Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

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This is not a dream, this is really happening! Such was writer/director Roman Polanski’s respect for Ira Levin’s novel that when he wanted to make one minor alteration to the modern classic he contacted the author to ask his permission. The novel is a satire about modernity but such was its impact the story’s surface elements about devil worshippers in NYC’s Dakota Building off Central Park retain a blackly comic power, aided enormously by the staging, photographing and performances. Mia Farrow is the limpid Rosemary Woodhouse, whose new husband Guy (John Cassavetes) is an ambitious actor quick to sacrifice his beloved and sell his soul for fame. (Sometimes I think Cassavetes’ casting is the film’s one mistake – anyone could mistake him for the devil with that face.) Ruth Gordon is raucously hilarious as the overly nosy neighbour with a penchant for chocolate mouse with a distinctly chalky undertaste while Sidney Blackmer is her persuasive husband whose obscure origins are uncovered by Rosemary’s friend. Farrow’s horrifying deterioration throughout her pregnancy is complemented by that famous Vidal Sassoon cut she got on set. The daylight in the brilliantly designed apartment;  the framing and movement through space;  the tone;  all these are components of Polanski’s inimitable filmmaking, and, together with William A. Fraker’s cinematography and the score by Christopher Komeda you have a classic of Gothic paranoia and a masterpiece of cinema. Every time I hear Farrow singing along to the title I quake and yet I keep watching, and I peer around that door, just like Polanski wants me to do… Terrifying and unforgettable.

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The Devil’s Rain (1975)

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Admittedly I am not a fan of the satanic and the rep this film has had in its wake is not good, given that Hollywood’s very own high priest Anton LaVey actually plays one in this occult horror. Which really makes me uncomfortable. There are two principal attractions – William Shatner, if you’re a completionist;  and John Travolta, ditto, although his Danny is not of the Zucco variety and you’ll have to be very sharp-eyed to spot him. There’s a terrific Hieronymus Bosch title sequence and then we’re amid a family meltdown (literally) when Shatner sees his parents victimised and vows revenge – but meeting up with local warlock (Ernest Borgnine) sways his belief. Meantime, Tom Skerritt, Shatner’s younger brother, is on the warpath, with his wife and Eddie Albert, who’s an expert in ESP and the occult. And then we’re back in the 17th century looking at the ancestral origins and everyone’s in their Salem outfits … There’s a book of damned souls, an amulet, and a lot of face-melting. Shatner’s mask of course became the original mask in Scream, if you want some meta info. There’s a hotchpotch of stuff here to the point where you expect it to transform into a western, given the locale and the potential for tumbleweed blowing into your face. I don’t know how Ida Lupino felt about appearing, but Borgnine was utterly spooked. Directed by Robert Fuest, who did the Dr Phibes movies. You have been warned.

The Devils (1971)

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A drama set in the wake of the 17th century war between Catholics and Protestants. Or, more specifically, about demonic possession, witchcraft and the denouncing of Catholic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) in Loudun, France, courtesy of some crazy-assed nuns when Cardinal Richelieu was on the prowl. Adapted from a play by John Whiting and a book by Aldous Huxley, this barely got released, given that this was the era of X-ratings and heavy censorship and there are a number of versions. This is the one where Vanessa Redgrave is the deformed nun having masturbatory hallucinations about Oliver Reed, said priest. It is horror, surrealism, politics and religion, all wrapped up in the vision of the extraordinary director Ken Russell with the splendid production design of Derek Jarman which all concludes (naturally) in a fiery conflagration. Russell was named Best Director at the Venice Film Festival despite the film being banned in Italy. A really oddly brilliant modernist essay on belief. Not easily forgotten but a bit much for 3AM. Did this really happen or was I having a particularly lucid Stilton dream? If you’re looking for an amazing read, Russell’s autobiography is just the ticket. And for some more historical background on this time, see La Reine Margot (1994), starring Isabelle Adjani, who still looks around 17 despite being in her 60s.