Witchcraft

The Witches (1966)

the witches

The Witches which was released in the US as The Devil’s Own which is also the name of the novel the film is based on. It opens with a dramatic scene in an unspecified country in Africa in which Gwen Mayfield, played by Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion, is chased out of town by a tribal uprising lead by the witch doctors one of who looks like a giant Mr Potato head. The rest of the film is set in a very different location in the small rural village of Heddaby where she is recruited to be the schools new headmistress by the wealthy siblings Alan and Stephanie Bax, Alec McCowen (Frenzy)and Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist)respectively.

Heddaby seems like a wonderful place to recuperate after the dramatic incident in Africa, however it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. The first clue that something is off about the village is the revelation that Alan is not a priest as he first presents himself; in fact, there is not even a current church in the village. The headmistress’s attentions focuses on two students, Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting, The Last Tycoon) and Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens, Village of the Damned) who, at fourteen has a blossoming potential romance. However, this relationship is cut short when Ronnie mysteriously falls into a comma and coincidently (or not) a doll missing its head with pins stuck in it is discovered.

Things go from bad to worse for Gwen with the death of one of the villagers leading her to jump to the conclusion that there is a coven in the village intent on human sacrifice (quite a large jump from the supposed suicide or accidental death of a drunk man) and she is briefly hospitalised and loses her memory. At the climax of the film, Gwen Mayfield returns to Heddaby in an attempt to regain her memory. Unfortunately, she stumbles onto a ritual in which the villagers intend to sacrifice poor Linda Rigg and she is her only hope of survival.

I have to commend The Witches imagination in costume and props, it has to contain the most ominous feather duster on screen. The witches costume at the final dramatic scene is something to behold, a bright orange tabard with a three horned goat creature on and an excellent headpiece comprised of burning mummified hands. There is little to write about either the acting or the soundtrack in the film, both are average, neither excellent nor remarkably bad and both make the film easy to follow and a joy to watch, ramping up the tension throughout the film.

Not one of Hammer Horror’s best films it is nevertheless an enjoyable, if slow to get started, to watch with some bizarre costume choices. It is missing the usual blood and boobs of a hammer film so don’t expect it but what you get instead is a creepy off-beat tale of witchcraft. I particularly enjoy the link the film makes between witchcraft in different cultures, from the wilds of Africa to the quaint English countryside.

Rating 3/5

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White Zombie (1932)

white-zombie

White Zombie is set on the Caribbean island of Haiti and follows a young couple, Madeline Short and Neil Parker, played by Madge Bellamy (The Iron Horse) and John Harron (Silk Stockings) respectively who are visiting Charles Beaumont, a friend of Madeline. The film begins with the lovebirds arriving during a traditional Voodoo funeral and several passers-by, an ominous sign of what it to follow from which the coachman flees at a breakneck speed and drops the two at Beaumont’s plantation. Here we meet Beaumont, played by Robert Frazer (The Vampire Bat) with a clear crush on the doe-eyed Madeline. We are also introduced to the local (Christian) priest, Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn, The Great Ziegfeld) who conducts the wedding ceremony between Madeline and Neil.

Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Beaumont, desperate to have Madeline for his own, approaches Bela Lugosi’s character, ‘Murder’ Legendre, a voodoo master who possesses a crew of zombies, including the voodoo priest he learnt the dark art from and someone sent to execute him. Legendre and Beaumont ‘kill’ Madeline and turn her into a zombie, sending Neil into a drunken spiral of despair through which he is haunted by the spirit of his lost love. Wracked by grief, he goes to see Dr Bruner who explains his theory about the use of drugs to induce a zombie-like state in a victim and how he suspects this has happened to Madeline. The two then go on a mission to rescue Madeline from Legendre, who has since turned on the poor Beaumont.

White Zombie has all the hallmarks of a good 1930s horror film, a wide eyed damsel in distress, a strong hero and his side kick and a despicable villain. The main star of the film is Lugosi’s eyebrows, which has a lot of airtime including several close-ups, they resemble something of a handlebar moustache stuck other the top of his nose. They are so amazing, that I am putting the first screen shot in a review of them:

white zombie eyebrows

Understandably the sound and picture quality are poor compared to modern films and some of the scenes skip but that is only to be expected for a film that is over 80 year’s old. Similarly, a film with such blatant racism would not get made nowadays, but in from 1915-1934 Haiti was occupied by the US and an enforced labour regime was employed so it may be somewhat representative of the time the film was made. The scenery was borrowed from other horror films being filmed at the same studio so there is a lack of cohesion on the scenery that is confusing at times.

White Zombie is an interesting, little (at just over an hour long) film with a clear story. I like the fact that, unlike a lot of modern films, the film has a resolution (however predictable) and doesn’t leave an obvious opening for a sequel (e.g. Insidious). It is also a slightly different take on the zombie canon, from the common risen dead or the more recent disease infection. Whilst not scary, I would recommend White Zombie to all horror fans.

Rating: 4/5

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Fun Fact: Bellamy retired from screen after a scandal in the early 40s in which she shot at her then partner, Albert Stanwood Murphy and filed for divorce, despite never being legally married.

Häxan: Witchcraft through the ages (1922)

haxan

Häxan is an early 20th century documentary about the history of witchcraft by Benjamin Christensen, who directs, writes and stars as the devil, an ominous bare-chested figure with a protruding, wiggling tongue. Häxan is based on Christensen’s research into the 15th century German text, Malleus Maleficarum otherwise known in English as ‘Hammer of [the] Witches’ a ‘how to’ guide for witch finder inquisitors.

The film is split into seven chapters, the first of which gives the background story of witchcraft from ancient times starting with their idea of the universe which in itself is very interesting with a steel sky supported on giant mountains and the crystal spheres of the heavens controlled by the almighty above it. All these are illustrated with snapshots of engravings and dioramas which include fluttering tissue paper as the fiery ring around the Earth and a handy (although sometimes unnecessary) pointer that highlights everything.

In the following chapters we move into medieval times, first exploring the medieval myth of witchcraft before moving to a sorceress’s house, which is as clichéd as imagined with a stooped old woman, a dogs skeleton hanging over the fire and a dwarf pottering around gathering toads and snakes and all sorts of other slimy creatures. There we follow as the witch makes potions for local women and adds various parts of recently hanged men to barrels. In the next chapter the inquisitors arrive in the town under a blanket of superstition and fear. On the death of a local man his wife, Anna played by Christensen’s wife Karen Winther, accuses an old beggar woman of putting a spell on him. Häxan then follows the ‘witches’ trial including both the mental and physical torture utilised to gain her confession. Inevitably the witch confesses and names several other women as witches and ends with Anna also accused. Unlike the old woman Anna does not confess and we see how the inquisitors gain confessions when torture fails.

Following the dramatization of the witch trials, some of the torture implements are examined in closer detail giving the viewers a chilling and gruesome insight into what could have been used against them in previous centuries if they were unlucky. The final chapter draws comparisons between medieval witchcraft and modern day (well the 1920s) hysteria as a mental illness including comparisons between a pyromaniac sleepwalker and a possessed nun. Christensen draws uncomfortable parallels between the medieval torture and the mental institution.

Häxan is a very brave film that inevitably caused some furore when released due to both the subject matter and the execution, including scenes of cooking un-christened babies and fornication with demons. It presents an interesting and comprehensive look at witchcraft and when viewed today provides a social commentary of how women were viewed in the 15th century and the early 20th century when this film was made.

Fun Fact: Häxan was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

 The Marked ones

The Marked Ones is the fifth instalment in the Paranormal Activity series started by the incredibly successful Paranormal Activity in 2009. As with all the previous films The Marked Ones is filmed in a found footage style, from the vantage point of a camcorder belonging to two Latino teenagers Jessie (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz). The film begins at a high school graduation in Oxnard California where Jessie and Hector along with their classmates including Oscar (Carlos Pratts) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). After a night celebrating with their family and friends, their downstairs neighbour Anna, who is commonly held to be a witch, is found brutally murdered by Oscar who swiftly leaps to his death.

Shortly after the traumatic turn of events, Jessie wakes up with a bite mark on his arm and then develops strange powers including throwing two thugs fifty feet into the air and being held aloft after falling off a chair. However cool these things may seem (and they post the videos on YouTube) they soon take a turn for the macabre pretty quickly after discovering an occult altar in a hidden cellar with photos of Jessie and Oscar on it. It transpires that Anna was a member of ‘The Midwives’ coven who perform demonic rites on pregnant women and their unborn sons.

Whilst there are some original aspects in this film, including the use of a ‘Simon’ for a séance, most of the scares were predictable, like the use of night vision, having said that there were scares a plenty and the film built up tension very quickly and effectively. The Marked Ones sets out its Latin identity like a dog marking its territory complete with tequila drinking Spanish speaking grandmother, tortillas and  Day of the Dead iconography, in fact if playing Latino bingo, the only thing missing was the Piñata (which they could have squeezed in in the post-graduation party). The relationship to the previous films is tenuous, only becoming clear right at the end of the film.

The found footage style of the film is well done with the camera rolling for reasons within the film, e.g. filming to put on the internet or filming at a party rather than filming purely for the film as seen in many of these types of movies. The (always present) night vision passage was very well done as the demonic presence distorts the camera screen.

The Marked Ones left me thinking that the Paranormal Activity franchise should have been ended after number three or four rather than fading into mediocrity with the same story wrapped in a tortilla. I would recommend it if you haven’t seen the previous four films as whilst derivative, it still provides a lot of good scares. The Marked Ones does not need the background of the preceding movies, nor does it add anything substantial to the movie canon.

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

the golem

The Golem: How He Came into the World (or Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam as it is known in the original German) is the third of three films directed by Paul Wegener (the preceding films being The Golem and the dancing girl and The Golem which were both lost) based on the Jewish legend of the Golem. The eponymous Golem is a large man-like creature made out of clay played by the director Paul Wegener.

The story is in five chapters, the first beginning with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), portrayed as a stereotypical magician, pointy hat and all, reading a coming disaster for the Jewish community in medieval Prague. The Emperor then signs a decree ordering all the Jews to move into a ghetto and Rabbi Loew starts plotting a way to save the Jewish people by creating a man out of clay. In the second chapter the message for the Jews to evacuate to the ghetto is delivered by the knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), where he meets Rabbi Loew’s beautiful daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and falls in love and the Golem is brought to life in a dramatic fire-laden ceremony by Loew and his assistant, Famulus (Ernst Deutsch). In third chapter, Rabbi Loew takes the Golem to show the Emperor at the Rose Festival and from then, a series of calamitous events occur.

As with all silent films, any emotions must be expressed via facial expressions and body language. The love shown between Florian and Miriam on their first meeting is a good example of how well this is done, both of them taking deep shuddering breaths and clinging to one another, hand on hearts which I found a better expression of two people flirting and falling in love than the more modern kissing then waking up naked next to each other.

The use of lighting and shadows along with the unusual shaped highly expressionist set design by Hans Poelzig gives the impression of a poor marginalised community in which the tall angular houses loom over the narrow streets, presenting blank walls with dark orifices in the form of windows.  Indeed Loew’s home looks more akin to living inside a giant tree than a house, consisting of organic flowing lines and small shadowy spaces. The use of colour filters again adds to the tone of the film for example, the use of gold for the temple, green for the Rabbi’s house and blood red for the rampaging Golem. The version of the film I watched was accompanied by an excellent score with as a violin and piano duet and I feel it captured the mood and story of the film perfectly.

The Golem: How He Came into the World is an amazing film and I would recommend it to anyone, both people familiar and unfamiliar with the German Expressionist movement and horror films.