Tag Archives: satanism

20. ‘The Omen’, and the dubious benefit in being of the Devil’s party

At one point in an interesting documentary study of horror films he presented for the BBC last year the actor/writer Mark Gatiss sat down with David Seltzer, author of The Omen (hit novel + movie), and put to him the big question: does he believe in the Devil? Seltzer replied wryly to the effect that if he had then he would never have dared to mess around in the writing of books that presumed to speak of Him and His powers.
That’s funny, and fair enough. As Gatiss noted, Satan was a hot thing in 1970s Hollywood after the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. And Seltzer had a good nose for how to do something new and commercial with the threat of the Evil One. Of course there have been repeated and not wholly unfounded attempts to argue that various cast/crew members on The Exorcist were afflicted by a sort of curse in subsequent years. But it doesn’t seem that David Seltzer’s had to worry – has suffered no freak impalements or decapitations – rather, has enjoyed the fruits of his labour, of his vivid imagination.
That said, Richard Donner’s 1976 film The Omen is a thoroughly professional, expertly-managed, big-budget piece of dispiriting nastiness. (Seltzer was quick to tell Gatiss he felt Gregory Peck loaned a weight to the project that Charles Bronson – the original casting as the US Ambassador to the Court of St James – couldn’t have.) Actually I remember the film’s network premiere on ITV at some point in the very early 1980s. I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to watch it all but I saw enough to be feel a kind of outrage over a picture in which the Baddest of all Baddies was so clearly being allowed to ‘win’.
Still, I must admire the film’s gruesome effectiveness in places, and the force of the imaginative conceit. I remember talking to a filmmaker friend last year about the gothic-supernatural-steampunk trends in film, and apropos Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes (which we both admired hugely) he mentioned how much he prefers the sort of ‘mystery & imagination’ movie wherein, a la Conan Doyle, events of a seemingly supernatural origin are later revealed to be in fact the cunning/fiendish works of man. With The Omen, you could actually choose to look at the narrative from a remote vantage and say that all those killings are just a chain of freak accidents and fatal misunderstandings, vaguely connected to a fat-cheeked piggy-eyed little 5-year-old boy… (That said, in the yet more laboriously nasty sequels Damian and The Final Conflict the maturing Anti-Christ took an active hand in murder, using sorcery to do so, so the game was up by then.) Still, such room for ambiguity may explain why the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once put his name to a paper entitled ‘The Exorcist and The Omen, or Modern and Postmodern Limits to Knowledge.’
Movies speak of their times and The Omen is unmistakeably the drear England of the mid-1970s, the sort of place where Satan might well seek influence over the affairs of men. Having stage-trained Brits such as Billie Whitelaw and David Warner and Patrick Troughton in the cast gives The Omen the faint air of a BBC ‘Play for Today’ or some gritty Royal Court production, though here the smart actors are employed only in order to be killed off in horrible ways. In fairness to The Omen, it bravely makes no effort to endow Satan and Satanism with any sort of perverse allure – any suggestion of luxurious darkness or forbidden pleasure in the act of pledging one’s soul to the Devil. You just have to take in on trust that Billie Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock is committed to the Anti-Christ just as are some people to Labour or the Tories. She wants a strong leader in charge… and she’s grimly prepared to roll up her sleeves and do the dirty job of getting him there, shoving people out of windows if needs be, though it’s hard to see what will be her personal reward for same. In Damian, sequel #1, Lee Grant is burned to death shortly after murdering her husband in a misguided show of loyalty to Satan’s son. In The Final Conflict, as I recall, a whole network/cabal of suburban English salarymen and housewives were revealed to be in joyless thrall to the Deceiver. And that’s a powerful dramatic idea: one that allows a dramatist to reveal any character as being, quite suddenly and without apparent motivation, capable of the most appalling/malevolent act. Nasty, as I say…

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19. Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’: Seeking intercourse with the Devil

For a long time I’ve believed that the wellspring of all horror stories may be located in the Latin: timor mortis conturbat me. But in my stray thinking about the gothic tradition while I was at work on The Possessions of Doctor Forrest it did begin to occur to me that I was somewhat blinkered – that another opposing but equally compelling allure of horror might be a form of masochism, an actual desire on the part of the writer (and reader) to be haunted, brutalised, tortured and finally consigned to some awful yawning pit.
A big part of this shift in my thinking was the re-reading (after a gap of 20 years or so) of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), upon which I felt all of my old amazement at the stunning luridness and lubricity of this cornerstone work of the gothic. Lewis was young, 19, when he wrote the novel, and he wrote it fast – in the space of ten weeks. There may be some correlation between the pace of a work’s conception and its subsequent immediacy and potential appeal. The Monk is racy as hell, for sure, and it was hotly consumed by ‘scandalised’ readers.
Its protagonist is Ambrosio, the very model of a whited sepulchre, a handsome and ostensibly pious monk of Madrid whose preaching draws crowds at a grand Capuchin church and who presides with seeming rigour over a nearby gothic monastery. Within himself, though, Ambrosio is a seething mess of repressed desire – one particular portrait of the Madonna, all ‘golden ringlets’ and ‘snowy bosom’, gets him highly excited/transported. And yet, as Lewis describes him, Ambrosio’s cloistered existence has left him unable quite to distinguish between the sexes, which is certainly useful to the novel’s plotting. He then conceives of a passion for a cowled and withdrawn young novice named Rosario who turns out to be a female, Matilda – not only the lovely doppelganger of his adored Madonna but a girl who desires him most dreadfully.
Still, Matilda has to do a fair amount of brazen temptation, and her diligence in the task of making Ambrosio succumb to fleshly pleasure sends a clear signal that she is not what she appears to be. The Monk is a novel in which Evil is forever shifting forms and rules in order to triumph over Man. Good is certainly a presence in the book if only by dint of its milieu, and Ambrosio’s stormy conscience is given a fair old airing. But finally (to paraphrase the movie version of Eco’s The Name of the Rose), he cannot resist the temptation to penetrate. He’s gagging for it, really – dying to fall, falling to die. And so after making free use of Matilda he quickly tires of her, fixates instead on the pious and ravishing 15-year-old Antonia – whereupon Matilda, with suspicious magnanimity, regains Ambrosio’s interest by promising him that by dark magic Antonia may be his.
This, for me, is the best part of the book: Matilda shedding another skin, shifting from the subservient role of Ambrosio’s breathless prey to the ‘bold and impious’ one of the monk’s dark sentinel:

“Why shrink you from me? I understand that enquiring look. Your suspicions are right, though your terrors are unfounded… Like you I shuddered at the thoughts of Magic: Like you I had formed a terrible idea of the consequences of raising a daemon… I dared to perform those mystic rites which summoned to my aid a fallen Angel. Judge what must have been my joy at discovering that my terrors were imaginary: I saw the Daemon obedient to my orders, I saw him trembling at my frown, and found that, instead of selling my soul to a Master, my courage had purchased for myself a Slave.”

You will not be surprised to hear that Ambrosio succumbs again, and again and again, and in due course is delivered by his own iniquities into, first, the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition and, second, the talons of Lucifer. With Ambrosio’s soul in his pocket the triumphant Lucifer has a number of grim revelations with which to further flay the monk, one being that ‘Matilda’ was never anything but a ‘a subordinate but crafty spirit’ in Satan’s employ, an emissary who assumed the earthly form most likely to bewitch Ambrosio.
Some character, then, this Matilda. There’s been a lot of contemporary scholarly discussion about ‘her’ transgressive/transgender identity/status, and for sure she is many things within the text. But I would have to agree with those critics who attribute this protean quality more to the inevitable flaws in Lewis’s plot carpentry – given the speed at which the book was assembled – than to some express wish on Lewis’s part to undermine the patriarchal epistemes of the novel…
The great Luis Bunuel and his regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere dreamed of collaborating on a film of The Monk but in the end Carriere’s screenplay was shot without distinction by a lesser director. I rather wish Bunuel had been around to contemplate a movie of The Name of the Rose, which treats the monastic repression of sexuality with rather more elegance. Let me finish by returning to that (quite worthy) film made in 1986 from Eco’s novel. The following exchanges between the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville and his assistant novice Adso of Melk are as in the clip below.

Adso: Master? Have you ever been in love?
William: In love? Huh. Many times.
Adso: You were?
William: Yes, of course. Aristotle, Ovid, Virgil…
Adso: No, no, no. I meant with a…
William: Oh. Ah. Are you not confusing love with lust?
Adso: Am I? I don’t know. I want only her own good. I want her to be happy. I want to save her from her poverty.
William: Oh, dear.
Adso: Why “oh dear”?
William: You are in love.
Adso: Is that bad?
William: For a monk, it does present certain problems.
Adso: But doesn’t Saint Thomas Aquinas praise love above all other virtues?
William: Yes, the love of God, Adso. The love of God.
Adso: Oh… And the love of woman?
William: Of woman? Thomas Aquinas knew precious little, but the scriptures are very clear. Proverbs warns us, “Woman takes possession of a man’s precious soul”, while Ecclesiastes tells us, “More bitter than death is woman”.
Adso: Yes, but what do you think, Master?
William: Well, of course I don’t have the benefit of your experience, but I find it difficult to convince myself that God would have introduced such a foul being into creation without endowing her with *some* virtures. Hmm…?

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17. The Exorcist: “The demon is a liar”

A smart man I knew many years ago once explained to me very patiently what he saw as the structural and genre-busting brilliance of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist in its film adaptation by William Friedkin. As my friend saw it, the film sought purposely to frustrate that (significant) share of its audience who had bought the ticket just for the sake of a hellish spectacle – this, by giving them instead a vision of a gloomy bourgeois Washington DC, and dwelling on the discontents of a divorcee/single-mom and a morose priest with the burden of an aging mother. Even now you look at the movie and you just know from the funk coming off the screen – it’s 1973, Watergate, OPEC crisis, crime, poverty, homelessness – this is clearly a moment for Satan to seek an intervention in human affairs.
Of course, eventually, frightening and visually fascinating things do start to happen as Chris MacNeil’s little Regan (Linda Blair) behaves most alarmingly and improperly. But even then the film takes us through Regan’s treatments, the psychiatric evaluations, the painful EEGs and arteriograms – after which her throat is still swelling up like a bullfrog’s, and the audience are more or less screaming at the screen, ‘For the love of God, you fools, can’t you see she’s possessed by the Devil…?’
I still think this is a splendid effect to seek to achieve in a story. I must have been 10 or 11 when some schoolmates and I first discovered Blatty’s bestselling shocker of a novel: we passed it round, taking gleeful turns to read aloud the grossest, most horrendous bits (not all of which I quite ‘understood.’) Friedkin’s extremely frightening movie wasn’t nearly so accessible at that time, but I had definitely seen it by the late 1980s, when my brother was studying at Georgetown University and, in the course of a stroll through the neighbourhood, pointed out to me those infamous ‘Exorcist steps.’
Ten years later, in an editorial capacity at Faber and Faber, I prepared an edition of Blatty’s screenplay for publication and had a number of nice chats with ‘Bill’ Blatty himself, a highly affable and courteous man who always addressed me as ‘Rich’ and seemed very pleased that I was interested in the fortunes of the Georgetown Hoyas college teams.
A few years after that, I oversaw a revised edition of Kevin Jackson’s marvellous, indispensable book of interviews with Paul Schrader, at the point where Paul was putting the final touches on Exorcist: The Beginning, the third official sequel (actually a prequel) to Friedkin’s movie. You may know what happened next: Schrader was removed from his post after screening the film for his studio financier, and Renny Harlin was hired to shoot from scratch a less cerebral, tackier and more effects-heavy version. I confess I still haven’t managed to see Paul’s cut, though it looks terrific, but I have seen Harlin’s, the low-grade calculation of which was up on screen for all to see. That said… it’s hard to blame ‘the suits’ for finally trying to do what some Exorcist sequel surely had to do if it was seriously looking for a place in the market: namely, to resurrect the Linda Blair model of the foul-looking, foul-mouthed female demon: as I call her in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, ‘a vile goblin who masturbates with a crucifix, knows all your dirty secrets, vomits forth obscene insults like bile, and also vomits forth a good deal of bile.’
The other obvious move was to get more of that Captain Howdy stuff going. Howdy is of course the name Regan gives to her ‘imaginary friend’ in the early stages of her possession, and the name Exorcist fans gave cheerfully to the demonic face glimpsed in subliminal flashes during the movie. Warners certainly didn’t stint on Howdy in the trailer (below) for Friedkin’s 1973 original, one that apparently had to be suppressed for being too disturbing, to which one could fairly say, ‘Too bloody right’.

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15. Night of the Demon by Jacques Tourneur

“But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half-world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind…?”
Good hard questions, these. In all of cinema I’m not sure there’s a villain I enjoy more than the man who puts them – Satanist and children’s magician Dr Julian Karswell, played by Niall MacGinnis in Jacque Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957, scripted by Charles Bennett from the story ‘Casting the Runes’ by M.R. James.) MacGinnis does nothing showy, and his line readings are admirably unfussy. (For instance a lesser actor would have made ripely ‘sinister’ work out of the dialogue extracted above, aimed by Karswell at Dana Andrews’ tough-minded psychologist John Holden; MacGinnis just rattles it off, as any intelligent Satanist would.)
Night of the Demon is a spookily beautiful piece in which Tourneur makes his customary and celebrated use of darkness to shred the nerves; yet some of the film’s most unsettling passages are in daylight. The dimly-lit séance (from which Kate Bush sampled ‘It’s in the trees! It’s coming!’ for her Hounds of Love) and the pitch-dark pursuit of Holden by the Demon (through dense and tangled woods) are obvious standouts. But for sheer original chills it’s hard to top Karswell’s casually pointed summoning of a storm that ruins the annual children’s party he is throwing in the grounds of his estate, but which indicates to us the audience, if not to the obdurate John Holden, that the powers of darkness may be memorably invoked under the sun.
And is there a tip of the hat to Tourneur in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest? You need hardly ask. Around midway point the clinical psychiatrist Dr Steven Hartford, in a troubled frame of mind, is tramping the grounds of Blakedene Hall (the upscale residential clinic of which he is director) when all hell breaks loose in the elements:

“I had been conscious, from the moment I stepped outdoors again, of the disturbing white-nacre shade of the sky, the wind in the treetops now a shuddering hiss. Autumn is here, for sure. But as I marched across the lawn… it seemed the air was full of moaning sounds, behind these a dull but rising roar. Then the storm broke…”

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