Tag Archives: Occultism

Hammer House of Horror: Guardian of the Abyss (1980)

It was a coincidence that I watched Guardian of the Abyss so hot on the heels of Warlock; my viewing schedule just happened to fall that way. Nonetheless it was a serendipitous, even synchronistic juxtaposition and while their use of occultism is fascinating to ponder individually, studying them in tandem is more instructive still. Both episodes use the language and motifs of the Western Mystery Tradition faithfully—neither reduces its practice or study to mere devil-worship—but there the similarity ends. The relative moral complexity of Cosmo Gallion’s circle in Warlock is entirely lacking in the Order of Choronzon: where Gallion was seeking knowledge and enlightenment; in Guardian of the Abyss, Charles Randolph is motivated entirely by pride and a base lust for power.

Indeed, Charles Randolph is essentially an analogue of Mocata, from Hammer’s 1968 cinematic adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel—The Devil Rides Out; and the narrative of Guardian of the Abyss is reminiscent of that classic film in several respects.These correspondences are only highlighted by the presence of Rosalyn Landor, whose first screen role had been in The Devil Rides Out when she was only ten years old. Fortunately her participation in Guardian of the Abyss was not a mere sop to cinema history and here she is the perfect choice for her aloof and otherworldly character. John Carson is similarly well cast—but as a veteran of Hammer villainy, that is unsurprising: he brings to Charles Randolph all the diabolical menace he exuded playing Squire Hamilton in Plague of the Zombies.

Guardian of the Abyss was scripted by David Fisher, who was responsible for a similarly occult-themed 1978 episode of Doctor Who—The Stones of Blood. Both these stories suggest he was fully conversant with occult mythology and Guardians of the Abyss is full of references that suggest he was aiming for a certain verisimilitude. Aleister Crowley’s attempts to invoke Choronzon are referenced; as are Doctor Dee’s experiments with Edward Kelly—his shewstone and his receipt of the Enochian language. Inevitably there is a glut of more clichéd imagery, including mesmerism, poppets and blood-sacrifice: this is a Hammer production after all! It’s curious to think that audiences in 1980 were expected to be fully conversant with such material—a legacy of the counter-culture’s diffusion into mainstream media.

Certainly the nods to The Devil Rides Out are intentional; there is even a plot device lifted straight from The Wicker Man and it shares that film’s downbeat ending. Indeed, although Guardian of the Abyss may exemplify the “demonisation” of occult traditions in popular media (no pun intended), you cannot say it isn’t appropriately spooky. The Order of Choronzon are a thoroughly sinister bunch and—despite some dodgy prosthetics—the climax is genuinely chilling. Indeed, it is probably far more unnerving than the conclusion of The Devil Rides Out. At the end of the day, that is exactly what you want from an episode of a horror anthology series—even if it means smearing Thelemites in the process. Besides: isn’t the frisson of transgression exactly what draws many people to the Left Hand Path in the first place?

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 15th November 1980


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The Avengers: Series 2 – Warlock (1963)

To anybody who is familiar only with Emma Peel era Avengers—arguably the high-point of the series—watching an episode from its second season can be disconcerting. Although it still has greater warmth than many spy series from the early-1960s, the whimsical—even surreal—elements which truly distinguished the Peel episodes are missing; the focus is more on espionage than eccentricity. Nonetheless, even at this early stage the series captured an archetypal imagined “Englishness” which—like that evoked by The Prisoner—is hard to beat. The episode “Warlock” is a fine example in this respect, featuring a very English perspective on the dark arts.

The episode revolves around the plot by a Russian agent to steal technological secrets from British scientists by exploiting their connection with an occult group led by the charismatic Cosmo Gallion. Needless to say—mesmerism and poppets are involved. Such plots would become a staple of British telefantasy over the next decade but this was an early outing—broadcast in January 1963—and the occult underground had not yet received the publicity generated by the likes of Alex Sanders and the rise of the psychedelic counter-culture. Indeed, Cosmo Gallion may very well have been based on Sanders, who made his first press splash in September 1962.

Western esotericism was not wholly absent from popular media at the time—the black-magic novels of Dennis Wheatley remained bestsellers after all—but most portrayals of the practice were negative: occultists were characterised as either devil-worshippers or cranks. “Warlock” is quite unusual in taking ritual-magick very seriously and adopting quite an ambivalent—rather than a wholly hostile—attitude towards its morality. Peter Arne plays Dr. Cosmo Gallion as a fiercely intelligent and almost sympathetic character; although he may take Russian money to ensnare a government engineer through mesmerism, he remains contemptuous of the agent’s petty motives and personally aims at higher knowledge.

Equally, the script does not appropriate the motifs of occultism unfaithfully and evidently proceeded from a familiarity with the principles of the Left Hand Path. There are references to the interface between occultism and parapsychological research, whilst Steed and Cathy Gale show a healthy respect for the “psychological” effects of magick. The creed of Thelema—do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law—is correctly deployed and there are nice touches like Gallion’s occult bookshop being in Bloomsbury—home to the revered Atlantis Books since 1922—and a possible reference to the Lower Quinton pitchfork murder.

Interestingly, “Warlock” was originally written to introduce the character of Cathy Gale but the order of the episodes was changed before transmission. As such, much more is made of Gale’s anthropological background than was later the case; indeed she likens the effects of ritual-magick to vodoun and obeah, which she’d witnessed first-hand in Africa. Gale makes a fine character through which to explore the philosophical underpinning of the episode and provides a parallel with Gerald Gardner, who incorporated his anthropological experience of folk-magic into his fledgling Wiccan religion.

The episode culminates with the Ritual of Asmodeus—an evocation which we are told involves considerable risk. It is suggested the rite has not been successfully performed in over a century; a caveat which is possibly meant to recall the disastrous attempt to summon Choronzon performed by Aleister Crowley and Victor Neuberg in the Sahara Desert on 6th December 1909. Asmodeus was regarded as a demon of lust; hence Gallion regards Ms. Gale as the perfect candidate with whom to perform the invocation. Although the episode portrays the climactic ceremony as a relatively chaste affair—The Avengers was a pre-watershed series after all—it is well-choreographed nonetheless.

Nobody is going to trumpet “Warlock” as a top-tier episode of The Avengers or even a lost classic in the occult-horror genre any time soon; indeed Cosmo Gallion and his acolytes are amongst the least-terrifying Thelemites ever portrayed on screen. However, it is precisely this permissive attitude that makes the episode so fascinating to anybody interested in the cultural history of Western Mystery Tradition. Poised chronologically between the success of Dennis Wheatley’s black-magic novels and the publicity-seeking antics of self-professed Wiccans such as David Farrant, “Warlock” is a rare example of an early televisual drama that depicts ritual-magick with a degree of integrity and respect.

Produced by ABC Television : originally transmitted on 27th January 1963

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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in 1960s, ABC Television


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