Sep 11, 2010

Interview with Magister James D. Sass

Fascist, Satanist, Occultist, Antiquarian, Bibliomaniac, Autodidact, Teetotaler, AntiCommunist, AntiLiberal, Dissident Right Wing Political & Social Critic, Social Darwinist, Weaponeer, Experimental Noise/Musician, Film Buff, Amateur Philosopher and Historian. Born in 1965. Affiliated with the Church of Satan in 1992. Appointed to the Priesthood of the Church of Satan by Dr. Anton Szandor LaVey in 1996. Appointed to the degree of Magister in the Church of Satan by High Priest Peter H. Gilmore in 2005. Author of Essays in Satanism, the afterword to the Underworld Amusments edition of H.L. Mencken's translation of The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche. Other works in progress.

SS: In the most general terms, what makes a film Satanic?

JDS: A film is “Satanic” insofar as it deals with themes of Satanism, such as productive alienation, stratification, nonconformity, total environments, artificial human companions, justice, revenge, incursions of the irrational, misanthropy, etc. in a productive or insightful manner that frequently paints the outsider-antihero in a sympathetic light (intentionally or not) in contrast with the bland mediocre conformists. Aesthetics are also a huge part of what makes a film “Satanic.” A film such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would still be “Satanic” to some degree if it were an entirely different story using the same aesthetics and psychological devices in sets (The Law of the Trapezoid), photography (The Command to Look), editing and whatnot.

Another thing I would point out, although it digresses from your question, more than how Satanism features in films, it think it is interesting to observe how film features in Satanism as a legitimate recognized religion. I cannot think of any other religion that considers a body of film work as a primary source or example of its doctrine, aesthetics, and ideals. This is one of the truly unique aspects of Satanism. Other religions have music and art, I can’t think of any that have films they regard as centrally related to their religion as does the Church of Satan. 


SS: Can a Satanic film come from any genre?  Are there certain genres that feature Satanic films more prevalently?  If so, which genres?

JDS: Yes, I cannot think of a genre that would be incapable of fitting a Satanic film within its parameters. Skimming over the “official” Church of Satan film list we see everything from horror and gangster films to comedies, musicals, and children’s cartoons. Of course for obvious reasons Film Noir and classic Horror feature Satanic themes more explicitly, because they are based in the “dark side” of human nature, or depict man as “just another animal… worse than those that go on all fours,” and frequently center around themes of obsession, justice, and revenge.

SS: Would you describe the post-World War I German expressionist movement as Satanic?

JDS: Personally, I cannot think of one German expressionist without some type of Satanic theme in it.
Most definitely, and this is explicitly stated by Dr. LaVey in more than one place in his writings, especially pertaining to the Law of the Trapezoid. It is also important to note how much of this was intentional on the part of the film makers, directors, and art directors of these films. Even later films by the same people made in the USA follow the same line of thought. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise for example is outwardly a simple love story with a happy ending, yet there are Satanic undercurrents in the story, and the aesthetics are extremely Satanic.

SS: Many of the filmmakers and actors that were involved in making low budget Hollywood film noir films immigrated from Germany and Austria to the United States.  Many (if not the majority) of these filmmakers were German expressionists.  Do you believe that these European directors helped to bring a Satanic element to American films that was lacking before?

JDS: Of course! This is all well-documented. The influence of German expressionist ideas on Universal Classics such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and a slew of others is indisputable. The German expressionists coined the aesthetic that would defined Film Noir and Horror. The films of Carl Lemele, James Whale, Val Lewton, Howard Hawkes, etc. are all saturated with the expressionist aesthetic.

SS: In your book Essays in Satanism, you make no lie about the fact that you’re a horror film connoisseur.  Were horror films an early obsession of yours?

JDS: I cannot over-emphasize how strongly horror films were an early obsession of mine. My mother still has drawings I made when I was four years old of Frankenstein, Dracula, the two-headed man, and others. I lived for this stuff. I was in second grade when I watched my first Creature Feature episode, and never missed it until it went off the air some ten years later. I also had a huge collection of Famous Monsters of Filmland from before I could read because I liked the pictures. I was very much a “Monster Kid” of the 70s.

SS: In Essays in Satanism, you talk about how younger horror fans just cannot appreciate the genius of the Satanic themes featured in older films.  Do you believe there is any hope for these sad individuals?    

JDS: Probably not – I have no idea what is wrong with someone who still cannot tell the difference when they have seen the classics, or who dismiss them as “slow” or “boring.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and a lot of the “post-classic” horror films, I just get disgusted with people who can’t appreciate something like The Ghoul, while at the same time praise some filmic atrocity like Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or worse, some mindless schlock like the Friday the 13th sequels. I appreciate the humor element in horror, this is even present in classics such as Bride of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, but when it becomes the dominant element in the genre something has been lost. Then on the flipside there are films that take themselves too seriously, trying to be hard-edged horror, and fall face-down. It is also appalling that there are so many dumb kids stumbling around who have seen all the bad remakes of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, House of Wax, and think they are somehow in touch with the “tradition” without ever having seen the originals. Or worse, they think the remakes are better! There is no hope for them.

SS: Is Rosemary’s Baby the definitive Satanic film?  What are your personal thoughts on the film?

JDS: The gathering of eccentric Satanists at the end could literally have been home movies of a Church of Satan event, in terms of the cast of personalities involved. Compare it for instance with the Church of Satan individuals interviewed in Satanis. Really not far off the mark!

SS: The good doctor Anton LaVey has been said to have given new life to old and forgotten films like Tod Browning’s Freaks.  Can you tell us anymore about LaVey’s endorsement of films that would probably otherwise have been forgotten?

JDS: It’s funny because there are so many films that are still forgotten even after Dr. LaVey’s endorsement! Even within the Church of Satan, the individuals who have systematically worked their way through the recommended film lists are few and far between. I can think of just a handful of people who have actually watched The Boy With Green Hair. As far as keeping some films alive: Just about anyone I’ve met who has seen The Ruling Class heard about it from Church of Satan sources, likewise Night of the Generals and a handful of others. There are others that until recently were very hard to come by, including Island of Lost Souls, Svengali, The Most Dangerous Game, etc.

SS: What are your thoughts on Kenneth Anger and his filmography?  I was personally happy to see Anton LaVey’s appearance in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of my Demon Brother.  Is he (or was he ever) a member of the Church of Satan?

JDS: I’m a huge Kenneth Anger fan. I was very pleased to see his collected films finally released on DVD with the supplementary material they deserved. Anger had been something of a secret influence on so many film makers, more than suspected by most fans attracted to his work because of occult connotations. It is impossible not to see signs of Scorpio Rising in the work of Lynch, or the influence of Kustom Kar Kommandos on specific scenes in Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

Kenneth Anger and Anton LaVey were personal friends since childhood. In spite of false reports in some gossipy journalism, Anger has to my knowledge never uttered a negative word about Dr. LaVey. Somewhere in The Devil’s Notebook, I think LaVey refers to Anger as a “magus”, although I’m sure he meant it in the sense of being a magician and master of his art rather than as the technical title of a degree within the Church of Satan, although I’m also fairly certain Anger was an honorary member, even though his interests rant more toward Aleister Crowley, which has little or nothing to do with Satanism. But on that note I would add that Anger has, from my perspective anyway, done more than anyone to present the symbolism of Crowley’s work in an aesthetically interesting and “magically charged” way.

SS: In your book Essays in Satanism, you have listed 200 Essential horror films.  I must admit that I have yet to see another list of horror films with such refined and eclectic taste.  It is not everyday that you find someone that is a fan of both Der Golem (1915) and Clean, Shaven (1993).  That being said, could you narrow down a list to your top 5 essential films and why a serious horror fan should see these particular films?

JDS: Narrowing it down to a list of five would be nearly impossible. The five I would list today might not be identical to the five I would list tomorrow.

1.    Nosferatu
2.    Frankenstein
3.    Dracula
4.    Freaks

Like I said, restricting it to five is impossible, conceptually, and forces it to be a very flawed list.

SS: On your 200 Essential horror films list you have David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and Mulholland Dr. (2001) listed.  What are your thoughts on David Lynch as an American filmmaker and his unconventional cinematic portraits of America?  Do you believe that David Lynch is someone that is primarily interested in Satanic themes? 

JDS: You are the only person to catch that. I put Lynch on the list because, while he is not exactly a “horror” filmmaker, he incorporates horrific elements and genuinely terrifying manifestations of the supernatural or irrational in a way most contemporary horror filmmakers could stand to learn a lot from. Without being a horror filmmaker, he does horror better than most horror film makers. He also orchestrates a genuinely disturbing atmosphere, whereas most contemporary horror filmmakers would have to look up “atmosphere” in a dictionary and probably still be at a loss how to incorporate it into film. That is a huge disconjunct between guys now and the old classics. Lynch also deals with psychological themes, intrusion of the irrational, and compulsions that make him of Satanic interest for the same reasons that makes someone like Alfred Hitchcock a categorically Satanic filmmaker, and Hitchcock similarly was better at “horror” than most horror filmmakers, without being a horror filmmaker himself. He and Lynch share a visceral understanding of the monstrousness in human nature, even though their overt “shock tactics” are dissimilar.

Of the Lynch films included on my list, Fire Walk With Me was hated by critics, and Mulholland Dr. is hated by most Lynch fans I know. Both contain the best examples of Lynch’s effective use of horrific imagery, and I’m continually impressed by the way he depicts the intrusion of the irrational or supernatural into normal consciousness. The burned-witch episode in Mulholland Dr. stands out as one of the most horrific moments in film that I can think of. I had a friend who had nightmares about that after I reminded him of it, and he hadn’t seen the film in years. I get the feeling Lynch incorporates nightmare material from his personal unconscious into his art in a manner similar to H.P. Lovecraft, his work is more authentic because of it, even if only those elements. I would add Inland Empire alongside Mulholland Dr. for the same reasons. I am the only person I know who has anything good to say about Inland Empire, but it hinges on these same themes, and has some of Lynch’s strongest material along these lines. The film is entirely self-indulgent, and his most irrational film, which is why most people detest it or can’t follow it, and also why I liked it.

SS: As someone that owns over 30,000 books, you’re obviously a bibliophile.  About how many of these books are on cinema?  Do you have any favorite books or authors(or critics) that are dedicated to the art of cinema?  Better yet, are there any certain film critics/authors that you hate?

JDS: I have surprisingly few books on film, probably less than 100 and I haven’t read most of them. I will mention one book, American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, edited by Philip Lopate and published by The Library of America, that is a fantastic collection of film writing, including such unlikely things as a review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Carl Sandburg.

SS: About how many films (in any format) do you own?  Is your film collection anywhere near the size of your book collection?

JDS: I really have no idea how many films I own or have owned in my personal collection, probably 1000 or more, which isn’t very many. I probably have thirty times that many books.

SS: What are your thoughts on the future of cinema?  Do you see any parallels between the decline of the west and film as an art form?

JDS: The future of cinema holds a lot of potential, especially considering the advances made in digital technology, the quality of digital filmmaking and editing is continually improving and becoming more affordable. The more ability placed in the hands of filmmakers without having to go through the suppressive distortion of the studio system, or the marketing system. I suspect even more creative filmmakers will develop their own cottage industry marketing their own work through the internet. At least I hope so.

SS: Can you mention a couple mandatory films for those interested in Satanism, The Church of Satan, and Anton LaVey?  Why are these films essential viewing?

JDS: The two documentaries about the Church of Satan, Satanis and Speak of the Devil! would be at the top of the list, followed by the cream of the Church of Satan film-list in terms of exerting the most overt influence on the Satanic philosophy, or embodying it; The Black Cat, The Seventh Victim, Freaks, The Most Dangerous Game, The Sea Wolf etc. Really it is hard to narrow it down from the CoS film list because they are all relevant in some way. The two abovementioned documentaries are essential for being the story straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Edward G. Robinson’s portrayal of Wolf Larson in The Sea Wolf is probably the most quintessentially Satanic character in film or literature. Once someone gets a grasp of what authentic Satanism is about, you start noticing Satanic themes and characters in various places and films – usually there is one character that will stand out in almost any film as being more “Satanic” than the others, although I’m sure there are mainstream “feel-good” films, or comedies lambasting average mopes, that feature NO Satanic characters but are still “Satanically” relevant films for the way they treat normal people.

SS: Are you planning any future projects related to film?  I know that I am sure as hell interested in reading a book on cinema and/or a film directed by Magister James D. Sass.    

JDS: Actually, just because you mentioned it, I gathered together everything I’ve written so far into one document and it is already over a hundred pages, so the answer is yes, I probably will put out a collection of film writing when I have enough material. You will be to blame!


Shaft said...

I'll be totally honest and admit outright I knew absolutely nothing about CoS or James D. Sass. However, this interview proved to be a very insightful and fascinating read.

willy jerk-off said...

Could James possibly cast a spell that would bring Heather O`Rourke back to life?. By the way, that little girl standing next to Her-ler is gorgeous, i`d love to bugger and sodomize her (as she was at the time the picture was taken, not as she is now obviously).