The Horror, The Horror: Part 6

Random thoughts on horror films watched at random, or something like that.

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Directed by maverick Ken Russell and loosely based on a novel by Bram Stoker, this film stars Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh, who is the priestess of a snake god and part ophidian herself. Her plan to sacrifice a virgin to the giant snake lurking in the caverns underneath her stately home is thwarted by the intervention of local aristo Hugh Grant, a descendant of the knight credited with slaying the fearsome d’Ampton worm, and archaeologist Peter Capaldi, both of whom went on to bigger and better things, though here they seem to be having trouble keeping a straight face. This could be one of those movies that is so bad that it’s good, except it isn’t really that bad. The basic plot line is risible, though probably not as out there as its source material, with such absurdities as having the snake woman hypnotised by bagpipe music, while most of the cast seem to be trying hard to keep a grip on themselves, with a slight leaning towards the camp in their performances. And yet it succeeds magnificently, simply because the director and his cast don’t seem to take the material in the least bit seriously, instead deciding to take a lot of liberties and have a lot of fun, with Stoker’s story as their point of departure. I loved the lurid colour scheme and imagery in the hallucinatory dream sequences, where we learn the history of this particular pagan religion, while Amanda Donohoe is the femme fatale personified, particularly when she goes snake and straps on a giant dildo (Russell seems to have a thing for outlandish dildos, as with Crimes of Passion and, if I’m remembering right, also Lisztomania). There’s a deliriously daft soundtrack, with the country group performing the ballad of the worm a particular highlight, and a comic turn as a policeman from actor Paul Brooke that is so over the top it’s hard to credit it stayed in after the final cut. Against all the odds and flying in the face of common sense, I’m going to claim this as a minor classic.

Oculus (2013)

An antique mirror exerts a malevolent influence over the Russell family, causing the death of the mother and forcing son Tim to shoot his father, for which he is sent to a psychiatric hospital. Released as an adult he no longer believes in the mirror’s power, thinking that he just had a psychotic episode, but is drawn back in by sister Kaylie who has unearthed the history of the mirror and arranged for it to be brought back into the old family house so that they can conduct paranormal experiments and find proof that a supernatural event caused the death of their parents. With past and present plot strands running concurrently, and events mirroring each other, appropriately enough, this is a clever and entertaining variation on the haunted object theme, bringing to the table some of the investigative shenanigans employed by programmes like Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters, using such ploys to add a layer of verisimilitude and scientific method to the proceedings. Karen Gillan, another Dr Who graduate, is excellent as Kaylie, whose need for a very specific kind of closure combined with her interest in the mirror has turned into an unhealthy obsession. Despite the years in a psychiatric hospital, Brenton Thwaites as Tim is the more level headed, and might have stood a chance of escaping the mirror’s influence if his sister hadn’t sucked him back in and forced him to accept her world view. In a way, as with much horror, they make themselves victims, inviting in the very thing that will destroy them. And destroy them the mirror does, in a manner that is as predictable as it is aesthetically satisfying for the convoluted way in which the past repeats itself. I enjoyed this and hope to see it again.

Stigmata (1999)

A pre-Medium Patricia Arquette takes the role of punk(ish) hairdresser Frankie, who develops stigmata after her mother sends her a present from Brazil, where she has been holidaying. The stigmata are pronounced and painful enough to require hospitalisation, as well as getting Frankie on the radar of the Catholic Church who send Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) to check out the phenomena. Despite her atheism and his faith, the two bond, but Kiernan’s desire to help this young woman is undermined by the suspicion that his superiors have an agenda of their own, that they see Frankie as a threat to the Church, one that must be neutralised at any cost. And so we get supernatural phenomena diverted into conspiracy theory in a compelling story, one that touches on matters of faith and the true nature of religious experience. I didn’t find the back story especially convincing and the explanation for what is taking place seemed simply an over contrived plot hook, but the various subtexts are fascinating, while Frankie’s stigmata experiences are vivid enough to shock and make us fear for her wellbeing. The two leads are engaging, with some onscreen chemistry that makes you believe they could be attracted to each other, despite fundamental philosophical differences. And, as an atheist, I found the implied criticism of the Church much to my taste while, as I said before, recoiling from the film’s spirituality based conclusion, even while agreeing that if we must have religion then something personal is better than the institutionalised kind. I am full of contradictions, it seems. I hold multitudes.

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