Tag Archives: Pagan

CAPSULE: KING KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Angela Sarafyan

PLOT: The leader of a Wicca coven falls into disgrace when a secret from his past is revealed.

Still from King Knight (2021)

COMMENTS: I don’t know if Richard Bates Jr.’s depiction of Wicca life is accurate or not, but many of the rituals (like the Beltane festival) seem believable, as do some of the practicalities involved (the coven’s priestess refuses to host a big bonfire this year because celebrants tend to overindulge: “I’m not trying to be a buzzkill, I just want to have one Beltane celebration that doesn’t involve a trip to the hospital.”) When King Knight is working, it’s because the script is making the Wiccans lives seem normal, despite their peculiar habits. Sometimes, the tone is mildly mocking: “Are you going to eat the placenta?” asks one congregant upon finding another is pregnant. “Obvi,” is the terse response. But there is no satirical bite here, and when it comes down to it the film is wholeheartedly on the side of these outsiders against the normies.

The thin conceit here is that the coven’s male leader, Thorn, harbors a guilty secret: he was popular in high school. While that fact would have made for a decent standalone joke, it’s hardly a satisfactory engine to drive an entire feature. It leads to unbelievable group dynamics: the coven’s excuse for shunning Thorn isn’t at all convincing, and their sudden about-face is just as difficult to swallow. Furthermore, I didn’t find most of the script very funny: the long discussion about “poo in the butt,” which becomes a sort of slogan, is tediously drawn out, getting less and less humorous as it drags on. But despite the clumsy setup, the movie soldiers on, and remains watchable because of the exotic milieu and its genuine fondness for its characters. The acting is solid TV-star quality, but there are welcome turns by icon , the voice of Aubrey Plaza, and a cameo by (which is similar to his appearance in Bates’ previous Tone-Deaf).

One thing that King Knight does really well is its long psychedelic scene, admirably achieved on an obviously low budget. It’s a masterclass for low-budget filmmakers in how hallucinatory effects can be conveyed with competent editing, lighting, and makeup, embellished with small bursts of simple but efficiently deployed optical tricks (Thorn’s third eye) and that always dependable standby, animation. Throw in a doppelganger, a talking pine cone, character development via phantasmal dialogue, and a smattering of Jungian symbolism, and you’ve got yourself a memorable trip.

Bates, who has been chugging away in semi-obscurity after failing to capitalize on the momentum gained from his 2012 debut cult hit, Excision, embeds a self-affirmation in the movie, delivered by no less personage than Merlin (“everyone’s favorite fucking wizard”). “The trick is, keep making your art, your way, without becoming bitter towards those who don’t appreciate it,” Merlin tells Thorn. “Remember, everyone has the right to their own opinion. So pick a song that speaks to you, throw caution to the wind, and most importantly, have fun.” A very simple message, but perhaps the most profound lesson in King Knight.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bates’ script is so weirdly, gut-bustingly hilarious, and offers such an unexpectedly genuine insight into what witch life is like, that you’ll probably find yourself thoroughly entertained… , Bates’ film isn’t just weird for weird’s sake; the poignance at its core is genuine and represents a clear effort by the filmmaker to change how society views those operating harmlessly on the fringes.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MIDSOMMAR (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren

PLOT: American grad students travel to a remote Swedish village above the Arctic Circle during the midnight sun to witness an ancient festival.

Still from Midsommar (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With just two features under his belt, Ari Aster impresses with his ability to encase deep and painful psychological dramas inside true-to-form horror stories. The emphasis on bizarre rituals and the wavery psychedelic interludes make Midsommar a weirder candidate for our endorsement than 2018’s (excellent) Hereditary.

COMMENTS: Although it features a memorably schizo performance by a tormented Florence Pugh, flowery pagan pageantry, brilliant cinematography, a frightening folk horror score, and daytime nightmares that bleed into reality, the one thing Ari Aster’s Midsommar lacks is surprise. It’s obvious to anyone who’s seen The Wicker Man (or any horror movie, really) that things won’t go well for the four American master’s thesis students visiting the apparently quaint and welcoming remote hamlet where the villagers still remember the Old Ways. Aster also retreads a lot of the same ground that made his debut Hereditary so intoxicating: grief-based psychological drama, a strong female lead, leisurely pace, ian  pans, and obsessive invention of occult rituals. The one surprise is that Midsommar works admirably on its own terms despite reminding us of so many other movies (including Aster’s last one).

A pair of foci orbit around each other throughout the movie. The first is the failing relationship between the two leads. Christian, an unfocused grad student with no idea what he’s going to write his masters’ thesis on, feels trapped by the emotionally needy Dani. She’s already neurotic, popping lorazepams to dampen her frequent panic attacks, before the tragedy she fears actually strikes, making it unseemly for Christian to abandon her. Swedish student Pelle invites Christian, along with two buddies, to visit his remote northern homeland, an isolated pseudo-utopian commune where the people live in harmony with nature, for a pagan midsummer festival that only takes place once every 90 years; a trepidatious Dani tags along, even though the affable Swede seems to be the only one who actually welcomes her presence. When they arrive, the film’s other focus comes to bear (so to speak), as Aster builds a familiar-yet-novel nature worshiping cult out of details like icky surreptitious love potions, runic holy texts dictated by deformed inbreds, and an elaborate (and rigged?) drugged dance around the maypole. The two plots collide in a finale that should leave you with a queasy, ambiguous feeling, since it works quite differently on the metaphorical and the literal levels.

As the only horror movie I can think of filmed almost entirely in bright daylight, Midsommar gives a new symbolic meaning to “day for night” shooting. With its white-haired elders in white robes standing on white cliffs above rune-encrusted white standing stones, the film is lit in blinding, blanched whiteness, decorated with red and yellow wildflowers and lush green fields. The special effects for the psychedelic scenes are legitimately shroomy, with the dilated camera showing off lots of breathing objects, including a flower disc that pulses independently in Dani’s headdress. It’s lovely to behold.

The audience, a mix of Hereditary fans and patrons shut from sold-out screenings Toy Story or Spider-Man, gasped collectively at the midpoint when the villagers’ rites suddenly turned from the picturesque to the grisly. The third act brought genuine, if uncomfortable, laughter with one of the most awkward sex scenes ever filmed. People muttered as the credits rolled. These are sounds you like to hear in the theater.

We’re living in a golden age of adult psychological horror at the moment, so enjoy it while it lasts. Personally, I could do with a new Jordan Peele release every winter and a new Ari Aster release every summer for the foreseeable future. Just throw in more frequent pictures while you’re at it, please.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Midsommar‘s core themes still land when they come back into focus in the third act; it’s the indulgent weirdness in the build-up that dilutes the movie’s overarching impact… it’s hard to imagine that this one won’t end up going down as the most WTF wide release of 2019.”–Sandy Schaefer, Screen Rant (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by J.R. Kinnard, who gushed, “The third act is a masterpiece of weirdness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)