Monday, November 26, 2012

Telling Tales Out of School: Ritual of Evil

Ritual of Evil (1970) was the second of two pilots for an unproduced series called Bedeviled. Inspired by the success of Rosemary's Baby, the films featured Louis Jourdan as an psychiatrist named David Sorrell who moonlights as an occult detective. They were also remarkably well rendered, all the more so considering they were TV movies. The first dealt with an occult secret society within a cutting edge laser research lab and the second dealt with kinky cults and the idle Hollywood rich.

Ritual is by far the more interesting of the two, all the more so given that its plot is ripe with parallels to the Manson Family case, though none of the details that people might normally focus on. Instead, it seems to be encoding details about Sharon Tate, the Process Church and the bad news party scene on Cielo Drive, all those details that didn't begin to surface until Ed Sanders' muckracking expose, The Family was published in 1971, a year after this film aired.

In Ritual, a rich young woman named Aline ("Alien") Wiley is discovered dead on a beach, and investigation into her death reveals that a satanic cult called Capricorn has been making the rounds in LA, spicing up the orgy scene with mock human sacrifices and black masses. At first suspicion falls on a folk singer (played by Georg Stanford Brown) who is lodging on the Wiley estate, especially since he recently spent time in prison on a drug rap.

Sorrell is treating Aline's younger sister who has the same childish, sing-songy malevolence we saw with Charlie's "angels"; Squeaky Fromme, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle and the rest. She is plagued by dreams in which she becomes Aline, which couldn't help but remind me of Mansonisms like "By killing you, I'm killing me," and all of the rest of his beatnik-convict hooha.

 It should also be noted that the Family chalked all of their activities up to "black magic" in the days immediately following the killings, an explanation that was later obscured by Charlie's race war theorizing.

But Sorrell soon learns that Aline was mixed up with Capricorn and used to bring hippies to her parties and subject them to nasty, satanically-tinged S/M games. These games then climax in the ritual sacrifice of a poor bearded hippie- that is to say, a Charles Manson-lookalike as sacrificial lamb (patsy?)- and Aline's own death. All of the mayhem is orchestrated by other parties, however, who use these dabblers and hippie wastrels as puppets. Oddly familiar somehow...

The patsy angle is only reinforced by the appearance of several Manson Oswalds. Whoever wrote this thing knew their Weirdness. And their semiotics: naming a satanic cult "Capricorn" would do nicely if you wanted to create a Process Church analog, considering that they worshiped Christ and Satan in equal measure. Christ was born in the sign of Capricorn.

All of which has eerie parallels to the bloody goings-on the previous summer in the real Los Angeles. Bobby Beausoleil had told British journalist Barney Hoskyns that like the fictional Aline, 'Sharon Tate and that gang . . . picked up kids on the Strip and took them home and whipped them', while Dennis Hopper told The LA Free Press that Tate and her circle fallen into "masochism and bestiality" and that they recorded it all on videotape.

Hopper also claimed that three days before the murders twenty five people were invited to a mass whipping of a Sunset Strip dealer who'd given them bad dope. I can't quite find the exact scene but I seem to remember that 25 people attended the black mass referred to in Ritual of Evil.

Producer Terry Melcher - son of aging Hollywood sweetheart Doris Day- who had rented the house on Cielo Drive- hinted that Tate and her circle were dabbling in Satanism and had presumed the murders "had something to do with Rosemary's Baby." Like Hopper, Melcher reported that the new tenants shot homemade S/M porno movies with Hollywood players in starring roles. Likewise, the goings-on in Ritual of Evil take place in the home of an aging Hollywood star, played by Ann Baxter.

Some had speculated that Manson was seeking revenge on Melcher, who tried to record some demos of Charlie's songs. The folksinger here is black and Manson of course is a racist paranoid, but damn if the songs Brown's character don't remind us a lot of Manson's own meandering, preachy compositions. And Brown is shown recording demos in the aging movie star's guest house in the film.

The links between Brown's character and Capricorn aren't as direct as those between the Process Church of the Final Judgment and Charles Manson, but they're there nonetheless. Gary Lachman wrote in Fortean Times:
They set up a church at 407 Cole Street. Their neighbour at 636 Cole was someone who would cause them a lot of grief in a year or so. His name was Charles Manson, soon to become the head of the Family responsible for the gruesome Tate-Labianca murders in August of 1969. At that time, Charlie was still an ex-con petty thief, strumming a guitar among the debris of the flower children, languishing amidst the ruins of the Summer of Love. By the end of the decade he was one of the most famous people alive, a cause célèbre in the counter-culture, Satan incarnate for the Establishment. For the Process he spelled doom.
Similarly, Brown's character lives adjacent to the leader of Capricorn and is the linchpin in their undoing. As with The Process, we see that the male leader of Capricorn is merely a figurehead for the real power behind the throne. Harking back to Hopper's bestiality claims, there is also a strange and somewhat oblique relationship to a dog in Ritual of Evil. We learn that the dog attended all of Aline's parties (nudge, nudge).

The dogs are yet another Process Church signifier- Robert and Mary Anne DeGrimston were well-known for their love of formidable-looking dogs, and Mary Anne later reinvented the Church as the Best Friends Animal Society, specializing in dog rescue.

I'm willing to bet that the producers of The X-Files were fans of this film as well, since as you'll see that some of the central plot points- those that aren't hidden Manson allegories- showed up in a second season episode of the show. I won't spoil it for you, but Philes will certainly see the homage here.

As always, details and clues I didn't catch are always sought after in the comments section. Click through the links on the video or visit the YouTube link to watch the entire episode.

Oh, I nearly forgot- one of the witches is portrayed by the late Diana Hyland, who was best known as John Travolta's lover at the time of her death in 1977. Given the connections with the Process to Scientology, that seems to have added resonance in this context.


Gerard Tomoculus said...

Excellence.Thank you for this post. Confirms a number of things I've come to believe as of late.

Clare said...


Whether primarily as an artistic imaginal romp through what "might" be going on ...

Or an intentional expose (given the possibility the public was readier than they were in fact, and than the powers wanted them to be if they were) ...

this little double-pilot event is remarkable.

So is the article, since this person writing it seems to be well aware of lots of the current findings, such as Dave McGowan's work. WOW!


Moses Horowitz said...


The surname of the girl is Wiley, whose homophone "Wily" a synonym for "clever" or "cunning". One type of woman persecuted in the past for witchcraft (and the subsequent "pact with the devil") would be those known as "cunning women", villagers wise in herbal lore and the working of the body.

Here we have an "Alien Witch" who is killed by a Satanic cult that is new to town. Were they offing the competition? Or perhaps, removing someone clever enough to see through their games?

Gerard Tomoculus said...

There is also the dialogue between Jourdan and Hyland, where Hyland states she believes Humanity Is Evil.

See Robert DeGrimston "Humanity Is Evil" -- it's on Youtube.

Gerard Tomoculus said...

Argh! My mistake. "Humanity is the Devil" in fact.

Raj said...

You know, Chris, for a scholar as rigorous and clear-minded as yourself you are incredibly intuitive. It's really fun to get a sense of the way you perceive things.I'm gonna have to dig more deeply into this Magonian subculture. I love trying to figure out how atmospheres are created in film through sound, image and implication. I think it can teach us a lot about how we tell stories - and similarly how our psychology is configured.