Magic Circle (2017) | A trickster theatrical descent into the occult zone with Brother Wolf and Kim Newman
In what must be a first for the British stage, the Brother Wolf theatre company is conducting an arcane magic ritual for their latest production, Magic Circle, a two-handed mystery written by novelist Kim Newman, whose inspirations include real-life magician Aleister Crowley, the weird fiction HP Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley’s occult masterpiece The Devil Rides Out. And if you are a fan, then you are in for a treat.
It’s circa 1970 and in a room at Calme Manor, where some gruesome murders have taken place, a protective chalk circle has been drawn. Inside sits Professor Harry Cutley (Michael Shon), an academic and occultist who plans to spend the night undoing a dangerous spell cast by a former acolyte.
Outside the intangible barrier stands the no-nonsense Inspector Nicholas Gammell (James Hyland) who doesn’t like having an unsolved case on his books and considers Cutley a suspect. What follows is a battle of wills as Gammell interrogates Cutley and hidden agendas begin to emerge from out of the shadows…
This is the first full-length dramatic work for Kim Newman, best known as the author of the Anno Dracula novels (and comics) and for his insightful film reviews, and I must admit I was crossing my fingers that it would be better than his first stage production, The Hallowe’en Sessions – part of the portmanteau chiller The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – which played at the Leicester Square Theatre but was stifled by mis-direction. But I got my wish, as director Phil Lowe has successfully breathed theatrical life into Newman’s intelligent and witty script (OMG! Sooty’s a satanic avatar!), which explores the power of words via an occult narrative (clever stuff indeed).
The intense proceedings are maximised by the use of the most minimal of sets, equipped with little more than that chalk circle, some ceremonial magic items, and a bundle of clothes neatly folded in a corner of the blacked-out stage – plus a pentagram designed with Newman’s own esoteric symbols. Such minimalism allows the audience to visualise the off-stage action (like the deaths describes in gory detail) and to ponder over the true intentions of Shon’s obsessive Professor of Comparative Religions and Hyland’s skeptical copper, who is trying to lure the hip occultist out of his circle, but never can cross (now why is it?).
Both actors excel in their respective parts, with Hyland’s surly copper coming off like a cross between Alfred Marks’ DS Bellaver in Scream and Scream Again (1970) and Laurence Olivier’s down-at-hell Archie in The Entertainer (1960), while Shon’s hippy occultit possesses the same arrogance as Dean Stockwell’s Wilbur Whateley in The Dunwich Horror (1970). And thanks to Newman’s trickster narrative, the duo get to showcase their vast range as they lure audiences into the author’s eerie mystery – one that’s guaranteed to leave you breathless by the end.
Catch Magic Circle next at…
BARTON UPON HUMBER – ROPERY HALL
Maltkiln Road, Barton upon Humber, North Lincolnshire, DN18 5JT
01652 660 380 www.roperyhall.co.uk
STAFFORD – GATEHOUSE THEATRE
Eastgate Street, Stafford, ST16 2LT
01785 254 653 www.staffordgatehousetheatre.co.uk
A Dark Song (2016) | This terrifying occult head trip should come with a ‘Don’t Try This At Home’ warning
Grief-stricken over the murder of her son, Sophia (Catherine Walker) is desperate for closure (and revenge) and seeks out ceremonial magician Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), in a bid to communicate with her dead child.
But the arcane ritual she must undertake requires arduous preparation, which risks both hers and Solomon’s mental and physical well-being as they prepare open the gates to the other side…
Winner of the New Visions award at the 2016 Sitges Festival, A Dark Song is an astonishing first effort from director Liam Gavin, chronicling the performance of the Abramelin operation, an intensive 17th-century magic rite that ends in knowledge of and conversation with one’s Holy Guardian Angel. It is well-known amongst occult scholars, including Aleister Crowley, who created his own ritual as part of his Thelema religion.
Gavin sets his supernatural drama in a derelict house in a bleak Welsh countryside where two strangers lock themselves up to perform the elaborate six-month rite, which includes much preparation, including daily pray, chastity and abstinence.
Being a two-hander in a single setting, you’d expect it run out of steam after a while, but Gavin uses the very realistic practicalities of the ritual to weave a compelling dark narrative that allows the two leads to explore hidden depths in order to bring their damaged characters to nervy obsessed life before the real horrors begin.
With the soiled dress sense of Rab C Nesbitt or Andy Pipkin from Little Britain (but minus the laughs), Oram convinces as the dour outsider who is more in tune with the spirit world then the real one; while Walker genuinely disturbs as the grieving mother walking in a tightrope across a black abyss.
Now, most films dealing with the occult tend to focus on the attainment of power, but A Dark Song is all about Sophia’s quest for inner peace (and the ability to forgive) through gnosis. What we get is a harrowing and intense experience in which you can practically feel the power of the ritual emanating through the images and Ray Harman’s sparse score. It’s a bold and inventive piece of indie cinema – just don’t try it at home – you might regret it!
‘If he really is a ghost… then I won’t be able to kill him’
Out of his depth police officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do Won) investigates a spate of bizarre killings and outbreak of madness seemingly connected to the arrival of a mysterious Japanese man who lives in the outskirts of a remote mountain village. What’s more, Jong-goo is horrified to discover his young daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee), may have fallen under the stranger’s curse. This prompts him to call on a charismatic shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to free his daughter, but the shaman’s intense exorcism ritual ends up worsening the situation, and forces Jong-goo into confronting the malevolent evil himself.
Breaking box office records in South Korea, and winning Best Film of the Focus Asian Selection and Best Cinematography at the 49th Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, The Wailing from Na Hong-jin fuses a detective story with Exorcist-styled chills to create an unsettling occult thriller that takes full advantage of the country’s majestic rain-drenched mountain terrain – but! and here’s the ‘But!’… it’s painfully ponderous, and in desperate need of an editors’ eye and some action.
Imagine a modern take on a Kabuki show where every character screams over and over, but very, very slowly. Yes, there are some exciting set pieces (some are funny, others downright scary), but by dwelling on the internal drama of the main characters (who are all excellent by the way, especially Kwak as the corpulent, incompetent cop and Kim as his possessed daughter), the film moves at a snail’s place, which only makes its two hour plus running length feel even longer. It also does a disservice to the film’s best scene – an exorcism that feels frighteningly authentic.
The Wailing is out in UK cinemas and On Demand from 25 November
The Devil’s Rock (2011) | This demonic wartime action horror is short on thrills, shocks or surprises
It’s long been assumed that the Nazis were secretly involved in the occult during World War II. True or not, it makes for a great story, remember Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Keep? Well, here’s another one, shot in New Zealand, by British visual effects designer turned director Paul Campion.
On the eve of the D-Day landings, two soldiers on a mission to blow up Nazi gun installations in the occupied Channel Islands decide to undertake a rescue mission on a bunker where they believe people are being tortured. But they discover something far more frightening… a Gestapo officer (tasked with raising the forces of Hell to fight for the Nazi cause) and his demon slave (which is trying to break free from its bonds). What follows is a wordy battle of wits as the men try to dispatch the manipulative satantic creature. To quote one of the Kiwi soldiers: ‘There’s bad sheeet going on here!’.
The Devil’s Rock is beautifully shot and well-acted, but is devoid of depth and decidedly short on action, thrills, shocks or surprises. Most of the film is made up of wordplay about faith and politics making it better suited to a radio play or, if shortened, an episode in a horror anthology TV series. Gorehounds will also be disappointed to find only one cool sfx scene (involving a head being swallowed), plus the film is begging a proper soundtrack.
The 2011 UK DVD release includes an interesting making-of featurette in which the director, who mortgaged his house to fund the project, explains how he went about making the film (the creation of the gunshot sound effects is a highlight).
The Devil’s Rock also screens on The Horror Channel (Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freesat 138) with the next screening on Monday 17 February at 11.pm.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aA14m8ydRUM%5D