Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Devil Takes a New England Holiday

The Witches of Eastwick
The Lords of Salem (2012) 
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

In the Spring of 1692 a group of young women in Salem, Massachusetts claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused others of witchcraft. Mass hysteria seized the town, and over the next few months, 19 people were hanged for the charge of witchcraft while five others died in custody. 

By September of that same year, public opinion turned against the trials, and they ended. The Massachusetts General Court would later annul all the charges of witchcraft. Historians concur with what people of the time came to believe: the charges of witchcraft in Salem were a deadly hoax.

Hollywood does not agree. Oh, sure, occasionally a film has been made from history's point of view, such as The Crucible. Usually in movies, the witches are real -- which is the case for the three films we’ll look at today. Not only do they feature able necromancers, but (fitting with our theme this month) also the devil as well.

The Witches of Eastwick
is based on a novel by John Updike about three women who live satisfying lives in Eastwick, a small village in New England. Alexandra (Cher) is an artist and the single mother of a daughter. Jane (Susan Sarandon) is an infertile, divorced music teacher. Finally, Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a columnist for the local newspaper and the mother of six daughters. The three friends try to support each other, but none of them seem happy.

Then a new man comes to town. Or -- is he a man?

Jack Nicholson plays Daryl Van Horne, a man who disrupts the village with his vulgarity. And seduces the three women, one by one. They establish a strange, polygamous family until the women decide to cast the devil out, leading to a battle between the devil and the women who have discovered their witchy powers.

You might ask, what does any of this have to do with Movie Churches? Interestingly, director George Miller continually puts the local church in the center of everything. The aerial establishing shot in the credits even has the church in the center of the shot. Many of the exterior shots have the church in the background.

A few scenes actually take place inside the church. We hear the congregation singing a favorite of mine, “Lead on O King Eternal,” but one woman in the church, Felicia Alden (Veronica Cartwright), opposes the three friends and their new lover. 

When she speaks out against them in a church service, she seems to go more than a little mad. She screams “Whores! You know what’s going on in that house? Perversions! Drugs! Incest! Spanish flies!” Her husband has to drag her out of the church. 

Felicia goes to the hospital where the doctor explains, “Some fat got into her brain.”

There is another major scene in the church. As the pastor is preaching on Elijah, a mighty wind blows the door open and Daryl, who has been battling “the witches of Eastwick,” comes through the doors. 

He has been tarred and feathered, and he explains, “Sorry, having a little trouble at home, just female problems.” And then he vomits... a lot. He is then able to talk again. “Let me ask you something. You’re all church-going folks. Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created woman?... I really want to know. Was it another mistake like tidal waves, earthquakes, and floods? You don’t think God makes mistakes? Of course, He makes mistakes. But when we make mistakes they call it evil. When God makes mistakes they call it Nature. So what do you think? Women? A mistake? Can we find a cure, a vaccine?”

The congregation looks at the Devil with puzzlement and concern, but he leaves the sanctuary enraged.

Overall, it seems like a nice little church.

A very different film, a horror film rather than a comedy, is Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem. The film opens in 1696 and shows a coven of witches denying Jesus and pledging themselves to Satan.

We then see these same witches burned at the stake for their practices (which history shows is not how “witches” were dealt with in New England.)

We then go to the future where an author, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) is promoting his new book, Satan’s Last Stand: The Truth About the Salem Witch Trials on the radio show of D.J. Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie). Matthias argues that “witchcraft is a psychotic belief brought about by a delusional state of mind.”

As the film goes on, Heidi encounters witches through a band called the Lords of Salem and through women at her apartment complex. It turns out Heidi is a descendant of those who persecuted the witches of Salem, and the witches are taking vengeance on her and other relations of those early witch hunters.

So where does the church show up in this film? In New England, as was true in Europe, civil authorities rather than ecclesiastical authorities prosecuted people for witchcraft. Not in this film.

There is a brief appearance of a contemporary church in the film. One day as Heidi is walking her dog, she stops to go inside a small country church. She sits in a pew. A priest comes in and she says “Hi!” 

The priest responds, “Why are you here?” in a voice that sounds more than a little judgmental.

Heidi: “I don’t know. I was walking by with my dog, I thought I’d come in. Is that okay, are you closed?”

Priest: “No. We’re never closed. God is always there, ready to listen.”

Heidi: “I just needed to sit and think.”

Priest: “It is a nice place to come and sit.”

Heidi: “Yes, nice.”

The priest sits next to Heidi on the pew and says, “You're a very sad girl.” He then grabs her arm and says, “You have to understand there is a war in heaven between Satan and Michael and his angels but you must understand, God does not forgive angels when they sin, He sends them to hell. You are a filthy whore of Satan. Christ can’t save you, only I can save you.” He tries to kiss her. And then Heidi wakes up.

The priest looks down on Heidi, waking up in the pew, and says, “I believe you fell asleep. It’s very peaceful here.”

Heidi finds an old book, the diary of the Rev. John Hawthorne, her ancestor. It tells how he opposed the master witch who made the devil’s music and so he killed that master witch. So the contemporary witches kill Heidi and other descendants of the opponents of witches from back in the day. They do so in a ceremony that mocks the church. They even post a “Jesus Saves” cross.

This time around, the devil wins.

Today’s last film with a real witch in New England is Elvira: Mistress in the Dark. Again, the church isn't seen much in this film, but toward the end of the film, the title character finds herself sentenced to death in the contemporary New England village of Fallwell, Massachusetts.

A priest comes to Elvira’s cell before she is taken to be burned at the stake. She's happy to see him arrive, thinking he's there to save her. He says he is there to save her soul, but then he (like about half of the men in the film) makes a pass at her, grabbing her breasts. This priest really brings down the Movie Churches Steeple rating, bringing these three movies to Two Steeples.

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