5. Vampyr (1932) – Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic masterpiece Vampyr is a highly influential landmark in the history of cinema. This is one of the earliest vampire films, and it’s loosely based on the writing of a pioneer of vampiric literature.
“In a Glass Darkly” is a collection of supernatural stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu which was the inspiration for parts of Vampyr. This film examines the experiences of a young man who is a student of the Occult, but who wades a little too far into his studies and falls under the spell of a supernatural entity.
It’s impossible to shake the other-worldly feeling that haunts you while watching Vampyr. At times the atmosphere is so thick and authentic that it has the vague feel of a documentary. As Dreyer’s first film with sound, Vampyr was apparently made with much difficulty since audio techniques were still being perfected. But the resulting movie is a miracle of filmmaking, and you haven’t seen all the best vampire movies until you’ve seen Vampyr.
4. Häxan (1922) – Benjamin Christensen
Alternately titled Witchcraft Through the Ages, Häxan delivers exactly what its title promises. As an examination of superstition and hysteria relating to witchcraft throughout history, Häxan teaches its lessons through the simple relation of historical facts.
The film has the distinct feel of a documentary, though some parts are clearly intended to terrify as well. Häxan isn’t afraid to tackle the issues of mental illness and religious excess which helped contribute to the witch hunts of bygone ages. Its production qualities are second to none for its era, and Häxan still feels fresh, educational, and relevant.
3. The Wicker Man (1973) – Robin Hardy
The Occult classic The Wicker Man positions itself as an intelligently subversive film. Its protagonist is an upright and devout Christian, and though his customs seem a bit old fashioned, we’re never given any significant reason to dislike him.
When he is summoned to a remote island to help search for a missing child, he stumbles into a tight-knit group of self-described heathens with drastically different beliefs than his own. His moral sensibilities are repeatedly shocked by the pagan practices of the island’s inhabitants, and his search for the lost girl becomes hopelessly complex as it appears that his hosts have much to hide.
The lack of a clear message to be found in the film is strengthened by the perceptions we have of its characters. Though the audience is obviously meant to be shocked by some of the actions of the heathen islanders, they also seem to have the upper hand in this clash of faiths. And though the film reveals no hypocrisy in its Christian hero, he is positioned as the powerless and vulnerable victim.
As a result, The Wicker Man feels especially subversive by removing any solid foundation on which the audience can stand. We’re left with the vaguely unsettling feeling that something very wrong is taking place on screen, but yet it’s not a film designed to have any satisfying hero. At its core, The Wicker Man could best be described as an oracle attempting to proclaim the state of modern humanity, where traditional norms seem to be decaying to be replaced by new gods.
2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) – David Lynch
Let’s remind ourselves that David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series Twin Peaks was always about the Occult – not the familiar version with witchcraft, spells, and devil worship, but the metaphysical Occult of hidden laws and supernatural realities which shape every-day events. Each character in the town of Twin Peaks also had an occult side to their personal lives which was exposed as the narrative progressed.
This film, Fire Walk with Me, is a prequel to the television phenomenon, when prom queen Laura Palmer is still alive but traveling the heartbreaking path that will soon lead to her death and its subsequent investigation by the FBI.
This is heavy stuff, despite the occasional corny Lynchian touches that helped define and endear Twin Peaks to its cult following. Fire Walk with Me not only takes an unflinching look at the effects of evil, but also seeks to explain its nature and origin.
Suitable to the nature of the film medium, evil is here personified, and presented as a powerful influence that doesn’t lurk only on the outskirts of society, but can also embed itself among and within those we love, changing them grotesquely.
In showing evil this way, the film wants the viewer to recognize and respect the power of dark forces in the world, and jealously protect the innocence and purity of heart which are its only antidotes.
1. A Dark Song (2016) – Liam Gavin
In a genre overflowing with oversimplified and dumbed down magic, A Dark Song stands out from the crowd. A quintessential example of a thinking person’s horror film, it spells out its magic in the best possible way – not by watering it down, but rather by presenting it in as much thorough detail as a movie script can contain. In fact, it’s one of the most accurate presentations of ritual magic ever put on screen.
A grieving mother hires an occultist to help her contact the ghost of her dead son, and the two move to an isolated house to begin a months-long magic ritual. At the end of the rigorous rite, the occultist promises, the mother will gain her wish.
The magical process turns out to be difficult and exhausting, and after several months tempers start to flare and isolation takes its toll. The magic will get results, but can the pair stick with the program carefully enough to get the results they want? Either way, A Dark Song builds to an unforgettable climax that’s worth the wait.