Tag Occult/Devil/Satan

As Above, So Below (2014)

As Above, So Below (2014)

The only way out is down.

Archaeologist Scarlet Marlowe is obsessed with finding the famous Philosopher’s Stone and, after her search takes her to Iran, she finally believes she has found its resting place in a secret chamber in the Catacombs of Paris. Hiring a team of urban explorers who frequent the underground caverns and know their way around, Scarlet and her team head below the surface to find the elusive stone. However, once they venture into areas of the caverns that tourists are forbidden to enter, they soon become lost and come to the stark realisation that they are not alone down there.

 

The found footage sub-genre sees no sign of slowing down with the latest offering, As Above, So Below. I’ve never been the biggest fan of these films, save for some truly exceptional efforts like Spanish zombie flick [REC]. However the lure of As Above, So Below wasn’t so much the genre but the setting. I was about to set off to go to Paris for the first time in February and was booked in to take a trip down to the Catacombs when this came along and I (foolishly) decided it would be a good idea to watch first before I went down.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Catacombes de Paris, they are a vast underground labyrinth of caverns and tunnels which hold the remains of around six million people dating back to the 18th Century. These people aren’t just buried here in coffins – their skulls and bones line the passages like some macabre artist has been working for centuries. The tunnels stretch for miles and miles and much of it is out of bounds to the public due to the danger of collapse. However there is a large section of the catacombs which are open to the public. Having nervously set foot in the catacombs myself in 2015, I can assure you that they are not a place you would want to get trapped in. Between the limestone roof leaking water and showing obvious signs of cracks, to lots of fenced-off ‘no-go’ areas, there is also the matter of millions of skulls and bones stacked and assorted in all manner of shapes and patterns. It’s claustrophobic beyond belief and there is a truly unnerving, eerie silence down there. The artificial lighting set up for tourists soaks the remains in a ghostly glow, almost giving the skulls a strange smile as you walk past. You won’t experience anything like it in the world. Such a place is straight out of a nightmare and if this didn’t actually exist, you’d think that it was some far-fetched version of Hell that a Gothic writer had dreamt up.

It’s the perfect place to set a horror film and for the most part, As Above, So Below does a great job of utilising the location to perfection – the film was shot in the real catacombs for the most part, with some set pieces necessitating the use of sets for safety reasons. The film plays upon the fear of collapse, being stranded below the surface in a remote, unhospitable location and unable to find a way out just like Neil Marshall expertly did in The Descent many years ago. The use of the Go-Pro cams really adds to the claustrophobia as we share the characters tortuous decisions on whether to crawl through tunnels barely wide enough to breathe. You’ll be holding your breath along with the characters during some of these scenes. What adds to the realism is knowing that the real camera crew would never have been able to film in such tight spaces and so the Go-Pro cams become essential. The silence that fills these tombs is eerie and unforgiving – you could scream in there until you had no vocal chords left and no one would hear you.

Like The Descent, the film manages to get your heart racing long before anything untoward actually happens to the characters. Having suffered the ordeal of being trapped underground with them, you’re already to chill out but that’s when the strange things begin to happen and the characters realise they’re not alone. But this is where the film quickly unravels. The clichés of the found footage sub-genre come thick and fast: ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ sightings of weird things in the corner of the frame, characters talking directly into the camera, obligatory green ‘night vision’ shots, death of the cameraman (come on – it always happens, it has to happen for the footage to be ‘found’ by someone else) and so forth.

Not only does the film suffer from these clichés but it then sets itself out into some video game-like puzzle solving quest where the characters must solve the next riddle or find the next secret passage in order to progress into the next section. UK readers will be familiar with Channel 4 gameshow The Crystal Maze and this feels like a big budget version of that during the second half of the film. Think of a horror version of Indiana Jones when he’s exploring all of his ancient archaeological sites.

The problem is that the script, with all of its allusions to Hell and the Satanic theme that shines constantly through, can only go one place after the build-up as it writes itself into a corner. The finale is wholly anticlimactic and happens far too fast especially given how slow and methodical the build-up had been. Once the original terror of being trapped underground had been established, the levels of fear don’t really go much higher despite the explorers finding all manner of weird and wonderful (and deadly) things down there. Suspense and tension could have been ramped up far more and the finale stretched out more to give the film a much needed release. But hey, I’m not a filmmaker, so what do I know? Actually the one thing I do know is that I like Perdita Weeks very much. As some sort of nerdier version of Lara Croft, Weeks looks pretty, comes off as quite a nice person and has a reasonable range of skills so I would expect big things in the coming years.

 

The excellent set-up and amazing location fill the screen with the promise that As Above, So Below will end up being a standout horror film. Sadly, this is not the case as the film hurtles through the usual found footage clichés with aplomb. It’s deliberately paced, has a lot of suggestion in there rather than visuals and can be annoying at times but you could do a lot worse in this sub-genre.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (1987)

Demon to some. Angel to others.

Larry moves into his brother’s old house with Julia and daughter Kirsty. When Larry cuts himself and bleeds into the floorboards, he resurrects his brother Frank, who had previously solved an ancient Chinese puzzle box and was drawn into a nightmarish world of sadistic demons known as the Cenobites. Their eternal vision of pleasure crossed disturbing boundaries with pain and Frank was left a mess of bones and bile. Given a new lease of life, Frank enlists the help of ex-lover Julia to murder innocent victims so that he can continue to restore his body. No one has ever escape from the Cenobites and a chance encounter with them leads Kirsty to making a deal in order to send Frank back.

 

After he was disappointed in the way that a couple of his previous novels had been adapted for the big screen, horror writer Clive Barker stepped up to the director’s chair to turn his own best-selling novel, The Hellbound Heart, into a film that did justice to the source material. Thus in 1987, Barker unleashed Hellraiser upon the genre and, with it, the nightmarish world of the Cenobites. Considering how horror was on a downward spiral in the late 80s with the likes of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street outstaying their franchises and the slasher sub-genre as a whole being on life support with scores of nonsensical teenagers being sliced and diced without a second thought, Hellraiser came along like a sucker punch to the gut with its graphic adult content and seriousness. This wasn’t play time in the summer camps anymore – the ‘dead’ horror genre was given an energetic jolt of Britishness in the form of Clive Barker’s seminal classic.

Hellraiser was dabbling in the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre long before Saw and Hostel came along, exploring the fine line between pain and pleasure and highlighting humanity’s primal urges and cravings and constantly giving in to primitive temptations. These are adult themes and are explored in some detail, which might be why this film went way over my head the first time I saw it when I was a lot younger (and which is probably why it never really found its audience until years later). Now as a mature viewer, I can appreciate the messages and the undertones that the film is attempting to establish.

Hellraiser isn’t quite the film you’d expect after seeing a lot of the promotional material and the first half plays out like some quasi-slasher with a romantic subplot latched alongside. Grounded in a very character-driven story, the film does slow the pace right down between Frank’s flesh feasting. The strongest part of the screenplay is in the complex relationship between the four main characters: Frank, Larry, Julia and Ashley. Though the film depicts Pinhead and his ‘friends’ as the villains, in reality it is Frank, and to a lesser extent Julia, who are the villains. I can’t give too much away about how each of the characters interacts with each other as that would give too many of the plot twists away but the story never feels forced. Though there are a few hiccups along the way, the majority of the narrative is solid and it will keep you engaged. Most importantly, the script treats the audience with intelligence, assuming we can figure out a lot of what is going on but without over-explaining and spoiling everything.

Hellraiser belongs to Clare Higgins, who plays Julia as one of cinema’s biggest ultra-bitches. Compelled to assist Frank because of her carnal lust, Julia soon goes about doing all of his bidding, luring in horny men so that Frank can use their bodies to continue to resurrect himself. She starts off as an uptight, rather distant and unloving stepmother but as the film progresses, she becomes more and more cold, and more sinister. Higgins’ performance is so underrated – it’s so easy to hate on her for her actions but the character is given far more depth than just being a one-note villain and the back story she has allows her just the faintest hint of humanity. Maybe it’s another of Barker’s ideas of human weakness, but Julia feels driven to obey Frank due to some primal instincts rather than her love for him. Andrew Robinson is equally as good, playing loving father and husband Larry with oblivious sincerity before events in the film cause him to change gears.

Hellraiser isn’t afraid to pull the punches with its content. From the sexual and sado-masochistic undertones, to the gore content, the film pushes the ratings system as far as it can go. It’s a very bloody affair, quite graphic at times, and relishes every minute of it. For a start, Frank’s heap of blood and goo form in the early part of the form is a masterpiece of practical effects work and stop-motion animation and his eventual resurrection into skinless form is a sight to behold. Years later and the practical effects stand up as well as they ever did. The film’s tour-de-grace is the finale which involves one character famously being torn apart by hooks and chains – the image which has become synonymous with the Hellraiser franchise.

Though he didn’t have a name in this one, Barker was responsible for introducing cinema to one of its most sadistic and recognisable villains: the iconic Pinhead. He is credited only as ‘Lead Cenobite’ and has little screen time, with even fewer lines, but his image was that startling that it was a no-brainer he would become a horror favourite. With his pale blue bald head covered in jewelled pins that had been intricately driven through to the skull, his black S&M-style clothing and a number of open wounds ripped with hooks down his chest, the character was something out of the darkest nightmares. The fact that he is so ably portrayed by actor Doug Bradley just adds to his aurora – Pinhead’s lines are Shakespearian-esque and morality-driven soundbites, far from the hokey one-liners that Freddy Krueger was spouting at this point in his career.

The rest of the deformed Cenobites are some of cinema’s most magnificent creations. With their pale complexions, skin twisted and contorted in all manner of ghastly ways and hooks and other sharp implements stuck into their bodies, they are truly the creatures of nightmares. We’re only given little insights into their history and their world but it’s enough to pique your interest. Clive Barker was, and still is, a modern day Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, with his wild imagination conjuring up all manner of supernatural and extradimensional horrors that can’t simply be explained by reason or science. The Cenobites sit firmly at the top of that warped brain of his.

 

Unleashed into a bland world of Friday the 13th wannabes, Hellraiser was and still is a breath of fresh air to the genre. Highly imaginative and deeply unsettling, it gets better with age in my opinion. Certainly one of the most unique and disturbing horror films of all time.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Sometimes They Come Back…For More (1998)

Sometimes They Come Back...For More (1998)

Hell Has Finally Frozen Over!

Captain Sam Cage and his colleague Major O’Grady are sent to a remote Antarctica military base when communications go down and signs point to something terrible occurring. When they arrive, they find that all but two of the crew are dead. One of the team had found something Satanic buried deep in the ice and all hell broke loose.

 

Sometimes They Come Back was a little-known Stephen King short story so it was very apt that the film adaptation in 1991 headed the same way – little known anonymity. It’s not on anyone’s Top 10 Most Famous Stephen King films and rightly so. The rise of King’s popularity as an author as well as the success of the film adaptation of Carrie led to studios and producers approaching King to adapt all of his work, even the minor stories. King’s Night Shift collection of short stories from 1978 provided a fertile ground for filmmakers looking to adapt a story. The likes of Maximum Overdrive (penned from the story ‘Trucks’), Graveyard Shift, The Mangler and Children of the Corn all emanate from the collection, as well as Sometimes They Come Back (though it was originally published in 1974).

Like many of King’s less popular works, Sometimes They Come Back was turned into a TV movie. Featuring the story of a teacher tormented by the vengeful spirit of some school bullies, it spawned two sequels. The first one, Sometimes They Come Back…Again, billed itself as a sequel but was more or less a remake. With virtually no connection to the previous two films or with King’s original story, the second sequel, Sometimes They Come Back…For More is just a throwaway TV horror movie with few redeeming features which starts off promisingly but quickly (and I mean quickly) tails off. This is no surprise given that it was originally shot under the name Frozen and was then renamed at a later date to give the illusion that it tied in to the previous two films.

The opening half owes a great deal to John Carpenter’s The Thing more than anything else with its remote Antarctic setting and something untoward happening to the crew of a base only this time it is Satanic demons instead of shape-shifting aliens. But by the time the main heroes arrive at the base early on, pretty much everyone is already dead so straight away the potential avenues for mayhem and carnage are narrowed and we’re left with the worrying problem that so few characters in a film always creates – if they’re not likeable, then you’re pretty much screwed. Though the film tries to crank up the suspense, tension and paranoia between the characters, there’s just too few of them to really make it work. The demonic aspects of the film start off quite positively, with the characters unaware of what is really going. The script gives us a few glimpses as to what is happening and the mystery slowly unravels. The problem is once the mystery has unravelled and we’re left with the actual plot about some demonic possession and Satanic resurrection, it’s not actually that engaging or exciting.

The film confines itself to the same couple of indoor sets so you never really get the sense that they are actually in an Antarctic environment. Allegedly the film was shot in Antarctica but you’d never be able to tell because the outdoor environment isn’t used to its full potential. In fact because of the insistence on shooting in the same few sets, the film looks to have a lower budget than it clearly did. All the cinematographer seems to do, instead of putting the snowy exteriors to better use, is flood a lot of the scenes in red lights to give the demonic illusion. Red on white makes for a nice contrast but it’s the only trick in the book to try and create some form of atmosphere. The film’s standout moment is a trip down an icy tunnel via a camera strapped to a remote-controlled car. It’s hardly riveting material but it was a nice idea which manages to build a bit of tension before it is cut off.

Clayton Rohner and Chase Masterson make for reasonably stereotypical but bland leads, Faith Ford adds a bit of glamour whilst trying to convince as a scientist and Max Perlich’s annoyingly whiny communications officer just grated the hell out of me. As I said at the start, having a small bunch of characters is risky if they’re not very good and this is the case with Sometimes They Come Back…For More. No one really grabs hold of your attention, no one makes themselves out to be the one you want to root for and no one exactly covers themselves in glory. It’s not entirely down to the actors as the script is too busy tying itself in knots to give these people anything worthwhile to do.

 

Though it’s easy to make comparisons with a few other isolation-themed horror films, it’s The X-Files episode Ice that Sometimes They Come Back…For More is most similar to. Ironically, in forty-five minutes of that TV show, they do far more with the remote setting than this one does in twice that time. Sometimes They Come Back…For More clearly shows that the film wasn’t designed to be a sequel and was a standalone horror before they messed around with it. I can’t say that the film would have turned out differently without the demonic aspects added in, but it can’t have been any worse.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Cabin in the Woods, The (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

If you hear a strange sound outside… have sex.

Five friends head off for a weekend at a secluded cabin in the woods. As they settle in for the night, the door to the cellar mysteriously swings open. Deciding to investigate, the group head down where they find a startling array of old artefacts, ornaments and antiques. But after one of them reads out a passage from a journal, they awaken a family of undead killers who used to live in the cabin. But they are the least of the problems that the group will encounter over the course of the night.

 

To go into any other detail regarding the plot as this stage would be to defeat the object of watching The Cabin in the Woods, quite simply one of the most unique and genre-bending horror films of recent memory. Believe the hype because if you’re a genre fan, you’re going to love this film. Written and produced by Josh Wheldon, the fan boy favourite behind the likes of cult TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and, more recently, the big budget blockbuster The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods continues his fandom-pandering, genre-deprecating sense of humour with a film that can be appreciated on so many different levels. At its core, we have a film that has two simultaneous stories running along side-by-side and it’s up to you to try and piece together the links (before the film does it for you in the final third). But there’s so much more going on underneath.

I don’t think I’ve ever found a review as hard to write as this one. The Cabin in the Woods is best viewed without any faintest hint of what happens in it and, since the bulk of the enjoyable experience is to be constantly screaming “what the hell is going?” at the screen when things take an unexpected turn between the two concurrent stories, then it’s best if you don’t know anything. No spoilers. No clues. Nothing. Even the trailer gives away too much in my opinion. So trying to talk about a film without revealing anything or even given faint hints is really hard and I’m going to purposely avoid talking about one of the stories for that matter as I feel it would give too much away.

The Cabin in the Woods is a clever film, or at least thinks it is for the most part, which will surprise you, shock you and appease the horror nerd inside of you. For genre-busting meta-horror films, I’d say this was up there with Scream for its attempts to break through the fourth wall, only this works a lot better than Craven’s film in many aspects. Though by the sheer insanity that fills up this film’s final third, I can’t imagine wave of copy cat films coming hot on its heels like the post-modern slasher craze which followed Craven’s classic. Co-writer Drew Goddard seems to be as knowledgeable as Wheldon when it comes to horror and together the two craft a film which is high on clichés and even higher on manipulating and breaking them. It requires audience awareness of such clichés in order to succeed and even then, spells some of them out in plain English so that non-genre fans could ‘get’ the film.

But this isn’t done at the expense of the integrity of the film, far from it. This is a film which unleashes the clichés for the viewer, playing upon audience expectations of them in a way which hasn’t been done before but at the same time continuing to put the characters in serious jeopardy. It may be a game for the audience but it’s certainly not a game for the characters who have to try and survive this nightmare ordeal. With one of the major twists of the film, the audience suddenly realise they have become complicit in something that only the five characters are unaware of.

At first, The Cabin in the Woods smacks of been there, done that, got the t-shirt – a bunch of good-looking, stereotypical twentysomethings head off to a remote location for some shenanigans and hanky panky, bumping into the local whackjob on the way who warns them against going. Then of course, his predictions of doom come true and they find something that they shouldn’t really be messing with. The first third of the film is very reminiscent of The Evil Dead film with its whole ‘cabin in the woods, reading a supernatural verse and being trapped with the confines of the valley’ structure. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s just a self-aware re-tread. To say anything else on that matter would be to do you a disservice if you watch it.

Taken on its own merits without the genre in-jokes and twists and turns, the film works reasonably well as an effective horror film. There are some unexpected moments of terror, the film has a decent creepy atmosphere (though there are specific reasons for that!) and there is enough gore to keep fans happy. Some of the make-up effects are brilliantly done, including the zombie Buckner family who come alive to terrorise the teenagers. The teenage characters appear to fall into stereotype at the start but over the course of the film, they develop into fully fledged characters who defy any real stereotyping. Again, to divulge more would be to ruin the enjoyable of the film.

So there you have it – a review which doesn’t say too much about the film, only that you should expect plenty of twists, turns, unexpected happenings, predictable outcomes. Everything you can think will happen, will happen. And everything you think will happen, won’t happen. It sounds confusing but sit down, watch it and let it all pan out. It will make sense then.

 

The Cabin in the Woods is definitely a one-watch only deal as once you ‘get it’ then you’ll find little to go back over, save for perhaps spotting all of the genre references. But your first run-through with it will provide you with some of the most entertaining horror moments that cinema has had to offer for a long time. Ingenious at times, infuriating at others, The Cabin in the Woods is going to be a hard act to follow.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Devil Rides Out, The (1968)

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The beauty of woman . . . the demon of darkness . . . the unholy union of “The Devil’s Bride”

The Duc Du Richleau and Rex Van Ryn arrive at the house of their friend Simon Aron for a long-awaited reunion. However Simon has forgotten about them and is instead holding a mysterious party for an astronomical society. Richleau then discovers that the society is a really a coven of Satanists led by the charismatic Mocata and the two men bundle Simon away to safety. That is the least of their troubles though as Mocata won’t let Simon go that easily and uses all of his black magic powers to claim Simon’s soul. Mocata had summoned the Angel of Death and it will not return to Hell empty-handed.

 

Having firmly established themselves as Gothic horror specialists in the 50s and 60s with their array of Frankenstein and Dracula films, Hammer‘s fortunes began to wane a little in the late 60s. There were only so many times that audiences could watch Frankenstein fail again or see Dracula staked before it got repetitive. So the studio decided to dabble in the black arts and looked for other literature that they could bring to the screen. Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel, The Devil Rides Out, seemed like a perfect fit with its tales of black magic, ritual sacrifices and shady good versus evil dynamics which Hammer loved. In fact an adaptation of the novel had first been proposed by Hammer in 1963 but with the subject matter proving controversial (even on its eventual release) it was put on the back burner until 1967 when censorship had become a little more relaxed and this finally went into production. The studio pulled out all of the big guns – their top director Terence Fisher, composer James Bernard and the legendary Christopher Lee – to make sure that this was a hit. It has since become one of Hammer’s most celebrated films and whilst its slow pace is a product of its time, it is a film which lingers long in the mind after viewing.

The Devil Rides Out pulls out the dark, sinister undertones almost right from the beginning as both the scholarly Du Richleau and sceptical Rex go to visit Simon at his party and realise something is not right. There is a constant sense that something terrifying is lurking around waiting to be unleashed. Nowadays this would be replicated with a bombardment of special effects but this is old school horror and the power of the film lies in suggestion rather than visuals. Wheatley knew his occult down to very fine detail and every shred of knowledge is crammed into the screen in some form either by visuals in the form of the lavish ceremonial sets or through dialogue (much of which is spoken by Christopher Lee which instantly makes it sound credible – more on him later though) in which we get to know things like the exact amount of people that need to be present at one of these ceremonies and so forth. If you don’t know anything about the occult, chances are you’ll have picked a few things up afterwards.

The piece-de-resistance of the film is the scene in which Du Richleau, Marie, Reggie and Simon stay inside a protective circle chalk-drawn out on the floor and must survive the night as Mocata sends all manner of black magic forces against them including the Angel of Death and a giant tarantula. It sounds a lot more epic than it turns out and the quality of the special effects varies between enemies (they do age the film considerably) but the scene is more about atmosphere and tension and that it manages to nail.

Rather more alarmingly is the scene in the woods for the first attempt to baptise Simon into the cult. As the cultists chant and sacrifice, a goat-headed figure appears representing the Devil himself. Even though it is blatantly a guy in a mask, the entire scene is rather unsettling for its intent than any outright shock. The less said about an early scene in which Du Richleau and Rex are greeted by the sight of a demon arising from a hidden pentagram (simply a cross-eyed black guy – someone call the politically correct brigade!) the better. I guess what I like about the film is that it believes in itself. Rex is asked to buy into the existence of black magic at the start of the film by Du Richleau and in effect he’s asking the audience to buy into it as well. The scene with the Devil in the woods is presented almost as matter-of-fact with hardly any focus on the goat-headed apparition perched on a rock watching the ritual. This makes it all the more terrifying.

Whilst the film plods along when it isn’t conducting black magic rituals and the less-than-subtle Christian messages get a little too sickening towards the end, it is the performances which make this a true Hammer classic. Christopher Lee has often stated that out of all of the films that he’s starred in, this was his favourite and it’s easy to see why from his viewpoint: he gets to star as the good guy for a change! If see you ‘starring Christopher Lee’ in a title, you assume that he’s the bad guy such as his typecasting over the years has dictated. But whilst his sinister moustache and beard lends itself to images of Satanic priests, Lee’s usual pomp, grandeur, intensity and directness make for an interesting choice of hero. It’s one of Lee’s best performances, certainly more energetic and committed to the script than I can recall from other films (and I’ve seen a lot of Lee’s films).

Charles Gray, more famous for his appearance as Blofeld in James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever, stars opposite him as Mocata and though Gray’s more feminine persona and foppish voice does detract slightly from the character, his smarm and arrogance slices through the screen and more than adequately gives him a creepy edge. His quote “I will not be back. But something will, tonight” is delivered with devilish relish as he warns Marie of the night they’re about to face and smirks at the thought of their suffering. Mocata and Du Richleau are set up as binary opposites to each other, much like Dracula and Van Helsing were in the Dracula films or even Professor X and Magneto in the X-Men films (to use a more recent example). With equal powers and equal knowledge of the other, the tense stand-offs between the two smacks of intellectuals playing chess with human pawns. Its sterling work and credit must also go to writer Richard Matheson for crafting such enthralling characters. The rest of the cast don’t make nearly as much of an impression but when you’re in the shadows of Lee and Gray on this form, there’s no shame in that.

 

The Devil Rides Out is a stand-out film in Hammer’s massive film library. Without Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in the film, the studio showed that they could deliver classic horror films and this is certainly one of their best efforts despite it not doing all that well when it was released. It has since found much respect and with a towering, near career-best performance from Christopher Lee at its core, The Devil Rides Out is classic horror at its most daring.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Beneath Still Waters (2005)

Beneath Still Waters (2005)

Fear is rising.

In 1965 in Northern Spain, a new dam is to be built which will flood the small town of Marinbad forever. Two young boys cross over the security barriers to play in the abandoned town for one last time, inadvertently releasing a horrible evil force that was trapped there and doomed to be submerged underwater forever. Forty years later and Desbaria, the new town built to replace the old one, is celebrating the anniversary of the damn when weird things start to happen in the water. People are going missing. The dam is beginning to leak. It seems that the evil force beneath the water has resurfaced.

 

Beneath Still Waters is an absolute train wreck of a film. I honestly don’t know where to start. Some have good intentions but end up paying the price for their budgets or lack of originality. Some are just designed to fail from the start. Some, like this, just have the best of both worlds. It’s got a pretty decent budget by the looks of things and clearly has good intentions. But it looks as though they had five directors each doing their own thing before banding it all together at the end. Brian Yuzna, the director credited with this fiasco, must have been coked to the gills or stone drunk when he oversaw it.

Beneath Still Waters starts well – the opening is decent enough with the two boys playing in a semi-submerged town only to come across a bunch of people chained in a basement in a house. Then one of them stupidly sets the big scary-looking guy free and he shows him his thanks by ripping his head in two and eating him. Kudos to the filmmakers as you rarely see kids being harmed in horror films, let alone being brutalised like that. Unfortunately it’s at this point where the film just goes off in about ten different directions.

Not just content with the original story of the devil-worshipping cult being submerged underwater, we then get throat-ripping zombies appearing. We’ve got a dude who looks like The Tall Man from the Phantasm series barking orders to his minions and using magic powers. We’ve got black goo which attacks people like The Blob. We’ve got horribly deformed demonic creatures dragging people into the water. We’ve got ghosts warning about what is going to happen next. I mean how much can you cram in? It would have been good to have someone or something explain the connection to all of these occurrences. Someone thought “I’ve got a cool zombie scene to film” and they went ahead with it purely because it would cool to have it in the film.

As well as the above events happening, we also have a mayor who refuses to believe anything is happening because he doesn’t want his festival ruined (oh boy, I thought that old chestnut only came out during ‘monster on the loose’ flicks). We’ve got a spooky-looking caretaker who finds a bottle of scotch just floating around and starts drinking from it (like you do). There’s an amazingly hot chick who goes skinny dipping, only to come across her dead boyfriend and they proceed to have sex before he kills her. And there’s a massive orgy at the festival when the townspeople become possessed and start having sex with each other (and also having sex with cakes, lots of cakes). Added to all of this is the fact that the film is bloody. People get ripped apart constantly. They cut their own legs off. The make-up effects of the zombies and demons and stuff (whatever hell else wasn’t CGI) is top notch. But it’s just complete mayhem.

The cast are all pretty good actors in their own native language I am pretty sure. But apart from Michael McKell, it’s obvious that English isn’t their first language. So they talk as if they’re following one of those ‘learn to speak English in ten weeks’ tapes. I’ve seen some lame attempts at speaking English. Heck, I can cope with a few of the cast speaking like robots but when 99% of the cast talk in this manner, it’s just horrible. They unwittingly kill any emotions in their voices. They are devoid of any expressive speaking. I honestly can’t believe how annoying and ear-splitting it is to hear them reciting their lines. It pains me to hear them butcher the English language in that manner.

Their understanding of the script isn’t in question though, given how the script manages to twist, turn, reverse, fast forward and double take so many times. Maybe the script writer was the same guy who did the special effects. As I’ve already touched on, the physical make-up effects are top drawer. It’s the ropey CGI that leaves a lot to be desired. And I mean a lot. But like the rest of the film, one minute there’s something decent and the next it’s just organised chaos and sub-standard quality. I’m exhausted now and I probably haven’t even covered half of the things I wanted to.

 

Beneath Still Waters is just mayhem personified. Words can’t describe how chaotic this film really is. I don’t even know whether I should give it ten out of then or zero out of ten for it’s ‘against the rules’ behaviour. It’s totally and utterly bonkers. Madness or masterpiece? I can’t decide. You’ll have to see for yourself and decide.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Devil’s Men, The (1976)

The-Devils-Men-1976

Half man . . . half beast . . . trapped in a world forgotten by time!

Tourists visiting a Greece archaeological site are being abducted by a strange cult, intent on providing their God – the Minotaur – with sacrifices when the tourists enter the forbidden chamber. Anxious priest Father Roache enlists the help of an old private detective friend to find out what has happened to them.

 

A rather lacklustre devil-worshipping flick, The Devil’s Men should really be a lot better than it turns out given some of the names involved, the setting and the obviously cool inclusion of the Minotaur god. It looks strangely out of place in 1976, caught between the pinnacle of Hammer’s glorious Technicolour carnage of the 50s and 60s and the 70s which were caught in the midst of a wave of occult and Satanism films thanks to the success of The Exorcist. The Devil’s Men comes off as a poor cross between both of the genres, delving into Devil worshipping nonsense but maintaining a low-key very ‘old school’ British vibe.

It sticks quite rigidly to the popular 70s horror themes involving the occult and Satanism and this doesn’t really work in its favour as it’s nothing you won’t see in any better flicks (notably something like The Devil Rides Out). There’s a sacrificial chamber complete with burning torches. There’s chanting and recitals. There are hooded cultists. There are bloody sacrifices. You’ll see exactly where the film is heading right from the get go and you’re right, all the way up to the rather unsatisfying finale inside the chamber. The trouble is that it takes an eternity to get there. Director Costas Carayiannis hasn’t got a clue about pacing and fails to generate any sort of excitement, suspense or tension throughout the majority of proceedings. Films about the occult should never be this boring as there is a gold mine of material that he could have included to keep things interesting.

It’s your basic good versus evil film with Donald Pleasance playing the role of Father Roache for the forces of good and Peter Cushing relishing another nasty role as the sinister Baron Corofax leading the cult. The two men share a few great scenes with each other but apart from that, this won’t be too high on their list of favourites. Pleasance struggles with an Irish accent but is his usual slightly-oddball self. Cushing, whilst good in his sporadic appearances, gets little more than a cameo role and he is total cruise control – not a bad thing considering Cushing’s cruise control was infinitely better than most people’s full speed! I’m sure that the holiday to Greece to film was the thing which attracted both men to starring. The other cast don’t particularly thrill either, with Costas Skouras making a bland hero and Luan Peters and Vanna Reville providing little more than looking extremely hot in some really short and very tight pants. They’ve all been dubbed by American actors by the looks of things.

This film was re-titled The Land of the Minotaur for its US release but don’t expect any men in monster suits or stop motion effects – the only Minotaur you’ll see here is a concrete statue which breathes fire and continually repeats the line “Those who enter the forbidden chamber of the Minotaur must die!” I’d have been happy to see a cheap-looking guy in a suit running around here but alas that’s not the case. The inclusion of the Minotaur clearly seems to have been a ploy to create a kick-ass sounding title and suggest that the creature would come to life. The reality is that the script could have substituted any manner of mythological or Satanist names and it would have served the same purpose.

 

The Devil’s Men isn’t a complete dud because it’s still got enough going on to warrant a watch for fans of cult horror and Cushing completists. Unfortunately it’s just too bog standard and generic to really go anywhere with the material and actors present.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

Warning! This Motion Picture Contains The Most Shocking Scenes This Side Of Hell!

An excommunicated priest leads his own cult and convinces a man to sign his newly-born daughter’s soul over to them to so that she can become the devil’s representative upon her eighteenth birthday. As the day approaches, the man seeks the help of an American occult novelist to try and save his daughter from the evil that is about to manifest itself.

 

The last horror film to be made by legendary studio Hammer before it closed doors (and its penultimate theatrical release), To the Devil a Daughter attempts to replicate the success of The Devil Rides Out, widely considered one of Hammer’s best films. Adapted from another Dennis Wheately novel, To the Devil a Daughter seemed like it would be a sure-fire hit. After all, Hammer had a hard time in changing with the times with the rise of the supernatural and occult horror films of the 70s in the likes of The Exorcist and The Omen and their period horrors seemed hopelessly out of fashion. The Devil Rides Out, back in 1968, had been released slightly before the fad came along so tapping back into the same well in the hope of striking it lucky twice seemed like a no-brainer. Whereas The Devil Rides Out seemed genuinely supernatural and sinister, To the Devil a Daughter seems overly forced, contrived and desperate to latch onto the occult bandwagon.

To the Devil a Daughter is slow, plodding and dull and Hammer sprinkles in plenty of it’s usual ingredients in a doomed bid to save the flick – namely some gore, some nudity and a towering performance by Christopher Lee – Hammer certainly doesn’t hold anything back as it goes down with a fight. There’s plenty of nasty imagery on display here with a pregnant woman’s legs being tied together during childbirth and Natassja Kinksi pushing a demonic puppet into a place where only certain things should be pushed. Hammer’s gamble on out-goring and out-sleazing its competitors used to work but in this instance, it fails badly. The film worked a lot better as a straightforward occult thriller, grounded in reality and managing to create something of an atmosphere and mood. But in their desperate attempts to find a winning formula, Hammer badly mis-judge just how much to show and how much to hold back and the gore and nudity comes off as gratuitous, not essential.

Just like the studio itself, the script seems to have run out of ideas. To find out that they began filming without a finished script gives the film another notch of desperation and apparently the writer handed over the script of what was to be shot the very next day, leading to all manner of mistakes and goofs. It also makes a lot of what happens perfectly understandable, as the film veers in different directions in any attempt to find success. There’s an underlying sense of incoherence throughout the film, right from its muddled opening, through poor build-up and then towards a flat finale. Separate plot threads are started but never manage to converge later on. The final confrontation between good and evil is a huge let down, considering something of similar note like the pentagram scene from The Devil Rides Out.

There’s a very good cast with Denholm Elliot, Honor Blackman and Kinksi providing great support to the two leads. Richard Widmark’s low key performance contrasts perfectly with the towering theatricality of Christopher Lee as the sinister, snarling Father Michael. It’s another great show from one of Hammer’s greatest servants and fitting that one of the instruments of success was there in its final moments. Though the film was a success at the box office, all of the profits went to investors and creditors and Hammer didn’t feel the financial benefits. The film was also considered such a failure by Dennis Wheatley that he told Hammer they could never film another of his novels ever again – a point made mute by the studio going out of business shortly afterwards.

 

 

To the Devil a Daughter is a historically important film as it signalled the end of an amazing era in not only horror but British filmmaking. With the death of Hammer, the British filmmaking industry lost one of its biggest exports and horror in this country would die a slow death until recent revivals thanks to the National Lottery. But that has nothing to do with the film itself which, quite frankly, is a load of poo.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mark of the Devil (1970)

Mark of the Devil (1970)

Positively the most horrifying film ever made.

Christian, the protégé of an infamous witch hunter, arrives in a European town to deal with allegations that Albino, the local inquisitor, has been blackmailing women for sexual and financial gain. Whilst there, Christian falls in love with Vanessa, one of the local women. Albino tries to rape her but then accuses her of being a witch when she fights back and slashes his face. When his mentor, Lord Cumberland, arrives in the town, Christian believes he will help him to clear her name. But as Cumberland goes about his own witch hunting activities, Christian realises that he is just as corrupt and sleazy as Albino and begins to see that the witch trials are simply a scam for the clergy to rob innocent people of their land.

 

Mark of the Devil is one of Europe’s sleazy entries into the short-lived ‘witch hunter’ fad of the late 60s and early 70s. Part of its infamy comes from the fact that cinemas offered free sick bags to the audience to prepare them for the horrors that they were about to witness. Dated as it may be today, the exploitative gore and violence still rings home today as the context is still as horrific as ever. Like the other films in the genre, it makes no bones about its stance towards the Catholic Church. Hundreds of thousands of people across Europe were executed for heresy and many suffered appalling torture and prolonged deaths during the Church’s reign.

Mark of the Devil focuses a lot on the corruption of the church’s witch hunting where it sent those that disagreed with its methods to a fiery death and using the entire process as a method to consolidate its grip on power through the use of fear. The torturers justify their actions by stating that it is the work of God, thinly disguising their individual desires of sex, power and blood lust. You’re either with the Church or you’re a witch was their belief and Mark of the Devil explores how this power corrupt many religious men. In doing so they emerge as the Devil incarnate, not those people that suffered under their rule. The point of the film is to show you how hypocritical these holy men were.

Mark of the Devil has often been considered too violent and exploitative to effectively deliver any sort of message but I don’t agree. The scenes of torture could be timid in comparison with the brutal antics of Hostel but when you consider that this is what happened back in the 18th century, the whole piece takes a new sinister meaning. Also take into account the year in which it was filmed and the shocking nature of the footage is quite alarming. Mark of the Devil does live up to its reputation and manages to torture and humiliate some hot women like never before seen in cinema! Young maidens are burnt alive at the stake. They’re stretched out on the rack. They’re branded with hot irons. They’re slashed, poked and prodded to find the Devil’s mark on their bodies. And there’s plenty of lashings too. One unlucky man is tarred and feathered and kicked out of town. In the film’s most iconic image, one young woman has her tongue ripped out. The torture methods are all legitimate though and were used back in the day which makes their inclusion all the more worrying. We’ve heard stories about the unspeakable things that the Church did to people back in the 18th century to force confessions of witch craft and Mark of the Devil takes great pains to show us it in its deplorable glory.

Having said this, I was a little disappointed in how many times the film cuts away from the blood. It’s clever because you’ll think you’ve seen more than you actually have. This brutality is well contrasted against the beautiful cinematography of the Austrian countryside. The locations used are stunning and the sets could have come straight out of one of Hammer’s earlier Gothic horror masterpieces. Surely this seemingly peaceful and tranquil setting isn’t home to such horrors?

The cast is devilishly strong. Veteran Herbert Lom is superb as Lord Cumberland and he uses his low, authoritative voice to deliver some punchy lines. Lom is able to slowly reveal his character’s true personality, turning Cumberland from the intelligent, sophisticated lord we assume he is in the beginning to a man just as cunning, opportunistic and sadistic as Albino. The only difference is that Cumberland is able to hide it using his educated background and noble birth. Genre icon and living legend, Udo Kier, stars in one of his earliest roles. Kier’s youthful looks and piercing blue eyes are put to good use as the innocent Christian and its peculiar seeing him as the straight laced hero instead of a vampire or other monstrous character. Kier’s Christian is the voice of conscience and reason and contrasts with Lom’s bullish and ignorant mindset – who will come out on top in the end?

Olivera Katarina does what her role requires of her and that is to look buxom and comely in her wench outfit and provide the necessary beauty to cause characters to fight over her. The scene stealer of this one is Reggie Nalder, one evil-looking creep who plays his role of the local witch hunter to perfection. He’s a sadistic force in the town who relishes his role in power. He isn’t out to help the church, he’s simply out to get his leg over and have the people in the town fear him. Nalder’s face was actually scarred in a mysterious accident in his twenties (and he gave numerous explanations of the reason over the years) so they’re real, not make-up, and they add to the persona of his slimy villain.

 

Mark of the Devil is nowhere nearly as horrific as it’s reputation would have you believe (isn’t that always the case though?), does contain it’s fair share of clunky writing and dreadful dubbing and takes a few liberties with history but it’s great as an exploitation piece where torture, mutilation and degradation are the order of the day. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re definitely going to enjoy this.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General (1968)

The Year’s Most Violent Film!

In 17th century England, the country is engulfed in civil war with the King and his Cavaliers battling Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads for control. During this time, law and order in society has become farcical in some areas. Matthew Hopkins and his henchman, Stearne, are witch hunters, travelling across the countryside from village to village, being paid handsomely by the townsfolk for extracting confessions from ‘witches’ and then executing them. They come across a priest of a small town who is accused of being a witch. In order to save her uncle from execution, Sara offers herself to Hopkins. He gladly agrees to this but when he is forced to leave the village on other business, Stearne finds out and proceeds to rape her. When Hopkins returns and finds out, he no longer has any use for Sara and kills her uncle. When her fiancé finds out, he abandons his post in Cromwell’s army to hunt down and kill Hopkins and Stearne.

 

Boy was I not expecting this! Witchfinder General was never a film to pull me with a thrilling-sounding plot because I thought it was just going to be another period piece similar to the output that Hammer had been producing for years. Not that there is anything wrong with the Hammer films (totally the opposite), it seemed pointless to me to sit and watch a period film done by someone else who wouldn’t be able to live up to Hammer’s usual standards. However this is anything but your average period horror. Torture, rape, violence and a nasty underlying tone are the foundations for this film and for 1968, that’s a big shocker.

Witchfinder General‘s strongest moments are the nasty ones and that is just for the sheer imagery of it all. The film opens with a group of villages dragging an accused witch up a hill followed by a priest reading from the Bible and then ending with the woman hanging from the end of a noose. It sets the tone early for what promises to be a nasty, uncompromising ride. The scenes of people being dropped into castle moats to see if they float are shockingly realistic. The torture scenes are done tastefully too (if there is such a thing) – later films would add a touch of eroticism and perversion to proceedings with half-naked hotties hanging from chains. Here there is no nudity, just brutal violence and nothing too flash either. The most horrific moment comes later in the film when Hopkins and his associate preside over a poor screaming woman being lowered into a fire at the end of a ladder. The sad thing is that this all took place back in the country in the 17th century so it really hits home just how barbaric things were back then. This is all brought to life on film in realistic detail. Reeves doesn’t glorify the proceedings nor makes them the focal point of the film. It is a character-driven piece but because the story sucks you in, the shock and horror of what happens hits home more than it should.

Vincent Price has always been associated with hammy, cheesy performances in dubious horror outings and that tag is never going to change. But here Price is anything but the cartoony bad guy you’ll have seen him portray in other films. As Matthew Hopkins, Price is just amazing. You’re never quite sure what the character’s intentions are. Does he really believe he’s doing the work of God by eliminating witches? Or is he just a perverted man, out to get laid and a sack full of cash by abusing his power and authority at a time when no one knew any better (or could do anything about it for that matter)? Price seems to have been born to play this role.

The rest of the cast is great too, with particular mention going to the scowling Robert Russell playing the henchman, Stearne. It’s a pity that more isn’t made of the final confrontation and the film ends a bit suddenly but it’s being picky on a pretty superb film.

 

About as bleak and sinister as any British horror film I’ve ever seen, Witchfinder General is must-see viewing for anyone with a shred of interest in classic British horror. Something like this would never have been made today so enjoy it whilst you can. In my opinion it’s second only to The Wicker Man in the ‘you’ll never forget it’ stakes.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆