Paul F.M. Zahl: Movie offers guide to Harvard Black Mass


"Order and chaos'' (mixed media), by LYNDA CUTRELL, at Galatea Fine Art, Boston, June 1-29.


As a Harvard grad and an Episcopal minister, I am dismayed by the prospect of the university's sanctioning a Black Mass for tonight (May 12), within Memorial Hall.

But what I really want to megaphone to all concerned is this: Wake up, Harvard (not to mention the Satanic Temple of New York City), and watch more horror movies!

You could all spare yourselves a lot of trouble if you watched more horror movies. Specifically, you need to see that unregarded but rich Hammer horror film from the early 1970s, entitled Dracula A.D. 1972. For those who care, and this writer cares very much, Hammer Studios in England produced dozens of luridly wonderful horror movies from the late '50s through the early '70s. These immortalized such U.K. character actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Fans of these movies tend to regard the instantly dated Dracula A.D. 1972 as the nadir of Hammer's output. But in light of what's slated to happen today in Cambridge, Mass., it's risen to the top of my list.

This is because Dracula A.D. 1972 anticipates in detail a scenario that has already unfolded. To wit, the villain in the movie, whose made-up name in the story is 'Johnny Alucard' (the surname, of course, is ''Dracula'' backwards), looks, dresses and talks like the spokesman for the Satanic Temple of New York City. Secondly, he keeps telling his gullible young friends in the movie to ''Keep cool, birds'' -- the script is deliriously filled with faux-Flower Child and Swinging London colloquialisms. "This happening I'm asking you to jive to is just a stunt. Just a bit of fun, mates."

To their acute misfortune, members of "Johnny Alucard's''' circle believe him when he says: "This is just a re-enactment."

The movie's staging of the Black Mass itself is extremely well done. The director, Alan Gibson, is sure-footed in the blocking and the angles; and during the Mass, which takes place in a ruined Memorial-Hall-type building, a deconsecrated church damaged during the Blitz, in World War II, the movie gets serious. The elements of a real Black Mass are all there, just as they will be, presumably, this evening in Cambridge within the once hallowed walls of the university's memorial to its Civil War dead. The parallels between now and this absurd but tight English movie are breathtaking.

Finally, the church comes into it. But not priest, not bishops, not archbishop.. Rather, old-fashioned religion comes in to Dracula A.D. 1972 through the person of an aging physician named ''Lorrimer Van Helsing". (Who ever thought of that first name? The writer should have been knighted on the spot!)

Anyway, ''Lorrimer Van Helsing'' strides into the movie, an old man poignantly concerned about the well-being of his impressionable niece. (His niece has come under the spell of ''Johnny Alucard".) Fortunately for her, her uncle intervenes, with cross and stake, and Jessica van Helsing is saved.

This is a classic instance, which occurs often in English horror and sci-fi movies, in which wise members of the older generation are the only ones who know enough to save clueless members of the younger one. (Usually, the character actor Andre Morell played these roles, though John Mills did once, too.)

I wish that Harvard University officials would go straight to Barnes and Noble, and buy their very reasonably priced copy of Dracula A.D. 1972. It's in all the stores as I write. (Target, too.)

A personal note in conclusion: Three times during my ministry in the Episcopal Church, I was forced to get up close and personal with Satanists. Somehow they succeeded in inveigling members of our parish youth group in Westchester County, N.Y., to take part in a Black Mass.

They "staged" this on the grounds of a country club up on the Hudson. Two of the young participants -- and I had to clean up the bones of living animals that had been sacrificed during the service (and had to change the locks on the parish sacristy because Communion wafers were being stolen) -- were scarred indelibly by what they were lured into doing. I never of them smile again.

I also got to know a languid old trust fund Satanist, who lived in London and had the most beautiful personalized Satanic stationery.

Harvard, wake up! Buy this movie and watch it. And it may not be quite as campy as it first appears.

The Rev. Paul F.M. Zahl is an Episcopal minister and a theologian.

Addendum by Robert Whitcomb: So will we see the Prophet Mohammed in drag in the next Hasty Pudding Show at Harvard, or indeed portrayed in any public way on Harvard's campus as less than perfect? Or course not -- and not because of any particular respect by a mostly secularized Harvard community but because of the physical fear of offending followers of a religion a few of whose adherents are famously violent.

Fear is a key ingredient of hypocrisy.