I was feeling under the weather recently so I did what any normal human being would do: I curled up in bed to watch a 1970s West German Devil-possession flick dubbed into English on YouTube. What, you don’t do that when you’re sick?
Truth be told, neither do I but sweet Satan am I glad I did this time. I’m not even sure how I stumbled upon Magdalena: Possessed by the Devil (1974); I probably have some lunatic on the internet to thank. And of course I have William Blatty’s The Exorcist to thank because that little book you may have heard of set off a possession frenzy in the 1970s that produced not only William Friedkin’s smash hit film adaptation, but also any number of movies and TV clones. It wasn’t just in the United States either. Those crazy Italians and the almost-as-crazy Spaniards made a bunch of knockoffs. Then the Germans said—Ha! Okay fine, hold my Hofbräu—and made the truly insane Magdalena (known stateside as Beyond the Darkness).
I don’t even know how to describe this movie…take The Exorcist, strip away any semblance of seriousness, age up the lead actress to a teenager, add in staggering amounts of nudity and vulgarity, and just let the madness flow like draught beer during Oktoberfest. The story is simple: an orphaned teen (Dagmar Hedrich) begins writhing around like she’s having sex with the air, telling every man in site to “stick it in her”, and generally behaving in all sorts of ways not typically condoned in polite society. When possessed, she relishes antagonizing a series of truly stupid and horny men. Eventually she’s in the care of two doctors who begin to realize there’s more to this than medical science will ever be able to explain.…much more!
Hedrich is to be commended for her performance. She absolutely commits to the madness. I swear she’s naked for half the film, at least, and not just naked but naked while running, rolling, fighting, and cackling her way through the story. Pardon the pun but she’s like a woman possessed.
Basically Magaldena is a German sexploitation film that happens to have satanic possession in it. After watching this crackerjack I felt less under the weather, and in fact, much better. Look, sometimes satanic possession is just what the doctor ordered.
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Let’s get this out of the way at the start: I’m a Brian De Palma fanatic. Of the New Hollywood directors who got their starts in the 1960s and 1970s, many are certified legends with their own signature styles, but none of them can touch De Palma’s purely batshit crazy resume, especially during the 1970s. And during those years none of them worked as consistently within the milieu of horror as De Palma, either. From harrowing, Siamese-twin shocker Sisters (1973) to demented rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to telekinetic teen terror Carrie (1976) and beyond, De Palma crafted some of the most bizarre and memorable films of the decade.
Carrie is as close to a perfect movie as one can get. It’s quite possibly De Palma’s best, in my estimation—technical prowess, emotional impact, and excellent performances meld into something truly transcendent. That might be why the film he followed it with in 1978, The Fury—also about telekinetic teens—was practically doomed to second fiddle status from the start. That’s a shame because, while The Fury is far from perfect, it’s as compellingly strange as anything De Palma has ever made.
Part supernatural horror, part espionage thriller, with even some comic interludes that seem ported over from another movie, The Fury is the sort of movie that makes me feel confident to declare it unlike any other movie ever made. I like this strange mixture quite a bit, although the script is kind of a mess and inexplicably convoluted. It stars Kirk Douglas as a man on a mission, trying to rescue his supernaturally gifted son from a shady government organization intent on using him and other special kids as weapons in warfare. Douglas might seem an odd fit for this movie, but the man brings it! Whether he’s surviving speed boat explosions, leaping out of buildings in his boxer shorts, or applying shoe polish to his hair while munching on bacon (don’t ask), I’m just happy to go along for the ride with him. Ethereal Amy Irving (hot off her fantastic performance as Sue Snell in Carrie) as a telekinetic teen with extra-sensory perception is—you guessed it—ethereal. And like Carrie White, her character Gillian also kicks major ass in the end, and it’s glorious. John Cassavetes is deliciously dastardly and Andrew Stevens’ performance is intense—he’s really good at nose flaring. The death scenes are insanely gruesome and bloody in the grand De Palma tradition.
The Fury also contains plenty of the director’s signature style with some extraordinary shots, including a wonderful, lengthy, slow-motion sequence that is absolutely mesmerizing. I hadn’t seen the film in decades, but its slow charms are intoxicating, to the point that I can’t stop thinking about it since a recent rewatch. In that way, it’s the sort of movie that works its way into your heart and stays there forever.
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The first time you see Carnival of Souls you’re pretty sure you’ve seen it before. That’s because any number of horror films in the nearly sixty years since its release have cribbed liberally off its look, feel, and twist ending. It’s possible many of those filmmakers did so unknowingly—that’s how much Carnival of Souls is woven into the fabric of cinematic horror.
If I’m making it sound like Carnival of Souls is as well-known as descendants like Night of the Living Dead or The Sixth Sense, well, no, it’s not. No one saw Carnival of Souls when it came out in 1962. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but hardly anyone did. It took decades before art houses began screening it for Halloween showings, introducing it to a new generation that embraced it and made it one of the ultimate cult classics. But even now it’s still relatively obscure outside of film critic and cinephile circles.
A quick synopsis of the plot goes like this: a woman named Mary (Candace Hilligoss, whose expressive and truly stunning face was tailor-made for this movie) is the sole survivor in a car full of women that crashes spectacularly while drag racing some cool cat daddy-os. Soon after she feels a wanderlust overtake her. She dramatically quits her job as a church organist—“I am never coming back”—and leaves Kansas behind before landing in Utah. What follows is a series of strange encounters where Mary begins to feel increasingly isolated and invisible, even in the company of others. Oh, and she also keeps seeing a ghoulish stalker (played rather ghoulishly by the film’s director Herk Harvey), who scares her silly. Then there’s the sprawling old abandoned carnival on the outskirts of town. Mary is mysteriously drawn to it. Eventually we discover why, in one of cinema’s most haunting endings.
The story behind the film is almost as intriguing as the film itself. Former industrial filmmaker (think human resources training films for fast food employees) Herk Harvey made Carnival of Souls on the cheap as a labor love for somewhere around $30,000 in two decidedly un-Hollywood locales: Lawrence, Kansas and the Salt Lake City area in Utah. Hilligoss was the only cast member with any acting training. She’s possibly the only person associated with the film who ever made more features, and even she only appeared in a handful. Harvey never made another film again, unless you count the countless industrial videos he made for Centron Productions before and after Carnival of Souls.
That a film this low budget, made by a group of filmmakers existing about as far outside the mainstream of moviemaking as possible, could become such an influence on future filmmakers is astonishing. It’s also a testament to a film’s ability to find its audience over time. Like Mary drawn to the carnival, horror nerds and filmmakers alike have been drawn to Carnival of Souls over the last several decades. Why? Because for all its cheapness, it remains a truly great horror film.
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Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is so enrapturing to the eyes and ears that it’s a shock to the system when the film ends and you have to return to gray, blaring reality. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, a sixties-obsessed, aspiring young fashion designer who leaves behind cozy country life to study in the exciting yet treacherous city of London. Instantly pegged as prissy by her more sophisticated roommate, she escapes ridicule by renting a room (from Dame Diana Rigg, no less) that better suits her offbeat personality. Soon her dreams, personality and mental landscape are meshing with those of a charismatic previous occupant of the room named Sandie (effortlessly ethereal Anya Taylor-Joy). Unfortunately, what begins as a joyous, romantic fantasy begins to curdle into a mystery-ridden, time warp nightmare.
LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is sort of like BLACK SWAN dipped in SUSPIRIA sauce but for all the many films and genres it may touch base with, it’s always an impressively singular vision. Really, there’s nothing quite like it and it sports a few moments that are absolutely spellbinding. Incredibly (for me), it may be least potent when it leans into pure horror, as some of poor Eloise’s waking visions of phantoms from the past become redundant near the end. It’s possible 20 minutes of this film could be shaved off to tighten up the story but on the other hand, a part of me wanted to stay in the universe it offered forever. Luckily, I don’t mind wading through a few ineffective boo-scares for a film kind enough to play Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” at a Halloween party for me. It’s not like a got a more stimulating place to go.
It’s hard to fault a flick so earnestly entranced with its subject matter and the possibilities of film. There are so many innovative things going on visually from clever mirror tricks to psychedelic lighting, to the detailed accuracy of replicated sixties-era London. The mix of eye candy imagery with stellar music selections can be absolutely intoxicating at times. Best of all, I can say I was genuinely surprised when the final puzzle piece was put in place. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO may require a bit of patience when it plays the same card a few too many times but the benefits of being so fully transported are absolutely worth it.