At the same time that Norah Stanton (Wendy Crewson) is researching an esoteric Etruscan religious order, the order is secretly a Satan-worshipping cult preparing for the return of their exalted one. A mystical clock is calibrated to Satan's coming. He requires eighteen potential "angels" to choose among for his adopted earthly form. Norah and her family become mixed up in the nefarious plot. Especially important is her extremely attractive, wannabe-model daughter, Lucy (Rachael Leigh Cook). After Norah's apparent suicide, the order and its affiliates conspire to bring Lucy and her father to Italy, where it's a literal race against the clock for Lucy's life.
Well, this certainly isn't the first film for which I'm way off of the mainstream public opinion as reflected on the Internet Movie Database, and it certainly will not be the last. Maybe it's that I tend to be a sucker for "Satanic/Catholic voodoo" horror films (with the exception of believing that The Exorcist (1973) is severely overrated--there goes that "contrary to mainstream opinion" tendency again), but I loved The Eighteenth Angel. I really have a hard time comprehending the negative reviews this film has received.
A number of people have complained about some minutia or another in The Eighteenth Angel being implausible. For example, Lucy smuggles her pet cat on the plane to Italy. I agree that it would be difficult to do this in real life, but the film is fiction, not a claim about how the real world is, and HELLO??!if you're worried about real-world plausibility, if you're not going to like a film because of a lack of real-world believability, then why the heck would you be watching a film about Satan?! Religious mythology is about as implausible as we can get. Horror in general doesn't tend to be predicated on the real world. Hopefully, you do not believe that there are really such things as vampires, the Frankenstein Monster, Freddie Krueger, or forces that will possess you so that you have to chop off your hand and turn your appendage into an extended chainsaw instead. You're not watching this film with an understanding that you're going to see documentary-like material unless you have mental problems.
The question is whether The Eighteenth Angel succeeds as a kind of dark fairy tale--that's essentially what the horror genre is, with the exception of psycho/serial killer films (and those count as horror because they're "monsters"; they just happen to be real life monsters). As a dark fairy tale, this film kicks butt.
The Eighteenth Angel has some stylistic resemblance to The Omen (1976), which shouldn't be surprising because David Seltzer, the scripter, also wrote that earlier staple of the genre. Part of The Eighteenth Angel's success rests on the fact that almost everyone except the Stantons seems suspicious--they're all candidates for involvement with the satanic cult. Seltzer smartly avoids either directly confirming or denying conscious involvement from most parties, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Even Norah may have been involved in the "plot", or may have ended up involved after meeting with Father Simeon (Maximilian Schell). We're never shown exactly what led to her suicide, except that we can see it was either voluntary or caused by some supernatural force.
William Bindley's direction is fantastic. The Eighteenth Angel is worth viewing for its cinematography (by Thomas E. Ackerman) alone. Bindley contrasts a nice range of superbly constructed sets and practical locations with expansive, impressive landscape and external shots. He also routinely incorporates a number of extended cinematographic techniques, such as different film stocks and a wide range of approaches to lighting and exposures--from "washed out", or "whited out", brightly lit and generously apertured snippets to shots with dark, chiaroscuro-like shadows and silhouettes. The clock, counting down to Satan's earthly manifestation, makes regular appearances, and while this isn't an unprecedented device for enhancing suspense, the construction of the clock face is intriguing and it's just as interestingly shot and edited as the rest of the film.
The performances are great. Cook is more than convincing, especially once she enters Alice in Wonderland territory as her dreams begin to come true. Christopher McDonald, as her dad, Hugh, is so frumpishly fussy that you want to slap himthat overbearing, overprotective personality is exactly what the character calls for. I also loved Schell as the creepy two-faced priest.
As a Satanic/Catholic voodoo film, the horror emphasis isn't on gore or action so much as odd, often subtle events that are unnerving. The Eighteenth Angel is full of those. Still, there are some fairly visceral makeup effects, which are extremely well done and are worked into the plot with just the right amount of psycho-like depravity and bizarre ambiguity. The climax of the film also has somewhat of a "gothic action" feel, and there's a beautifully nihilistic denouement that should boost any horror fan's rating a point or two.
If you're looking for plausibility, you're in the wrong business. But if you're looking for a marvelously dark fairy tale told with a lot of style, you've come to the right place. This film deserves much more recognition than it has received to date.
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