Archive for Occult

Story Fragment: PAYMENT

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by smuckyproductions

The first page or so to a short story that is more or less complete. Please share thoughts in the comments – perhaps the full version will follow. 

PAYMENT

He had expected, when the knock came, for the grip on his throat to tighten at last into a fatal clench that would finish him off before he could get to the door. Instead, the grip released. The fear of a decade fizzled into a low-grinding acceptance. He preferred the choking.

The knock came once, and Stephen knew not to make him wait. He stumbled to the door on traitor feet and pulled the knob, which put up no resistance, no sympathy. Then the night gushed in and unfolded and the man with the briefcase stepped forward. Rendered in motel fluorescent, the image disappointed Stephen. The lips had deflated. Their kiss, the sealing embrace, wouldn’t do much for him this time. But the amber eyes were more truthful, showed more of the hellfire behind them.

“Hello,” said the salesman.

Stephen moved to the side and allowed the salesman to float into the room. His presence brought the shroud of night with it and dimmed the already-weak lights inside. As he passed, Stephen noticed subtle, peeling burn marks along his skin. Ten years ago it had been perfect, enough to make anyone jealous, addicted.

“All that hounding and hunting will do that to a guy,” the salesman said, unprompted. He sounded like he’d swallowed too much gravel. “The vessels are only supposed to last five years. You, however, you made yourself hard to find.”

The remnants of Stephen’s charms – pentagrams drawn in sheep’s blood, holy dust sprinkled at each window, packets of forbidden herbs that had long gone impotent – dangled or dripped around the room. “Well, I gave it the ol’ college try,” he muttered. “But I still heard you coming.”

“Be grateful I’m just an associate,” the salesman said. “An executive would have started flaying you in dime-sized pieces by now. You’re my first case. We’ll just pretend those extra years never happened.”

“Yeah, sure, lucky me,” Stephen said, and sat heavily on the couch. The rusted springs groaned at him. He looked down at the cushion to make sure he could reach beneath it when the time came. The salesman sunk down next to him. Stephen forced himself to stay still when a bony but gentle hand settled on his knee. He looked at the salesman, an inch from his face, and for a miserable second Stephen remembered the first time he had looked. It had stirred his soul to meet those eyes, promising lots of golden things. Out of all the smeared glasses and buzzing neon of the bar, those eyes, the only things that shone.

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Review: THE WITCH

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

Yesterday saw the nationwide release of the most anticipated horror movie of 2016. After massive buzz from Sundance and a series of incredible trailers from A24, I was insanely excited to witness what was being called a soul-shaking experience. For once, the reviews were pretty spot on. THE WITCH is like nothing else that I’ve seen in recent years.

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It’s a plot that, in other hands, could have been cheap and silly – a Puritan family is plagued by a baby-stealing, boy-seducing, and mind-warping witch. But under Robert Eggers’s direction, already infamous for its extreme attention to detail, that storyline becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Let’s state the obvious: the production design and authenticity of the world is incredible. The cinematography is stark and sparing. This allows the film to take on a realistic texture that is rarely seen in horror. But the realism doesn’t stop at the surface. Eggers pays even more attention to the minds of his characters, drawing out their thoughts and emotions so viscerally, so realistically, that the audience can’t help but empathize. You won’t want to feel what they feel, though. That’s the genius of the film – you have no choice.

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With this film, we finally get to see what it would have looked like if Bergman directed a Hammer movie. (“Hour of the Wolf” is a different type of horror.) By combining the psychological breakdown of the characters alongside some wickedly visceral images, Eggers crafts a comprehensive assault on the audience’s brain. This recipe is reserved for only the best genre offerings – most focus solely on the mind or the monster. Eggers brings us both, and each is ingenious on its own, but together they create something brutal and traumatizing.

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The witch herself is frightening, but what she does to the minds of her victims is even more so. Mainly because it feels so real – it’s what you would do, too. By the end it seems like we’re spying on someone’s private tragedy, a thing we should not see, but cannot look away from. Eggers is merciless with his story. And that makes it all the better. His vision is also refreshingly free of influences – so many of today’s horror films mimic the style of another decade – and takes on a transgressively Gothic tone, a truly demented fairy tale.

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It must also be said that much of the film’s power comes from the music – a perverse soundtrack of howling strings, clacking wood and hideous chanting. The marriage of these sounds with the film’s visuals is overwhelmingly horrific.

This film also excites me because of its unexpected wide release. Not only that, but it’s exceeding expectations at the box office. People are flocking to see this film. If this trend continues, perhaps it will open the doors for more horror in this vein. We’re witnessing the possible birth of a wide-spread genre renaissance. In the meantime, it’s enough to enjoy this brilliant nightmare on its own. Go live deliciously and experience its darkness.

Thoughts on MACBETH (2015): Shakespearean Gothic

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

One of the year’s most buzzed-about films, a new incarnation of MACBETH, premiered in limited theaters this past Friday. Starring the genius pairing of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, we see once again the tale of a Scottish king and his wife driven mad by greed and ambition. The striking style of this new adaptation warrant some discussion on Smucky’s Grave, because it gives us something that is often shunned in the world of Shakespeare: a taste of Gothic horror.

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I’m not saying that the witches have hooked noses or that Banquo’s ghost pops out with a VFX-laden face. This is a classic type of horror, one that is usually just called “moodiness” to avoid the genre’s negative connotation. Director Justin Kurzel, who made a splash in 2011 with the disturbing “Snowtown,” infuses his interpretation with all the Gothic trappings: mist-swept moors, dark shadows, fiery chambers, and an impressive amount of blood. The witches haunt and the apparitions stalk; the madness creeps like an entity in its own right. The film drips with a sense of immense, almost cosmic, dread.

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This is one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies, and most violent. While “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Richard III” all feature phantoms, they are easily read as psychological omens or metaphors, not supernatural manifestations. In “Macbeth,” however, the specters are joined by the Weird Sisters – who, while they can be staged to seem non-supernatural, are undeniably uncanny. Their prophecies are not only unsettling, but they come true. The Weird Sisters, combined with several disturbing ghosts and a general aura of doom, give “Macbeth” a distinctly Gothic air.

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Kurzel plays his “Macbeth” straight. The setting, accents and costumes are all, as far as I know, period-accurate. But, in spite of the seriousness of his direction, the supernatural and uncanny elements have a strong presence. The spirits come to Macbeth in vivid and grotesque displays, and the witches are shown to have clear supernatural abilities. Lady Macbeth herself even witnesses them, along with a few other apparitions.

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Giving the supernatural a very real hold on the story allows Kurzel’s “Macbeth” to feel like a Gothic thriller. Adam Arkapaw’s incredible cinematography, similar to his work on the occult-centered “True Detective,” heightens this and brings a liminal type of fear to the entire film. It isn’t strictly horror, since isn’t meant to frighten, but it absolutely unsettles and disturbs. The filmmaking – brooding camerawork, uneasy set design, and a gut-churning score – bolster the story and cement this “Macbeth” as an exercise in Gothicism. Others might disagree, and some will undoubtedly be turned off by this brand of darkness, but it is a fascinating atmosphere nonetheless. And, overall, serves as one of the most interesting films of 2015.

Forbidden Tomes: THE STORIES OF ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

Nature, and the wilderness, has always been discussed and mused over in literature. So few authors, however, have been able to capture its true persona: something massive and terrifying that we cannot understand. Few artists have better captured the awe and horror of the wilderness than Algernon Blackwood.

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One of the great influencers of H.P. Lovecraft, Blackwood got his start writing articles for adventurer and outdoors magazines – hunting, rafting, cross-country travelling, and various other subjects. His legacy lies in his fiction, though, which is centered around the same concepts. Blackwood himself was an adventurous man, often writing from experience. The stories he conjured are enough to convince us that we should avoid his tracks at all costs.

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His most famous tales – “The Willows,” “Ancient Sorceries” and my personal favorite, “The Wendigo” – place their protagonists, always level-headed and intelligent people, in the midst of the wilderness. There they encounter a force beyond their reckoning that brushes them for a moment, leaving them shaken and in deathly danger. Whether it’s riverside reeds that act as a barrier between our world and that of immense gods, or a wintry specter who rides on the wind and takes human souls, the force is always beautiful in a way, but also terrifying. In some cases, it is seductive, and traps its human prisoners before destroying them.

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Blackwood is remarkable in his ability to describe a setting – the Montana forests, the banks of the Danube, or even a normal townhouse – in a vivid way, then filling it with hallucinatory events that make the reader question reality. He is possibly one of the first practitioners of psychological horror. It’s all the more effective for his attention to the real places and people of his stories. Surrealism is easy to dismiss, but when it roots itself in a recognizable world, it becomes equally as real.

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While my favorite of his stories deal with wilderness, he also wrote incredible stories of haunted houses and occult dabblings – surreal, chilling evocations of the supernatural. Blackwood himself practiced the occult, belonging to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and these beliefs are reflected in these stories. Their themes of reincarnation (“The Insanity of Jones”) or experiments with beings from beyond the veil (“An Episode in a Lodging House”) are powerful, and have clear influence on authors like H.P. Lovecraft who cemented that type of horror.

For fiction that is at once beautiful and frightening, awe-inspiring and repulsive, Blackwood cannot be trumped. He creates works of sublime fear in a way that few others have attempted. As the winter wind moans outside, his stories will remind us of our place in the world, and the vast things that move beyond.

Films That Haunt Me: NOROI (THE CURSE)

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Found footage is, and has always been, a point of contention. It tends to opt for cheap frights and frustrating characters, hiding behind the conceit of “being real.” But sometimes, there is a film that uses the found footage format for good, capitalizing on the horror implicit in the raw and unseen. One of these films is NOROI (THE CURSE).

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It’s maddeningly hard to find, but if one gets a hold of a copy, they are in for a nightmare. The film is played off as a paranormal investigator’s final documentary, looking into the disappearance of two unrelated children and the supernatural occurrences surrounding an actress who disturbed a mysterious altar. But the investigator finds that the disparate events are all caused by the same force, a powerful demon that is hell-bent on getting its tribute. And that’s when the real terror starts.

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There is something about this film that sets it apart from others of its kind. Perhaps it is the complicated nature of its plot, and the authenticity lent by the documentary format. While most films of this subgenre settle for a small set of characters and one location, this film involves a wide range of people, all touched by the same force. The variety of the characters gives the story a sense of reality – I always find it more chilling when a pattern is widespread, taking root in many places, because it means that the evil has no bounds.

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With a villain straight out of Lovecraft – the kind of ancient, omnipresent, but invisible evil that drives people mad – and a format that echoes the epistolary nature of those classic stories, “Noroi” instills itself with a suffocating dread. Few found footage movies have been able to achieve this, though they all try. (The only others that I can think of are ‘Marble Hornets’ (not a film, but so good, it counts) and ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ though that one is controversial.) This one stands, for me, as the pinnacle of what the genre can accomplish.

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Found footage in general has its roots in classic horror stories – “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and much of Lovecraft’s work, just to name a few, are set up as ‘found documents’ that relay a very real horror. Of course we know it’s fiction, but that format suspends disbelief just enough to convince us, while we’re immersed in the story, that we are witnessing something transgressive. If it’s well done. Which, unfortunately, most found footage is not. But there is immense potential in that underdeveloped format.

“Noroi” realizes that potential and, though it’s too slow and complex for some, reaches points of incredible terror. I still think of this film as a far-off nightmare that I tried to forget. Watch it, and see if it haunts you, too.

Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): THE SENTINEL

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2015 by smuckyproductions

This hasn’t come up too often on this site yet, but I have a particular obsession with occult thrillers from the 60’s and 70’s. Due to the success of films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” along with a real-world paranoia of cult figures (Manson and clan), this subgenre was booming. While most offerings are not worth remembering, I was struck by a lesser-known thriller from the later 70’s, eerily titled THE SENTINEL.

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The plot is, by now, pretty familiar: a young woman moves into a spooky, low-priced apartment building that has a sinister secret. Plagued by bizarre visions and neighbors who seem more than a bit off, the woman hurries to get to the bottom of the forces surrounding her – but she doesn’t know that she has already been chosen to fulfill a destiny that determines the fate of the world.

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It’s clear to see how much this film influenced others of its time. The depiction of Hell and its inhabitants is shocking, even by today’s standards, and has been copied more times than we realize. Unique, surreal visuals and sequences permeate the film and give it an artistic quality that elevate the fear from run-of-the-mill Devil-chills to a more psychological dread. And the twists, in my opinion, are brilliantly done. The supernatural events lead up to a reveal that is, if not surprising, intensely disturbing.

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What really draws me to “The Sentinel” is its distinct 70’s atmosphere. I swear, there was something about the celluloid that makes the aura so different from any other era in film. The camera itself presents the quality of looking into a dream, which lends itself to the horrific aspect of the story and heightens it. Films like this one, along with “The Omen” and “Halloween” (amongst dozens of others), carry something incomparable in the very fact that they used this type of celluloid. This, in part, is what makes me fall in love with these types of films. And this one has everything – Catholic guilt, midnight rites, and an entrance to Hell.

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For atmosphere, visuals and a good ol’ Satanic ghost story, it’s hard to find a better offering than “The Sentinel.” It’s a celebration of all that was great about 1970s horror.

Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): HORROR HOTEL

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2015 by smuckyproductions

The second time Christopher Lee has made it into a Film That Haunts Me, and certainly not the last. In the days when Hammer was dominating the market, there were still smaller horror films being produced, and this is one of the most striking examples. Once again delving into the world of witches, today we check into the HORROR HOTEL.

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(Not the most accurate title, but its alternative is a big spoiler.) This low-budget chiller follows a young college student as she travels to a mysterious colonial village to research witchcraft. She picked the right place – the witches who were burned at the stake centuries ago have decided it’s high time to get revenge. When the student goes missing, it’s up to her boyfriend and her brother to find her, but the witches are more powerful than they realize.

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While lesser known than similar films of the time, this one is notable for two reasons. (SPOILERS!) One, it pulled a “Psycho” – surprise-killing of your protagonist – halfway into the film. Two, its atmosphere is so overwhelmingly unnatural that the events, while familiar, become more disturbing than they should be. Disembodied chants, smothering fog, suspicious townspeople who stare too long – it’s all there, working to suffocate the audience in unnamed dread. It won’t catch everyone, but it certainly got me. Sure, it’s cheesy 60’s horror, but there are a few scenes that are so sudden and brutal that I was legitimately shocked.

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There is a lot to appreciate here, namely the classic plot and the ever-terrific presence of Christopher Lee – but the craft of the film is also remarkable. The soundtrack is full of weird chants and shrieks, the lighting is surreal, and the set design is brilliant – the fog-filled streets and creeping secret corridors are both beautiful and very, very eerie. For such a low budget and an unceremonious release, “Horror Hotel” presents a delicately-crafted piece of cinema, detailed and measured. That is why it stands above the other double-billed B movies of the time.

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As an example of low-budget genius, and a generally entertaining occult thriller, “Horror Hotel” (or “City of the Dead”) is equal to its contemporaries like “Carnival of Souls” and even “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s a creeping, dreadful, dark film that chills just beyond the surface. And hopefully you won’t hear the Candlemass chants as they come for you.