Tag Archives: the exorcist

Body and Soul

Ah, The Exorcist (1973). That Most Iconic of Horror Movies. That onslaught of sacrilege, holy water, and pea soup vomit (or so pop culture would have you believe). It’s this week’s pick for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, and you know what? Beyond being a repository of gory iconography, it’s a seriously good-looking movie. William Friedkin and Owen Roizman—the latter of whom also lensed ’70s classics like The Stepford Wives and Network—shoot it mostly as a domestic drama, where drab colors and cozy furnishings belie the growing evil. As the exorcism nears, though, they employ some stark chiaroscuro.

That’s when we get the famous shot above, one of my favorites, with Father Merrin going up to the MacNeils’ house. Borrowing, I think, from The Night of the Hunter’s expressionism, it’s a tantalizing prelude to the film’s expulsive climax; it charts just how far this urban homestead has descended into gothic madness. Merrin’s silhouette suggests a man of mystery, a man burdened by unpleasant knowledge who remains (judging by that toolkit) an absolute professional. He’ll be shaken up soon, th0ugh, thanks to one very special girl.

Together, these constitute my favorite image in The Exorcist. (To avoid cheating, though, I’ll name the lower-right shot as “best.”) They showcase Linda Blair’s decidedly normal-girl visage as it transforms, through the addition of scars and contact lenses, into that of a demon incarnate. But it’s not just makeup and Mercedes McCambridge’s voice that enact this metamorphosis. Blair’s whole demeanor changes: without losing the audience’s eye contact, she goes from victim to agent of terror, and her attitude shifts from bed-ridden supplication to caustic resentment.

Her camera-directed gaze establishes a visual continuity between the before and after, and in both phases, it’s haunting. It implicates us in both her suffering and her demon-induced rage. I find that hospital-bound before picture the most disturbing, though. Pazuzu’s condescension is one thing, but Blair’s pallor and confusion are hard to stomach. She just looks like a sick little girl who’d much rather be drawing or playing than smothered under layers of medical equipment. And as she catches our eyes, she seems to be asking—calmly, patiently, with good humor—“Why me?”

All that vomit and blood would be meaningless without this sick little girl. Her pain is what makes The Exorcist is so scary.


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The Power of Christ Repels You

Here, I’ve got a fun exercise: let’s brainstorm some lists of words. OK, like, how would you describe The Exorcist? Hmmm. Let’s see: profitable, popular, well-loved, trendsetting, efficient, sleek, visceral, great. Well, now that we’ve established that, what words would you apply to its first sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)? Maybe “lumpy”? Incoherent? Work-for-hire? Dated? Oh, and you can’t leave out “really fucking weird.”

I actually pity Exorcist II; it’s the unsuccessful middle sibling of the Exorcist family. Forced to pick up where The Exorcist left off—with the demon successfully banished and both exorcists dead—it struggles to find a follow-up story worth telling, then gives up and resigns itself to half a dozen half-assed plot strands involving hypnotism, the Vatican, locusts, and James Earl Jones. It’s paced like a little kid trying to solve a maze, with nothing but false starts and dead ends.

As far as I can tell, this is what happens: a still-teenaged Regan Macneil lives in a Manhattan penthouse, cared for by a woman whom we’ll call “Ellen Burstyn Wouldn’t Come Back for the Sequel.” Sometimes she has counseling sessions with Louise Fletcher, who was then fresh off her Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Richard Burton’s a worn-out priest sent to investigate The Exorcism, and this leads to lots of redundant flashbacks. Then he goes to the magical, red-skied land of “Africa.” Then he comes back. He and Regan revisit her old house, some cars crash, Pazuzu is re-banished, and they walk off into the sunset. The end.

“Why?” you may ask. Also: “How? Who? What?” If so, I sympathize with your sputtering. Logic does not reign in Exorcist II; it plays by its own shitty rules. The film expends great time and energy establishing the import of both the wacky, newfangled hypnotism machine and Father Burton’s African adventure, yet neither one’s relevance is clear by the end. You’d have to struggle to write a screenplay lazier, clumsier, or stranger than the one for Exorcist II. Worst of all, the film never explains how Pazuzu is back, why the previous film’s exorcism was apparently in vain, or what kind of threat Pazuzu now poses.

Consequently, the audience has to stumble blindly through Exorcist II’s non sequiturs and hallucinations, occasionally baffled but never scared. (Unless, like me, you’re really freaked out by locusts.) To put it succinctly, this is a bad movie. And yet, somehow, I can’t condemn it or write it off entirely. That’s primarily because John Boorman’s direction, compounded by Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, gives the film a tacky, idiosyncratic flavor. Boorman plays odd visual tricks with mirrors and aerial shots, all colored by a fire-and-earth palette. This imagery isn’t strictly “good,” but it is interesting!

In fact, the best way to view Exorcist II might actually be as the spiritual sequel to Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). With its anti-logical flights of fancy, its fossilized mid-’70s aesthetic, and its fuzzy moral dilemmas, it has far more in common with that oft-mocked dystopian epic than it does with The Exorcist. Does this redeem it as a horror movie? No. But it’s still a hell of an experience.


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Slashers and Statues: Horror at the Oscars

By Andreas

It’s time for me to pontificate about horror movies and the Oscars. As such, let me lay out a couple basic propositions:

1) In their ongoing attempt to reward quality filmmaking, the Oscars have infamously preferred a certain type—namely, “prestige” pictures that can seem to advance film as an art form while catering to (and flattering the intelligence of) a broad audience. Serious and “ambitious” dramas, by and large, trump their less overtly dignified brethren in Oscar’s eyes.

2) Meanwhile, “horror movies” have been ghettoized by mainstream film critics and moral authorities, who deride them as anti-prestigious, cheap, morally/artistically suspect, etc. It’s a process that’s slowly being reversed, but old habits die really hard.

The end result, as a cursory glance over Oscar history will tell you, is that horror movies are almost never recognized by the Academy. To expand on that, let me hazard another proposition:

3) Because of these biases, horror masterpieces are constantly ignored by the Oscars in favor of absolutely inferior movies that look safe and award-worthy.

None of this is especially revolutionary thinking. In fact, genre bigotry like this is widely accepted as one of the Academy’s major weaknesses. But I do think there’s plenty more to be learned by closely examining that “almost never.” When does the Academy embrace horror? The short answer is “Roughly once a decade.” The long answer is “It depends on what you consider horror.” Let me explain by going chronologically…

Read a near-comprehensive history of horror at the Oscars after the jump.

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Link Dump: #23

Gotta catch ’em all, Pokekitties. We don’t for sure whether that adorable feline has been manipulated in Photoshop or was actually painted from head to paw (which would be cruel), but either way it’s pretty much the cutest thing Ashley or I have ever seen. Like, OK, Pikachu was pretty cute, but a kitty made to look like Pikachu? Infinitely cuter. On that note, we have links, some of which involve KITTIES. (Oh, and isn’t it awesome that Ashley’s blogging again? You should all give her positive feedback so she writes more often!)

  • The Los Angeles Times has profiles of three of last year’s unrecognized supporting performers. I didn’t think too much of Eve Best in The King’s Speech, but I loved Barry Pepper in True Grit and, of course, Dale Dickey as the fearsome backwoods matriarch in Winter’s Bone.
  • Nothing says “Heaven knows I’m validated now” like Morrissey-themed fan comics.
  • Cynthia von Buhler, artist of all that is cute and weird, presents Cat Head Theatre, with KITTIES performing from Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet. (One of my favorite parts!)
  • This Great Gatsby NES game may be a little repetitive and, on the second level, ridiculously difficult, but it’s still very fun and rates highly on the retro novelty scale. Play away, old sport.
  • I will never get tired of those Jameson-sponsored 60-second movie reenactments. Especially when it means a claymation Exorcist and Eraserhead. The power of humorous Internet videos compels you!
  • Crackpot politicians: they’re everywhere! Even in the Minnesota State Legislature. Like Mike Beard, who… whew, just read about it.
  • As the seasons shift to spring, a new and beautiful blogathon arises! I just learned that Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck is hosting Raimifest, and I’ll very definitely be contributing. Maybe this’ll finally give me a chance to watch Spider-Man 2!
  • Want to get really, really pissed off and just generally angry? Then read this interview with Ohio-based artist Richard Whitehurst, creator of “THE RAPE TUNNEL.” His responses to the interviewer’s questions are like physical embodiments of the phrase “pretentious asshole.” He really sucks. [Comments below the interview suggest that it might be a hoax. Still, if someone really did say those things, they would be a horrible person.]
  • Masked Japanese monkey waiters?!!!
  • Paracinema asks the question on all of America’s mind: Is Ben Kingsley the new Donald Pleasence?
  • Finally, want to download a cute, free, new song and support super-independent musicians? Check out the Baby-Proof Bullets!

As far as search terms go, I always love a good Yakov Smirnoff joke, and “in soviet russia presents open you” works just fine. We got more gratuitous, bizarre violence with “girl stabbed in the neck” (hey, that’s what the graphic novel I wrote is about!), and more gratuitous, bizarre mentions of genitalia with “bela lugosi little cunt.” (I can’t even start to figure out that one.) And hey, just for good measure: “movie artist beheading axe mom and daughter.” Yeah. Huh.


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“Lord, I am tired!”

This week’s pick for Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience is a movie that’s very near and dear to my heart: Charles Laughton’s sole film as director, The Night of the Hunter (1955). I’ve seen it probably a dozen times, and it just gets better and better. It’s the story of psychotic “preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and his pursuit of two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who know the whereabouts of $10,000 stolen by their father. (“It’s in my doll, it’s in my doll!”) It’s a horror movie, film noir, document of Americana, religious allegory, morality tale, folktale, fairy tale, and more. Shot with expressionist flair by Stanley Cortez, it’s also one of the best and most beautiful films of any kind.

By all rights, The Night of the Hunter deserves a comprehensive, in-depth review on this site – and, with any luck, I’ll write it in time. For now, however, I’ll just explain my favorite images from it, and then abide. And my “best shot” is…

Keep in mind, The Night of the Hunter is so visually perfect that even its “worst shot” would probably outdo most whole films. It has countless images with similarly striking compositions and measured use of light and shadow. But something about this one really catches my eye and hangs onto it. Maybe it’s how Laughton and Cortez, working on a studio set, made a sunrise that looked more beautiful, more powerful, and more real than any real sunrise. Maybe it’s the tiny silhouette of Powell, riding his stolen horse along the horizon, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Seeing him like that makes him feel like a feature of the landscape, an omnipresent boogeyman, a mythical figure of the worst kind of evil.

Maybe it’s the way the barn door creates a frame within a frame, turning the outside world into its own little movie, which is then split into light and dark halves. (You start to see how carefully they thought out every single shot of this film.) Or maybe it’s how John is sitting upright, protecting his sister from the monster she accepts as her father. This shot is a self-contained narrative, a melodrama of the home (the barn) threatened by looming external forces. And I’m still so enthralled by that sunset. But I can’t content myself to one image. Here’s another of my favorites.

This image proves to me that Laughton and Cortez had a profound understanding of film noir, and an even more profound insight into the cultural currents at work in postwar America. Ruby (Gloria Castillo), the eldest of the foundlings cared for by Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish), is going downtown under the pretext of sewing lessons. Obviously, no sewing lessons are involved. Just look at the crowd of men who fill out the shot, or the words around them: “DRUGS,” “Restaurant,” “Magazines.” Look at the lights about the magazine rack, or the brick facade behind it. This is a picture of temptation at work: the temptations of neon lights, worldliness, and all pleasures money can buy (whether that refers to a soda at the drugstore, or something more).

This shot reminds me of the strip show witnessed by Powell at the beginning of the movie, since they’re both so emblematic of everything the modern city has to offer – everything that Powell and his nemesis Cooper are morally opposed to. Film noir is all about those offers and temptations. And like The Night of the Hunter, film noir (as a set of hundreds of disparate films) doesn’t take a unified attitude toward them. Sometimes it indulges and embraces; sometimes it rejects them. Maybe you could consider The Night of the Hunter as a moral skeleton key to the whole genre. A couple more notes: after rewatching this movie, I see the “Mama Sunshine” household in Palindromes in a totally new light; also, I’m dying to write about its treatment of gender and sexuality. Expect that soon. Now I’ll close with a couple of visual tricks-and-treats.

At least in these shots, Laughton and Cortez are working right out of the Fritz Lang playbook. And fantastically so. Finally, this shot rang a tubular bell for me. Look familiar?

I think Regan MacNeil would agree: it’s a hard world for little things.

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The Sounds of Violence

I’ve been writing an awful lot about horror movies this month, and all my emphasis on cinematic frights makes it easy to forget that horror permeates all media. So, to diversify our coverage, here’s a list of about 10 very scary, Halloween-appropriate songs. Plus, they’re interspersed with bonus songs so you can dig deeper and make the ultimate Halloween party playlist! What’s not to love? (For more Halloweeny songs, check out the spookylicious Kindertrauma Jukebox! Also: YouTube videos come and go. If any of the links below are dead ends, please comment so I can update them.)

10. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus

Back when “goth” meant something more than a high school fashion statement, Bauhaus released this tribute to Lugosi, who reached the title state in 1956. Long and atmospheric, the song was featured in the opening scene of The Hunger (1983), where it helped set the mood better most of the confusingly edited, noisy scenes to follow. Its eerie simplicity was an example that director Tony Scott would’ve been wise to follow. Sample lyrics: “The virginal brides file past his tomb / Strewn with time’s dead flowers…”

Also… “Late Night Creature Feature” by The Bewitched is an ode to watching scary movies late at night. The Bewitched is a very cool Minneapolis dark cabaret outfit, and they have my highest recommendation. [Like them on Facebook!]

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Better late than never: Of Gods and Monsters

[Note: I started writing this several nights ago, but time constraints and festivities prevented publishing it till now, when it’s not really still relevant. Enjoy!]

It’s almost Halloween again. I’ve been blogging pretty rarely lately – and with a good reason, which is “real life” – but something about this season (and who I am) makes me want to watch, read, and write about horror. So I think I’ll spend a little time discussing the horror genre, especially as it’s represented in film. As I came to WordPress, I saw this post, “Quelles Horreurs!” by titirangistoryteller, listed among the “Freshly Pressed.” I’m always up for someone else’s insights into a genre I love, so I clicked and read the post… and immediately went, WTF? Granted, I’ve read way more inane commentary on horror. This is just kind of mediocre. But still, it’s full of what frustrates me about shoddy, poorly-researched film discussions: it’s full of generalizations, broad leaps of logic, and takes tiny samples as being representative of a much broader whole.

For example: “The sixties had an outpouring of B-grade horror flicks, most of which starred Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Boris Karloff…” The first clause here isn’t so bad, although the usage of “B-grade” is dubious, and maybe they should be penalized for use of the word “flicks,” but claiming that most 1960s B-movies had either Price, Lee, or Karloff? Man, those guys must’ve been working overtime! They were all prolific actors, and they were in some of the best-remembered B-movies of the ’60s (though I would want to explore further what that term, B-movie, actually means), but please just think about what you write and do some fucking research. The fact is that hyperbole-based writing is rarely genuinely informative, nor does it get across much about the actual content or meaning of the films. And beyond that, it pisses me off.

That said, let’s actually talk about horror. Price, Lee, and Karloff are legends within the genre, though it’s totally meaningless to declare them emblematic of an entire decade’s B-movies. Why not look at their legacies? Karloff was born William Henry Pratt – switched from a very English name to a mysterious, vaguely Russian one. After countless supporting roles, he was called “?” in the opening credits of James Whale’s Frankenstein. And Karloff’s career began in earnest, lumbering and moaning as he traversed the European countryside, an ugly patchwork of dead tissue revived by lightning, gentle at heart but brutal in body. If you want to explore Karloff’s legacy, I recommend another B-movie of sorts, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. It’s not so much straight horror as the kind of horror movie Bogdanovich, fresh from writing about film for Esquire and now a student of Roger Corman, would make, doubling back on its artistic antecedents and contrasting them with the horrific present-day. At the center of it all is an aged Karloff in a quasi-autobiographical role, close to death and ready to set aside a career as a movie monster.

Thank God for Jack Pierce's talent with makeup

What is a monster, anyway? Is it the mad scientist or his creation? Do they each share in the monstrosity? Is a vampire a human being, or something else altogether? It’s so fun to ponder these questions within the fictitious constraints given to us by a body of films. What do you remember about Karloff’s Monster? His hulking gait, his way of going, “Ehhhh!”, his dislike of fire, or was it the neck bolts? Another cinematic reference pont is Victor Erice’s magical 1973 film about childhood, The Spirit of the Beehive. Ana Torrent stars as a little girl in Franco’s Spain who sees a screening of the original Frankenstein and begins seeing the monster all around her. When children see horror movies, it can affect them, for better or worse (in my case, I’d say “for better”).

Erice’s film also connects to a tendency in horror film which I was discussing on a little radio show last Wednesday: transmuting trauma and familial dysfunction into the strange or supernatural. This isn’t a new observation by any means, but it’s something I frequently find interesting. In horror, you don’t have to talk about emotional, psychological, and sexual issues directly; you can turn them into another form. Consider David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979): early on, a young man’s resentment of his father is manifested in a tumor on his neck. Later on, a woman’s antipathy toward her husband and protectiveness toward her son… well, it’s better to watch the movie and be disgusted.

The point is that when we don’t have to follow normal physical and biological laws (e.g., they’re being transgressed by agents of the paranormal), we can have different kinds of tension and pain exhibited in unusual ways. In The Exorcist (1973), for example, the complexities of a mother/daughter relationship troubled by divorce, dating, and the onset of adolescence are blown up (in all senses of the phrase) via the horrors of demonic possession. Sure, a lion’s share of the horror comes from the explicit, nearly X-rated gore (whether we’re talking crucifix masturbation, spider walking, or just pea soup), but it’s contextualized and given emotional heft by the pre-existing difficulties between Chris and Regan MacNeil.

Father Merrin (the apparently ageless Max von Sydow) approaches the MacNeil house

Unfortunately, at this juncture, it’s been so long since I started writing this post that I’ve lost track of what my argument was. But that aside, horror films serve many important roles in our common culture, and they’ve often turned out to be masterpieces – whether low-budget art horror films like Carnival of Souls, auteur triumphs like The Shining, or classical Hollywood productions like Dracula. The scope of horror is so wonderfully broad, perhaps because people can be scared in so many ways, and for so many reasons. You can indulge in the self-aware excess of The Evil Dead, or in the measured blood-letting and psychological brutality of Cries and Whispers. Hopefully I can get my mind back on track and write more along these lines in the near future. Till then, pleasant nightmares.

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