Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) (TVM)

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This is the VHS cover of a TVM sequel that scares the bejesus out of me – and with good reason. I’ve never been good with diabolism and the actor Stephen McHattie (who I loved since he played James Dean in the 1976 TVM) seems like he really could be the son of John Cassavetes from the Polanski masterpiece. And this was made the same year, so I guess it was kind of a moment for him, as they say.  Little Andrew as his mom Patty Duke Astin calls him is needed for a ritual but she smuggles him out of NYC and then a madam (Tina Louise) does a deal with the coven to take him herself and Patty gets taken away screaming on a driverless bus… Suddenly Andrew’s all grown up and in constant trouble with Sheriff Broderick Crawford and startled by memories of his parents and Uncle Roman and Aunt Minnie are not too thrilled with his behaviour either:  Ray Milland and particularly Ruth Gordon chew the scenery wonderfully as the devilish old pair who chide him over his lack of responsibility to his pop. Their bickering is the best thing about this. His human pop Guy Woodhouse (George Maharis) has carved out a Hollywood career which now looks like it might slide into oblivion thanks to his ingrate son. Andrew’s new female friend, Ellen (Donna Mills) gets him out of a psych ward – well, isn’t that where you end up if you claim you’re the Son of Satan – and strikes a deal with the Castevets … The devil is in the detail, isn’t he.  Sigh. This is not a worthy follow up to a classic. It was adapted from Ira Levin’s characters by Anthony Wilson who worked on Planet of the Apes and The Night That Panicked America (with Nicholas Meyer) He died two years after this was made. Another point of interest for buffs: this was directed by editor Sam O. Steen, who edited Rosemary’s Baby and he is reunited here with cinematographer John A. Alonzo from their teaming on Chinatown, another great Polanski film. Ah, cinema. Not your average TVM then – at least in terms of the talent!

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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.

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

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London 1929. When the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) arrives with his friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) at the home of his protege Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) for a party he realises at once the young man is involved in devil worship and tries to extricate him from the clutches of the cult led by Mocata (Charles Gray). The other initiate Tanith (Nike Arrighi) is the medium through whom Mocata works and is essential to the plan to bring out the Devil at a ceremony on Salisbury Plain.  In order to defend them, the Duc has to create a protective circle with his niece and her husband that involves Mocata conjuring the Angel of Death to draw out his influence and take the couple’s child as a channel for evil. Dennis Wheatley’s novel is brilliantly adapted by Richard Matheson, and the material as a whole is treated with the kind of seriousness which elevates it from melodrama into  dramatic allegory, a duel between good and evil. This may be the best ever Hammer and the best film by director Terence Fisher. Lee is fabulous as the one strongwilled man capable of testing the forces of destruction while all around him is weakness, scepticism and naivete.  So terrifying.

Vampyr (1932)

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Aka The Strange Adventure of David Gray, Not Against the Flesh, The Castle of Doom. One of those unique films that a film snob such as myself extols above all others. After the extraordinary Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer worked with Christen Jul on a more-or-less adaptation of Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (mainly Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant) to come up with the story of Allan Gray, a dreamer (that old German trope) and student of the occult investigating phenomena in the village of Courtempierre, a place haunted by a vampire’s curse. For financial reasons, the film had to be shot in French, German and Italian, and this presented problems with dialogue so that was cut to the bone, with one of the financiers, Nicholas de Gunzburg, starring under the pseudonym Julian West. Sound was a new technology and French cinema was having trouble adapting so title cards were used where possible, contributing to the effect of the silents. The unique atmosphere is partly conjured by primitive effects, partly by the soft focus shooting style deployed by Rudolph Mate (returning from Joan of Arc) and the production design by Hermann Warm (ditto) and in part again by the ensemble of freaked-out weirdos populating the cast. If you ever wondered where that grain silo scene in Witness was lifted from, you have to watch the last reel …  Dreyer had directed his locations assistant to scout for “a factory in ruins, a chopped up phantom, worthy of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhere in Paris. We can’t travel far.” Except in the mind. To die for.

Angels & Demons (2009)

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The Pope has died. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is in conclave in Vatican City and while tension mounts among the cardinals, the anxious waiting crowds anticipate the familiar puff of smoke alerting them to the decision about their new religious leader … Enough about the plot of Robert Harris’ latest. This is Dan Brown’s prequel to the Da Vinci Code which sees Tom Hanks (p)reappearing for director Ron Howard as Robert Langdon, hired by the Vatican to assist in solving the mystery of a kidnapping – four of the preferiti have been taken, apparently by a representative of the Illuminati. Over in Switzerland there’s a problem at the Large Hadron Collider where they’re messing with the God Particle and a vial of antimatter disappears. Irish priest Ewan McGregor is in temporary charge in Rome, with Stellan Skarsgard supplying a dose of Scandi noir scepticism as head of the Swiss Guard (sadly in civvies…) so the scene is set for the collision of religion with science, ancient sects with modern technology and a tour around Bernini’s sculptures at high speed in the company of clever lady Ayelet Zurer … Oh my gosh they’ve gone and done it again, managing to turn a better book than DVC (everything’s relative, even relativity) into another sow’s ear. Gory, but you know, imagine if Mel Gibson had done it … And if you’ve just watched DVC and you think you’re hearing things, yes that’s Alfred Molina doing the narration. Rome looks stunning, as ever, even the bits made in Hollywood, because the bods in the Vatican thought it was sacrilege.

Wolfen (1981)

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Summer’s lease really is up. Autumn is turning the leaves to red and gold and you know what? Halloween is right around the corner. Not that I need that as an excuse to watch horror movies but, you know, sometimes it helps. Particularly when it comes to the exchanging of souls, as Whitley Strieber described in his Seventies novel The Wolfen, adapted by director (former editor) Michael Wadleigh, Eric Roth and David Eyre. Albert Finney is the cop assigned to investigate deaths presumably caused by feral city animals. He and criminal psychologist Diane Venora (how wonderful is she?) find themselves amongst Native Americans who believe they have a special relationship with wolves and their leader Edward James Olmos warns them of a mythical creature and the havoc that will be wrought upon a city ripe for development … On the one hand this is a police procedural;  on the other it’s a mystical exploration of the clash of civilisation with the animal world. This mix caused immense confusion to the studio who treated it as exploitation: it’s anything but. With wonderful photography by Gerry Fisher and a resonant score by James Horner, it’s as if Peter Weir’s themes were transmitted to another continent and it’s just THIS short of being great. One of the best of the Eighties.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) (TVM)

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Old houses are spooky, aren’t they? And mine scared the hell out of me and my guests when I first moved in – with floors settling, wind whistling down the chimneys and the TV going on and off of its own accord …  Sally (Kim Darby) moves into her folks’ old Victorian and it’s not long before she’s pulling open the bricked-up fireplace in the basement which she plans to turn into a study despite the carpenter’s advice to leave well alone. He’s been around a long time and knows things about the place. She carries on and soon there are voices calling to her and creatures visiting her and hubby Alex (Jim Hutton) thinks she’s going crazy.She humiliates herself at a dinner for his business colleagues when a creature materialises under the table but only she can see it:  Alex agrees to sell up. When he returns from a trip to San Francisco the realtor has died falling down the staircase and Kim’s got wire scars on her hands – she says the creatures were holding cord when they tripped him up thinking they were getting her … This is of course the legendary cult TVM that inspired Guillermo del Toro to the point where he rewrote it and produced his own version in 2011.  Written by Nigel McKeand and directed by John Newland with editorial supervision by Gene Fowler Jr. There really are creatures living in the house and they want her.Sally! Sally!

Midnight Offerings (1981) (TVM)

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Witching hour again! And this time it’s a witch-off between Little House on the Prairie‘s Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) and The Waltons‘ Erin (Mary Beth McDonough), a battle that has an incendiary ending.  Anderson is Vivian Sotherland, the spiteful Mean Girl at Ocean High CA who intimidates male teachers sexually and if they don’t succumb she murders them – we enter as she casts a spell that causes one to crash his car, saving her quarterback boyfriend Dave (Patrick Cassidy) from flunking and thereby keeping him on the team. New (motherless) girl Robin Prentiss  (McDonough) has read about his drunken misdemeanour in the local freebie paper but likes him despite her dad’s objections. They’ve moved from Connecticut following a series of unfortunate events – she has powers too, but no idea how to control them. Vivian can’t read her and starts to attack her dad and Dave and nearly kills Robin in a house fire. Dave is on to her scheme and brings Robin to Emily Moore (Marion Ross, Mom from Happy Days!) to help her ward off evil. Mrs Sotherland (Cathryn Damon) didn’t abort Vivian to stop breeding the 7th daughter of the 7th daughter and blames herself for allowing her to go off the rails so she must intervene before another murder occurs … This is clever, intelligent stuff, as you would expect from long-time Rockford Files writer/producer Juanita Bartlett, responsible for the screenplay. Anderson is very well off-cast in the lead but it’s McDonough who has the more expansive role and she is very good. A newly blonde Kym (Sound of Music‘s Gretl) Karath is the hobbled cheerleader and this is a point of interest – she made her debut in Spencer’s Mountain as a three year old, a film that was the first adaptation of Earl Hamner’s book that of course became … The Waltons. And look fast for Vanna White too. Excellent stuff, thanks to the Horror Channel for resurrecting it. Directed by veteran TV helmer Rod Holcomb.

Legend of the Witches (1970)

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In the annals of Britsploitation this has an appropriately legendary rep – but still seems only available in its truncated 72-minute form. The brainchild of ‘auteur’ Malcolm Leigh, active from the late 60s until 1980, it’s an excuse to stage alleged initiation ceremonies in the altogether – drama documentary I believe it’s called. Accompanied by an unusually restrained voiceover, we are treated to a history of witchcraft through visuals, drawings and illustrations as well as filmed inserts demonstrating links to mainstream religion (ie Christianity) and its supposedly appropriated rituals. One sequence shows a series of illustrations of sex orgies but the voiceover insists that this is not in fact what we are seeing. Show and … don’t tell?  The last section, linking rhythmic sounds and electronica to the patterns in which people fall prey to belief is pretty convincing (I was reminded of a friend who spent a weekend with some headbangers and they spent it chanting and being deprived of food – at which point the captives would have believed in anything just to get protein.) It’s been suggested that the main actress in the staged scenes is Jane Cardew of horror/trash fame, but I’m no expert. All those exhibitionists look the same after a while. Leigh made ‘religious’ drama docs something of a speciality but he’s best known for that foot fetishist’s fave, Games That Lovers Play, starring Joanna Lumley before she became a housewives’ rave. Only for the committed.

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.