13 O’Clock Movie Retrospectives: The Hunger

We already recorded a second movie review for our new 13 O’Clock offshoot! It’s of my very favorite vampire movie from the 1980s, The Hunger, which I also wrote about in depth right here, if you’re interested. Enjoy!

The Devil Went Down to Oxfordshire: An Appreciation of “The Blood on Satan’s Claw”

The small film subgenre of British folk horror is easily overlooked, with most casual fans only being able to point to a single example, the excellent and well-regarded cult classic The Wicker Man. But there were a few other sterling examples that deserve their place in the earthwork circle, as it were, such as The Devil Rides Out (based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley) and the terrific Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General. There is also the rather underrated gem we’re discussing today.

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1970’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (known alternately as Satan’s Skin or The Devil’s Touch) was the follow-up to Tigon British Film Productions’ hit Witchfinder General, and though it’s not quite as great or iconic as that earlier film, it still has much to recommend it. Tigon, incidentally, was a smaller horror production company that got somewhat overshadowed by film behemoths Hammer Films (who were famous for their Dracula films and their pioneering formula of gore and heaving boobies), and Amicus Productions (who were famous for their rad anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood and Vault of Horror).

The Blood on Satan’s Claw is set in a tiny English village somewhere around the end of the 17th century. Affable farmer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is plowing some fields one day and happens to unearth a janky-looking skull with one staring eyeball and what appear to be tufts of fur. Alarmed, Ralph summons the local judge to come check out his find, but of course, once the judge arrives, the skull is no longer there. The judge (played with great sardonic relish by Patrick Wymark) pooh-poohs all these insufferable rubes and their silly superstitions, and goes about his judgely way.

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Meanwhile, lanky local Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams), who looks like a Bee Gee doing Renaissance cosplay, brings his betrothed Rosalind (Tamara Ustinov) home to meet the family. His aunt is a stone-cold bitch to the girl, and forces her to sleep up in the stinky, unused attic. Peter tries to make the best of things, and promises he’ll be up for some farm-fresh lovin’ after his disapproving relatives have gone to bed.

But later that night, Rosalind apparently sees something horrifying in her room and starts screaming her hussy head off, prompting Aunt Twatface and the other old guy living there to do the only rational thing, which is to board her up in the attic until the men with the butterfly nets can get there to cart her off to the nuthouse. As she’s carried away, she shoots her fiancé a wicked grin, and we see that one of her hands has morphed into a claw. Peter, understandably, is bereft, but his relatives are all insensitive and shit, essentially telling him that he dodged a bullet and he should be happy that he didn’t end up married to some wanton demonic harlot. Peter, obviously, seems less than convinced.

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Soon afterwards, all hell literally breaks loose in the village. All the young’uns start hanging out together and playing creepy “games” out in the woods, and some of them develop icky patches of crepe werewolf hair on various parts of their anatomy. They stop turning up to their Sunday school classes, and act defiant and contemptuous toward village priest Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley).

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Incidents begin to escalate. Peter has a vision that his hand has also become a claw, and slices it off in a frenzy. The children lure friendly young Simon le Bon lookalike Mark Vespers (Robin Davies) into the woods and murder him, bragging to his mother that they have done so. It soon comes to light that all of the town’s youngsters have fallen under the spell of nubile hottie Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), who apparently got in on the ground floor of the Satan worship and is now running the show. Angel attempts to seduce the Reverend and then accuses him of raping her; orders her followers to hack off their own limbs or forcibly take limbs from others to apparently reconstruct her coming Master out of the severed parts; and perhaps worst of all, paints on crazy Wolfman Jack eyebrows just a touch too high over her natural ones, making her look like some pagan blonde version of Frida Kahlo.

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After Ralph’s intended, the adorable Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury), is brutally raped and sacrificed by the child cult (in what is actually a fairly disturbing scene, due to the frighteningly realistic terror on Cathy’s face), the judge is persuaded to come back to the village to deal with all the devilry that his rational ass was initially so dismissive of. The end of the film is actually a bit of a letdown, as it’s somewhat abrupt and anticlimactic, and I’m not too sure how I feel about the final reveal of the Supreme Evil Overlord, who looks a bit too much like a short dude wearing a gorilla suit and a papier-mache Halloween mask, but hey, it was 1970, and I can forgive a touch of cheesiness in costuming, especially since the camera doesn’t really linger on the monster before he is summarily dispatched.

If you’re a fan of this type of pagan British horror, you probably owe it to yourself to see this one, even though it’s not quite at the same level as the other folk horrors I mentioned. Despite the cast looking oh-so-painfully seventies, and despite the over-the-top accents and regionalisms, and despite the pacing being slightly off, this is actually quite an enjoyable little horror flick with some genuinely tense scenes, a bit of decent gore (such as one character having her fur patch sliced off by a doctor, and later getting her leg caught in a bear trap), and some pretty fantastic cinematography of the English countryside.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends, and if you suddenly develop an unexplained area of coarse black hair somewhere on your person, consult your local witchfinder immediately.

Goddess out.

We Started a Podcast, As You Do

If you ever wanted to listen to the God of Hellfire and I blathering away about various topics of interest to weirdos everywhere, you, my friends, are in luck. We have started a podcast called 13 O’Clock, which will feature subjects ranging from supposedly real paranormal cases to unsolved historical mysteries to bizarre religious cults to creepy serial killers to horror movies and everything in between. Some of the episodes will be just us, some of them will have awesome guests like parapsychologists, writers, musicians of a darker nature, and so forth.

On our inaugural episode, we discuss the tragic case of Doris Bither, whose alleged poltergeist attacks were the basis of the 1982 film The Entity; and on the second half, we delve into one of our favorite topics, conspiracy theories and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.

Listen to the audio-only version right here, and if you want some relevant visuals to go along with our musings, then I also made a pretty YouTube video version, which you may watch right here.

Also, subscribe to our 13 O’Clock channel on YouTube, like the Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter. Thank you, and Goddess out.

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The Limit Has Finally Been Transgressed: An Appreciation of “Hour of the Wolf”

Hälsningar, minions! Today we’re delving into the surreal and arty waters of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre, and even though I’m gonna try REALLY hard to not make any Swedish Chef jokes, I’m not going to promise anything, because y’all know how I roll.

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Hour of the Wolf (or Vargtimmen in Swedish) was released in 1968, and is probably the closest thing to a straight horror movie that Bergman ever did. That said, it’s still miles away from a traditional horror flick of the era, being more like an intensely eerie, psychological mindfuck with some really, really disturbing imagery; essentially, it’s film as wide-awake nightmare. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of ambiguity and surrealism in horror, and here is one of the best examples I have yet seen; in execution and implication, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. It’s also fairly obvious that this film was a pretty big influence on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and in its themes of spiraling madness it also bears something of a resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

The story concerns an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who is vacationing at a remote island cottage with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman). At the beginning of the movie, Alma is talking directly to the camera about the disappearance of her husband, as if she is being interviewed for a documentary. The remainder of the film is told in flashback; we see the bizarre disintegration of Johan’s mental state, and wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.

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What makes this film so unsettling is its resolute refusal to explain itself. Johan interacts with strange people as he walks around the island, and he seems to think that they are demons, even though Alma can see them too; and for most of the movie, they seem like real people, albeit really skeevy ones. Johan has drawn all of them in his sketchbook, though the viewer never sees the drawings, but only Alma’s horrified reactions to them. He also has names for them, like the Bird-Man, the Schoolmaster, and The Lady with a Hat (about whom Johan once tells Alma that you don’t want to be around when the lady takes the hat off, because the whole face comes off with it. NOPE).

At one stage, a man named Baron von Merkans invites Johan and Alma to his nearby castle for a party, and when they attend, it’s the trippiest get-together ever, as all the guests laugh bizarrely, yammer on about meaningless topics, and overpraise Johan’s art to a really uncomfortable degree. Everyone seems hostile and cruel, as though they’re mocking him, but no reason for this is apparent. One of the women at the party shows Johan and Alma her bedroom, in which hangs a huge portrait of a woman named Veronica Vogler, who was apparently Johan’s ex-lover, though it is never clarified if she was a real person, or another figment of Johan’s crumbling imagination.

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Johan suffers terribly from insomnia, and Alma often stays awake with him in support. During the long nights, they have some extremely disturbing discussions. In one very eerie scene, Johan tells Alma about a trauma from his childhood in which he was locked up in a closet with what he thought was a small person who wanted to gnaw his toes off. He also confesses to a possibly fictitious incident some time before whereby he murdered a little boy while out fishing. During this conversation, he clarifies the meaning of the phrase “hour of the wolf,” which according to folklore is the hour in the middle of the night when most deaths and births take place. Much of the horror in the movie is conveyed in these weird conversations, though there are plenty of uncanny visuals to highlight the nightmarish narrative, like a man suddenly walking up a wall and across a ceiling, or a woman pulling off her face and popping her eyeballs into a wine glass.

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If you’re getting the sense that this is a really bizarre, disjointed film, then you’re entirely correct, but its inexplicable strangeness is very, VERY effective in making this one of the most haunting and genuinely unnerving films I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot). The underlying themes of the film seem to tie in with the fine line between artistic genius and madness, with the power of deep-seated fears and shameful desires to unhinge the mind, and with the possibility that insanity may be contagious, as Alma wonders at the end whether her love for Johan caused her to share in his delusions. There is also a repeating motif of eating or biting—the demonic people that Johan sees are portrayed as something akin to vampires or birds of prey, and during the flashback scene where Johan is recounting his murder of the boy at the seashore, the boy bites him several times during the struggle. Indeed, the working title of the manuscript was “The Maneaters,” so perhaps there is some reference here to the way that fears and traumas, whether real or imagined, can eat away at one’s sanity.

All in all, not a film for everyone, obviously, but I found it an intense experience, so disquieting and ominous that it was sort of distressing to watch. Its slow pace and stark cinematography only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere. If you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of Bergman’s other films, or just like surrealistic horror in general, I would definitely recommend it, even though it legit creeped me the fuck out. In fact, I know I said I was gonna try not to, but I need a laugh after watching it, so here we go.

Sorry, Sweden.

Goddess out.

We’re Off To See the Bald Douche: The Goddess Reviews “Yellowbrickroad”

Like the endlessly resurrected Jason Voorhees, I return once again after a short break with apologies for another absence and an itchin’ for some more horror. The reasons for my brief hiatus this time were more cookbook emergencies (which now seem to have been ironed out), and a final push to get my next book, The Rochdale Poltergeist (co-authored with parapsychologist Steve Mera), ready for publication. Keep an eye out for it in the next couple of weeks!

Casting about for today’s blog subject, I was perusing the “best horror films” of particular years on IMDB, and since I’ve done a lot of old films and have gotten woefully behind on newer horror, I thought I’d look for recommendations about some decent, underappreciated flicks from the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty much an old-school horror chick all the way, but I also don’t want to turn into one of those crotchety old farts who thinks that everything new is automatically a shit burrito topped with a hot vomit salsa, you feel me? So right there on someone-or-other’s “Best Horror Movies of 2010” list was a little movie called Yellowbrickroad, which I watched on Hulu but is also available on Netflix, I believe. And hot damn, did I get lucky when I stumbled across this one, because it’s really something of an undiscovered gem that really got under my skin in a way that few movies do.

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Even though it won best film at the New York City Horror Film Festival the year it was released, and even though it has gotten some really great and in-depth analysis (such as this review right here), it mystifyingly boasts only a two-star rating on IMDB, and some of the reviewers there REALLY seemed to hate it, with the main complaints being that the ending didn’t make any sense and that it wasn’t gory/violent/scary enough. That’s a fair charge, I suppose, and I will admit that if you’re more into big scares and splashy blood and guts, then yeah, you probably won’t find much to like here. Yellowbrickroad is a very cerebral, almost abstract, film, more concerned with exploring its psychological themes and unsettling the viewer with atmosphere than with traditional horror set-pieces. Though some reviews I read compared it to The Blair Witch Project, I think a far better comparison would be to a David Lynch film, what with its surrealist bent, its copious symbolism, its stubborn ambiguity about reality, its masterful use of sound as a definitive plot element, and its utilization of The Wizard of Oz as a constant referent (as Lynch did, of course, in Wild At Heart).

In brief, the plot centers around a mysterious happening in the town of Friar, New Hampshire in 1940. Almost all of the residents of this quaint little burg, after their zillionth viewing of The Wizard of Oz in the town’s dinky little movie theater, put on their best formal duds, gathered up their record albums, and wandered off into the woods, never to be seen alive again. Some of the bodies were recovered, having died of either exposure, apparent suicide, or murder, but some were never found. Cut to the present day, where husband-and-wife writers Teddy and Melissa Barnes are setting up a small expedition to hike the same trail as the townsfolk did in order to write a book about what might have happened to them. As you might imagine, shit starts to get weird pretty quickly.

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For a fan of smart, subtle horror, there is a great deal to admire in Yellowbrickroad. It is beautifully shot and edited, and is able to generate a palpable sense of dread and tension during its entire running time, even though the bulk of it takes place in broad daylight. I love the fact that the filmmakers chose not to use the easy out of filming most of it in the dark to make it “scarier.” Further, the way the film plays with expectations and reality is really well-done; it keeps the viewer off-kilter the entire time so that the viewer’s experience mirrors that of the increasingly lost and disoriented characters. I loved the sense of displacement that escalated as the story progressed, the sense that time and space was breaking down in parallel with the characters’ mental states.

In addition, all the characters are likable and real, and we get to know them in brief strokes, with very little bullshit; most of the character development is subtle and streamlined to a line or two of dialogue. There are some funny moments (for instance, when the team’s GPS first starts to go tits-up), but these feel spontaneous and believable, and not shoehorned in as “relief” from the horror. Lastly, there is comparatively little violence and gore shown onscreen, making the few times when violence does occur intensely shocking and affecting, particularly one scene (those of you who have seen it will know what I’m talking about) that comes almost completely out of the blue and shakes the viewer as much as it does the characters.

In my opinion, the best thing about Yellowbrickroad, and the thing that seems to have caused the most contention among those who have seen it, is its ambiguity. How much of this journey is real? How much of it is imagined? Is it a dream, or a mass hallucination? Is there some supernatural force leading these characters to their destinies, or something dark inside themselves that results in their destruction? It is here where the Wizard of Oz touchstones become all the more relevant, particularly its theme of journeys ending where they began, though with perhaps a greater understanding of oneself picked up along the way. In this sense, it is significant that the trailhead in Yellowbrickroad ostensibly starts at the movie theater, and also ends there, as the entire movie seems to be a road constantly spiraling inward, toward…what? Insight? Madness? Chaos? Death? It could be read in a myriad of ways, which is an attribute many of the best films share. This theme of spiraling inward is also hinted at in the mention of the 1940 townsfolk carrying their records into the woods, a single line of dialogue by mapmaker Daryl explaining that the coordinates he’s getting seem to be spiraling inward toward an unknown center, and most obviously, by the soundtrack of spooky, 1940’s-era music and ear-piercing record scratches that almost become an antagonist of their own as they assault the characters with contextless noise that grows louder as the journey progresses toward an inevitable end.

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The most criticized aspect of the film by a mile was the ending, which many reviewers felt was inexplicable, but honestly, I thought the ending was perfect, and really the only ending it could have had, given its thematic thrust. The journey was always going to end where it began, just like in The Wizard of Oz, but in Yellowbrickroad, the insight gained by the sole survivor of the trek was far darker, almost nihilistic. This is no case of “everything I desired was right here all along,” but rather, “all of the worst things I dreaded about myself and the world are inside me, and everywhere, and inescapable.” Marry that to a profound disconnect between reality and fantasy, and a realization that to transcend one’s humdrum existence might just be equivalent to following an endlessly spiraling descent into a hell of one’s own making, and you’re left with quite a bleak filmgoing experience, and one that will stick with you and taunt you with its riddles for many days to come. Highly recommended.

Until next time, Goddess out.