A few nights ago I finally got around the watching a movie that’s been on my to-watch list for a while, the 2016 feature-length debut from writer / director Robert Eggers, “The Witch”.
Subtitled as a “New-England Folktale”, the film begins in 1630 with a scene in which William (Ralph Ineson – “Case Sensitive”, “The Office”) is appearing before the elders of the Puritan plantation on which he and his family live, as he has a fundamental difference of opinion over interpretation of the biblical text by which they live their lives.
William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie – “Midwinter Of The Spirit”, “Prometheus”) and their four children are banished from the plantation and set off to make their lives on a farm near the edge of a large forest some distance from the plantation.
Eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy – “Split”, Morgan”) is struggling with the demands of the family’s faith but determined to do the right thing. One day she is playing peek-a-boo outside with Katherine’s new baby Samuel when he suddenly disappears. We, the viewer, then see the baby’s body being used by a witch to make a flying ointment. Katherine is devastated and clearly feels that Thomasin is at least partly to blame for Samuel’s disappearance.
The young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger – “The Village”) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) claim that the family’s goat, Black Phillip, speaks to them and they take next to no notice of instructions given by their elder sister, increasing her inner torment.
The parents discuss sending Thomasin away to work for another family as she approaches woman-hood and the farm’s crops fail once again, a conversation overhead by their daughter and her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw – “Oranges And Sunshine”). This leads Caleb to set off in the early hours into the forest in an attempt to hunt for food so that Thomasin won’t have to leave. She goes with him but falls from the horse when Caleb rushes off after a hare and is knocked out.
Deep in the forest Caleb spots a small hut and when he approaches is met by an attractive young woman (model Sarah Stephens) who proves to be a witch, and maybe not as attractive as she first seems. When Thomasin reawakens she manages to find her father but, though they search, there is no sign of Caleb.
Katherine takes this as further proof that Thomasin is evil, and when Caleb returns, naked and barely conscious, her impression is further strengthened when the young twins, Mercy and Jonas, tell their mother than Thomasin had claimed to be a witch. Thomasin counter-claims that the twins speak with Black Phillip. William responds by locking the three children, along with the goat, in the stable for the night, intending that the family should return to the plantation the next day. However, with all kinds of weird and violent events unfolding thereafter what will become of the family?…
I’ve probably said too much already, but I really can’t go too much further into the story without definitely giving too much away. Suffice it to say that this is a pretty decent film. The cinematography gives the whole thing a suitably bleak feel, given the hard times that William’s family are enduring, and it all feels nicely atmospheric too.
The ending of the movie felt a little strange at the time of viewing, but a subsequent read of this article helped to make more sense of things – though it’s best read after viewing the movie! Taylor-Joy and Ineson, in particular, were excellent in their roles but all of the small cast are very good.
The dialogue and religious aspect of the film felt realistic for the period of history in which it is set, when witch trials and executions were happening in New England and indeed the end titles claim that much of the dialogue is based upon real diaries and court transcripts etc. from that time, throwing light on the effects of a strict religious lifestyle mixed with the superstition of the age.
Overall, I thought “The Witch” was an intense, gripping, spooky and indeed thought-provoking way to spend an hour and a half – a well recommended movie to lovers of folk horror…
Finally got around to watching a movie that’s been on my “to watch” list for sometime last night – the 2010 supernatural horror thriller from director John Erick Dowdle (“As Above, So Low”, “Quarantine”) written and produced by M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”, “Lady In The Water”) titled “Devil”.
The film begins with quote from the Bible “…be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” and a voice-over describing stories told to the narrator by his mother about the devil sometimes taking human form and finding those who have sinned are killing them all. Such events were said to start with a suicide as the devil makes his presence known.
During this we are gradually closing in on a shot of a cleaner wearing ear defenders busily polishing an office building floor whilst in the background a truck roof seems to suddenly explode as the falling body of a suicide hits it at high velocity. The truck then rolls away out of sight.
Police detective Bowden (Chris Messina – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, “Argo”), a recovering alcoholic still trying to come to terms with the death of his wife and son in a hit and run incident five years previously, is sent to investigate when the body – clutching rosary beads – is discovered down the street from the office building.
Meanwhile in the office building temporary security guard Ben Larson (Bokeem Woodbine – “Total Recall”, “Riddick”) is signing visitors into the building when he needs to take something up to one of the top floors. His colleague tells him to take the lift, where he joins four other people.
The four are mattress salesman Vince (Geoffrey Arend – “Body Of Proof”, “500 Days Of Summer”, a young woman Sarah (Bojana Novakovic – “Edge Of Darkness”,”Drag Me To Hell”), an older woman Jane (Jenny O’Hara – “Mystic River”, “Wishmaster”), and Tony (Logan Marshall-Green – “Prometheus”, “Across The Universe”).
The lift suddenly becomes trapped between floors, to the bemusement of the building security and maintenance staff who can find nothing obviously wrong with the lift. Staff are able to speak to the occupants of the lift but are unable to hear what is going on in the lift, having to rely on the solitary CCTV camera in the corner of the lift. Bowden is outside the building where he hears about the trapped lift, having traced the truck’s path back there, so heads into the building to assist.
The lights in the lift begin to flicker off and on and one of the security staff watching, Ramirez (Jacob Vargas – “The Hills Have Eyes II”, “Bobby”), thinks he sees a ghostly image of a face close up to the camera. Ramirez is deeply religious and provides the aforementioned voice-overs during the film. When the lights go back on again the mirror inside the lift has been smashed and Vince’s throat cut.
Bowden’s job has suddenly got much harder, and the need to free the lift more urgent – and things have only just begun…
This film was tagged as the first film in “The Night Chronicles”, set to be a series of supernatural thrillers, with the second film “Reincarnate” due to have begin shooting in 2011. This, however, has yet to happen so maybe “Devil” will end up being the one and only entry in said series?
Whatever the result of that, what I can say is that “Devil” is a pretty good movie in its own right. As the story unfolds there are numerous rational and logical reasons why the events in the lift could be happening, and those trapped within the lift switch their suspicions from one person to another as things escalate. Equally there is the sense that supernatural forces could be at work – despite the understandably cynical misgivings of Bowden and the others outside of the lift.
All of those trapped have unsavoury secrets. They’ve all done wrong in some way and these secrets are revealed one by one as the film unfolds until the climax. There was the opportunity for a final twist at the end but, as I remarked to my wife when the credits were rolling, I’m glad the filmmakers avoided taking that opportunity because I think it would have been a little corny and obvious, so the film worked better without it.
The acting was pretty good throughout, the special effects were effective and he whole thing was put together just about right to keep you entertained, maintain suspense and keep you guessing. Although Shyamalan’s reputation has taken a but of a battering in recent years I thought this film, regardless of the fact that he didn’t actually direct it, was spot on.
In summary, then, this is a good old good-versus-evil kind of movie, looking at themes of repentance, redemption and forgiveness. Irrespective of your religious leanings I would certainly recommend it…
“Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?” – this question has been attributed to a number of people, including General William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army; preacher Roland Hill (1744-1833); John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist movement; his brother Charles Wesley (1707-1788), a leader in the Methodist movement; as well as to preacher George Whitefield (1714-1770). It does seem most widely connected to Booth, however, in terms of popularising the phrase.
The question is – does the Devil have all the good tunes?
When I was growing up, my family were members of the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is a Christian church, founded by the aforementioned William Booth in 1865 in the East End of London as the Christian Revival Society. This was renamed the Christian Mission, before finally becoming the Salvation Army in 1878. The Army is not only a church, it is also well known for the social and charitable work that it does – something that has been central to its aims from the start.
Something else that the Army is widely known for is its music. Particularly its brass bands. These are regularly seen both on the streets, and on TV programmes during the Christmas season each year, amongst other times. I became a member of one such band, playing drums and percussion for a number of years, and it was exposure to the music of the Salvation Army, both the bands and the choirs, that gave me an appreciation for brass instruments and vocal harmonies that I still enjoy in music today. Whether it be the brass section found in the music of groups such as Earth, Wind & Fire, or the rockier stuff like the “horn mix” of Extreme’s “Cupid’s Dead” (from the 1992 album “III Sides To Every Story”); the vocal harmonies of Irish group The Corrs or hard rock giants Def Leppard.
I have what can only be described as a large and eclectic music collection. This takes in many differing genres. Although I do not identify myself with the Christian church now – and haven’t for some years – I do still have fond affection for some of the music that I discovered during my Salvation Army years. Brass band numbers “Variations On Laudate Dominum” (composed by Edward Gregson) and “Resurgam” (composed by Eric Ball), to name but two, remain superbly complex and interesting pieces to me.
Cliff Richard’s “Little Town” – complete with brass section- (from his 1982 gospel album “Now You See Me… Now You Don’t”) never fails to stir me, and American singer Amy Grant made some wonderful Christian pop music, such as “Angels” (from her 1984 album “Straight Ahead”) that can still lodge itself in my head, seemingly for days on end, even thirty years after I first got the album! There were many other songs / albums that could be classified as “Christian” music too that I can still enjoy today – including U.S. metal band Stryper, Petra, Resurrection Band, Larry Norman, Steve Taylor, Whitecross and King’s X.
Even back in my Salvation Army days I was developing an interest in the secular things in life. Whether it be the fairer sex (Charlie’s Angels, Bond girls, Page 3 girls, girls in the sixth form at school) or music – initially the likes of Status Quo, Rainbow, Adam & The Ants.
It wasn’t long before I found that I had a fascination with the “dark side” despite, or perhaps as a reaction to, being brought up in a Christian environment.
During my secondary school years I loved reading books by the likes of James Herbert and Stephen King. Graham Masterton’s “The Devils Of D-Day”, discovered in a dusty second hand bookshop, was an early favourite of mine.
I also loved horror movies such as Hammer’s “The Devil Rides Out” (1968), the brilliant cult classic “The Wicker Man” (1973) and the original version of “The Omen” (1976), not to mention dozens of other classic Hammer horror movies – plus their television series “Hammer House Of Horror” – and all those old classic Hitchcock movies like “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963)
So, it’s hardly surprising that when I got into music properly it didn’t take too long before I was discovering bands that seemed to be associated with the dark side in some way. From the late 60s / early 70s came heavy rock bands such as the doomy Black Sabbath and the more psychedelic leaning Black Widow and Coven (whose 1969 album “Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls” features a thirteen minute “Satanic Mass”).
The 80s brought the introduction of the Black Metal genre with Mercyful Fate, Venom (who recorded the 1982 album “Black Metal”) and Witchfinder General. The latter were as infamous for the album covers as for the music contained within!
These, and more recent acts – the likes of Cradle Of Filth, Behemoth, Dimmu Borgir, Meads Of Asphodel, Blood Ceremony, Electric Wizard, Wintefylleth, Akercocke, The Devil’s Blood, Jex Thoth and Watain – are often associated with Black / Occult / Pagan Metal. But, whereas you would expect Christian artists to hold Christian religious views, this is often not the case with music that is explicitly connected to Satanism and the Occult.
King Diamond, singer from Mercyful Fate, was one of the few artists who aligned themselves with Satanism, along with Watain and a number of Norwegian artists like Euronymous from the band Mayhem. Others, such as Quorthon from the band Bathory, Gaahl from Gorgoroth and Varg Vikernes from Burzum have used Satan and Satanism as an introduction to more indigenous heathen beliefs and as a symbol of their own beliefs in Odin and other anti-Christian / pre-Christian figures.
For many bands, however, it is a case of using lyrics, visual imagery and musical aesthetics as a form of art rather than an expression of belief. And with these factors being so striking it is little wonder that it is so effective.
Away from the visuals, the music of the majority of the above mentioned bands is compellingly effective at painting images and conveying emotion and feeling, just as the great classical music from the past – Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, etc. did so well.
The music may sometimes be abrasive, bleak, brutal and intense – see Watain’s “Malfeitor” (from 2010’s “Lawless Darkness”), or Cradle Of Filth’s “Funeral In Carpathia” (from 1996’s “Dusk… And Her Embrace”) for example. It can also be evocative, peaceful, meditative and beautiful – such as Winterfylleth’s amazing “Children Of The Stones” (from 2010’s “The Mercian Sphere”) and Blood Ceremony’s “Lord Summerisle” (from 2013’s “The Eldrich Dark”)
There are, of course, many artists whose music is less extreme than the Black / Occult / Pagan metal ones, where there have, over the years, been suggestions that the music or the artists themselves, are in some way “in league with the devil”.
These include Robert Johnson – legendary bluesman who was said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads; KISS – rockers whose name was alleged to stand for Knights In Satan’s Service; The Rolling Stones – Sympathy for the Devil indeed; Marilyn Manson – the Antichrist Superstar; Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page had a deep interest in the occultist Aleister Crowley; The Eagles – “Hotel California” has long been rumoured to be about the Church Of Satan.
At the poppier end of the spectrum Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Kesha, Taylor Momsen from The Pretty Reckless, Jay-Z and more -have all been accused of using Satanic imagery and lyrics in their performances.
Heavy Metal is often portrayed as the Devil’s music. The Blues has sometimes been said to come from Robert Johnson’s Crossroads moment. Folk music probably comes originally, just like folklore, from ancient times. All of these genres have pre-Christian and anti-Christian elements.
One thing seems clear to me – although the Christian God has inspired plenty of wonderful music to be written and performed, there is far more excellent and diverse music that isn’t. Some would say that that in itself makes it the Devil’s music – whether it appears to be or not!
So, does the Devil have all the good tunes? I reckon so!