Occult TV: Kolchak, Dark Shadows, and Friday the 13th: The Series

By Frank Pittarese

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, cults became a go-to source for villainy in episodic TV. Inspired by real-life events like the Manson Family attacks and the mass suicide at Jonestown, series ranging from Starsky & Hutch to The A-Team turned to the bizarre sects as story fodder, often with effective results. But shows with a more supernatural bent could — and did — go a step further, cranking up the otherworldly elements in an attempt to keep us awake at night. Here are a few memorable instances of those paranormal TV cults…

KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER was a short-lived series based on — at the time — one of the highest-rated made-for-TV movies ever broadcast. In its single season, bungling reporter Carl Kolchak (played to perfection by Darrin McGavin) stumbled into deadly encounters with a vampire, a werewolf, Jack the Ripper, a Hindu demon, and even aliens and robots. But in an episode called “Legacy of Terror,”  Kolchak faced his first and only supernatural cult.   

A series of gruesome murders are happening in Chicago, and in each case, the victim’s heart has been removed from their body. Kolchak quickly discovers that these ritualistic murders occur every 52 years. A fanatical Aztec cult is on a kill-spree with the intention of resurrecting their mummified god, Nanautzin, and once the first four deaths are complete, the mummy himself will rise to claim the fifth and final soul, completing the gruesome cycle before going dormant again.

This low-energy episode comes late in the series run, and unfortunately isn’t one of the standouts. The cult attacks are quick and hectic, and with no central figure to creep out viewers, they just amount to a bunch of silent randos in robes and feathers. Worse, the appearance of Nanautzin is just minutes in length, in a rushed finale that takes place in a brightly lit sports arena. McGavin’s larger-than-life personality carries the episode, as always, but despite the series being an inspiration for The X-Files, this particular monster-of-the-week entry is a dud. Grade: C

HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR was a one-season anthology that aired in the UK in 1980. A show from the studio that gave us the Christopher Lee Dracula films comes with an expectation of heavy Gothic atmosphere — plus a bit of camp — but overall, the episodes are quite sedate and straightforward, whether dealing with witchcraft, haunted houses, or the Devil himself.

In “Guardian of the Abyss,” an antiques dealer comes into possession of a supernatural mirror — a mirror desperately wanted by a sinister cult. Their plan is simple: using the mirror, plus a human sacrifice, they’re going to free the demon Choronzon from the netherworld. But when the antique dealer encounters a beautiful runaway cultist, he’s drawn into a dangerous series of events. Can she be trusted? Will he relinquish the mirror…or will he become a willing sacrifice?

This episode is loaded with twists and turns, which makes it pretty engaging, although things do get confusing at times — particularly regarding the mirror. The cultists want it…but thanks to two unintentionally similar props, they also seem to have an identical mirror already in their possession. The script, however, is solid. You never know who to trust, and the ending is wonderfully bleak. The demon is only seen briefly, but it’s an effective bit of makeup. The series is currently streaming on Peacock, Tubi, and more, and worth checking out. Grade: B

When it premiered, FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES was a slight disappointment. Without a single reference to Crystal Lake, and with nary a Voorhees in sight, what was the point? But the show very quickly grew into its own, and the freaky, often outrageous situations it put forth turned it into a three-season delight. The premise was this: Cousins Micki Foster (Louise Robey) and Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay, Jason Goes to Hell) inherited an antique store from their late uncle. But Uncle Louis had made a pact with the Devil to sell cursed antiques which, for the run of the show, spread evil into the world. Micki and Ryan, along with their mentor of sorts, Jack Marshak (the late Chris Wiggins), make it their mission to recover these haunted objects. And the body count is massive.

“Tails I Live, Heads You Die,” is one of the highlights of the series. A Satanic cult has come into possession of a cursed coin which can bring the dead back to life — after it kills a living person. Using the coin, the cult’s leader has been murdering random citizens, then resurrecting long-dead sorcerers and witches, with the ultimate intent of summoning Satan himself.

The tense atmosphere of this episode is underscored by its unpredictability, especially when, at the episode’s halfway point, one of the show’s main characters is killed off! When it first aired, this was a jaw-dropping moment for me, and (although there’s a twist), it still holds up. The chemistry of the three leads always makes for an engaging watch, and the special effects, while certainly low-budget, are sufficiently creepy. It’s a dark episode, for sure, and worth watching if you can find it. Grade: B+

DARK SHADOWS was, in its heyday, a television sensation. A daytime soap opera with a 175-year-old vampire as its heroic lead, the show delved into its own versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and The Turn of the Screw, transporting addicted viewers through time — and even into parallel universes. But from late 1969 through early 1970, the writers made perhaps their most ambitious choice when they presented their take on H.P. Lovecraft, via the cult of the Leviathans…  

Barnabas Collins, while attempting to return to the present after a months-long adventure in the year 1897, suddenly finds himself intercepted and placed upon an altar for a bizarre ceremony. At the mercy of two mysterious cultists, Barnabas is quickly transformed, becoming not just a cultist himself, but their central figure. Given a “Leviathan box,” which houses the essence of the Chosen One, Barnabas expands the cult’s membership, all with the singular goal of bringing the Chosen One to life…a being who will someday rule the Earth.

Coming off one of their most popular storylines, this was a rocky time for the show. The Leviathan arc runs a brief four months, but it’s not especially fast-moving, and the opening weeks are fraught with uncertainty as the writers try to find their footing. Still, they aimed high. In an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” move, several good/heroic characters become wicked cult members. An infant is born, grows to manhood, and courts the show’s young ingenue. And an actual Lovecraftian monster (who also happens to be the dude that’s courting said young ingenue) occasionally runs amok. Unfortunately, due to the very limited budget, that monster is always off-camera, but the writers and cast are always so committed to the campy madness that it’s a joy to watch. At 20-minutes an episode, it all goes down like candy. Currently streaming on Prime (and beginning with episode 886). Grade: B

You can follow Frank on Twitter and Instagram.

Ti West’s The Sacrament is an Overlooked Gem

The Jonestown Massacre is the inspiration for the 2013 found footage thriller, THE SACRAMENT. In New York City, fashion photographer, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), receives a cryptic letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict. In the letter, she states she’s been living in an isolated commune in a remote part of the world for the last several months and wants Patrick to visit. Thinking this would make a great story, Patrick’s video journalist friend, Sam (AJ Bowen), joins Patrick and travel to his sister’s new home.

Upon arriving at Eden Parish, located in the middle of a vast forest, Patrick and friends are confronted by men with machine guns. Letting them enter the compound, Caroline tells Patrick that the guns are just for protection from the outside world. Caroline promptly shows them around, informing them the place is run by a man known simply as “Father.”

That night, Sam is granted an interview with Father (Gene Jones), a charismatic older gentleman who is greeted with overwhelming applause and admiration from his devoted followers. Taken aback by Father’s intellect and evasiveness, Sam questions Father’s motives, especially when a party thrown by the commune turns into a weird, transcendental meditation/prayer ceremony.

The next morning, the friends are shocked to discover a large group of community members desperately trying to leave. When shots are fired, a desperate Father holds everyone hostage and informs them that the end is near, revealing the horrifying truth to Patrick and his companions that Eden Parish is nothing more than a doomsday cult.

The Sacrament is an effective slow burn. Although we know from the start something is amiss, director Ti West (X) does a good job at momentarily fooling us into believing that Eden Parish is a peaceful sanctuary, filled with smiling faces and good intentions. With the introduction of Father, the film’s screws begin to tighten until the final minutes, delivering an intense and bleak journey into madness.

Managing to escape a doomsday cult, but suffering dire consequences, is Cynthia Weston in 1988’s BAD DREAMS. Back in 1975, teenage Cynthia was indoctrinated into Unity Fields, a suicide cult formed by a psychopath named Harris (Richard Lynch), who taught that death is only the next stage of evolution. When Harris sets the cult’s house on fire, killing everyone inside, Cynthia survives but is left comatose from her injuries.

13 years pass before Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) awakens, only to be placed in a psychiatric clinic that specializes in people with borderline personality disorders. There, she begins group therapy with Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott), who helps her to unlock memories of the tragedy. Cynthia eventually remembers the deranged Harris soaking all of the Unity members in gasoline and setting them ablaze, a memory that triggers something within Cynthia. Soon she begins seeing visions of a horribly scarred Harris in the hospital, pleading with her to kill herself. When Cynthia ignores him, the patients in her therapy group begin dying under mysterious circumstances, which are later declared as suicides.

Cynthia believes Harris has come back from the beyond, but Dr. Karmen thinks it’s just part of Cynthia’s broken mind. Karmen eventually discovers that his supervisor and mentor, Dr. Berrisford (Harris Yulin), is lacing the group’s medication with a psychotropic drug in the hopes they’ll commit suicide to corroborate Berrisford’s research. Is Berrisford’s diabolical plans responsible for the deaths, or has Harris actually achieved life after death?

There’s an interesting idea here, but it’s wrapped too tightly in an attempt to cash-in on Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. The film (directed by Andrew Fleming) has some good moments – the scene in which two patients are chopped up in a wind turbine, with the hospital’s hallways sprayed in their blood, is visually arresting and gruesome – but they never feel authentic or original. The characters are all transparent Dream Warriors clones, with the casting of Rubin a rather obvious ploy; Cynthia is essentially a less engrossing version of her character Taryn from Nightmare 3. To be fair, Rubin does the best she can with the role, while Abbott is wholly unconvincing.

A group of college graduates get more than they bargained for on a trip to Mexico in the 2007 flick BORDERLAND. After an all-night beach party in Galveston, Texas, buddies Henry (Jake Muxworthy) and Phil (Rider Strong) decide they want some extra fun before they become responsible adults. After dragging their friend, Ed (Brian Presley), along for the ride, the boys drive to a small Mexican border town, rampant with prostitution. When Ed meets local bartender, Valeria (Martha Higareda), she gives them all mushrooms, and the four spend the night at a carnival.

Leaving the carnival to go see a prostitute, Phil is abducted by several men and chained up in a strange house. He doesn’t return the next morning, so Ed and Henry turn to the police and meet ex-cop, Ulises (Damián Alcázar), who claims to have witnessed the murder of his partner by cultists a year earlier. With the help of Ulises, Henry, Ed, and Valeria try to find and rescue Phil from a voodoo cult. Ulises says the cult needs human sacrifices in order to bring power and wealth to its members – and Phil is their next victim.

The film’s by-the-numbers presentation doesn’t offer up much suspense. In many ways, the story unfolds more like a gangland-style crime thriller; the grainy, washed-out yellow and blue lighting seems to have been inspired by the cinematography of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Yet the horror elements mix in rather well and create a somewhat intriguing movie, even when you’re not entirely invested in the characters. The gory make-up FX are good and the cast is competent. An unnecessarily long runtime and predictability keep Borderland from being truly good. Sean Astin, as an American cult member, is wasted. | The Sacrament: B+ Borderland: BBad Dreams: C

Satanists, Witches, and Bloodthirsty Hippies

One of the better post-Exorcist Satanic chillers of the mid-70s is definitely 1975’s RACE WITH THE DEVIL. Sort of a hybrid car chase thriller and occult horror, the film focuses on friends and business partners, Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda), who own a successful motorcycle dealership in Texas. Going on a skiing vacation with their wives, Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker – Angelique on Dark Shadows), Frank and Roger decide to drive an RV up to Aspen, Colorado, and on the way stop in the country for some motorbike racing fun.

While Roger and Frank ride around the open fields on their bikes, Kelly and Alice take in the scenery, with Kelly’s dog, Ginger, acting particularly aggressive. Later that night, while Alice and Kelly are readying for bed, Roger and Frank spot a bonfire in the distance. Upon taking a closer look, they witness a large group of people in cloaks and masks dancing around the fire. Thinking it’s some kind of hippie orgy, the men soon realize it’s something much more sinister when this Satanic cult strips a young woman nude and stabs her to death right in front of Frank and Roger’s eyes.

Making a run for it, the two couples are pursed by the cultists, several of whom jump onto the RV and break the windows. Barely making it out alive, Roger and Co. drive to the local police station, where Sheriff Taylor (R.G. Armstrong) takes Roger and Frank back to the scene of the crime. There, they find blood and evidence of a camp fire; Frank also discovers the mutilated corpse of a dog hung from a tree. Meanwhile back at the RV, Kelly finds a strange note written in weird symbols stuck to the back of the vehicle. When Alice deciphers the note from a library book as having something to do with Satanic magic, she and the rest decide to head to the nearest city to seek outside help.

When Frank and the gang are nearly killed by a couple of rattlesnakes hiding in their RV, they burn rubber outta there only to be followed – and terrorized – by the locals, who try their best to kill them before they reach help.

A fun and surprisingly suspenseful little flick, Race with the Devil is exploitation at its best. Using the best elements from movies like Gone in 60 Seconds and Brotherhood of Satan, Race blends the genres extremely well and creates a fast-moving story that works on all levels. The cast is good, especially Fonda, whose Roger is sort of a domesticated version of Wyatt from Easy Rider.

If you like exploitation revenge movies with lots of cheesy gore and naked hippies, you’ll love the 1970 cult classic, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD. Late at night in the woods, Horace Bones (Bhasker Roy Chowdhury), leader of a Satanic cult, performs a ritualistic sacrifice of a chicken while surrounded by his naked followers. When Sylvia, a teenager who lives in the nearby town of Valley Hills, witnesses this act she’s caught by the cult, beaten, and raped.

Sylvia wanders into town the next morning in serious condition, and her grandfather, veterinarian Doc Banner (Richard Bowler), and younger brother, Pete (Riley Mills), are unsure of what to do. Mildred (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks), who owns the town bakery where Pete works, seeks the help of her boyfriend, Roger (John Damon). Roger is a construction worker who’s working on a dam project that has forced most of Valley Hill to relocate, creating a ghost town. When Horace gets wind of Valley Hill’s abandonment, he and his cult members decide to take up residence in one of the empty houses. Doc Banner learns of the cult’s squatting and goes to confront them with a shotgun, only to get himself beaten and drugged with LSD.

At his wit’s end, young Pete takes matters into his own hands by seeking revenge on the cult. The next morning two of the Satanists stop by Mildred’s bakery and purchase meat pies to take back to their house – unaware that the night before, Pete killed a rabid dog and mixed contaminated blood into the pies. It isn’t long until the cult members begin showing signs of infection, and things get worse when one of them sneaks away and has sex with several of the nearby construction men. Soon Horace, his followers, and the construction men become foaming madmen, turning the small town into a bloodbath of violent mayhem.

If you took Night of the Living Dead, blended it with The Crazies, and injected it with adrenaline, you’d get I Drink Your Blood. The film doesn’t apologize for being anything other than a twisted, gory, fast-paced orgy of outrageous violence. The plot is threadbare and the characters would be home in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but, as with the best of loony B-movies, I Drink Your Blood is high-grade cheesy fun.

On a much more subtle level is the 1966 UK chiller, THE WITCHES. After suffering from a nervous breakdown as the result of being terrorized by local witch practitioners while working in Africa, schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) relocates to the isolated British village of Heddaby. There, she’s hired by Reverend Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) to teach at the local schoolhouse. Gwen is quickly befriended by many of the townsfolk, including Alan’s sister, Stephanie (Kay Walsh), a headstrong journalist.

When Gwen’s eldest students, Ronnie (Martin Stephens) and Linda (Ingrid Boulting), begin a harmless romance, it causes a stir in town for reasons Gwen can’t understand. Gwen is later informed that Linda’s grandmother is rumored to be a witch and becomes suspicious that the woman is doing Linda harm. When Ronnie mysteriously becomes gravely ill, and Gwen discovers a makeshift voodoo doll of a boy with pins stuck in it, she begins to suspect Linda’s grandmother has cursed Ronnie. Gwen’s investigation eventually uncovers a hidden cult within the town, a cult dabbling in an ancient witchcraft that can grant immortality in exchange for a human sacrifice.

Made by Hammer Films and written by acclaimed screenwriter Nigel Kneale, The Witches manages to cast an eerie spell through most of its runtime. As the film’s protagonist, Fontaine is her usual sympathetic self, and she and Walsh have excellent chemistry together. The beautiful British countryside setting gives the movie a sense of otherworldly, organic magic that’s a nice juxtaposition to the story’s bleak themes. Although, in the end, I was expecting something a little juicer and more dramatic, especially during the rushed, anticlimactic ending. | I Drink Your Blood and Race with the Devil: B+ The Witches: B

Cultists and Folk Horror

The Believers, 1987

This month I’m spending time on a subgenre that doesn’t get as much play as it used to: folk horror. While the success of Ari Aster’s Midsommar sparked a short-lived interest in the subgenre, these types of films are generally few and far between. What makes folk horror special is its ability to meld stories that deal with witches, murders, and cults — specifically Satanic cults – and placing them in every day settings.

What is folk horror? Mainly it’s a film or story that deals with old world folklore, primarily told in a modern setting and using rural or isolated environments. While many traditional folk horror movies take place in woodsy locales, some are set in cities, or presented as the superstitious world creeping into civilization. That’s the case with the three films I watched this week, all dealing with cultists and old world evil, in some shape, way, or form.

A film that merges old world superstitions with modern issues is 1987’s THE BELIEVERS. After the tragic death of his wife, psychiatrist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) moves with his young son, Chris (Harley Cross), to New York City where Cal begins working as a doctor for the NYPD. When Chris comes across a cult-like sacrificial altar in Central Park, along with the body of a decapitated cat, Cal thinks it’s just a one-time thing. Soon after, policeman Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits) discovers the murdered body of a child in Harlem in what appears to be a ritualistic setting. Convinced it’s the work of people performing a dangerous form of witchcraft, Lopez is committed to a psychiatric ward, where Cal is assigned to treat him.

But when another child is found murdered on an altar on Staten Island, all eyes point to Lopez, who escaped from the hospital the day before. Lopez contacts Cal, warning that he and Chris are in danger — but Cal is unaware that Lopez is under a spell performed by a Caribbean man named Palo (Malick Bowens), who arrived in town just before the murders began. In a fit of rage, Lopez kills himself after leaving a message for Cal, who discovers Lopez did work for a charity organized by a wealthy man named Robert Calder (Harris Yulin).

Cal eventually finds out Calder’s son was killed in a similar ritualistic fashion years earlier and realizes Calder, along with his followers, are sacrificing their own sons for power. Truth doesn’t come without consequences and, predictably, those close to Cal begin to fall under sinister spells — including Cal’s new girlfriend, Jessica (Helen Shaver), who, in one of the film’s most grisly scenes, has a boil full of spiders burst from her face.

Somewhat successfully mixing folk horror elements with ritualistic cult themes, The Believers is undeniably engrossing in its portrayal of paranoia and distrust. The late director John Schlesinger does a good job at creating a feeling of unease and ominousness for Cal and Chris, especially considering the brightness of its (mostly) New York City environment. The film does slightly overstay its welcome, and a tighter pace and a more carefully edited screenplay (that gets a bit heavy-handed with its Latin American black magic explanations) could have benefited the overall effect of the story.

An early entry in the folk horror world, and “Ozploitation” classic, is the 1981 atmosphere-heavy ALISON’S BIRTHDAY. During a makeshift seance put together by three teenagers, 16-year-old Alison (Joanne Samuel) is contacted by the spirit of her father and warned not to return home on her 19th birthday. Nearly three years later, a week before the occasion, Alison receives a call from her Aunt Jenny (Bunney Brooke) and Uncle Dean (John Bluthal) to come home to celebrate her birthday.

Upon arriving, Alison is urged by Aunt Jenny not to venture beyond the stone wall in their woodsy backyard, for fear of snakes and other critters lurking within the overgrown vegetation. But with her interest piqued, Alison sneaks past the forbidden doorway, through the stone wall, and discovers several massive rocks in a circular formation. Dean later tells Alison the rocks are a sort of miniature Stonehenge built by the house’s former owner who was an amateur astronomer.

Later that night, while Alison sleeps, an old woman (Marion Johns) in a wheelchair sneaks into Alison’s room and tries to touch her. Confused and frightened, Alison is informed by Aunt Jenny that the woman is Alison’s great-grandmother, Throne, and is senile. Unaware of having a great-grandmother, Alison accepts Aunt Jenny’s explanation but remains skeptical. Feeling more and more uneasy in the house, Alison spends a lot of time with her boyfriend, Peter (Lou Brown), who’s staying with his father nearby.

When Alison’s health starts to decline, Peter becomes suspicious of Aunt Jenny and Uncle Dean and tries to get Alison out of the house, but realizes she’s a prisoner. Peter seeks the help of his friend, Sally (Lisa Peers), who’s into mysticism and learns that Jenny and Dean are part of a cult who worship an ancient Celtic demon (now presiding inside grandmother Thorne). Now, the entity needs a female body, age 19, in which to host its essence — specifically, Alison.

While the story seems fairly standard compared to today’s folk/cultist horror movies, Alison’s Birthday does a good job at creating heavy atmosphere. Despite several bright scenes in the beautiful Australian countryside, director Ian Coughlan manages to create a claustrophobic feeling, and even manages to build some tension leading to the revealing ending.

Building tension is something the 2016 mystery, THE INVITATION, tries to do, but fails. While attending a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), along with a handful of their friends, are surprised to discover a new addition to Eden’s family. Not only has Eden remarried a man named David (Michael Huisman), but the two have invited a strange young woman, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), to live with them.

While being introduced to the collective of friends, we learn that Will and Eden lost their child years ago, putting Eden in a depressed, suicidal state. After the divorce, Eden spent two years in Mexico, where she met David and Sadie. When a strange man named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) arrives at the party, it eventually comes out — after David deadbolts the front door with a key — that Eden, David, Sadie, and Pruitt are part of a cult known as The Invitation, a group that deals with grief and loss.

David shows everyone a video of the cult talking with a woman on her deathbed, which makes Will extremely uncomfortable and angry towards Eden. When Pruitt admits to having murdered his wife, and that The Invitation helped him through his grieving process, Claire (Marieh Delfino), one of the party guests, becomes unsettled and wants to leave, creating tension when Will asks what David’s intentions are. Will questions Eden and David, not only about their bizarre behavior, but about the mysterious absence of their friend, Gina’s (Michelle Krusiec), husband, who Will discovers had arrived at Eden’s house earlier but disappeared. Is Will just paranoid about The Invitation, or are there actually sinister plans in the air?

After a good set-up, The Invitation slips into inevitable predictability. The film writes itself into a corner by presenting characters so transparent they might as well be wearing signs around their neck stating their motives. Eden and David act ominous right from the start, while Pruitt is so obviously a villain, the casting of someone less charismatic than Lynch may have benefited the role. It also doesn’t help that Will is essentially the only smart and sympathetic person in the film, creating a vacuum of soulless supporting characters and uninteresting subplots. In the end, you’ve got a whole lotta nothing. | Alison’s Birthday: B The Believers: BThe Invitation: C