SINISTER SEVEN: R.H STAVIS, LA Exorcist

Originally Published October 17, 2016 for rue-morgue.com

Possession and exorcism. Long before William Peter Blatty’s groundbreaking novel (and the subsequent blockbuster film adaptation) brought the topic into the public consciousness, this spiritual battle between man and otherworldly forces has been chronicled, documented and fictionalized for decades. As the 21st Century continues to truck along, though, and the nature of man’s relationship with religion and spirituality changes and evolves,  there are still some among us who walk that line between the physical and the spiritual. Which brings us to R.H. Stavis.

A Los Angeles resident, Stavis plies her trade as a writer in multiple fields – books, comics, video games, as well as screenplays for film and television. But as the old adage says, Stavis’ job does not define her. Instead, she has carved out an interesting path for herself in L.A., a path very much less travelled.

R.H. Stavis, you see, is an exorcist.  This is not a hobby for her, nor is it the dabblings of an occult dilettante. Stavis has been plying her trade for some time in Los Angeles and staked her claim in the city’s occult circles. I was able to get some time with Stavis to discuss her chosen path, where it all began and what’s waiting down the road.

Let’s start from the top: tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.

I am an exorcist, first and foremost. That’s what I do, I take your demons out. Aside from that, I am also a writer for film and television. Being an exorcist just happens to be like my “Buffy calling”. So I do that for people, not as my work but because I can, if that makes sens

What was your “ground zero”, the event that set you on this path?

When I was a kid, you know how kids would say there are monsters under the bed, or monsters under the closet, and then someone comes in and shows them that there’s nothing there? Well, for me, there was actually something there. I’ve always been able to see entities – I usually call them “entities”, not “demons”. I can see entities with my eyes. I’ve always been able to do that, and when I got old enough to learn – the hard way, I guess – that not everybody does that, that that’s ‘weird’ – I stopped talking about it. I actually tried to block it out in public settings as much as possible. And then, later on in life, there was a point in myadult life where it all came rushing back, and I wasn’t as good at blocking it out anymore. So, when that happened, it was either close my mind or do something with it. I figured if I had this ability and I was, as far as I know, the only one who could see them with my eyes, then there was a reason I had that. I decided that I was going to start helping people.

In preparing for this kind of work, did you adapt the standard Catholic methodology or have you chosen a more “D.I.Y.” style in your approach?

I’m non-denominational. I’m one of those weirdos that religion has nothing to do with it. If anybody does their research on ‘entities’, they would see that they date back to ancient Sumeria. It’s actually kind of a weird issue for me because even though I am non-denominational, I often work with high- being entities too. The way I try to describe it to people is it’s a diamond-shape. We are the middle of the diamond, and that there are entities below that from us and the entities above that give to us. Those are the ones that people call angels or gods. I actually work with all of these. I work with High-Being Entities to remove Low-Being Entities, so while I don’t recognize them as “religious”, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. If that makes sense.

Los Angeles has had a long history as a hotbed of occult activity. Are these merely legends and rumours or, from what you have seen, is there substance to those claims?

There’s a lot in Los Angeles, in certain parts here. I can feel it in the ground, where dark things have happened. Mythical ideas, whether they’re true or not, of “celebrity cults” and such. All of these things do exist, and they’ve been here for a very long time. Walking through certain parts of Los Angeles, like Griffith Park for example, you can feel how dark that area is. And it has been that way for a long, long time. Maybe hundreds of years. This is a place with a lot of darkness, and its place where someone like me spends a great deal of time working on people, taking that darkness out. And places, as well.

Is there a standard operating procedure in place before you enter a hot spot, an established playbook in mind when dealing with these entities?

 No, there isn’t. I’ve done thousands of these by now, and in the beginning when I was starting out, I would speak to High Beings and download that information from them and work each individual person in that way. Now, I can’t say it’s the same every time, because it’s not. Each person is dealing with something different. There are a lot of entities that will continue to show up, so I have a very specific idea on how to get those ones out, but every person is different, and the reasons they have it can be different, so that’s where everything changes. And buildings are always different, too. So when a person comes in I can speak to their High Beings and I can tell them what’s going on with them and then we proceed into what we are going to do. Like I said, it’s slightly different for everyone. There are certain things that I’ll always do. Certain beings that I work with that I will always call in. I make different cleansing incenses for people. That kind of stuff will always be going on. But if I were in a pinch and I didn’t have any of those things, I could still do it.

We’ve all seen the pyrotechnic-heavy view of possessions and exorcisms in the movies – shattered mirrors, levitation and the possibility of death – which are obviously amped up for dramatic impact. Have you encountered any cases or situations where that level of threat presents itself?

Always. They’re always dangerous, for me. Not everything that’s attached to people is dangerous to the point of death, though. When I talk to people about entities and what they have and what they don’t, I refer to those ones as “movie-style” entities – the very dramatic, the more brazen. Half the time, the larger ones, the ones that have the strength that “movie-style” entities are trying to portray, they stay hidden. They wouldn’t be like “hey, look at me!” It’s usually the smaller entities that will puff themselves up like cats. That doesn’t happen a lot with the top of the food chain, which is what I call The Realmwalker, or what other people might refer to as The Devil. That thing doesn’t like to show itself. It only participates in places or people that are world-changers. It has no interest in a girl in a farm in Wisconsin, unless she’s going to be a world-changer. So there are instances where I deal with entities like that, but they are much rarer. Most of the population doesn’t carry something like that. Most people are not world changers.

Considering the nature of your field of work, has there even been any offers to follow you around, document and/or adapt your experiences for television, film, etc.?

I actually can tell you this today. I have approval today to start talking about a memoir coming out with HarperCollins. So you’re the first to know. Fall 2017 is our slated date with bay Street Books. I have a film in the works right now, more of fictionalized account and there may or may not be this amazing documentary. I can’t say much, but there may be an exorcism involved. And I’ve been offered reality shows a bunch, but I have declined all of those. I’m very excited about all of that. Working with Bay Street and Harper Collins has been a real treat, because they’ve been really enthusiastic about from day one. It’s really exciting to get that information out to people who are not here  in L.A., and may not know what they’ve got going on. And how to potentially fix that for themselves. All of that is really good because unless I travel, I’m only able to do this in one place. Honestly, it’s going to be crazy.

You can follow the exploits of R.H. Stavis on Facebook and Twitter, as well as updates on her expanding list of projects.

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CLIVE BARKER on retiring Pinhead in THE SCARLET GOSPELS

Originally Published May 30, 2015 on rue-morgue.com

“Do you understand?’ the figure beside the first speaker demanded. Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy – the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes, a jewelled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated. ‘Do you even know who we are?’ it asked.

‘Yes,’ Frank said at last. ‘I know.”

–The Hellbound Heart

It was only a passing reference, but in those four sentences Clive Barker would sow an idea that would result in the creation of one of the horror genre’s greatest and most enduring icons: Pinhead. From that first appearance in Barker’s 1986 story, the Prince of Pain and his monstrous merchants of suffering – the Cenobites – would go on to become monsters of cinema in Hellraiser and its numerous sequels and spin-offs.

Pinhead premiered on the big screen in 1987’s Hellraiser, Barker’s own adaptation of his novella where the author-turned filmmaker set out to create a more elegant and articulate villain than his other cinematic contemporaries. Adding to the character’s gravitas was the man under the makeup: actor and long time collaborator Doug Bradley, who donned the mantle of “Lead Cenobite” (as credited in the film), envisioning a cold and sterile cross between Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde; sophisticated, intelligent and ruthlessly efficient in his role.

 And yet, nearly 30 years since Pinhead’s first appearance, Barker is finally saying goodbye to the character who has been so intertwined with his own history. The Scarlet Gospels, which Barker promises will be “the last Pinhead story” is Barker’s final word on the Hellraiser mythos.

  “I wanted this bastard to go out with an undignified end,” says Barker, “and I mean that. I did not want him to be given some clever, rhetorical ending. I wanted him to get the end that he deserves. He’s a villain, let’s not forget this. I’ve heard some people say, ‘Oh, he’s doing some really nasty things in this book. Why does he have to do such nasty things?’ He’s a bad guy, for fuck’s sake! He does bad things because he’s a bad sonofabitch and he’s now going to get his comeuppance.”

While Barker has been tangentially involved in many of the franchise’s sequels and spin-offs, Gospels marks the first time since 1988’s Hellraiser that has written for Pinhead. While there are traces of the Head Cenobite’s cinematic DNA in Gospels, the story is not a continuation of any of the mythology set up in the film series or any of his multiple incarnations in comics. In Barker’s view, sticking to canon has never been a concern, specifically when it comes to transitioning between adaptations.

 “When I was writing the stories these characters first appeared in, I was limited only by the words in my head,” he says. “When adapting them for the screen, other questions came into play: budget, location, etc. From those moments on, the mandate given to me by the respective forms dictated that each medium has its own continuity. And it continues to be that way.”

Barker’s greatest strengths as an artist and writer is his ability to build a world, and The Scarlet Gospels is a grand testament to that skill. Hell is very much a complete and fully-realized world with its own geography, varied life forms, cultures and political struggles, of which the Cenobites are only a small part. It is a much more expansive vision of Hell that the Labyrinth of Hellraiser II even hinted at.

“I’ve always wanted to share this vision of Hell,” asserts Barker. “I’ve never liked the Dantean vision of Hell as a place which has nine circles, each of which has its own self-serving function. That kind of organized apocalypse did not appeal to me.”

Read more of our interview with Clive Barker in the May issue of Rue Morgue.

GRIS GRIMLY replants Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE

Originally Published September 3, 2015 for rue-morgue.com

Despite the oppressive heat outside, summer is slowly winding down. The days are getting shorter, the temperature will drop (soon, hopefully) and leaves will turn from green to gold & brown. Which means we’re getting ever-so-close to that holiday that you, faithful reader, love and hold dear.

Halloween is coming.

And what better way to ring in the most wonderful time of year then with the re-release of Ray Bradbury’s ode to All Hallow’s Eve, THE HALLOWEEN TREE?

Originally published in 1972, Bradbury’s classic children’s tale has become as synonymous with Halloween as A Christmas Carol is with… well, you know. In a small town in a small Midwest state – the details are irrelevant – a group of trick-or-treaters, led by the aptly-named Tom Skelton, are taken through a historical travelogue-through-time by the mysterious Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud to learn about the roots of Halloween’s traditions, as well as to search for their missing friend, Pip. Their serch will  take them to ancient Egypt, The Notre Dame Cathedral and Mexico for the festivities of Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). Bradbury’s prose, nostalgic and poetic, is reason enough on its own to dive into its pages, but it’s the artwork – the beautiful artwork – that will seal the deal.

No stranger to the allure of what Bradbury called “The October Country”, renowned artist Gris Grimly provides colour and B&W illustrations for this re-release. No stranger to adapting genre classics, having taken his turn at the works of Poe and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Grimly’s sensibilities are a pitch-perfect match for Bradbury’s particularities. The vintage Halloween costumes, airborne waves of freshly-fallen leaves, the pumpkins – so many pumpkins – all rendered in warm gold-and-brown hues, all perfectly capturing the season and the holiday. One can almost smell October itself, coming from between the covers and rising from these pages.

 As a gateway to the wonderful words of an American literary master or an introduction to one of the finest illustrators working in the field today, The Halloween Tree is the perfect seasonal gift for the young and the young-at-heart.

 The Halloween Tree is now available for sale at your nearest bookstore, as well as straight from Grimly himself through his Mad Creator Shoppe.

Del Toro’s Gothic Master Class recap: REBECCA

Photo courtesy of Ian Gibson

Originally Published August 27, 2015 for rue-morgue.com

“Welcome to this screening of I AM CHRIS FARLEY.” And thus, with his trademark self-depreciating humour, Guillermo Del Toro kicked off the Gothic Master Class at TIFF last night to a full-capacity audience.

The Master Classes have become an annual tradition here in Toronto, Del Toro’s second home. And for him, there’s as much business as there is pleasure in curating this film and lecture series. “The reason I wanted to do this is because I love the idea of discussing films in the same depth that we can literature or painting, or any of the major arts. There was a time when we used to discuss it like that and somewhat it got lost in the last 15 years. The discourse started to wrap into the business, box office… and it has become a necessity for me to do this, to re-engage in the fact that what we do is a form of art and a form of narrative art that can drink from the most ancient sources.”

Setting the tone for his three nights of “school”,  Del Toro gave a brief overview of The Gothic Tradition, including its symbolism as well as the origins of the sub-genre: “The Gothic Romance is a very peculiar creature. For me, horror surges out of the vocation of the fairytale…to talk about the dark side of the universe and to talk about the forces that shape us as humans.

“Out of that comes a movement, over the centuries, towards rationalism. We look back, and we do it even now, we look back on things that are myth, fable, parable… like those things are for childish minds. But the fact is there is a moment in time in the 18th Century, where there is a surge against rationalism – “The Age Of Reason”, making everything prim-and-proper for the good of intellect – and there is a rebellion of the spirit. The spirit demands that we reembrace nature and fable and myth.”

We are going to hopefully drag the gothic, and the gothic romance in particular, all the way up to now.”

Following Del Toro’s introduction, the house lights dimmed and the opening credits for Alfred  Hitchcock’s REBECCA filed the screen. The adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s novel was Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood, marking the transition from his early days (Hitchcock’s “British years”, as Del Toro pointed out. The resulting film, despite its then-contemporary trappings and mores, has all the hallmarks of the Gothic tradition: a manor with a shadowy legacy, a dark and brooding patriarch haunted by the past and his innocent young bride, drawn into a web of mysteries and secrets.

 After the film’s fiery coda and the final credits rolled, Del Toro took to the stage and continued with the lecture portion of the night. It was here that he went into the film’s history – the clashes between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, his displeasure with the film’s telegraphing and over-abundant score (as Del Toro put it, the music “Mickey Moused” every action and emotion on the screen to a near-cartoonish level), as well as how the then-untested director and Gothic Romance were actually a perfect fit.

“You must remember this. First of all, two things: Gothic Romance was basically punk, it was an affront to the establishment when it was birthing. It was emotion and rote melodrama and a lot of things that weren’t ‘proper’ to express or feel, filled with innuendo. And Hitchcock, by the same token, was an incredibly modern filmmaker at the time. He was a guy that was very daring. There were plenty of sexual layers in the movie – he was an expert at dodging The Hayes Code… he would remove one perversion and add three.”

There are two more films left to screen in the Gothic Master Class: tonight’s screening of David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS and Monday’s ( August 31st) final installment, Robert Stevenson’s JANE EYRE. Rush Tickets will be made available at the TIFF Box Office one hour prior to screening.

A Kind of (Black) Magic: Another Look at Clive Barker’s LORD OF ILLUSIONS

May 11, 2016

The filmography of Clive Barker, limited in quantity as it is, has been a most interesting beast. From the whirlwind success of HELLRAISER, his directorial debut, to the recent re-evaluation (and resurrection) of his sophomore follow-up NIGHTBREED, Barker’s work has earned its place in the pantheon. Which is why it’s all the more surprising that his third (and final) effort behind the camera, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, has been relegated to relative obscurity (at least in the general public’s eyes) as a footnote of his cinematic career.

A loose adaptation of his novella, THE LAST ILLUSION (first published in BOOKS OF BLOOD Volume VI), this was to be the start of many new things: for Barker, it was another step away from the ever-expanding (some would say smothering) shadow of the HELLRAISER franchise, a series that has strayed further from his original vision with each new (and cheaper) installment.

It was also to be the start of a new franchise, featuring Barker’s long-suffering private eye, Harry D’Amour, a recurring character in multiple short stories as well as a featured player in THE ART trilogy. With lackluster box office and middling reception from fans and critics, though, it ended up being none of the above… and that’s a real shame. Because once you get past the grand expectations and preconceived notions, there’s a weird quirky little horror-noir mashup waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

Lord of Illusions 3

 

Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula), a New York private eye, finds himself hired to investigate threats against Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), the world-renowned illusionist. When Swann dies onstage during his most elaborate trick yet, D’Amour stays around to protect Swann’s widow, Dorothea (Famke Jansen, oozing 1940s femme fatale glam) digs deeper into Swann’s history and discovers the dark truths behind Swann’s talents.

Lord of Illusions 2

It all goes back several years to his time with The Cult of Nix, and his connection with the cult’s leader — a real-deal dyed-in-the-wool magician — who wanted Swann as his protégé. Ambushed by Swann and a small group of allies for his abduction of a young girl for sacrificial rites, Nix is bound and buried deep, deep away from the rest of mankind.

Being a Barker story, it should be no surprise to anyone that Nix is coming back for revenge… and much, much worse. It all culminates in a last stand as D’Amour goes toe-to-toe with a dark and malignant force that wants “to murder the world.”

Lord of Illusions 6

Is LORD OF ILLUSIONS a lost gem? Misunderstood perfection, waiting to be rediscovered by the masses? That’s debatable. There are some pacing issues in the middle where not much happens aside from exposition on Swann and Nix’s history. It also trucks in some of the more clichéd aspects of film noir, with the romantic entanglement of D’Amour and Dorothea, feeling particularly forced and unnecessary. And, as time is wont to do, the special effects haven’t aged very well. But when it clicks, when it taps into the dark current of magic running through the narrative? Man, it clicks hard.

Lord of Illusions 6

Nowhere is that better exemplified that in our “big bad” — Nix, The Puritan, as played by the late character actor, Daniel Von Bargen. Disheveled, dirty and wild-eyed, Von Bargen brings a world-weary gravitas to this aspiring demigod. It’s an underrated performance from one of America’s great character actors and a Barker antagonist that has been left in the looming shadow of Barker’s other menaces, Pinhead and Candyman.

Which brings us to Harry. Barker has gone on record to say that Scott Bakula owns D’Amour now and has influenced the character’s appearances in other works, including last year’s “last Pinhead story,” THE SCARLET GOSPELS. And he’s very good here. An understated, blue-collar, everyday Joe even when the world around him is turning topsy-turvy. And like any good pulp detective, D’Amour’s got flaws and chinks in his armor.

Lord of Illusions 9

Plagued by nightmares from a case/exorcism turned very bad, more often on the receiving end of a beating than dishing it out and also a less-than-crack-shot, D’Amour is the classic “regular guy” trying to do the right thing. He’s no John Constantine — there’s no cocky swagger or magical aces up the sleeve for Harry. All he has is a snub-nose revolver, the will to do the right thing and a very open mind.

When asked by Valentin, Swann’s major-domo, if he’s a believer, Harry responds with a sly grin: “Oh, yeah. I signed on for all of them in my time. Catholic, Hindu, Moonies. You can’t have too many saviors.” This was to be D’Amour’s grand debut, the beginning of many more cinematic cases to investigate with Bakula at the top of the marquee.  A lackluster ad campaign, studio indifference and the subsequent financial and critical failure put an end to that, though. And fast.

What makes it all the more a shame is it was our first glimpse of Barker’s evolution, both as a storyteller and a director. There is none of HELLRAISER’s elaborate violence nor NIGHTBREED’s menagerie of fantastic monsters and freaks. Much of the story is grounded in reality (of a sort), with the slowly creeping presence of The Puritan bleeding in from the sides, slowly building to the climactic showdown at the cult’s desert compound. The performances are subtle, subdued, anchored by Bakula’s stoic everyman charm.

HELLRAISER may be Barker’s most famous work and NIGHTBREED his most ambitious, but ILLUSIONS feels like his most mature work. It was a great leap forward that would sadly be his last.

In an alternate timeline, somewhere out there, the Harry D’Amour franchise is a thing. Given time and support, it could have been a big thing, at that.  More importantly, Clive Barker would have continued to make movies, growing and evolving as a filmmaker with each endeavor. But not in this timeline. And we’re a little worse off for it, too.

Scream! Factory’s LORD OF ILLUSIONS Collectors’ Edition was released on Blu-Ray December 2014 and is available here. It contains both the theatrical and director’s cuts of the film (with commentary by Barker), as well as a sizable selection of behind-the-scenes features, including deleted scenes.

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Nihil Noctem’s Lovecraftian short, INNSMOUTH

 

Originally Published September 11, 2015 for rue-morgue.com

 “You can bet that prying strangers ain’t welcome around Innsmouth. I’ve heard personally of more’n one business or government man that’s disappeared there…”

H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Over Innsmouth

When one thinks of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, “erotica” and “full-frontal” aren’t the first words that spring immediately to mind. Despite Lovecraft’s fabled aversion (and apparent squeamishness) to humanity’s most basic of instincts, sex and nudity have long been front-and-center in cinematic adaptations of his stories, especially in Stuart Gordon’s now classic triad of RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND and DAGON.

You can now add Izzy Lee’s INNSMOUTH to the list of films that put the “Love” in “Lovecraft”.

 Lee has been making waves on the festival circuit with her brand of transgressive and politically-charged short films for some time now. Tackling such issues as the religious right (PICKET) and the battle over female reproductive rights (LEGITIMATE), Lee’s horror is filtered through a definitive (and unabashedly so) feminist perspective, something that makes INNSMOUTH’s take on Lovecraft’s mythos that much more subversive.

The plot is pulp-simplicity: Homicide Detective Olmstead (Diana Porter) is investigating a mysterious and gruesome homicide in Arkham, a case that will take her to the nearby coastal town of Innsmouth. It isn’t long before Olmstead finds herself on the receiving end of the town’s fabled “hospitality” for outsiders, and the attention of town matriarch, Alice Marsh (Tristan Risk).

 At ten minutes long, there’s not much more that can be said without spoiling its surprises – and rest assured, they’re there. What can be said is that it’s a rebellious and erotic take on Lovecraft’s fabled coastal town. Faithful to its history, yet unconventional in every other way. The female protagonist, lesbian erotica and hints of Marsh’s ambisexual proclivities are as far removed from Lovercraft’s sexless and somewhat misogynist prose as can be, but the mood keeps it tethered to its literary roots.

And in what will come as no surprise to anyone, Tristan Risk owns this. While her screen time is minimal, she makes every second that she’s onscreen hers for the taking. She has seductive evil down pat – vampy, but not campy. More importantly, though, the girl is fearless. In keeping with the “no spoilers” vibe, Risk cements her reputation as one of horror’s bravest, giving us a 100% NSFW moment that serves as the film’s climax and confirmation that she’s well ahead of her onscreen contemporaries in destroying boundaries.

INNSMOUTH does exactly what the best of short films should do: teases at a much bigger picture waiting in the wings and leaves you wanting more.

INNSMOUTH will be screened at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland on the weekend of Oct 2 – 4, with other screenings lined up for festivals and conventions going into 2016. Check out Nihil Noctem’s websiteFacebook page and Twitter feed for updates as they become available.