14. The Witches (1990) – Nicolas Roeg
A second entry from Nicolas Roeg, this one is a typically clever and twisted Roald Dahl imagining. For those born in a certain era, this is a childhood favourite that would have made a few leave the light on at night.
A young boy, after hearing tales of evil witches who hate children, comes across a real witch convention. Featuring a stunning and incredibly effective Anjelica Houston as the Grand High Witch, this film is complemented by Jim Henson’s wonderful ability of making fairy tales come to life. The Witches features a number of impressive transformations, including the unnerving real witch reveal as well as the cruel turning of a boy into a mouse.
Both Dahl and Henson passed away the same year this movie was released. Dahl was mortified with the film due to the deviation between its ending and the one in the book. It is interesting to note that the book itself has been deemed to promote misogyny and has featured on a number of controversial book lists.
15. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – Stanley Kubrick
Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s last film as he died shortly after the first showing of its final cut. Controversial and explicit in nature, some scenes had to be cut in order to maintain an R rating for the movie theatres. The uncut version is now widely available in a variety of formats.
This movie tells the story of Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice living in New York City. After a chance encounter with an old friend from medical school, Bill gets details about a secret party held in a mansion. He attends the ball that turns out to be a mass orgy involving a number of masked and powerful people. Bill becomes paranoid that his life is in danger after his identity is revealed and he is asked to leave the party.
Eyes Wide Shut is based on a 1926 novella Dream Story by Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. All traces of the Jewish ethnicity of the couple in the book, which is set in Vienna, are non-existent in Kubrick’s feature. Kubrick, who himself is of Jewish heritage specifically wanted the couple to be pedestrian Americans. The homophobic slurs aimed at Bill early in the movie are said to replace the anti-Semitic aggression experienced by the main character in the book.
The idea of the juxtaposition between the persona we project to the world and our secret and true selves is prevalent in Eyes Wide Shut. This is done not only symbolically with the literal use of masks throughout the film but also through Bill’s behaviour and his struggle for identity and status. Venetian masks worn by the attendees of the ball allude to the sexually promiscuous and debauch Venetian society of an earlier time.
Christmas is the backdrop to the story and the only place where there are no signs of it in the film, is at the mansion Bill attends for the secret party. This makes it appear as a godless and unwholesome place intended for the anonymous exploration of dark desires.
16. Dagon (2001) – Stuart Gordon
Based on a novella by the granddaddy of horror fiction himself, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, Dagon is part of the Cthulhu Mythos. It is said that Lovecraft’s absolute fear of interracial relations and the possibility of resulting offspring had a huge influence on this story. This makes Dagon all the more complex and disturbing.
The events take place in the small Spanish fishing island of Imboca, where the locals have been praying to the fishing god Dagon for centuries. This has brought great prosperity and bountiful catches upon the region but the price has been great. A couple who become stranded on the island due to a sailing accident soon uncover the horrific secrets of this peculiar community.
Dagon is an ancient Semitic fertility god who was represented by grain and often, fish or fishing. There is a loose association between this Dagon and the sea dwelling creature in Lovecraft’s novella.
The Esoteric Order of Dagon is the religion of the people of Innsmouth and they worshipped the Deep Ones who were seen as messengers of the gods as opposed to gods themselves. The film does not delve deeply into this mythology, but background knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos does help with the overall understanding of Dagon but is not necessary in order to enjoy this adaptation.
17. House Of The Devil (2009) – Ti West
Ti West’s third full-length feature was the first to be well received by the critics. It is most certainly a blatant homage to the films of the 70s and 80s with a lot of the techniques used borrowed directly from the era. The similarities are numerous but some of the more prominent ones are the opening credits, cinematography, as well as the music and fashion featuring in this film.
Samantha is a college student who answers a babysitting ad. She is in dire need of money for a deposit on a new place she is renting. When she arrives at the house where she is meant to babysit, the owner explains that the babysitting is in fact for an old woman and not a child. Samantha is hesitant but as the man keeps offering her more and more money, she finds the deal too hard to resist. It becomes apparent that the couple who hire her have far more sinister intentions for Samantha than she originally assumed.
At the very beginning of this film a message states that the plot is based on true events. This is also a very common technique prevalent in the horror films of 70s and 80s. Although no specific true story is attributed to the events unfolding in House Of The Devil, it is a clear nod to the Satanic Panic.
It all began in the early 70s with the publication of some books on Satanism by people claiming to be experts on it. Despite all these books eventually being confirmed as fraudulent, the phenomenon became widespread within the fundamentalist Christian communities by the beginning of the 80s.
Rock and heavy metal music was thought to contain satanic messages and the teenagers who listened to it were often accused of devil worship and witchcraft. Some, like the ill-fated Memphis Three were even tried for and convicted of terrible crimes with little to no solid evidence.
Messages about satanic ritual abuse and world politics ruled by Satanists and the Illuminati were spread throughout communities by fanatical Christian leaders. Some members of their congregations were professionals in the police force, doctors, therapists, and parents. These people became self-styled “experts” on the subject and took it upon themselves to conduct investigations using techniques that have since been discredited. This moral panic declined by mid to late 1990s and was replaced with scepticism.
House Of The Devil successfully pays a loving tribute to the films that spawned as a direct reflection of this mass hysteria.
18. Kill List (2011) – Ben Wheatley
This film has the tendency to stick around long after watching as you feverishly try to remember all the tiny details you may have missed. It is a somber look at the realities of married life and the effects of post-war trauma. In parts, Kill List requires patience but this pays off, as the insight into the intense relationships between the characters is an essential part of this movie.
Jay and Shel are a couple, both of whom have served time in the military. One or possibly both of them have seen combat. Their marriage is troubled and the couple seem volatile together. Jay and his army buddy Gal are hired killers who have a mission to complete. As they go through their list of targets one by one, this job turns out to be more than they bargained for.
Wheatley was in part influenced by H.P. Lovecraft while writing this script. It wasn’t so much a matter of being directly inspired by any of his specific stories, but more a general feeling of unease and fear that he wanted to convey. He was impressed with Stanley Kubrick’s preoccupation with imagery and minimal concern for plot elements and got the actors to improvise the majority of the scenes as well as work out their own backstories to the characters.
The symbol for the cult was made up by Wheatley himself and he did not pick up on similarities to the one in The Blair Witch Project until after the movie’s release. His aim for this film was not to hand the viewer the plot and interpretation on a silver platter, but instead to leave a degree of mystery and let imaginations fill in the blanks.
19. The Conspiracy (2012) – Christopher McBride
The Conspiracy plays out like a documentary but could also be considered a found-footage film. This is McBride’s first full-length feature and was largely received favourably by critics and audiences alike.
Two young filmmakers, Aaron and Jim, set out to make a movie about “Terrance G”, a conspiracy theorist whom they first came across on YouTube. While the documentary is being filmed, Terrance mysteriously disappears and the guys decide to continue his research into secret government organisations.
This leads them to an exclusive non-governmental group called the Tarsus Club who seem to always have gatherings right before major world events. After finding someone who can help them infiltrate the club, Aaron and Jim decide to film one of their secret meetings.
This movie touches on many aspects of the conspiracy counter-culture. Although the Tarsus Club itself is a fictional organisation, it is very loosely based on the Mithraic Mysteries religion practiced in the Roman Empire in the early centuries AD. It involved a complicated initiation system and secret rituals. Although it is not entirely clear due to little surviving documentation of the society’s activities, it is very likely that this cult was for men only.
The idea of a New World Order is of course interspersed through this film. Before 1990s, the NWO conspiracies were reserved for right-wing militias paranoid about being controlled by the government and fundamentalist Christians concerned with the birth of the Antichrist. The ideas eventually trickled down into popular culture and by the 2000s, most of us had knowledge of at least some of them.
After the two World Wars, there were talks of an international organisation that could deal with countries’ problems if they were too difficult to deal with internally. Between 1947 – 1957, a Canadian conspiracy theorist named William Guy Carr propagated fears about Freemasons, Illuminati, and the Jews in an “international communist conspiracy” that wants to rule the world.
When the USSR split and the Red Menace scare was over, the attention shifted to corporate bodies instead. From the middle of 1990s the NWO idea spread to a number of other conspiracies, including Satanic cults and occultism.
20. Starry Eyes (2014) – Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer
Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, this movie quickly gained traction upon its release. Hailed as a cult favourite and receiving a number of positive reviews, Starry Eyes is an original and exciting new addition to the horror genre. Like many of its contemporaries, this movie boasts an impressive soundtrack that enhances the overall experience.
Sarah is an aspiring actress slaving away as a waitress whilst trying to start a Hollywood career. After some failed attempts at securing roles through auditions, she attends one for Astraeus Pictures. The team demands she shows some real emotion and after a spectacular display, she manages to get a callback. Sarah is hesitant to give in to the full demands of Astraeus and when she does, a terrifying transformation begins to take place.
Occult signs and symbols can be seen all throughout this movie. When Sarah initially attends the Astraeus audition, a symbol similar to the one used by Aleister Crowley’s cult Thelema can be seen on a coffee cup. During her second audition, someone is wearing a pentagram pendant. While the closing credits are rolling, a number of Goetic symbols are visible. Goetia is the belief in and practice of invoking a variety of different angels and demons by using specifically assigned sigils.
The idea that the crème de la crème of the entertainment industry are a secret occult society who perform Satanic rituals using drugs and sex is not a new one.
Its roots are planted deep within the corporate domination/New World Order conspiracy theories. It is not hard to see how tales of the incredibly competitive world of Hollywood can easily be turned into ones involving sex orgies and devil worship. The reality is that the journey towards stardom can be humiliating and disturbing even without the involvement of black magic.
Author Bio: Bela is a self-professed film nerd with a hankering for the macabre. she lives in New Zealand and spends far more time with her cat than she does with people.