All Hail Horror Houndz!
As I documented in last year's Halloween post, I became addicted to the horror genre at a pretty young age. Almost too young, since I wasn't old enough to sneak into movie theaters and home video at the time wasn't as accessible as it is now. As a neophyte horror fan growing up in a small town, my options were really limited.
So, for the longest time, I had to be content with reading about scary movies instead of seeing them. The authors of many of these books seemed to be older dudes who thought that the genre began with Silent Films and began to tip into despotism with the bloody and boob-ridden Hammer cycle of horror remakes. A lot of these writers seemed to believe that the more extreme examples of modern horror (from 1968 onward) actually had the essence of evil woven right into the very fabric of the film itself.
As a good little dweeb who's mindset was safely cloistered away in a Catholic school, I had no problem subscribing to this hypothesis. After all, I'd been thoroughly traumatized by such slo-pitch fare as Poltergeist and Night of the Living Dead. When I was able to sneak in the odd VHS rental of heavy hitters like An American Werewolf in London I quickly became convinced that certain movie directors were certifiably nuts and had the ability to cast a "fear" spell on the viewer at will. They didn't use magic wands or enchanted staves to do this. They used cursed film stock, clearly marinated in the essence of pure evil.
Up to that point in time, I'd survived several system shocks but I knew that there was still one film so dark, so intense, so unremittingly nasty that a viewing was inevitable. Unfortunately, my trusted horror film anthology writers did very little fortify me:
"...for all its goriness and the contempt heaped upon it by those who considered its overt ghoulishness too much, (this is) an amazingly influential movie."
Horrors: A History of Horror Movies by Tom Hutchinson and Roy Pickard
"...the most talked about film of its day. A movie that people just had to see, if they could stand it. For years studio publicists issued claims that this or that horror film was so terrifying that people with weak hearts should not attend or that members of the audience had fainted or fled the theater screaming. The same sort of claims were made about (this film) but at least some of them appeared to be true. The difference was that instead of being frightened out of the theater, people had to leave because they were feeling disgusted or sick. A good deal of the impact of the film came from scenes of the girl spouting obscenities in the devil's voice and the most talked-of scene was one in which she vomits what looks like split-pea soup in full view of the camera."
Horror Movies by Daniel Cohen
"...the Satanic occupee...breaks every rule of social behaviour from urinating on the carpet to emitting large quantities of spinach-green vomit. En route she masturbates with a crucifix, levitates her bed, speaks with a voice deeper then Paul Robeson and hurls a well-intentioned priest out of the window."
Horror Films by Nigel Andrews
Really? Seriously!? Surely you weren't allowed to show such things in a film. I actually found myself humoring the opinion of prototypical televangelist Billy Graham: if the film-makers willingly opted to exhibit such dark material then the resulting movie had to be the embodiment of pure Satanic influence. I was at an impasse. I couldn't call myself a horror film aficionado and not see this movie. On the other hand, if I watched it, was I playing with spiritual nitroglycerine?
In the end, my addiction to fear won out over prudent and rational thought. One day, during Christmas vacation (ironic!), I went down to the video store, rented a copy of this notorious video nasty and then waited patiently for my parents to vacate the premises. Like a true masochist, I shut off all the lights in the house and then hunkered down to watch what was supposedly the scariest film ever made.
Right off the bat, director William Friedkin came at me full-bore using the power of sound. During the scene in which Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) discovers a small demonic headpiece, he employed a weird, ambient, electronic buzz which sounded like a cloud of flies. Instantly I was ill-at ease. This technique was used again later when Merrin engages in a stare-down with the full-sized statue of Pazuzu. As a small-town rube, I even found the dissonant Arabic singing (which I now recognize as the "Athan", or the call for prayer time in Islam) which accompanied the film's title card to be slightly unnerving.
Auditory elements continued to be Friedkin's greatest weapon. Even after the film segued to more familiar environs, I was kept off-kilter by the strange, unnatural noises coming from Chris MacNeil's well-to-do attic. And then came the gloriously unnerving strains of "Tubular Bells" by Mike Oldfield. Could there be any more appropriate musical accompaniment as Chris (Ellen Burstyn) walks home through the October leaves and wind? To this day, the only comparably effective piece of music I can think of is John Carpenter's soundtrack for Halloween.
The matter-of-fact sensibilities Friedkin applied to good effect in those early Iraq scenes were expertly transplanted to Georgetown. For the first time ever I met famous actress and single mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her cherubic, freshly-scrubbed daughter Regan (Linda Blair). I couldn't help but notice that their scenes together were completely devoid of illusion, conceit or pretension. Their candid performances and the film's documentary style really sold the film for me. I was completely and totally on board.
I watched with growing interest as one of my current practices was ignored and a future warning was proffered. As a child, I was always cautioned about "catching a draft" while I slept, so my bedroom window was frequently barred shut overnight. Honestly, growing up in Newfoundland where the temperature barely exceeds twenty-five degrees Celsius, this really isn't a big deal. In the film, Regan sleeps with her window wide open, allowing easy access for something considerably more malevolent then cold germs. I remember feeling very superior about myself while watching this.
Then Regan shows her mom how she communicates with her invisible friend "Captain Howdy" via a Ouija Board. I'd never seen such a thing before and I didn't encounter one in the flesh until many years later. Contrary to the self-moving planchette and the inference that the demon introduced itself to Regan via this "spirit board", a bunch of us ended up messing around with one of these things in University.
That is, until we had a super-creepy experience in which we contacted the spirit of a four-year-old girl who claimed that she'd been drowned in a bathtub. When we tried to get her to elaborate, all the planchette did was alternate between the letters "M" and "B". After hours of coaxing, the spirit slowly, methodically and accurately began spelling out "MOMMY BAD" over and over again. Needless to say, that pretty much ended my career as an amateur medium.
Back in The Exorcist, I was then introduced to a sad-sack Jesuit priest named Father Damien Karras, brilliantly portrayed by Jason Miller. After a seemingly pointless scene in which a street derelict asks him for spare change ("Could you help an old altar boy, Fatha? I'm a Cat-lick!"), Damien heads back to the sort of scummy old neighborhood that once existed in 70's-era New York City. Karras pops in on his aging Greek mater who adamantly refuses to leave "her home", even though her apartment looks like someone detonated a broom closet filled with religious artifacts.
As a certified psychologist, Karras would be swimming in loot and much better equipped to care for his ailing mother if he'd just gone into private practice instead of becoming a priest. A real moment of terrestrial horror occurs when his mother ends up in the sort of facility that 60 Minutes would try to smuggle a camera into. As Karras pushed his way through a horde of dementia-ravaged zombies, I got shades of visiting my own grandmother, recently institutionalized in the latter stages of Alzheimer's. There'd been a consistent vein of fantasy running through all of the horror movies I'd seen to that point, which allowed me to detect the comforting facade of fiction. In the case of The Exorcist, Friedkin neglected to throw this psychological life preserver out to me.
Not long after we see that Damien Karras is at a spiritual impasse, finding it virtually impossible to council people experiencing a crisis in faith. "There isn't a day in my life when I haven't felt like a fraud," he tells a compatriot at one point. Since priests were considered a bedrock of conviction to me as a child, it was shocking to hear even a fake one make this sort of on-screen admission. I suppose this really speaks volumes about how authentic Jason Miller is in this role.
Up to this point, I really couldn't describe The Exorcist as a scare-a-minute fun house ride. In fact, by modern standards, the first quarter of film is downright pedestrian. But every time I watch the film I'm profoundly impressed with William Friedkin's patience. By exhibiting restraint and treating the audience as if they have an attention span he gives us three-dimensional characters we care about while lulling us into a false sense of security. At the same time, he's planting tiny seeds of of discord in our primitive reptilian brains.
As Chris inched through the attic, still seeking the source of the disembodied noises, her candle suddenly exploded in a gout of flame, causing me to pee a little. Downstairs, Regan is shown lying wide-eyed awake in her bed. The next morning a priest brings flowers into a local church, where he discovers that a statue of the Virgin Mary has been obscenely desecrated. It was at this point in time when I began to realize that I was in b-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-g trouble.
Like Karras, my own faith was pretty much non-existent at the time. The Mount Cashel scandal had exploded, and priests once regarded as pillars of the community were being exposed as pedophiles and perverts. But even as such stories were coming to light, it was still difficult to shrug off fifteen years of religious indoctrination. Seeing the perverse state of that otherwise beatific statue, obviously shot on location, made my head spin (pun not intended). Immediately I began to wonder if Friedkin had his own dirt on the church. Why else would the clergy allow him to commit something so nakedly blasphemous to film?
The film then systematically went about shattering one taboo after another. Thumbing her nose at her mom's HIGH SOCIETY soiree, Regan materialized from out of nowhere, predicted doom for one of the guests and then decided to test the carpet's Scotch Guard capabilities. In a glorious moment of 70's-era pop-psychology, Chris kept re-assuring Regan that it's "just nerves" and if she "takes her pills everything will be fine". At the time I was pretty sure that a mittful of sedatives wouldn't do much to prevent a kid's bed from bouncing around on the floor.
After subjecting Karras to a bad dream so vivid that I knew it was contagious, Friedkin proceeded to contrast this with Regan's own medical nightmare. Indeed, her spinal tap is documented in such sweat-inducing detail it's like watching an excised scene from Faces of Death. The juxtaposition between real-world fears and traditional supernatural horror was almost too much for my fifteen-year-old brain to handle. Eventually all of these bugaboos merged together so seamlessly that they were completely indistinguishable from one another.
Since a kid's room is normally a place of safety and asylum, I watched in abject fear as Regan's attempted to kill her. Then, from out of nowhere, an impossibly evil voice emerged from within this hitherto angelic little girl and croaked "Keep away! The sow is mine!" This was then followed up with a stunningly loathsome open invitation for the gathered physicians to violate the demon's host. It was as someone had just hit me upside the head with a two-by-four.
Friedkin's unwillingness to strike the same note of terror over and over again instantly got under my skin. He had every fear covered: the loss of a loved one, mental and physical illness, a lack of faith, loss of control, and the threat of unexplained external forces. He kept ringing all of these disparate bells at once, battering my psyche with an orchestral arrangement of unadulterated fear and creating an overwhelming sensation of resignation and despair.
Like Chris MacNeil, I grew increasingly enraged as the doctors and scientist keep shining her on, clearly willing to say anything to preserve the illusion of reality and keep the engine of medical enterprise intact. It's not until a psychologist's family jewels get crushed before a small team of shrinks begin to humor the possibility of an exorcism. Even then, their attitudes are condescending and tongue in cheek. "The victim's belief in possession helped cause it. And just in the same way, this belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear," once of them says, probably in an effort to get Regan's enraged mother out of his office.
So, what makes Chris, a staunch atheist, seek help from Catholic priest whom she openly describes as a bunch of "witch doctors"? More then any other, the next scene in the film can be credited for packing churches to capacity in the first few months of 1974. Chris comes home after yet another futile meeting with eggheads only to witness the entire contents of her daughter's room spinning around, poltergeist style. She also notices that Regan is using a pilfered crucifix in a rather, shall we say, unconventional manner.
Accompanying this shock is a still-convincing, one-hundred-and-eighty-degree head spin and the sort of language that would make Bill Hicks wince. Chris's resulting screams linger unnaturally, providing the perfect segue for the next shot of Karras cresting a hill in silhouette, surrounded by skeletal trees and a corona of fall leaves. It's an appropriately chilling effect for a transition that offers little visual comfort or reprieve.
I stopped the movie at this point, turned on all the lights in the house, and tried to gather my shattered wits. I'd never seen anything so egregiously and deliberately shocking. Even at this jaded stage in my life, after witnessing some of the goriest, nastiest visions ever committed to film, this sequence still sticks in my brain like a splinter. Back then I spent a considerable amount of time rocking back and forth and muttering that classic mantra 'It's only a movie, It's only a movie' until I could summon the fortitude to keep going. My greatest fear was knowing that the really sustained shocks were yet to come.
I watched with growing dread as Friedkin eliminated everything on the soundtrack save a terrible wheezing noise that got louder and louder as Karras ascends the steps to Regan's room. By this time, the voice of veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge is front and center, giving the demon an otherworldly realism that could never have been achieved through electronic sources. When Karras plays back his interview with the demon we can clearly hear multiple voices, foreign languages and more backward messages then an ELO album. The effect is completely jarring.
Added to this extraordinary vocal performance is Linda Blair's startling physical transformation, courtesy of make-up genius Dick Smith. Under Friedkin's guidance, Smith clearly went for realism, treating possession like a physical affliction. His designs suggested that Regan was scarring herself with her fingernails (or that poor, abused crucifix) and the resulting wounds looked both angry and enflamed. The notorious vomit sequence, rigged up by special effects technician Marcel Vercoutere, was supposed to hit Jason Miller square in the chest. Unfortunately, it ended up tagging him right in the mush, resulting in a genuinely surprised and pissed off actor as well as one of the most famous "out-takes" actually used in a final cut.
Another taboo broken, another pause. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone barf in a film, so I had to drink a glass of water to settle the roiling content of my stomach. Eventually the masochist in me hit the pause button again and I attempted yet another drive towards the summit of terror.
Now, all of this would normally add up to a surplus of pants-wettery for the average horror flick, but Friedkin wasn't done with me just yet. Accompanied by Jack Nitzsche's spine-jangling musical stings, the message "help me" is shown boiling up on Regan's abdomen. Then the demon apes the voice of the "old altar boy" who asked Karras for money earlier, bending both the priest's noodle and our own in one fell swoop.
This time I shut off the VCR and spent some time blissfully flipping through the mindlessly cheerful, gleefully vapid Christmas programming on T.V. at the time. After taking in a few reels of Frosty the Snowman and gaining some assurance that the world wasn't a completely awful place, I steeled myself once again and plunged back into my self-inflicted nightmare.
Fortunately, the cavalry arrived not long after in the form of unflappable Father Merrin. Before my unblinking eyes, Friedkin unspooled that famous image of a cab pulling up to the fog-shrouded MacNeil house. A lone figure stepped out, bathed in a shaft of ethereal light emanating from Regan's bedroom. As soon as he set foot inside that besieged house, Merrin was all-business, as evidenced by the following terse exchange with Karras:
Karras: I think it might be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, I'd say there seem to be three. She's convinced...
Merrin: There is only one.
No preamble, no briefing, Merrin's clearly a guy who just wants to get shit done. 'This guy is totally pimp!' I enthused to myself, 'Everything's gonna be fine now!' The character's appeal is thanks in large part to accomplished actor Max Von Sydow, who was only forty-four at the time, but plays eighty better then any actor who's come before or since. And then there's Dick Smith's incredibly subtle aging makeup which still no modern parallel.
Despite Merrin's serene confidence, the walk up to Regan's room is like a funeral procession. And little wonder, since our heroes are soon assailed from all sides with gouts of day-glo vomit, shaking beds, flying furniture, low level earthquakes, levitating hosts, gleefully obscene foul language and the re-appearance of our old pal Pazuzu. Even as Karras begins to crack, Merrin remains unflappable. His spirit is resolute, even as his body seems on the verge of failure.
'Yes!' I thought to myself. 'Merrin's got this! He's got this by the ass! He's go...oh wait...he's dead.'
Which bring me to the most potent and empowering scene in the film. Karras returns to the charnel room and is horrified to to discover Merrin's lifeless body. The still-possessed Regan is shown sitting off to the side, staring vacantly like an infant who's just drowned a hamster in an aquarium. But when Karras freaks out and attempts to resuscitate the old priest she actually starts giggling. Giggling, fer Chrissakes!
Naturally, Damien snaps, throws Regan to the floor and literally beats the demon out of her. He willingly admits the entity into his own body but quickly realizes that he has no way to control it. His final solution is shocking, noble and supremely tragic.
At the end of the film, I was shaking worse then Father Dyer giving last rites. Although I'd survived the process I was put off of horror movies (not to mention a good night's sleep) for several weeks after. Despite the nasty assault on my wits, I knew that the film was something special. The casting was impeccable, the direction was excellent, the performances were great, the dialogue was solid, the effects were seamless and the script's tension built up to inconceivable heights.
Like all great films, The Exorcist has lingered with me over the past twenty five years. For a film that does unimaginably awful things to its characters and the audience, its production values are just as good (if not better) then most Oscar-winning films. Think about this for a moment: there's a helluva lot more people who care about The Exorcist then inert, passionless crap like The English Patient.
Just by documenting the reprehensible depravities of the central demon, the film asserts that raw, elemental evil is very, very real. Yet, in the same breath, the story is rife with nobility, self-sacrifice and redemption.
As such, I really don't see evil in the film anymore. I see renewed faith, the potential of man and the inevitable triumph of light over darkness.
EPIC DOC I love "warts and all" behind the scenes docs. I wanna be Mark Kermode when I grow up...