After some research using 2004-era internet access (no small feat, to be honest), I found that the movie had been filmed in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana (where my boarding school was located) by college students in the late seventies. They made three prints of the film and took them to drive-ins in the nearest cities, where Screams was discovered and picked up for nationwide distribution. Although it’s my understanding that the film has since found a home on DVD, it took some time to locate a pirated VHS copy of the movie at that time; although it has a certain nostalgic appeal for me, it’s not a very good movie, being largely amateurish in its narrative cohesion and poorly filmed in general, with lighting that renders much of the film impossible to see at points. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing it for the site one day, but this is really just a preamble to discuss today’s selection, another cheap regional production, 1970’s Mark of the Witch, which, unlike Screams of a Winter Night, is actually a lot of fun and definitely worth seeking out.

In the late sixties, two Dallas women named Martha Peters and Mary Davis noticed that, although the horror genre was exploding, very few films were being made by or for women. Since both women had an academic interest in the occult, they composed a draft of Mark of the Witch, in which a young co-ed is possessed by the spirit of a centuries-dead witch. The film was shot with a cast and crew comprised mostly of local Texan amateurs: Peters seems to have never written anything else, while Mary Davis’s sole other screenwriting credit was for 1974’s Scum of the Earth. This was the first directing credit for Tom Moore as well, although he would direct Return to Boggy Creek (sequel to The Legend of Boggy Creek) seven years later before going on to have a largely unremarkable career as a TV director for episodes of various programs, including Cheers, Picket Fences, The Wonder Years, Mad About You, and L.A. Law.

The film opens with the hanging of the titular witch (Marie Santell), overseen by the betrayer MacIntyre Stuart (Robert Elston); he and two other members of their coven turned on the other ten members, leading to their execution. With her final words, the witch curses Stuart: he and all of his descendants shall bear her mark, until she returns to exact her vengeance. Some three centuries and change later, Leonard Nimoy lookalike Alan (Darryl Wells) is buying some books on witchcraft at the local university bookstore, where his girlfriend Jill (Anitra Walsh) is assisting with a book drive. They briefly discuss the psychology course that they are taking from Professor “Mac” Stuart (Elston again) and make plans to attend one of his parties/seminars that evening. After Alan leaves, Jill discovers a real spell book, later identified as the Red Book of Appin. That evening, she brings the book to the meeting and encourages her friends and classmates, including horndog Harry (Jack Gardner) and ditzy Sharon (Barbara Brownell), to participate in a ceremony outlined in the book: summon a witch.

When nothing seems to happen, the group disbands for the evening and Alan, unaware that Jill has been possessed by the witch, gives her a ride back to her dorm, shrugging off her strange behavior as a kind of joke. Jill returns to Stuart’s home and tells him the truth. Stuart had donated the Red Book, a family heirloom, to the book drive in the hope that it would be found and a ritual performed as a psychological experiment; after a few demonstrations of her power, Stuart and Alan realize that they have unleashed an old evil in modern times. While the possessed Jill seeks out and kills Harry and Sharon to complete a rite that will make her ruler of the world, Alan and Stuart work together to try to find a way to exorcise her possessor before it’s too late.

This is a fun little movie, and surprisingly impressive for a film made on such a small budget and with only local talent. The fun is mitigated in a few places by special effects failures (the fire that the possessed Jill uses in her rites at the wooded grove is no larger than a dinner plate, for instance) and some repetitiveness (the witch uses the same overlong invocation in a few separate scenes), but it’s obvious that all of the players involved are having fun, and that sense of bonhomie and good humor is infectious enough that it’s no trouble to get swept up in the moment.

I saw the film at the Alamo Drafthouse’s weekly Terror Tuesday event in Austin, and the reels themselves were provided by the American Genre Film Archive, which is committed to preserving little oddities like this. Host Joe Ziemba noted that the film had never been checked out from the archive since its induction, and that only a few dozen people had seen the film in its original release. Although the quality of the 35mm print was imperfect (some parts of the film itself had actually turned to dust, resulting in a few skips in the narrative and a blank screen), it was still a great viewing. The entirety of Mark of the Witch appears to be available on YouTube, so viewing it in your own home is not only easy, but highly recommended.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Witch (2016)

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A lot of times when you tell people that you really liked a horror movie the first question they ask is “Was it scary?” Now, that’s not a requirement for me to enjoy myself at a horror showing. Horror can be funny or gruesome or just eccentric or interesting enough to make questions about whether or not it was scary to even be relevant. With The Witch, however, I can actually answer that question bluntly & with enthusiasm. The Witch is a scary movie. It’s a haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan, so it has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was a scary movie, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying.

What makes The Witch scary, though, might also prevent it from becoming a commercial success. With the full title The Witch: A New England Folklore, this is a film much more concerned with upholding traditions in the mythology surrounding witchcraft than it is with entertaining its audience with a kill-a-minute sense of modern horror momentum. Far from the cinematic witchery you’d see in films like Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, or The Withes of Eastwick, The Witch is scary because it feels real. It strays from the temptations of movie magic escapism by telling a small, grounded story about a slowly-escalating supernatural event in the most muted, straightforward methods possible. I can see a lot of audiences seeking a typical horror movie experience being turned off by The Witch‘s art house sense of hushed drama & pacing, but that’s exactly what makes it such an engaging, terrifying experience if you can get on its wavelength.

Depicting the unraveling of a small Puritan family at the edge of the New England wilderness in the 17th Century, The Witch makes it clear very early that its supernatural threat is not only real, but it’s also really fucked up. The titular witch is an ugly, uncaring, unapologetically Satanic force of Nature. Her devout, pious victims are a paranoid family of many superstitions, all of which seem to prove true one at a time as if the witch were systematically confirming every horrific thing ever said about her & her kind. The strange thing about this set up is that the witch checks into cause havoc in occasional spurts (stealing an infant, seducing the weak-willed, spreading sickness & ritually participating in genital mutilation, etc.), but for the most part her presence is felt, but not seen. The main source of terror in the film is the cruelty of Nature at large. The witch is just one weapon in Nature’s arsenal, which is revealed to be quite large & varied by the time the film reaches its stunning conclusion. The Puritan farm family suffers many blows at Nature’s uncaring, ungodly hand, especially as their religious faith is tested & strained by heartbreaking loss & physical pain.

The old-timey vibe aimed for in The Witch is not only a matter of aesthetic. It’s essential to the film’s entire existence. The Witch is set in a time when its tales of cursed goats, Satan’s attempts to recruit the youth, and minor sins like “prideful conceit” causing you to fall out of God’s protective favor would’ve been very real, tangible concerns. As the film’s central family fails to navigate these Old World dangers on New World turf while remaining intact as a single unit, a deeply unnerving effect swells from the nightmare sound of the string arrangements in the film’s gloriously-evil sounding musical score. The Witch doesn’t solely evoke its 17th Century time frame by peppering its dialogue with “thee”s & “thy”s and lighting its characters like an old Dutch painter. It transports the audience to the era, making you feel like fairy tales like Hansel & Gretel and folklore about wanton women dancing with the devil naked in the moonlight might actually be real threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart & devour the pieces. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but it is a significantly more rewarding film than strict genre fare can be when it too closely plays by modern rules. The Witch is a scary movie, but what’s impressive is that it scares you with an outdated threat of a tratidional folklore that’s no longer supposed to feel as real as it does here.

-Brandon Ledet

The Satanist (1968)

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Hooboy, this one was a stinker. Directed by Zoltan G. Spencer (nee Spence Crilly), The Satanist is a B&W horror nudie (a kind of subset/cousin of the genre of nudie cuties that Brandon has been writing about of late) that was released in 1968 and was thought to be irretrievably lost after its last screening in 1971; film archivists generally agree that only five prints of the film were ever made, and the single surviving print was unearthed only a year ago. It has been screened only two or three times since then, including at the Forgotten Film Festival in Philadelphia last summer, and most recently at the Alamo Ritz for the Halloween season. Unfortunately, of all the missing films out there in the world that are begging to be found, this is one whose discovery doesn’t enrich the world all that much.

The plot follows a writer who has recently experienced a nervous break and is, under orders from his doctor, trying to get some stress-free rest in the country with his beautiful wife, Mary. In short order, the two meet their neighbor Shawna, a “student of the occult” whose home is decorated with “numerous” “arcane” objects. The writer sees an apparition of a topless woman in a mirror, but does not share this with his wife, chalking it up to his nervous exhaustion. Later, he returns to Shawna’s home and spies through her window as she feels up another woman before turning into a man and engaging in softcore intercourse with her. His wife catches Shawna attempting some rite with his glasses (topless, of course), and the two decide to leave, but feel obligated to attend a party that Shawna had invited them to before they discovered her witchy ways. Obviously, this is a bacchanal during which the writer is tied up and forced to watch as Mary becomes the bride of Satan, as each man in attendance dons a ridiculous-looking ram’s head and thrusts vainly in the general direction of her nethers. The film then ends with the writer back in the frame story, where he sits in a wheelchair stating that it is up to you, the viewer, to determine whether or not his experience was real or the result of his mental breakdown. Of course, his doctor sure does look an awful lot like Shawna, doesn’t she?

There is nothing that could save this movie, not even an ending that mocks The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At only 64 minutes, this movie feels as if it is hours long, and there’s nothing to do for long stretches of it while topless women roll around in relative chastity with hairy, mustachioed men. There’s no exchange of dialogue at all in the film, as all lines are delivered by the writer in voiceover, expositing here and explaining there, and any fun that comes from the film is in the pompous verbosity and overwrought delivery. Even the titles for the director’s later works, like Terror at Orgy Castle and Sister in Leather, are more automatically engaging than this film. There are monologues here that are begging to be sampled and looped, but that does not make up for the long stretches of screentime that are devoted to titillation. Even as an esoteric, forgotten piece of cinema, this is one to avoid.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hack O’ Lantern (1988)

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fourhalfstar

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“But Mom, I like the taste of blood. Grandpa says it’s good for me.”

The bond between grandfather and grandson is a very special one, especially when the grandfather is the leader of a satanic cult and breeds his grandson to be the son of Satan. Director Jag Mundhra’s Hack O’ Lantern (aka Halloween Night) explores this specific type of grandfather/grandson relationship in one of the greatest “bad” horror films ever created. I knew that this was going to be a bad movie just from the title, but literally everything in the film was terrible. For starters, the main character, Tommy, is an 18 year old played by a balding 32 year old Gregory Cummins (Cliffhanger, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Now, even though Tommy is supposed to be the film’s main character, he’s present for probably less than half of the movie, and he barely has any lines at all. His grandfather is truly the most prominent person in the film, and his character isn’t even given a name. He’s simply referred to as Grandpa. Doesn’t this sound like a gem already?

Out of all the satanic themed horror movies I’ve seen (which is many), this one had the quickest satanic reveal ever. Within the first few minutes of Hack O’ Lantern, it’s known that Grandpa is a full-blown Satanist. After the opening credits, an innocent looking old man (Grandpa) driving a farm truck filled with pumpkins stops to visit his young grandson (Tommy). He gives Tommy a pentagram necklace along with a pumpkin of his choice and a little plastic skeleton. In one of the worst Southern accents I’ve ever heard, he tells Tommy that he’s “very special.” It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on, and honestly, I was a little disappointed. I personally would’ve liked Grandpa’s character to be more mysterious.

Ten years after receiving the necklace, Tommy turns into a rebellious teen, and he is more than ready to make his satanic confirmation. One of my biggest laugh-out-loud moments was when Tommy and Grandpa shared this super-secret satanic handshake. They both make (incorrect) devil horns with their hands and press them together while straight up mean mugging each other. Shortly after this occurs, a really bad heavy metal music video, starring Tommy, pops out of nowhere. The video is for D.C. La Croix’s “Devil’s Son” and I swear, the song is just as annoyingly catchy as “It’s A Lovely Life” from May’s Movie of the Month, Crimes Of Passion. This was definitely my favorite part of the movie.

About 30 or so minutes into the film, a slasher element is introduced. An unknown killer wearing a horned devil mask and cloak goes on a Halloween killing spree using a pitchfork, shovel, and knife as murder weapons. Of course, no slasher flick would be complete without a couple of nude girls, and I swear, everyone woman in this film had the opportunity to shed their clothes at some point. What I really appreciated was how the film’s slasher element blended in with its satanic roots so well. One did not overshadow the other, and many other films have not been able to balance different themes as well as Mundhra did with this one.

Hack O’ Lantern is a classic 80s slasher flick with a hint of satanic horror metal, basically the perfect formula for a “terrible” movie. It has not been released on DVD, but in November 2014, Massacre Video stated that they have acquired the rights to Hack O’ Lantern and plan on releasing it on Blu-ray later on this year.

-Britnee Lombas

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

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three star
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I was lead to The Devil’s Rain by a peculiar image featured in the recent Scientology documentary Going Clear: John Travolta’s young, eyeless, melting, goop-hemorrhaging face. The film was cited there as an example of Travolta’s immediate success in landing roles as a young actor, his earliest minor part in a feature-length film. It turns out that Travolta is not actually in The Devil’s Rain for all that long. Bleeding green goop out of his eyeless skull is essentially the extent of Travolta’s role, but there were plenty of other names of interest attached to the project as well: William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, and the director of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Robert Feust. Despite all these recognizable Hollywood personalities, however, the most notable contributor to the film was an occultist author & musician Anton LaVey.

Anton LaVey is credited in The Devil’s Rain as the Technical Advisor, a job he landed through his real life credentials as High Priest of the Church of Satan. As briefly mentioned in our Swampchat on former Movie of the Month The Masque of the Red Death, LaVey had achieved a sort of celebrity status by marketing Satanism (which more celebrates materialism & individualism than it does The Devil proper) to California hippies in the 1960s. He is credited as a “technical adviser” in The Devil’s Rain to give the film a sense of credibility, but the film’s Satanic rituals feel way more cartoonishly “Satanic” than what idealistic hippies were most likely up to in reality. The film features such clichéd (but totally rad looking) Satanic cultural markers as red hooded robes, voodoo dolls, stained glass pentagrams, and high priests with magically transformed goat heads. Its most ludicrous stab at credibility, however, is its insistence on saying “Satanus” instead of “Satan”, because I guess it sounds more authentic in Latin. I was lead to The Devil’s Rain by a documentary profiling one cult (of which to this day Travolta is still a member) and instead found the phony beginner’s version of another.

The Devil’s Rain’s most punishing flaw is in its glacially slow pacing. a fault mostly due to a downplayed score and a meandering plot. Although the Satanic imagery is fun to gawk at, the movie does get frustrating in its refusal to be in a rush to entertain you. However, if you yourself are not in a particular rush, it’s an interesting lazy afternoon viewing experience in which goat people worship Satanus and get their heads melted (a young Travolta included), their bubbling skin oozing a disgusting green. The Devil’s Rain is a memorable film through the campy virtue of its oddball cast and the legitimate strengths of its Satanic imagery alone. Anton LaVey may not have provided the film with a feel of Satanic authenticity or saved it from its own miserable pacing, but he did afford it enough memorable images to make it worthwhile for a casual cult film fan who isn’t in any particular rush to be wowed.

-Brandon Ledet