Oh, that editor Carlye!
Cut to behind the scenes of Astro-Hell – imagine, if you will, the curious pleasure of getting 3 DVDs to review in the mail without any kind of note and realize what our fearless leader is looking for – in this case a clearly pagan theme which I also realized would actually be featured in the Halloween issue of IRS.
So, considering our pagan subject, I decided to include my wife Suzi Olmsted, a wiccan initiate (a.k.a. witch), to help in determining the accuracy of the movies I will review.
THE WITCHES (distributed by Anchor Bay) has Joan Fontaine in the lead and a screenplay by Nigel Kneale (please see last month’s “Twice Hammered” installment of this column for an overview of Kneale’s work). Kneale is adapting a book by Peter Curtis called THE DEVIL’S OWN, which was the American title of this film. The irrepressible James Bernard scored the film as he seems to score virtually every Hammer picture. Here the fun ends. In the hands of a decent director, this picture might have had some tension and atmosphere. In a better world, I imagine Polanski’s fun with the thinly disguised sexualities of the repressed village where Joan Fontaine has found herself. But under Cyril Frankel’s dreary execution, this movie plods along with hardly an eye to the obvious eccentricities of everyone involved. Suddenly and finally, this dull, antiseptic picture erupts into a pagan love orgy, no shit, or in the words of my wife: “Twayla Tharp meets Bob Fosse meets Timothy Leary.” Everyone sways around like a Charlie Manson sing-along and rubs up against the nearest body. Given the looks of most of the coven, this is clearly a better deal than Saturday night at the bar or the baths. The ritual is intoned in Latin. There also appears to be some earlier voodoo, perhaps even an actual link to the African rituals Ms. Fontaine encountered as a teacher doing some sort of missionary work. On the floor of the ritual chamber, a pseudo-qabbalistic circle has been traced. I have a background in ceremonial magick (now an inactive member of the O.T.O.), and between my wife and me, we were able to determine that there was not an ounce of authenticity in any of this. Kneale, who is usually much more astute, probably adapted the book without question. Frankly, if the movie held some sort of energy, all this ritual invention could’ve been forgiven. It is telling that this particular installment in Anchor Bay’s Hammer Collection has no commentary.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (also distributed by Anchor Bay) is another matter entirely. Known here as THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, this 1968 Hammer entry found the light of day as a second feature in Los Angeles. I saw it first at UCLA. To put it simply, it is one of Hammer’s greatest. Not only directed by Hammer’s best director – if by default – Terrence Fisher, it boasts a screenplay by Richard Matheson. Matheson was adapting a Dennis Wheatley novel. Wheatley is known for his occult mysteries which I find, like Stephen King and Anne Rice, virtually unreadable. Matheson himself is a much superior writer – his own novel, I AM LEGEND, spawned two films, LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN. Matheson is also the origin of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and even the recent Kevin Bacon film STIR OF ECHOES, a supernatural thriller buried by the release of THE SIXTH SENSE, but much more interesting. Add to this that Matheson was part of an L.A. circle of sci fi writers – Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont and William F. Nolan among them. My L.A. magick teacher said there were rumors about this circle, i.e. that their interests in the occult went beyond book learning. I actually wrote Bradbury about this (an old friend of my father’s), and received a non-committal reply – basically saying he was interested in everything – from the occult to ice cream cones. Hmmmm.
Christopher Lee is Duc de Richleau, a white magick hero. It is rare that Lee plays a good guy successfully, but this is certainly one of the exceptions. He is a kind of Dr. Strange of the 1920’s here. Charles Grey is Mocata , clearly modeled after Aleister Crowley is his most yellow journalistic bad guy image – so much so that Mocata actually mouths Crowley’s own defintion of magick (which is also Crowley’s spelling of it, by the way) from MAGICK IN THEORY & PRACTICE. An examination of Crowley’s direct influence on the cinema would take a lot of room, but I think we can point to some highlights. This begins with the 1926 movie version of Somerset Maugham’s book THE MAGICIAN, (Maugham had met Crowley and uses one of Crowley’s own pseudonyms for the character). Crowley seems related to the Karloff character in THE BLACK CAT, and the evil magician in CURSE OF THE DEMON, as well as being a dead ringer for the sorcerer in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Last but not least, Dean Stockwell affects a famous Crowley magical gesture in THE DUNWICH HORROR (fists to temples, thumbs sticking out horn-like) as he invokes the mad demon-gods of H.P. Lovecraft. This is hardly a complete list, but will give the reader an idea of some of this 19th Century-born ceremonial magician’s staying power.