The Best Witchy Media of 2017, Part 2: TV

And now, some TV!

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale ~ Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1984 dystopian novel was very timely. In an America (now called Gilead) where fertile women (now rare due to environmental toxins lowering birth rates) are enslaved to make babies for the ruling classes, based on a tyrannical religious leadership that takes over by violent coup, we see parallels to our own nation’s descent into authoritarianism. Even for those unfamiliar with Atwood’s novel or the first film based on it, this show was an artful and sobering experience. Elisabeth Moss plays Offred, a young woman forcibly separated from her husband and daughter when they try to escape capture by government thugs. Her life is regimented and controlled: she must dress, speak and behave according to the bizarre rules of Gilead, a right wing evangelical community that rules with guns, rape and torture. Survival for the women enslaved means being clever, secretive and very patient. The show’s radical visuals inspired a resistance movement where women dress in the iconic red and white garb of handmaids to protest legislation limiting women’s reproductive freedom. The centrality of women’s power within culture is a constant topic here; and one that modern pagans and witches, who ushered in the goddess worship movement, will find to be necessary viewing. (My longer review from the Orlando Weekly is here.)

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    Alexis Bledel and Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale

  2. Twin Peaks: The Return ~ This much-anticipated continuation of David Lynch’s groundbreaking TV series Twin Peaks (which premiered on ABC in 1990) did not disappointed attracted many new viewers to this weird and wonderful world. Kyle MacLachlan gave the performance of the year as whipsmart, compassionate FBI detective Dale Cooper, who, as Twin Peaks ended more then two decades ago, found himself possessed by the psyche of a sadistic killer. Showtime produced this new series, although somehow missed having it debut on the 25th anniversary of the show, despite having a clearly defined moment when Cooper dreams himself twenty-five years into the future. We find out (well, more or less) what happened and how other well-loved characters have fared over the years as new mysteries descend on the tiny Northwestern town of Twin Peaks. The cast, including many new characters, is excellent, and the musical performances ending each episode are brilliant (my brother was a couple of episodes ahead of me. I certainly recommend seeing the first two seasons, and maybe the prequel film Fire Walk with Me, before you dig into this sublime, beautiful, mystical oddity. Coffee and cherry pie optional.

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    Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks: The Return

  3. American Horror Story: Cult ~ I’ve been a big fan of this anthology show from the beginning, despite my frequent complaints about how uneven the writing can be. The only season I have not yet watched is AHS: Hotel, and I still think the first two seasons (Murder House and Asylum) are the best ones. AHS: Coven was promising but ultimately so disappointing. Two recent seasons, AHS: Freakshow and AHS:Roanoke, were very good, but borrowed rather shamelessly (and not in a “cool homage” kind of way, which of course this series is also known for) from other texts like The Blair Witch Project, HBO’s Carnivale, and The Witch. Still, I was excited to see this season that was framed by our recent presidential election and that referenced a number of cult figures like Andy Warhol, Charles Manson and Jim Jones, all played superbly by AHS regular Evan Peters, whose main character, Kai, is a blue-haired (the opposite or orange, get it?) right wing ideologue who runs for local office, emboldened by Trump’s victory. For me, it was rather traumatizing reliving Election Night 2016; and Sarah Paulson is excellent as a liberal voter whose stress causes her to have a near breakdown. The entire cast is superb as always, with regulars in cool cameos like Frances Conroy, Adina Porter and Dennis O’Hare, and some new cast members I enjoyed (especially Billie Lourd, Alison Pill and Leslie Grossman). The trajectory of the show did what it always does: opens up multiple story arcs and themes and then seems to juggle them willy-nilly as some stay in the air and some tumble down and fall away (although the creepy killer clown motif remains throughout, referencing IT and The Strangers, as well as AHS: Freakshow). Because this was was based so strongly in current reality and actual history, it resonated a bit more than usual with me.~~~~~~~Also recommended, some short takes:harlots-hulu-itv-canceled-renewed-590x279Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville in Harlots.

    Harlots ~ A brilliantly produced (women wrote and directed every episode) historic drama on Hulu about two rival brothels in 18th century London. First rate, white-hot cast (including Lesley Manville, Samantha Morton, Jessica Brown Findlay, Fenella Woolgar, oh, just a who’s who from all your favorite British films and TV), stunning costumes, authentic (and very saucy!) dialogue, plenty of sex and intrigue. Renewed for a second season and I. Cannot. Wait. (Orlando Weekly review here)

    The Keepers ~ Documentary series from Netflix exploring the orders of two young women in 1969 in Baltimore. One was a nun and teacher whose former students keep her memory alive as they search for clues to solve her murder. To say the church was implicated in this crime is an understatement. Beautifully filmed, suspenseful and fascinating.

    3% ~ A Brazilian series on Netflix that’s sort of like The Hunger Games meets The Cool Dharma Initiative Sequences of Lost. In a post-apocalyptic world beset by poverty and environmental decay, a group of young people chosen at random must pass a series of tests to be able to live in a land of beauty and plenty. Netflix automatically sets their foreign series to dubbing mode these days; be sure to switch to subtitles!

  4. Black Mirror (Season 4) ~ I am still processing these six episodes, but I have to say this show seems to get better with each season. There seems to be slightly less emphasis on social media this season, and more on the intimate, personal toll taken by technology in our lives. There’s a Star Trek-inspired episode (USS Callister) that wins a prize for sheer ingenuity and dark humor. One with terrifying robotic dogs (Metalhead) is a tour de force of special effects. Crocodile is a harrowing tale of a young woman caught up in a violent crime that tries to keep it secret for decades. Hang the DJ is a clever take on computerized dating apps, and it was my personal favorite (also one of my favorite songs from the 1980s). Arkangel, directed by Jodie Foster (and can you believe this is the FIRST episode of this show directed by a woman?), follows a single mom and the computer system she uses to protect her daughter from infancy through adolescence. The finale, Black Museum, is a complex, horrifying story of a doctor who invents a device allowing him to feel the physical sensation of others, and the chaos this creates in the hands of an unscrupulous sales rep.
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    Aniya Hodge and Rosemarie Dewitt in Arkangel

    Stranger Things ~ Of course you’ve already watched this! And I love it so much I need a whole lot more space to even begin talking about it, so watch for that over the next few weeks…

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    Winona Ryder in Stranger Things

     

     

    Some other cool pagan and/or occult, fantasy, horror, thriller, historical, dystopian, nerdy shows I have watched and love but am generally behind on: Riverdale, Turn, Peaky Blinders, Halt and Catch Fire, The Exorcist, Lucifer, The Americans, The Santa Clarita Diet, Atypical, Fargo, Better Things. Some shows that are on my list to watch ASAP: American Gods, Dark, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Legion.

Witchy Media: The Best of 2017

Hello friends! A very happy new year to you all and I hope your Yuletide continues through Twelfth Night at least (the candles and twinkly lights have been a great comfort to me in the chilly Northeast these past few days).

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Along with creating lists of the year’s best films and TV, it’s always a pleasure (although sometimes a daunting task) to round up the best of witchy, pagan and occult media for my readers. There were some excellent horror films and all around wonderful weirdness this past year, and I’m going to recommend some highlights. I’ve linked to more detailed reviews for some, and reviews will be forthcoming for others  (like Season 4 of Black Mirror which just premiered this past weekend), but I know some of you could use some recommendations now as we officially that dark post-holiday period when we look to storytelling for escape and insight.

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From Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, a delightful Christmastide film.

Why do we do this? Of course, it’s for entertainment. But there is comfort in gathering ourselves around the screen to immerse ourselves in stories. Before television, people gathered around their big radios. Before that, cinema was a thoroughly exciting affair that people got dressed up for, or spent their last nickel on. Theatre has always drawn people too, and even Shakespeare understood the importance of making sure that poor folks had access to performances. Before lavish theaters were built, way back when, our ancestors gathered around their fires at night for warmth and light, and told stories of hunting and gazed on the animals and gods moving overhead in the shifting patterns of the stars. Humans try to make meaning from things around them, imbuing natural objects with spirituality, and crafting stories that, over time, become myths and legends.

Whew, that’s enough Marshall McLuhan and Joseph Campbell for one day. Okay, on to my list of things you should look out for! These are in no particular order.

Some films:

  1. The Shape of Water ~ Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous dark fantasy is a suspenseful love story at heart. Sally Hawkins plays a shy mute woman who works as a cleaner at a shadowy government agency in
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    Sally Hawkins & Doug Jones in The Shape of Water

    the 1950s, and lives platonically with a lonely writer  (Richard Jenkins). She discovers kinship and passion with a reptilian-human hybrid creature (Doug Jones) captured and tortured by her boss (Michael Shannon, excellent as a sadistic villain). Metaphors of The Other abound here (hey, it’s del Toro!), seeming to say that our deepest desires are nothing to be afarid of. The sumptuous cinematography, thrilling music and all-around excellent cast make this one of the year’s best films; and it is currently playing everywhere, so see it on the big screen if you can

  2. A Dark Song ~ Set in the North of England, this atmospheric film features two main characters: Sophia (Catherine Walker), a grieving young mother who hires Solomon (Steve Oram) to use ritual magic to contact her murdered child. The two hole up in a large empty house for months, performing various rites of purification, studying ancient texts, slowly moving towards their divergent goals. Viewers with knowledge of magic and the occult will appreciate the authenticity of the film’s details. This gets my vote for best horror film of the year; it is subtle, brilliant, moving and absorbing. My longer review is here.

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    Steve Oram and Catherine Walker in A Dark Song

  3. mother! ~ This film garnered much attention when it was released earlier this year. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Barden star as a couple living in and renovating a remote beautiful house; visitors begin arriving (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are the first strangers to invade) and disrupt their peaceful lives. Oh, there’s much more to it. BUT. Do yourself a favor and don’t read reviews before you see it. Too many critics have explained the central meaning and symbolism of the story, and I think it’s best to discover these as you watch (I saw it knowing almost nothing beforehand but having seen a trailer that I found alluring, and already being a big fan of Aronofsky’s earlier films, like The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan). I wrote some further thoughts here for when you are ready.
  4. Get Out ~ Writer-director Jordan Peele’s feature debut is just stunning: a funny, brutal satire that manages to be one of the most significant achievements in the horror genre in years. A young African-American man (Daniel Kaluuya in a
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    Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.

    brilliant, subtle performance) is brought by his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to a family gathering, and terror slowly but surely ensues. Peele has said this is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner re-imagined as a horror film; and just as that film sparked discussion about race relations in America at a time it was sorely needed, Get Out has done the same. Humor and satire both soften and sharpen the edges of our awareness; attention must be paid, and, as we move forward in an uncertain world, white people have much work to do.

  5. My Life as a Zucchini/Ma Vie en Courgette ~ This charming French animated film is about a young boy who is forced to live in an orphanage. There he meets other troubled, lonely children like himself, build by some and befriended by others. Unsentimental, but very moving, the story of Icare/Courgette and his new friends is the story of every child who has felt like a misfit, who has felt unsure of who to trust, and who feels worried about the future. There are plenty of humorous moments along the way, and even some cool homages to films like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A dubbed English version is available (with voicing by Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris, among others), but I am only familiar with the subtitled version, and I think much of the charm of the story’s French idioms might be lost in translation. My review for Diabolique is here.

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    My Life as a Zucchini (artichoke pictured in background)

Some other 2017 films you may want to check out: Ladybird (she wears a pentacle around her neck!), Kedi (a documentary about street cats in Istanbul), Personal Shopper, Dawson City: Frozen Time, A Ghost Story, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country, The Other Side of Hope, The Square, The Lost City of Z, Okja, The Florida Project, Marjorie Prime, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, It Comes at Night, Wind River, Coco, Woodshock, The Devil’s Candy, and The Lovers.

This round up of media continues with some notes on TV and books, in separate posts lest this one gets too long. Lastly, on a personal note: It has been a very busy autumn season followed by a crazy busy December. I was still doing garden work for clients in December, believe it or not. There was unexpected travel. Teaching was busy. I got some new writing gigs. This blog has not been priority, alas, but that will soon change. I am taking a semester off from teaching to write a book on witchcraft and media. I’ll keep you posted. I hope you’ll keep reading. Best wishes in the new year to you all.

Tuesday Muse, News & Reviews: Samhain Edition!

Greetings of Hallows, my lovelies. I trust you are celebrating appropriately tonight, or when true Samhain (the cross quarter) comes on November 7th. Hallow tide is best celebrated over a period of a few days, in my opinion.

My birthday has just passed and I am still celebrating! For one thing I have not baked a cake yet and plan to do that tomorrow. Tonight, after I come home from my class at the botanical garden where I am studying towards a certificate in horticulture, and after my weekly viewing of American Horror Story: Cult at a friend’s house, I will re-do my altar to honor my ancestors. A sad task but one which, this year, I am looking forward to with a sort of solemn sense of duty and hope.

I am planning some reviews for you this week (I have just finished Alice Hoffman’s new novel, The Rules of Magic, the prequel to Practical Magic, and it’s pretty wonderful), and maybe some news. But first things first: it is worth noting that months’ worth of binding spells, targeting our dangerous president Trump and all who aid and abet him,  have shown some dramatic results this week, with the first or what will be a series of indictments brought on my the Mueller investigation. May the committee’s work proceed apace and may justice be done, may truth be revealed and may integrity be restored once again to our government. So mote it be!

Today I offer a list of my favorite witchy movies for this witchy week of wonders. I am currently reading Ronald Hutton’s new book The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present, which explores, in scholarly in-depth fashion, the legacy of the figure of the witch around the world. So, these movies, which of course often traffic in stereotypes, are really resonating with me right now. Feel free to chime in and add your own favorites!

  1. 20090326-The CraftThe Craft (1996) Really, is there any movie about witches that has had so much influence? Teenage girls in the late 1990s began to flock to the internet (newly made accessible to all) for spells, lore and any and all things related to witchcraft. The current witchy revival is still influenced by this film’s aesthetics.
  2. The Wicker Man (1973) Okay, it’s not specifically about witches, but its treatment of old-world paganism practiced by contemporary Scottish folk has had profound influence on the contemporary pagan community. It’s downright weird, thrilling and beautiful.wickermanorig1b
  3. Practical Magic (1998) Romantic, funny and suspenseful, this popular movie is based on Alice Hoffman’s gorgeous novel of the same name; who wants to bet how quickly the prequel novel will be made into a sequel film? My bet is within two years; I am toying with trying to acquire the rights so I can try my hand at the screenplay. I was disappointed that the film version of the first novel left out the very interesting details of the lives of Sally’s adolescent daughters; but then again, by bringing the aunts “to life” and giving them such vibrant personalities (due in part to great performances by Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing), the film just may have made that prequel novel possible.
  4. The Blair Witch Project (1999) This low-budget work of genius inspired a whole new genre of horror (the “found footage” film) and left many audiences terrified, and not a few people convinced it was all real (despite ample evidence to the contrary). The sequel, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is also worth checking out, and if you didn’t I did a bit of witchy advising on that film, well, now you do.
  5. love-witch-the-2016-001-nude-dancing-circle-ORIGINALThe Love Witch (2016) Anna Biller’s unique and original film is a sort of homage to 1970s horror, and a wonderful satirical take on the image of the witch as seductress. Biller, who also designed the costumes and props, studied Wicca ceremonies to give the film a chilling air of authenticity. I can’t recommend this colorful, clever, irreverent film highly enough. You may find it shocking, but that is also part of its charm.
  6. The Witch (2016) A beautifully made, horrifying tale of a family that emigrated from England to the New World, a land awash in superstition and harsh reality in equal measure. When bad luck overtakes their farm, their teenage daughter is suspected of witchcraft. The film’s authentic dialect and quiet intensity may be off-putting to some viewers at first, but stay wth it and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most intensely horrific scenes imaginable. A witch movie for the ages, with excellent performances and stunning cinematography.

October: The Month of Media Witchery

witch_john_william_waterhouse_magic_circle_painting_casting_spellsAaaaand it’s October: that month when witches suddenly become a Very Important Presence (VIP) in media. Movies, TV, books, comics, games, cosplay-it seems every aspect of popular culture has gone through a witchcraft wave in recent years and lately it’s everywhere. This month I’ll be looking at witchcraft as a media trend that’s influencing everything from fashion to politics to social media.

After creating this blog in the spring (getting my own domain after deciding to leave Patheos), I immediately got very busy! But I’ve been brainstorming some features and columns and will begin posting regularly to give you the latest in witchy media & analysis. October 2017 will be full of excitement! Continue reading

Welcome to the Cauldron

Hello! You may already be familiar with my blog “The Witching Hour” from its years on Patheos and, before that, on Blogger. Today I have created a new site for my domain and invite you all to visit regularly!

There’s so much going on in the world of media right now that’s related to paganism, witchcraft and the occult. We seem to be experiencing an occult revival of sorts, and I’m excited to share my thoughts on all of it with you. Television in particular is a fertile landscape now: American Gods, the Twin Peaks reboot, Jenji Kohan’s new series The Devil You Know coming soon, and of course plenty of weirdness happening in shows like Sense8The LeftoversStranger ThingsThe Handmaid’s Tale, etc. And there are plenty of recent and forthcoming films I want to share with you (like The Love WitchA Dark SongThe LureKing Arthur, and more). Dystopia, science fiction and fantasy are all fair game at The Witching Hour…

I hope you’ll follow me here and invite others to find me at my new home! (and bear with me as I figure out the complicated world of WordPress and get some content up on this site!). Thanks for visiting and I hope you’ll come back often.witch dance