Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hammer Horror, Reclothed in Black

The new film forthcoming the Hammer Horror studios is attracting plenty of attention, and this recent piece in the New York Times reiterates the significance of this movie maker's renaissance. Known for decades as a defining maverick in British Horror, the studio has been silent for a number of years...but has recently come back with some very high-quality films.

"The early efforts by the rebooted Hammer, including the acclaimed remake “Let Me In” and “The Resident,” have not found huge box office success. But Mr. Oakes, the chief executive and president, said that those were only “building blocks” setting up his ambitious next move, a $13 million adaptation of “The Woman in Black,” opening Friday. Like the classic Hammer movies, this ghost story, shot in Britain, is a period piece with a high-toned pedigree. (Adapted from a Susan Hill novella, it also was a long-running West End play.) In keeping with Hammer tradition, it has a star. In his first post-Harry Potter film role, Daniel Radcliffe plays a guilt-ridden father and lawyer who starts seeing ghosts while going through the estate of a recently deceased woman. “For Hammer to succeed, it has to honor its legacy,” Mr. Oakes said by Skype." (The New York Times, January 27, 2012)

Let Me In was, of course, a very well-received remake of a Swedish film most thought would fail miserably in an American context. The notion that it was merely a warm-up for the sort of work Hammer really wants to showcase is rather thrilling. As the article points out, younger horror fans may have little to no familiarity with Hammer's legacy and its domination of the horror genre for so many years. To revive its reputation with this ambitious period piece is a well-considered move and one that many of us are eagerly looking forward to. It doesn't hurt that Daniel Radcliffe, a young English actor who has proven his worth via the Harry Potter franchise and recent turns on London and New York stages, is the star. features this short behind the scenes video that whets the appetite nicely.
Will The Woman in Black bring back the visual and atmospheric hallmarks of the Hammer vampire films of the 1970s? Will it feature tall, willowy women in pale diaphanous gowns moving gracefully through misty churchyards? Perhaps not. But a girl can hope, can't she? Those scenes haunted my childhood and to me they simply scream "Hammer Horror."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ken Russell: Maverick artist behind THE DEVILS has died at 84

The controversial, artful and always iconic filmmaker Ken Russell died peacefully in his sleep yesterday, aged 84.
Just last week I was enjoying the girlish feeling of giggling to myself over the fact that filmmaker Ken Russell was my Facebook friend. After he accepted my friend request I wrote to him, "Sir, I love you." His page was actually quite active (he called himself "Unkle Ken Russell") and I imagine he had an assistant or two help him with it. An "event" page was created for the highly-anticipated DVD release of his 1971 film The Devils, which was announced barely two weeks ago. Do join and show your support so that this amazing film can find a new generation of appreciative viewers; it has been unavailable except in poor copies for decades now, partly due to its controversial content. Upon its release it was given a special award in Italy, even as it was banned from being shown in theatres there, due to its damning view of catholicism. This recent interview with Russell from The Guardian looks at the film 40 years later.
Perhaps more than any other, it is this film, about the execution of French priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in one of his most memorable roles), accused as a heretic, which roils colorfully in the minds of occult film buffs. With its depraved nuns (one of them the glorious Vanessa Redgrave, in a terrifying role as the lovesick, hunchbacked Mother Superior), its hippie-esque witchfinder, and its eclectic, anachronistic design (with sets by a very young Derek Jarman, himself a legendary filmmaker who died tragically young), this unforgettable film relates the fact-based story of an arrogant man wrongly accused of trafficking with the devil. In the late 17th century, of course, this was a sure path to the stake.
Because it is layered with fragments of contemporary iconography, music, morality and cultural references, it is of particular interest to audiences familiar with the contemporary occult revival, which was in full swing by 1971, and certainly influenced Russell's treatment of the story (based on Aldous Huxley's 1952 book The Devils of Loudun).
Russell's work was an acquired taste, some said. And although many of his films were widely admired (like Women in Love(1969), an Oscar nominee), or the rock musical Tommy(1975), or Altered States, or one of my favorites, Mahler(1974), about the reclusive composer, Russell's insistence on utilizing shocking imagery to the point of oversaturation did repel some viewers, just as his use of anachronistic music confused others (as with the decadent Salome's Last Dance(1988), or Gothic(1986), a dark, imaginative look at the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein).
Not content to sit behind the camera, Russell also appeared in front of it, acting in over two dozen films (sometimes appearing as himself). I particularly enjoyed a brief cameo of him in the stunning 206 pseudo-documentary Brothers of the Head, in which he played a tongue-in-cheek version of himself, an elderly filmmaker unable to finish his project due to lack of funding and other difficulties, situations not unfamiliar to Russell in his later years.

It is a sad reality that many artists do not enjoy proper respect in their autumn years, even those who continue to work as Russell did. I trust Unkle Ken's extraordinary legacy will be a potent reminder of the need to appreciate and honor such artists during their lifetimes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Macabre AND Educational!

Indiewire reports that the gruesome and oddly amusing claymation film T IS FOR TOILET has been named the winner of the "Next Great Horror Filmmaker" for its creator Lee Hardcastle. The film was submitted along with many others to a competition sponsored by Drafthouse Films, Magnet Pictures, and Timpson Films, which will produce a film "anthology" of 26 segments by different filmmakers called "The ABCs of Death" which was inspired...are you ready? children's education books! Each letter of the alphabet is represented.

I doubt the film anthology is intended for children but you never know. This sounds like a fascinating project. You can watch T IS FOR TOILET In its entirety at the linked page.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two Bits of Movie News!

First, I had an interesting discussion about the film BLACK DEATH with Theofantastique's John Morehead. Check it out if you have time. John and I hope to have future discussions about spirituality and film.

Second, I just posted over at The Witching Hour blog on the plans to make a film out of Starhawk's novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, and the new Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in the planning stages.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, Kenneth Anger!

Kenneth Anger, the filmmaker who made some of the most surreal, glorious and occult-themed films in history celebrates his 83rd birthday today. If you haven't seen his entire collection of short films they're available in two wonderful Criterion DVD editions, Volumes 1 and 2. The disks include a terrific accompanying booklet with commentary by filmmakers Gus Van Sant, Guy Maddin, and Martin Scorcese, who describes Anger's undeniable influence upon contemporary filmmakers, and an intriguing introduction to Lucifer Rising by Bobby Beausoleil, Anger's collaborator who became involved with the Manson Family and is currently serving a life sentence in prison for his role in several murders.

Anger's films Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (featuring Anais Nin as Astarte), Lucifer Rising, Invocation of my Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising are all seminal films of occult cinema, and form the basis for the imagery and tone of many occult-based films that came in their wake. Anger was himself an occult practitioner, and every one of his films is a ritual unto itself. Mr. Anger, we salute you and your visionary body of work.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Black Death

Christopher Smith's new film Black Death, opening in the US in March 2011, stars Sean Bean as a medieval warrior exploring a mystery: why do the inhabitants of one small village seem immune to the plague?

In a recent post discussing the new Dominic Sena film, the much-hyped Season of the Witch (opening January 7, 2011), Jason at The Wild Hunt mentioned Black Death as a plague story sure to give the Nicolas Cage vehicle a run for its money. Judging from the trailer, it certainly seems to be less sensational, although the story includes a supernatural component. I also like the look of the cinematography. And it has a great cast, including Bean, British character actor Tim McInnerny, and John Lynch.

Films about the plague are few and far between. Certainly the best known is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), starring a young Max von Sydow as a young Crusades knight who plays chess with Death, and sacrifices himself to save a young family from the plague. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) is an intriguing anachronistic film about a young boy who travels through time to save his village from the plague. One of my favorites is Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death (1964), based on the Edgar Allen Poe short story and starring Vincent Price.

All of these films have occult elements, given the superstitious beliefs surrounding the plague. Ignorance about disease pathology and communicability led many people to think the plague was a curse, caused by witchcraft or demonic possession. In a season of cinema that seems increasingly interested in the topic of exorcism (such as The Last Exorcism and the forthcoming The Rite), this trend of plague films is intriguing, to say the least.

Sorry to have been neglecting this blog in recent months, folks! Maybe some of you have found my new blog The Witching Hour, devoted to pagan perspectives on television, cinema and other media. But I will try to continue to post content on cinema and the occult here, and strive to do so more often than I have in recent months!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New Documentary: American Mystic

This new film by Alex Mar is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's a close study of three different practitioners of alternative spiritual paths, including a Spiritualist in New York, a pagan priestess in rural California, and a Native American shaman/sundancer in South Dakota. The film is as much about landscape and how it inspires spiritual engagement, as it is about these three people and their specific beliefs and practices.

I hope you'll all keep an eye out for this film and go to see it if/when it comes to your city, and buy it when it becomes available on DVD. I am going to try and get a screening copy so I can post a review here. Jason at the Wild Hunt Blog has also posted some great coverage of this film, and has spoken with the filmmaker and producer, so watch his site for a possible forthcoming interview.