Olmsted’s DVD Astro Hell WITCH YOU WERE HERE:

Anchor Bay, distributor [DVD]


Oh, that editor Carlye!

Cut to behind the scenes of Astro-Hell – imagine, if you will, the curious pleasure of getting 3 DVDs to review in the mail without any kind of note and realize what our fearless leader is looking for – in this case a clearly pagan theme which I also realized would actually be featured in the Halloween issue of IRS.

So, considering our pagan subject, I decided to include my wife Suzi Olmsted, a wiccan initiate (a.k.a. witch), to help in determining the accuracy of the movies I will review.

The Witches
THE WITCHES (distributed by Anchor Bay) has Joan Fontaine in the lead and a screenplay by Nigel Kneale (please see last month’s “Twice Hammered” installment of this column for an overview of Kneale’s work). Kneale is adapting a book by Peter Curtis called THE DEVIL’S OWN, which was the American title of this film. The irrepressible James Bernard scored the film as he seems to score virtually every Hammer picture. Here the fun ends. In the hands of a decent director, this picture might have had some tension and atmosphere. In a better world, I imagine Polanski’s fun with the thinly disguised sexualities of the repressed village where Joan Fontaine has found herself. But under Cyril Frankel’s dreary execution, this movie plods along with hardly an eye to the obvious eccentricities of everyone involved. Suddenly and finally, this dull, antiseptic picture erupts into a pagan love orgy, no shit, or in the words of my wife: “Twayla Tharp meets Bob Fosse meets Timothy Leary.” Everyone sways around like a Charlie Manson sing-along and rubs up against the nearest body. Given the looks of most of the coven, this is clearly a better deal than Saturday night at the bar or the baths. The ritual is intoned in Latin. There also appears to be some earlier voodoo, perhaps even an actual link to the African rituals Ms. Fontaine encountered as a teacher doing some sort of missionary work. On the floor of the ritual chamber, a pseudo-qabbalistic circle has been traced. I have a background in ceremonial magick (now an inactive member of the O.T.O.), and between my wife and me, we were able to determine that there was not an ounce of authenticity in any of this. Kneale, who is usually much more astute, probably adapted the book without question. Frankly, if the movie held some sort of energy, all this ritual invention could’ve been forgiven. It is telling that this particular installment in Anchor Bay’s Hammer Collection has no commentary.

The Devil Rides Out
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (also distributed by Anchor Bay) is another matter entirely. Known here as THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, this 1968 Hammer entry found the light of day as a second feature in Los Angeles. I saw it first at UCLA. To put it simply, it is one of Hammer’s greatest. Not only directed by Hammer’s best director – if by default – Terrence Fisher, it boasts a screenplay by Richard Matheson. Matheson was adapting a Dennis Wheatley novel. Wheatley is known for his occult mysteries which I find, like Stephen King and Anne Rice, virtually unreadable. Matheson himself is a much superior writer – his own novel, I AM LEGEND, spawned two films, LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN. Matheson is also the origin of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and even the recent Kevin Bacon film STIR OF ECHOES, a supernatural thriller buried by the release of THE SIXTH SENSE, but much more interesting. Add to this that Matheson was part of an L.A. circle of sci fi writers – Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont and William F. Nolan among them. My L.A. magick teacher said there were rumors about this circle, i.e. that their interests in the occult went beyond book learning. I actually wrote Bradbury about this (an old friend of my father’s), and received a non-committal reply – basically saying he was interested in everything – from the occult to ice cream cones. Hmmmm.

Christopher Lee is Duc de Richleau, a white magick hero. It is rare that Lee plays a good guy successfully, but this is certainly one of the exceptions. He is a kind of Dr. Strange of the 1920’s here. Charles Grey is Mocata , clearly modeled after Aleister Crowley is his most yellow journalistic bad guy image – so much so that Mocata actually mouths Crowley’s own defintion of magick (which is also Crowley’s spelling of it, by the way) from MAGICK IN THEORY & PRACTICE. An examination of Crowley’s direct influence on the cinema would take a lot of room, but I think we can point to some highlights. This begins with the 1926 movie version of Somerset Maugham’s book THE MAGICIAN, (Maugham had met Crowley and uses one of Crowley’s own pseudonyms for the character). Crowley seems related to the Karloff character in THE BLACK CAT, and the evil magician in CURSE OF THE DEMON, as well as being a dead ringer for the sorcerer in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Last but not least, Dean Stockwell affects a famous Crowley magical gesture in THE DUNWICH HORROR (fists to temples, thumbs sticking out horn-like) as he invokes the mad demon-gods of H.P. Lovecraft. This is hardly a complete list, but will give the reader an idea of some of this 19th Century-born ceremonial magician’s staying power.

The magick of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT has to be clearly polarized to move the story along, so Lee is made a kind of Jesus freak magicain, so all the Devil stuff makes more sense. Crowley himself defined the Devil as someone else’s god one personally disliked. He also defined black magick as magick that went against another’s will – which he did not advocate. He is not to be confused with Anton LaVey, Church of Satan founder.
So all in all, Crowley was not a bad guy, and actually helped write some of the wiccan rituals used to this very day. A pansexual heroin addict, yes – but not a baby-eater.

Christopher Lee is on the commentary, sounding wonderfully lucid and energetic. He was good friends with Wheatley and suggested the book to Hammer. (IRS critic Richard Modiano refers to Wheatley as “a right wing anti-communist nut.”) Lee is quite proud of the accuracy of the magickal details of DEVIL RIDES OUT and I agree with him, except that much of what is referred to as Satanic really isn’t. For instance, our Satanic revelers celebrate on the pagan holiday of Beltane, which I will let Suzi the witch explain: “There was always some confusion among all of the authorities about whether it was on May day or May day eve. In terms of Celtic or Druidic Wicca, with a nod to Gardner, Alexander {among the founders of the current wiccan revival}and Crowley, but without sticking strictly to their cosmologies, I think Beltane is “the great rite”, the day of greatest fertility of the year, the day on which practitioners would embody the goddess or the god and have sex. Babies born of said unions would be considered special.”

Lucinda’s Spell
A good lead directly into the discussion of our next film, LUCINDA’S SPELL (distributed by A.D. Vision). This involves Merlin’s direct descendent coming to 1998 New Orleans (so Dionysian, my drear) to father a magickal child on Beltane’s Eve. Witches conspire for his favor. It’s written, directed and stars Jon Jacobs. Jacobs is an interesting director, a relatively good actor and a horrible writer. He makes some strong visual choices – a good use of the widescreen frame. One shot involves a fade-in from black that shows a silhouette walking up a staircase towards us in the extreme right of the frame. The result is a strange ghost image manifesting out of a square of light. Jacobs sometimes likes to shoot in extreme low-light situations, and his backseat shots in cars at night have a Cassavetes feel – grainy and authentic. Overall, the compositions and colors are indicative of the best of independent film. Revealingly, our Merlin descendent does a ritual with a pentagram traced in what we’re to believe is cocaine, and Beatrice, the head of the witch’s coven (played by Shana Betz), is shown to snort some herself in another scene. When there’s that much casual drug use in a film, it generally indicates to me there’s a lot more off-screen. So when Jacobs does a frantic naked dance in the mirror, place your bets as to what he’s on. It also makes one wonder about some of the overamped apparent improv of his Lucinda, Kristina Fulton, an appealing actress of some ability whose overfull lips (among other parts) have the hint of a plastic surgery catalog. She plays a prostitute who has more natural power than any of the witches. The general magickal atmosphere is much more dilettante pseudo-Crowleyan than wicca. In case you wonder about the difference, again here’s Suzi: “…one of the primary differences between Wicca as I practiced it and ceremonial magic is the idea…in ceremonial magic {that} there are all kinds of levels or ranks that you work through. In Wicca, there aren’t. So on Beltane, there wouldn’t be one “most powerful” priestess mating with one “first horn” {as the Merlin descendent is referred to, without explanation – Marc}.

Beatrice wants no competition from Lucinda and hexes her.

Suzi: “I am pretty sure that every branch of Wicca believes that any “spell” (for lack of a better name for it) you cast comes back to you 3-fold. This means that if you send something out, it comes back to you three times as strong. Therefore, if, for example, you cast a spell that makes someone see someone else as horribly ugly, you will be seen as three times as ugly. Fairly straightforward. No witch in her right mind would cast such a spell.”

But Lucinda the Scarlet Woman triumphs and invokes a goddess of vague Hindu origins.

Suzi: “Finally, there is a great deal of scholarly work on the sacred whore, from some very respected sources, particularly in the field of archetypal psychology… Though {Lucinda’s} behavior…in the bar when she gets the dodo feather, weakens her character, a glimpse into our narcissistic writer/director/actor’s true view of women, betraying a misogyny that hides behind {the} goddess appearance at the denouement.”

Transmission ended.

I conclude with the words of the immortal Welles: “…that grinning glowing globular invader at your window is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if the doorbell rings and no one’s there, that’s no Martian, it’s Halloween.”

Your humble servant in DVD Astro-Hell again closes the chamber door.

Marc Olmsted