Tales From The Wounded Church

Film, Dreams, Etc.

The Sacrament

The Sacrament professes to consist of documentary footage of the last 24 hours in the lives of the members of a religious cult. The cult and its compound, though placed in the present day, are obviously based on events taking place in November 1978 in the Carribean country of Guyana, where Jim Jones convinced some 900 people to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid before shooting himself in the head. Jones had moved his progressive congregation from locations in the US to an agricultural compound in the South American jungle, where members and their children were subjected to Spartan conditions, sleep-depriving labor, attempted mind control, and multiple forms of abuse. Though Jones may have started out with the right idea, he had long since succumbed to paranoia, adulterous self-indulgence, and an apparent lust for power. Since he was living in the same jungle compound as his followers under only slightly better conditions at the time of his death, the exact nature of his motives will likely remain a mystery.

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The Sacrament tells the story of a film crew employed by a multi-media news outlet and led by a man whose sister has abandoned her life to live in Eden Parish, the fictional compound portrayed in the film. Early shots of the crew’s helicopter flight into the jungle bring to mind the establishing shots of Ruggero Deodato’s seminal found footage film Cannibal Holocaust. Though The Sacrament does not deliver the life-altering trauma of that film, it does an excellent job of recreating many of the elements that were present in the real-life Jonestown, from structures and layout to ethnic proportions to the saccharine veneer that was presented to outsiders. Though the population of Eden Parish is about one-fifth the size of that of Jonestown, the footage in The Sacrament looks and feels so much like the real thing (of which footage exists and is readily available) that one often forgets one is watching a horror film.

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Though all the performances in the film are good, actor Gene Jones is the standout as the Jim Jones-inspired Father, who comes across as equal parts doppelganger and personal creation, though a hundred percent organic. The ominous undertones of his paternal cordiality are palpable. His reading of what amounts to the real-life “death tape” is chilling in its similarity to the tone and timbre of Jim Jones’s final admonishments to his followers.

Though the counterpart sequence in Mexican exploitation director Rene Cardona, Jr’s 1979 Guyana: Cult of the Damned is somewhat more intense, that film overall is hollow and artless. The Sacrament, as a whole, is a much better movie,  a total immersion in the realities of its subject. Characters are real enough to generate emotion. Writer/director Ti West’s knowledge of the world he wants to create seems so thorough and complete that the viewer only gets exactly what is needed, and that in completely unobtrusive fashion. He trusts our imagination and knows how to manipulate it.

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Composer Tyler Bates’s signature atonal crescendos are perfect here, never encroaching upon the naturalistic tone with conventional melody. The score remains largely at the edges of our awareness, inducing constant tension, creeping into consciousness only at key moments.

Painfully deliberate attention is paid to what would be the placement of real-life cameras, following the rule inherent to found footage; this goes out the window during the film’s final act, at which point emotions run high enough that the discrepancy in technique is outweighed by the drama. Though the climax to this film is a foregone conclusion, details are added that will shock the viewer and linger in the mind. My overall take-away from The Sacrament is of a highly effective piece of unsentimental horror, extreme enough for genre fans, dramatic enough for tourists, true enough to the mental and emotional realities of the real-life events for those with some knowledge. I plan to watch this film again, and to take in more of the director’s work.

– The Acolyte

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In Defense Of Franklin Hardesty

I know of no other film, let alone a seminal horror film with both a cult and mainstream audience, that opens with a guy in a wheelchair trying to piss into a coffee can on the side of the road. The man in question is one Franklin Hardesty (Paul Partain) who, along with sister Sally (Marilyn Burns), comprises one of two clans featured in Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel, Wayne Bell, Daniel Pearl, and Robert Burns’s darkly humorous, unsentimentally brutal, viscerally traumatic rumination on the nature of family relations, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Since more than enough has already been said about the film, I will use this space to express a controversial opinion: Franklin Hardesty, one of the most notoriously unpopular figures in cinema (even the other cast members reportedly shunned Partain during filming for staying in character), is a guileless, unassuming soul who does not deserve to die.

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In addition to being a prime early example of the refreshing phenomenon of disabled characters who do not handle their impairments with excessive saintly grace (predates John Malkovich in Places In The Heart by ten years), Franklin is a person who is childlike and pure. He describes the methods used to slaughter cows in an abattoir with vivid animation not because he revels in the utter disgust this causes fellow road trippers, but because he is completely unaware of their revulsion. His conversation with the unkempt, maniacal Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) early in the film displays an open curiosity that does not judge, but only questions. Said questions may be clumsy and tactless, but the look in Franklin’s eyes tells us all we need to know about what’s in his heart. I would rather spend the last few hours of my life with someone like him than with any of the mean-spirited, affected hard cases who prattle on about how they couldn’t wait for him to die, even if those few hours would end with his taking us down the dirt road that would lead to our demise. Just what that says about me, I’m not sure, but I’ll take the trade-off.

– The Acolyte

What reminds me of Horror Hotel

There was a thick fog in the neighborhood where I work last night. When I walked out of the building and saw it, I was afraid my commute would be nerve-wracking and dangerous, but it turned out that driving while enveloped on all sides by a white shapeless substance that is soft in appearance created an illusion of safety and utter isolation that I found soothing and healing. It also triggered memories of Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead), the excellent 1960 witch’s revenge thriller with Christopher Lee set in New England and shot in black and white.

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It is one of the best films Lee did outside of Hammer, very atmospheric. There are scenes of characters driving on isolated, wooded roads that were brought to mind by my commute. After arriving home and putting my girlfriend to sleep, I found the film free on Amazon (have my own VHS copy but the VHS player is not in the living room where it is warmer and more comfortable and I also opted for the slight convenience of not having to lift the tape) and started to watch, but promptly fell asleep. Not a bad lullaby, anyway.

– The Acolyte

Jug Face

An indie horror film shot in Tennessee, Jug Face tells the story of young Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter of The Woman), who lives in a tiny forest community that sacrifices people to something called “The Pit” (basically a hole in the ground filled with what at first appears to be reddish mud) based on the work of a simple-minded potter named Dawai (Sean Bridgers of Deadwood) who wakes some mornings with “a funny feeling” and a compulsion to sculpt a piece in the likeness of a member of the community.

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These pieces are the “jug faces” of the title; each one indicates The Pit’s next desired sacrifice. Ada happens to be friends with Dawai, which enables her to be the first to discover her own likeness on the latest jug face. In order to avoid being sacrificed, she buries her jug face deep in the woods before anyone sees it. Dawai either doesn’t remember who was on the jug, or doesn’t tell because he likes Ada; we’re not sure which. At any rate, when The Pit doesn’t get what it wants, things get ugly.

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Having a story set in a backwoods community that involves incest, child abuse, abject poverty, and religious fanaticism, Jug Face threatens to be a film that exploits stereotypes; somehow, it doesn’t feel like one. It appears to be plot-based for most of its running time; things unfold gradually and at just the right pace that the viewer is neither confused nor bored. It has great acting (in addition to the principles, Larry Fessenden and Sean Young are excellent as Ada’s parents), a lot of tension, and a beautifully atypical musical score by Sean Spillane. Though Ada is doing something very selfish with a heavy toll, she is sympathetic because 1) she is not doing anything any of the rest of us wouldn’t want to and 2) she is actually not entirely selfish, since she is also pregnant and protecting her unborn child. She also cares for her invalid grandfather (the camper grampa lives in may be the first sign we get that the film takes place in modern times) and has bizarre visions of a naked, painted boy every time The Pit gets impatient.

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The film is shot and realized quite well; it portrays some stomach-churning things nonchalantly and unexpectedly, but never lets the camera linger needlessly. At the end, it did not give me the exposition or satisfaction I wanted (one of the most reprehensible characters walks away clean) but instead left me with what I only then realized had been a parable about the nature of self-sacrifice. As such, it is clear as a death-bell and surprisingly gut-wrenching, having evoked emotional responses from me throughout the course of its eighty-one minutes. An impressive first feature from writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle. Definitely worth your while.

– The Acolyte

Trick ‘r Treat

Trick ‘r Treat is a clever, well-made cinematic collection of interwoven tales (structured somewhat like Jarmusch’s Mystery Train) taking place on a single Halloween night in a town in Ohio that parties hard every October 31st. It pulls no punches in terms of the horror, yet somehow manages to have the innocent vibe of a campfire story or Ray Bradbury novel. This, despite having a fairly high body count that does not observe the edict of “though shalt not decapitate or otherwise end the lives of young children.” I would actually go so far as to call it “fun for the whole family” without irony, though you may want to keep it away from kids under twelve.

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Basically, it’s a great movie for Cannibal Holocaust fans to watch side by side with someone a little on the squeamish side. Both will enjoy thoroughly; neither will feel cheated. The production values, direction, and effects are all brilliant, great storytelling, great imagery. Problem-free cast includes Anna Paquin, Dead Like Me‘s Britt McKillip, Dylan Baker, and Brian Cox. My one and only beef was with the ubiquitous trick-or-treater with the old school sack-and-button-eye Halloween mask who is creepy and great as such but under the burlap looks too damn cute for the rest of the movie. I would either have not shown that character unmasked and relied on other characters’ reactions for the effect or else made the character’s true face look much more earthy and disturbing. All around, though, it’s a great film that has a lot of the feel of a Phantasm or a Something Wicked This Way Comes, simultaneously horrific and innocent, not too predictable. Fully understands the classic horror concept of retribution. Left me with just the right amount of questions to work right. I know I came late to this party, but highly recommend. Will definitely revisit. Hope the recently announced sequel lives up.

– The Acolyte

Space 1999: The Bringers of Wonder

Space 1999 ran from 1975 to 1977 and was one of several live-action series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who are best known for their shows featuring marionettes. They also created two of the most interesting live-action science fiction shows of the late sixties and seventies, the first being UFO (1969-1973), the second being Space 1999.

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The latter began as a somber, cerebral, atmospheric attempt to create philosophical sci-fi in series form. It sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. Despite some fake science worthy of old B-movies, the twenty-four episodes of the show’s first season are well worth the time of anyone interested in thoughtful, experimental, atmospheric sci-fi with creepy moments that plays it straight. The conceit of the show, set twenty-five years in the future from the time it was made, is that the moon is being used as a nuclear waste dump and is blasted out of its orbit by a massive chain-reaction explosion; the several hundred people staffing Moon Base Alpha, which has its own self-contained atmosphere and remains intact after this event (bad science, example one), are sent hurtling through space with it. They pass within range of many planets, encounter aliens, pass through a wormhole taking them countless light years farther, visit a planet that may be the afterlife, and eventually come to the dead world haunted by the spirits of the alien race that spawned us millennia ago. The show’s creators made a conscious decision not to explain everything, since the characters themselves were out of their depth, thrust into the far reaches of space against their will, having very little understanding of a lot of what they witnessed. Guest stars on the first season included Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Judy Geeson, and Ian McShane. “The Dragon’s Domain” featured Spaghetti Western star Gianni Garko (Sartana himself; at some point during the first season, the primarily British show became an Italian co-production). The music by Barry Gray is epic and affecting and stays in your head. The main theme features an orchestra and electric guitars and sounds like the soundtrack for the second coming or for an especially messy apocalypse or plague. The special effects by Nick Allder and Brian Johnson, both of who went on to be effects supervisors on Alien (Johnson was also an uncredited effects assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey) were light years ahead of anything else on TV at the time. The dark, monolithic, utilitarian look of movies like Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture can be at least partly traced back to Space: 1999.

When I was five, six, and seven years old, it was my favorite show. I had the lunch box, the toys, the coloring books, the comics. It came on TV every Saturday night and was the talk of a lot of my friends in school. It ran two seasons. The second season was handed over to a newly hired producer in an attempt to revamp the show and make it more commercial. As a result, the somber, philosophical tone was replaced with rubber monster suits, shape-shifting alien babes, flirting, jokes, and shiny new uniforms for the Moonbase crew. Characters were discarded and replaced with new ones (the most devastating loss was probably Barry Morse as Professor Victor Bergman, Moonbase Alpha’s eccentric science advisor). At the time this happened, I thought it was great. I loved the new uniforms, as did all my friends in school. I loved the flashy monsters and the action-packed new format. There was now a chase or fight scene every few minutes; the first season, in the tradition of most British sci-fi, had instead allowed its stories to build at their own pace.

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As an adult viewer, going on forty years later, I enjoy the first season as great for what it is. I look at the second season and go, “Why did they ruin it?” The first twenty-four episodes will always hold up for me as decent seventies sci-fi with low-key characters, thoughtful, interesting storylines, and really cool music. The second twenty-four episodes are much more campy and much less credible. Despite this, there are moments. The second season’s music by Derek Wadsworth is as excellent as the first’s, retro-pop ethereal and equally as haunting.

There are two second-season episodes that, despite quality inferior to that of the first season, have proven more memorable than the entire rest of the series. Their memorability is not so much due to their storyline as it is to the fact that when I re-viewed them as an adult, I felt like I was reliving a childhood nightmare. I mean this literally; my deja vu as I viewed certain images was connected in my mind to a bad dream, not to a TV show. I had completely forgotten that the episodes existed. The images had been so traumatic, I had buried them.

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The story in question is called “The Bringers Of Wonder.” It is the only one in the series that takes more than one episode to tell. The first episode opens with Moonbase Alpha’s Commander Koenig (Martin Landau, who along with then-wife Barbara Bain had a leading role for the duration of the series) recklessly joyriding an Eagle spacecraft (the Eagles were the transport craft used by the personnel of Alpha; they were skeletal and metal and looked like some kind of flying mining or construction equipment. A brilliant Brian Johnson creation). Something is obviously wrong with Koenig’s brain; he has never been reckless (though the second-season version of the character is more so than the first) and he would never say, “I haven’t had this much fun since I burned Grandma’s wig.” He does say it here. The crew of Alpha watches helplessly from the Command Center as their leader goes nuts and crashes his spacecraft, nicking a nuclear waste dome, but thankfully not penetrating it (to my recollection, the series never explained how all the nuclear waste on the moon blew up in the very first episode, then wound up tidily back under domes as the moon hurtled through space intact). Members of the crew rush out to rescue Koenig; his girlfriend, Doctor Helena Russell (Landau’s aforementioned wife, Barbara Bain) hooks the now unconscious Koenig up to an experimental machine that is supposed to give him some kind of “brain massage.”

Meanwhile, a “Superswift” from Earth (we are told over the course of the episode that the Superswift is a spacecraft that was in the prototype stage when the moon left earth’s orbit, but that since has been developed as the first craft to exceed the speed of light) appears out of nowhere carrying dozens of the Alpha inhabitants’ family and friends. What the fuck. After thirty-some episodes of wandering the universe having abandoned all hope of returning to their home, the Alphans’ ship has finally come in. They are going home. They reunite and celebrate with their loved ones in the Command Center of the Moonbase while, undetected, several of the newly arrived earthlings sneak down the hall with blank expressions on their faces. This, of course, is sinister. We eventually see that they are trying to kill the unconscious Koenig, but they do it using mind control, so no one suspects it was them.

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Despite this, Koenig wakes and Helena tells him about how they’re finally going home to earth. Koenig is ecstatic until he goes to the Command Center and sees all the recently arrived friends and family there as ugly Lovecraftian aliens. This is the scene that I remembered as a nightmare. The aliens look like cancer cells with tentacles and pus-oozing eyeballs that pulsate with some kind of odd, sickly light. It cuts back and forth between Koenig’s terrified face and brief, flashing images of the aliens he sees. Either Koenig is hallucinating, or everyone else is. Koenig starts to flip and say, “Get away from me,” and shove his actual human friends who are trying to calm him across the room into walls and consoles, causing things to smoke and blow off sparks. He tries to get Alpha to arm its laser cannons and commands his crew to, “Destroy that alien ship.” The first-season Koenig, even under the same conditions, would never say those words without first asking questions. Eventually, Helena stuns Koenig with an Alphan ray-gun (which, by the way, looks exactly like a staple gun) and he is returned to the sick bay. He begs his friends to believe him when he tells them that what they believe are their friends and family come to bring them back to earth are actually hideous, hostile aliens.

Eventually, we find out that Koenig was right and that the supposed long-lost loved ones are aliens who have all of the Alphans under telepathic control. Koenig is immune because of the experimental brain treatment. The aliens are a starving, dying race that lives off radiation; they can only get the energy they need to survive by detonating all of Alpha’s nuclear waste. Such a detonation would destroy Alpha, which is why the aliens must be stopped. The logic gap here, of course, is that the nuclear waste already blew up without destroying Alpha and that the premise of the entire series relies upon it, but that doesn’t stop “The Bringers Of Wonder” from being a fun, effective couple hours of British TV sci-fi from the nineteen seventies. It has a cheese factor. It doesn’t need to make too much sense. Is has memorable images and an overall tone that is somehow horrific despite some inherent silliness.

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I would definitely recommend “The Bringers Of Wonder” to forgiving sci-fi fans. Then if you decide you want to check out the show, you should go back to the first episode of the first season, “Breakaway.” The first season is really where it’s at, flawed sci-fi with great effects and a whole lot of atmosphere that utilizes the medium to explore matters of consequence like fate, death, destiny, and the origin of mankind. It contains plenty of images that evoke a similar childhood terror to that associated with the aliens in “The Bringers Of Wonder,” including that of an immortal who rots hundreds of years’ worth the moment he leaves his planet in “Death’s Other Dominion,” the half-disfigured phantom come from the future to haunt his own still-living self in “The Troubled Spirit,” the blackened, laser-charred Ian McShane with light-up saucer eyes in “Force Of Life,” and the barbecued victims of the cyclopean, hideously tentaculated, possibly telepathic creature in “The Dragon’s Domain.” Like those in many of the early Hammer films, the horrific images in Space 1999 loomed larger in the mind of a child raised before the information age, a child who’d only seen the episodes once or twice, a child who embellished and intensified the graphics in his own imagination without realizing he was doing so. When I go back and view those images now, they no longer shock, but the episodes impress for their effort to create something worthy of the epoch when live-action sci-fi was arguably at its best, just before the advent of the Hollywood blockbuster, a time when the genre was still ruled by the idea.

And don’t forget that music.

– The Acolyte

Halloween III: Season Of The Witch

Halloween III: Season Of The Witch is the only film in the Halloween series not to take place in the other films’ universe. A clip from the first film plays on a television somewhere in the middle, as unreal to the characters in Season Of The Witch as it is to the viewer. The masked killer known as “Michael Myers” (originally conceived as nameless and referred to only as “the shape” by series creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill) does not appear. If I cared more about fictional characters than I did about the entertainment value of a specific piece of fiction, maybe this would bother me. As it stands, it does not.

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My first exposure to the Halloween franchise was 1981’s Halloween II, written by Carpenter and Hill, but directed by Rick Rosenthal. I was a kid; it gave me nightmares. Staged, creepy death scenes, Donald Pleasance proclaiming, “It is time,” and flicking that lighter, and the song “Mr. Sandman” accompanying the image of a burning corpse all left a deep impression on my hyper-sensitive soul. I saw the first Halloween a few years later and its significance in my life was not nearly as great. Its director, John Carpenter, is more than worthy of the respect he gets, though for me The Fog is his creepiest film. It was the original intent of Carpenter and then-partner Debra Hill that the aforementioned killer, who dies at the end of Halloween II, would remain a corpse. Halloween would then continue on as an anthology series, each ensuing entry to contain different characters and a completely different storyline. The money people had other ideas and the rest is history, but history was given a brief reprieve in Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, which is a shocking, illogical, baffling, engaging, and highly entertaining piece of insanity containing elements of sci-fi and action, as well as of horror.

The opening credits roll over pixelated pumpkin graphics and are accompanied by an ominous electronic score by Alan Howarth and Carpenter himself. The quality of this score is maintained throughout the film. It is sleazy. It is creepy. It is 1982. The film was produced by Carpenter and Hill, but written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. It opens like a thriller on a nighttime chase scene, but we soon discover that the chasers are androids or zombies or mind slaves or something else equally unfazed by the weight of rolling vehicles and by self immolation, something capable of literally rearranging faces, as are the laser beams inside the Halloween masks that shoot bugs and snakes.

How do you do an autopsy on “just a bunch of car parts?”

Basically, a doctor in a town in California stumbles upon a plot to kill masses of children by selling them Halloween masks that will do nasty things to them on October 31st, when the most horrifically irritating television advertisement ever conceived of (horrifically irritating in the best possible way) somehow interacts with a gadget in the masks that was made using a stolen stone from Stonehenge. Dan O’Herlihy (Robocop) does a fun enough job as the pagan-worshipping toymaker whose company town has surveillance cameras on phone poles (long before they had those in every American city; here, they are creepy, heh) and whose evil scheme must have some purpose greater than personal gain, as he clearly doesn’t give a shit how it shakes out. We never do learn just what that purpose is.

It really doesn’t matter.

Halloween III: Season Of The Witch is like an inordinately gory spy thriller with horrific overtones and a plot like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from hell. You’ll be lulled into a false sense of security by the first few scenes, then shocked by how far things eventually go. The script has elements of laudable cohesion alongside elements of sloppy, garbled nonsense; apparently, British writer Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass series) was commissioned to write the original screenplay, which was later rewritten by director Wallace, to the point where Kneale had his name taken out of the credits. This would explain inconsistencies of quality, though I would not change a thing about this film as it was made. It is original, unsettling, hilarious, and genuinely creepy. It has a Mobius-strip structure in that it ends in the same gas station where it begins with the same nails-on-a-chalkboard-but-in-a-good-way ad jingle. B-movie veteran Tom Atkins (Escape From New York, The Fog, Maniac Cop) is excellent as the booze-guzzling, nurse-goosing physician protagonist who manages to come off as heroic despite his flaws. A movie with Atkins in almost every scene would be worth the price of admission on that point alone, but Halloween III: Season Of The Witch has plenty more to offer. It is downright apocalyptic, but makes very little sense. Ultimately, it plays like a magnetic, atmospheric montage of sights and sounds from a very specific era and budget of horror film, sights and sounds that should be easy to come by in other such films, but really are not. This film gets a bad rep because it is disappointing to Halloween fans that want another slasher, but it stands on its own as a unique piece of cult lunacy that deserves its own following.

– The Acolyte