Phillip's Horror Lists, Part Ten: God, the Devil and All That Jazz
Here's where I give a short-list (very short) of my favorite occult-oriented horror films. Biggest omission: "The Exorcist." As full-disclosure, I've never cared for the film and it doesn't really do anything for me at all. I've been told (and firmly believe) that you have to be at least somewhat religious to get any effect from that film. Since I'm not, I'm left with a little girl puking and swearing...not necessarily my cup of tea, unless Troma is involved. Here, then, are the "occult" films that I like better than "The Exorcist." The first three are 4-star films and the last one is, technically, a 10-star film, but the scale only goes up to 5. I'm positive that I'm leaving some films out but this was kind of a weird category to fill. Nonetheless, here they be:
The House of the Devil (2009) – Ti West is one of the new crop of horror directors that’s being hailed as the modern masters in the genre. At this point, I’m not sure, since I’m evenly split on the film’s of his I’ve seen. I thought his latest one, “The Innkeepers,” was just alright. I went in with high hopes but left feeling quite disappointed. His sophomore film, however, is a near-masterpiece of sustained tension and suspence. Set in the ‘80s (for no apparent reason that I can see other than the opportunity to set-design an ‘80s vibe), the film involves a broke college student that accepts the absolute worst job ever. Over a holiday break, she takes a babysitting job at a strange mansion. Of course, there’s also a full lunar eclipse on the way. Once there, she meets the incredibly strange owners of the house, a solemn Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov (!!) (looking like a dressier version of the American Gothic painting). She also finds out that she won’t be watching a child: she’ll be watching the old woman that lives in the attic. Okay…that’s about where I might have bailed on the job but our plucky heroine sticks it through, much to her ultimate destruction. This is a tricky, slowly-paced film (West’s speciality) that takes its time in getting to the horror. When it starts, however (and you’ll know, because it’s one of the most surprising, shockingly sudden bits of violence I’ve seen in modern times), the film becomes a rollercoaster to hell. I won’t spoil the story but, since this is in my “Occult” section, you probably have an idea where this is going. If the film were a little tighter, it would be 5-star, easy.
The Prophecy (1995) – Goddamn but I love Christopher Walken! Like Ron Perlman and Bruce Campbell, I will (literally) watch anything the dude is in, regardless of the actual film. Luckily, “The Prophecy” is a pretty awesome film. Walken plays the angel Gabriel. He’s come to earth in order to harvest a particular soul, the soul of the most evil man on the planet. He needs the soul in order to turn the tables on the eons-long war currently being waged in Heaven. Gabriel will, without hesitation, stomp the living fuck out of any and everyone that gets in his way: this ain’t no cherub with wings and a halo, folks. Opposing his is Eric Stoltz, another angel that’s hidden the soul so that Gabriel can’t find it. Viggo Mortensen even joins the fun as the Devil. This film pretty much has it all: badass fighting; excellent effects work; a killer story; wild, kinetic performances by the leads (Walken is super-duper fantastic in this one…it’s like a Greatest Hits of his very best Walken-ness) and enough violence and mayhem to keep the horror set fully engaged. This was followed by a sequel (also with Walken) that manages to be almost as good as the original (a pretty rare occurrence with sequels). Highly recommended.
The Sentinel (1977) – Man, oh man…this film scared the living shit out of me when I was younger. The last scene still has to stand as one of the most nightmarish, relentless things I’ve ever witnessed (in case anyone’s wondering, much of the makeup at the end is actually real…the director used real-life – for lack of a much better word – freaks to pull it off). A fashion model moves into a New York apartment and discovers something (albeit too late): the apartment is built over a door to Hell. There’s a blind priest who lives on the top floor and appears to be “watching” or waiting for something. Will poor Alison figure out what’s going on before it’s too late or will she be sucked into an endless war between good and evil? Super-creepy and (tonally) a bit similar to “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Sentinel” is a damn good horror film. That ending, though…ye gods, that gave me nightmares!
The Wicker Man (1973) – Always one of my favorite films, “The Wicker Man” is really in a class by itself. I debated putting this in my “Misc” blog, since the film isn't, technically, an occult movie: it’s about pagans. TomatO, TomAto, though, right? Edward Woodward (TV’s Equalizer) plays a devoutly religious police sergeant who travels to the remote, self-sustaining Summerisle in search of a (potentially) missing girl. Once there, he discovers that the island is filled with pagans. They seem friendly enough, but the sergeant’s god is better than theirs, so he’s not having any of it. Between tearing the village apart in a search of a missing person that may never have existed and shaking his finger at their “heathen” ways (celebrating the May Pole; openly talking about sex with children; performing fertility rituals in the nude; dancing to folk music in the nude…come to think of it, these folks do an awful lot of stuff in the nude!), Sergeant Howie gradually comes to realize that something is very, very wrong here. Once he meets Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, in a magnificent role that he always said was his favorite), he’s sure that something’s going on. What exactly is going on, however, is much more shocking than anyone can imagine. The ending is still so powerful that it takes my breath away every time I see it. The mix of elegiac beauty and sinister mood is thick enough to cut with a machete and there are no easy answers here. Unless you want a good laugh, stay far, far, far away from the atrocious Nicholas Cage remake (“The bees! Ahhhh….the beeeeees!!!”). As I've always said, why remake a perfect film when there are so many flawed films to remake? “The Wicker Man” is just about as perfect as films come. This is a must-see for any serious fan of film, horror or not.