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   PCR # 117 (Vol. 3, No. 25) This edition is for the week of June 17--23, 2002.

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The Enlightenment by Terence Nuzum

Part 3
"Heaven Help Us..."
or
The Occult Films of the 1970s

In the late 1960s there was a growing interest in pagan religions, Satanism, and occult studies. The public's fascination with the Anton LaVey/Jane Mansfield incident, the Manson family, and the false notion, initiated by Christian groups that devil worshippers could be living next door all gave the film industry an untapped trend to follow. By the 1970s, horror films dealing with the devil, demons, and the occult were in full swing. It seemed everyone was ready to be terrified by witchraft and Satanism. Even David Bowie claimed that the vibe in Los Angeles at the time was dark and evil. Bowie himself dabbled in the occult, drawing pentagrams on his apartment walls and floor. A bizarre trend, but like all others it did catch on, and when it did, Hollywood jumped all over it.

The Dunwich HorrorIn 1970 Roger Corman produced perhaps the quintessential occult film and the only worthy H.P. Lovecraft adaptation so far, "The Dunwich Horror". The film, starring Dean Stockwell as the demon-worshipping madman, contained all the right elements from pentagrams, the Necronomicon, other worlds, to a virgin sacrifice. In the movie, Dean Stockwell plays Wilbur, son of Cthulhu, one of an ancient race of beings who roamed the earth before man. Wilbur, while trying to steal The Necronomicon, a book which holds the spell necessary to call forth Cthulhu, meets a cute coed played by Sandra Dee. Wilbur has found the perfect host to father the child of Cthulhu. As an added bonus, Cthulhu's other son who "resembles the father", is locked up in Wilbur's house and eventually breaks out to wreak havoc on the town of Dunwich. While no film has been or ever will be able to capture Lovecraft's horror of the printed page, this one has done its source material some justice and more than made up for "Die, Monster, Die".

The Wickerman1973 yielded two gems of the occult genre, "The Wickerman" and "The Exorcist". "The Wickerman" is more a film about the pros & cons of all religions--it nevertheless fits the bill of a horror film. In the film, a policeman, Sgt. Howie, visits a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. What the devout Christian, Sgt. Howie, finds is a community of pagans. Lord Summersile played by Christopher Lee(in his best role ever) is the anti-Howie in every aspect and refuses to help in the investigation. Summersile leads Howie astray right up to the shocking conclusion when Howie must face the horror of the Wickerman. Director Robin Hardy's film is no cheap B-thriller though but instead an insightful look at pagan pre-Christian religions. What is disgusting lust and blasphemy to Sgt. Howie is simply a way of life for the island's residents. Sgt. Howie's "Christian ethics" are what in the end do him in. His innocent attitudes toward the harshness of the reality in front of him is what is used against him. "The Wickerman" is a masterpeice of the horror genre and at the same time a thought-provoking drama in its own right.

The ExorcistPazzuzzuThe other classic of '73 is, of course, William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist". The Exorcist was purportedly based on a true story of possession in the 1940s. Little of the truth, though, was retained by the time cameras started rolling. Instead, we follow a priest who is trying to redeem himself from his past and the little girl who is possessed by Puzzuzu that he must exorcise. The special effects were very gory and intense for their time and with the terrifying subject matter and direction it was a hit. Of course, part of the film's terror was due to subliminal flashings of "Captain Howdy", simply a face of a demon, scattered throughout the movie. The film still broke ground in many ways but mostly in the character of the possessed little girl with the blasphemous mouth and act of masturbation via the cross. Seen as a blantant disrespect for the Catholic faith it, of course, caused an uproar. But in the end it proved that art should be free of censorship regardless of any one group's opinion. The Exorcist was the first film of its kind to handle the theme of possesion and the devil in such a terrifying way and it worked.

In 1979, the idea of a possessed house was brought forward with "The Amityville Horror". Based on a supposedly true story of a family menaced by the devil in their new home, the film had its moments but just didn't cut it. Furthermore, the stale direction of Stuart Rosenberg doesn't help the boring plot. The sole, frightening moment where the priest enters a room full of flies and the devil screams "get out" can even induce laughter. Incidently, the true story it was based on turned out to be a hoax giving this film a lack of credibility that it already didn't need.

Mario Bava took a stab at the genre in 1975 with what is perhaps his best film, "Lisa and the Devil". Bava's film takes a more poetic look at the devil. In Bava's film the devil is played by Telly Savalas who is a butler to a strange evil family. The film portrays the devil as simply a servant to man's evil. The direction is some of Bava's best as his trademark lighting and cinematography reaches its peak. The film was re-edited in the U.S. with new scenes shot to cash in on "The Exorcist" craze. In fact it was retitled "The House of Exorcism". The re-edited film is completely nonsensical and is a rape of Bava's masterpiece. The other devil movie of '75 was "Devil's Rain" which starred none other than Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner. The plot concerns a coven of Satanists who want to obtain the "Book of Souls" but are foiled when "the devil's rain" is called forth and melts them. It is also notable for its very brief cameo by John Travolta.

Witches were also a popular theme in the 1970s. George Romero tried unsuccessfully to meld the legends of withes into modern times with "Season of the Witch" (1971). Apparently, in the film a bored housewife gets caught up in the occult and feminism. Romero would go on, thankfully, to have better days.

SuspiriaThe one movie that successfully made witches a terrifying image came from Italy, and that country's most talented director, Dario Argento. Argento's "Suspiria" (1977) invents the myth of the Three Witches. In the film, the first in an unfinished trilogy (Inferno was the sequel), follows a young American girl Suzy Banyon who travels to Europe to enroll in a European Dance Academy for girls. The school it turns out is run by one of the Three Witches, the evil Mother Helena. Two of the girls find out too much and are disposed of--one via a demon and the other by hanging--and the other gets mauled in a room full of barbed wire before her throat is slashed by a unseen assailant. Suzy decides to investigate based on the information told to her by the two girls and must confront Mother Helena herself. Along with the film's visual style, the soundtrack by Goblin (their best) adds to the blood-curdling moments that make this perhaps the scariest horror movie ever. With its eloborate set-pieces and stylistic art design, "Suspiria" is an epic of the horror genre. The final scenes where Suzy confronts Mother Helena, who we only see as an invisible image menacingly breathing behind a drape, is a terror unequaled in cinema. Argento's film should have been the last word on occult films but unfortunately, the 80's being the money whore it was, didn't stop here.

The occult films of the 1970s gave one the feeling that Satanists or blood-crazed cultists were lurking around every corner. In a way these films were symbolic for the horror lurking under religion's period and the trouble fanatacism creates. As the public saw religious fanatics popping up left and right during the 70s like Jim Jones, Sun Myung-Moon, etc., these films reflected the public's growing fears and prejudices in a country that up until that time was predominately Christian. Directors like Argento, Blatty, and Hardy were talented enough to take these fears and make them not only artistic successes but also terrifying films.

The Wickerman

Next: ZOMBIES!!!!!!


"The Enlightenment" is ©2002 by Terence Nuzum.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.