History recalls 1980s Argentina as a time of unease and tragedy exacerbated by power-mad leaders. Cristian Ponce’s unsettling indie History of the Occult revisits that tumultuous time and asks: what if the government was doing it all in the name of black magic?
Ponce is the co-creator of The Kirlian Frequency, also known as Ghost Radio, an animated web series set in a fictional town where the supernatural feels emboldened to mix with the human world, in a sort of Stephen King-meets-H.P. Lovecraft way. At the centre of each episode is a radio host who takes calls from listeners describing their own weird encounters. There are strong echoes of these themes in History of the Occult, which unfurls around the final episode of a TV talk show dramatically titled 60 Minutes Before Midnight. It’s 1987 and a big protest — set to begin at midnight — is planned against President Belasco, whose unpopular economic policies may actually be the least of the country’s worries.
As the intrepid but also understandably freaked-out producers of 60 Minutes Before Midnight have discovered, Belasco has secret ties to the sinister Kingdom Corporation, and they’re hoping to inform the public before his goons take away their platform. For this, they’ve turned to a man who’s recently severed his close ties with Belasco for reasons as-yet unknown: Kingdom founder Adrian Marcato, who’s agreed to set the record straight on 60 Minutes Before Midnight’s final program. “I am not a con artist,” he insists — but he nonchalantly admits to being a warlock.
Horror fans will immediately pick up on that name: Adrian Marcato is the name of an infamous witch in Rosemary’s Baby, which gets more than one hat-tip here; “tannis root” is deployed as a hallucinogen and the movie itself gets mentioned in a discussion of Satanic Panic that also references Michelle Remembers, the since-discredited tome that helped galvanize that pocket of mass hysteria. Though it sometimes feels more like a paranoid conspiracy thriller than a horror movie — the ticking-clock gimmick that propels 60 Minutes to Midnight cleverly enhances the urgent pace — History of the Occult is equally full of spooky breadcrumbs to remind you where its heart is really beating. There’s a diary crammed with strange claims and even stranger languages, a mysterious lab whose owner is eager to probe into Belasco’s dirty dealings, strong suggestions of systemic mind control, references to witchcraft and rituals, and a character who can’t quite remember where he heard the phrase “the future is over” — but has a dreadful feeling it’s absolutely true.
With such a dense, rapid-fire plot crammed into its 80-ish minutes, History of the Occult can feel a bit overwhelming. But front-loading the movie with a certain amount of confusion feels intentional; the 60 Minutes to Midnight producers, who huddle together to watch their final program from a safe house, are also doing their best to piece together a bizarre lead they’ve been pursing for months. Black and white cinematography — with occasional dramatic punches of red — enhances the retro vibes at play here, while the film’s documentary-like title enhances the idea that maybe we are watching a true story, or at least one version of the truth that’s been pasted over by history. Much like The Kirlian Frequency, History of the Occult suggests that strange things are going on around us at all times… and we should perhaps feel lucky that we haven’t yet noticed.
History of the Occult is now streaming on Screambox; it’s also available for rental through Prime Video. The Kirlian Frequency is not officially streaming anywhere at the moment, but we’ll keep you posted when it becomes available again.
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