Category: Satanic Stories


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(A quick aside before I begin my review. Besides my Glee essay from yesterday, you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Three weeks in fact. Sorry about that. After beating Grand Theft Auto V, I decided to finally buy Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Although the Final Fantasy series has had its share of missteps these last four or five years, this game had gotten pretty good reviews so I thought I’d check it out. And it’s been a major addiction ever since. Anyways, I just wanted to assure everyone that I hadn’t abandoned this blog, and hopefully, I can try to keep updating this regularly in the future although I am also working on a new screenplay so that is taking up some of my time as well. Also, there are more or less two reasons for why I’m reviewing this particular film. It’s Halloween officially and I wanted to watch a scary movie and the main actress of the movie kept favorite tweets I made about Terrence Malick films [I’m assuming it’s related to the fact that she’s been cast in his next film, Knight of Cups]. Anyways, it was a good decision to watch it.)

What is the single thread in every quality horror film? It isn’t clever meta-humor ala the Scream franchise or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (though that certainly helps). And it isn’t genuinely disturbing supernatural phenomena ala Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist (though once again, that certainly helps). The best horror films are the ones where the audience has a legitimate emotional stake in its heroes and heroines. If you want to elicit a visceral emotional reaction from the audience, they have to care whether someone lives or dies. Let the Right One In placed character development ahead of the horror and there are days where I think it’s safe to it’s more a coming of age tale with horror elements than a conventional horror film and The Descent delivers nearly 45 minutes of group dynamics and character development before the crawlers arrive. 2009’s indie gem The House of the Devil is steeped in that same tradition.

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While The House of the Devil is clearly one of the most delightfully self-aware horror films this side of the original Scream and Cabin in the Woods, it has so much more going for it than its loving homage to the slasher/occult horror of the late 1970s and early 80s. The House of the Devil is an undeniably masterful exercise in Hitchcock-ian tension and Tobe Hooper atmosphere. In the very best sense of the word, The House of the Devil is a slow-burner and though the movie makes you wait for the pay-off, you will find yourself clinging to your blanket/pillow/significant other as the tension becomes nigh unbearable.

In the early 80s, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is just your average college girl. She’s looking for a new apartment (with a great one-scene turn from E.T.‘s Dee Wallace as her new land lady) because her dorm mate is constantly having loud, obnoxious sex and Samantha can’t get any work done. But, like most college students, Samantha is low on money and even after convincing her land lady to drop the deposit requirement, Samantha still doesn’t have enough money to pay her first month’s rent. And after declining an offer from her rich but smart ass best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to have her father help out, Samantha has one week to scrounge up some cash quick.

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And, like the most evil deus ex machina imaginable, Samantha finds a flier advertising a baby-sitting job. And despite every shred of common sense saying the caller is creepy and not at all normal, Samantha and Megan drive out to the creepy Amityville Horror style house in the middle of the country side where the elderly Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) live. And, with an unsettling urgency, Mr. Ulman reveals to Samantha that she won’t actually be babysitting a child but rather his elderly mother. And, so after the departure of Megan and the Ulman’s, Samantha settles into an evening in a home where a Satanic ritual is soon to be underway with her as the key to its success.

Some people are going to be put off by how “little” happens in The House of the Devil. The typical moments of murder, mayhem, and gore that are the bread and butter of the horror genre occur twice: once in the middle and once again at the very end. But, in the sequences before the arrival at the house, The House of the Devil makes you genuinely care about Samantha and Megan. This isn’t Kenneth Lonergan character development but there’s enough personality between Samantha and Megan that when things inevitably turn sour, it hurts.

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And, then, once they get to the house itself, Ti West’s direction and ability to create suspense is superb. Like Quentin Tarantino before him, Ti West manages to simultaneously declare his love to the cheesy and borderline exploitative horror films of yesteryear while also being clearly of a different artistic league than them. By subverting, inverting, and deconstructing all of the tropes of those films, Ti West skillfully plays on and against audience expectations and pulls the audience along, scene by scene, teasing the big finish so that when it finally arrives, the audience has almost stopped breathing.

The film’s attention to period detail and the visual style of the era is impeccable. With her high-waisted jeans and feathered hair, star Jocelin Donahue looks like she just walked off the set of an old John Carpenter or Wes Craven film. She even carries around an absolutely massive Walkman to play her tapes in (which leads to one of the film’s best moments, an exuberant dance to Robert Palmer’s “One Thing Leads to Another” that is arguably one of the most tense dance scenes in film history). The movie was shot on 16mm film to add that extra layer of graininess and seediness and it even incorporates a cheesy freeze frame title card system at the very beginning. As far as classic horror authenticity goes, The House of the Devil is beyond question.

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And you can’t forget the performances of the cast which are both an evocation of what has come before as well as stylistic statements in their own right. Jocelin Donahue’s performance as Samantha seems to be a twist on the classic “last girl standing” trope of horror films because she’s far more active and bad-ass than the Jamie Lee Curtis’s that preceded her, and after seeing her in this film, I’m excited for her role in Terrence Malick’s upcoming feature. And, Greta Gerwig’s turn in this predates her big break in Greenberg, and even with what little time she had on screen, she marked herself as a natural. And, it will be a while before I encounter a horror villain as creepy as Tom Noonan’s Mr. Ulman.

Horror is a dried up well and then some, and though good films have started slipping through the cracks with delightful frequency lately (even deeply flawed films like The Last Exorcism still had promise and atmosphere), it takes something special to make me remember the visceral promise and thrills the genre can offer when done right. The House of the Devil may not be a great film by non-horror standards, but as far as horror goes, it’s a magnificent accomplishment and a true breath of fresh air. If this is what director Ti West is capable of, I look forward to seeing what the rest of his filmography has to offer.

Final Score: A-

 

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Hellraiser1

(A quick aside before my actual review: Long time readers may remember me mentioning about a month and a half ago that I had decided to remake the master list for my blog. After realizing that I had been accidentally deleting entries into the list [and not being sure how to fix it in a long term way because I use Google Docs and save things in the cloud], I knew I had to make my list all over again which was as painful as it sounds. It took me a month and a half but I finally finished it so maybe I’ll actually have time to focus on my screenwriting again.)

Before I settled on this path for this review, I wrote a whole paragraph decrying the “torture porn” subgenre of horror before I realized the irony of what I was about to do. Buckets of blood and disgusting brutality have become the norm for so much modern horror in lieue of actual atmosphere and plot.  The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ushered in the Dark Age of Comics by birthing predecessors who couldn’t match the political/character subtext with the darker storytelling devices utilized by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Similarly, good horror films with gore were aped by films that thought disgusting visuals were the sole element in a truly scary movie.

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Nobody is ever going to mistake 1987’s Hellraiser from horror luminary Clive Barker as high art, but as an example of how atmosphere can define the horror genre and of how a unique attempt at world-building can make a film distinct, Hellraiser remains enjoyable despite the film’s sillier conceits. Set in a world that is sadomasochism meets H.P. Lovecraft and dedicated to pacing that allows characters to grow and develop (at least by most horror standards), Hellraiser feels worlds apart from many of its 1980s peers and reminds us that you can be extremely gory (it is) and still have time for actual storytelling.

After moving into a house that was once occupied by his half-brother Frank, boring white-collar everyman looks to reboot his life with his wife Julia, who was once Frank’s lover. However, the house’s disgusting state when Larry and Julia first move is, in fact, a reminder of the sordid uses Frank was giving it and of the evil core still remaining at the heart of the house (almost literally). Frank had summoned a transdimensional race known as the Cenobites with a supernatural puzzle box to find the ultimate pleasure. But, pain and pleasure are synonymous to the Cenobites, and ultimately, Frank is ripped apart and only his soul remains in the house.

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And, one day, as Larry and Julia are moving into the house (with the help of Larry’s daughter, Kirsty), Larry cuts his hand on a rusty nail and bleeds onto the attic floor. This act returns Larry to a corporeal form, but his body is only half-finished. He’s a disgusting blob of meat and sinew, and he needs more blood to become whole again. So, Larry enlists the help of his old lover Julia to bring him more bodies so he can become a human being again. But the clock is running out for fear that the Cenobites may return to claim his soul once and for all.

While the film may avert a lot of the bad tropes of 1980s horror, many others are still there in full affect. The acting is bad. It is Friday the 13th sequels bad, except for possibly Clare Higgins who plays Julia who grows accustomed to killing in order to bring her man back to life. The camera angles Clive Barker chooses to use can be absolutely silly at times, and occasionally (though thankfully rarely) things that are meant to be terrifying just turn out to be silly instead.

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Though the effects may seem cheesy by modern standards, I was actually fairly impressed by the make-up work done for this film. When you see the various stages that Frank goes through as he tries to become human again, the make-up is quite detailed and quite disgusting. The different cenobites are all distinct and horrifying (particularly the Chatterer), and I can’t really understand why they decided to only use Pinhead in the sequels (though Clive Barker had no involvement past the second one). All in all, the film’s make-up work constantly upped the sadomasochistic horror subtext of the film’s main story.

I would never really call Hellraiser a “good” movie in a traditional sense. The acting is bad, the story is silly, and it’s psychosexual overtones are all over the place. But, if you judge films on there ability to evoke actual emotions, Hellraiser is genuinely disturbing and though the cenobites are underutilized for much of this film, when they finally appear, it gives Hellraiser a truly distinct flair. It’s easy to see why this film has acquired a cult status among “horror heads.”

Final Score: B

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I’m going to posit what I’m sure will be an unpopular opinion. The very first The Evil Dead is not a good movie. The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness are beloved cult classics because they combined cheesy B-movie horror tropes with a witty self-awareness and intentionally campy sensibilities. Despite some of the revisionist history surrounding the first entry, it is a straight horror film, and it is neither scary nor particularly disturbing nor well-made in the slightest (though it’s clear even then that Bruce Campbell is brilliant and Sam Raimi has a distinct eye as a director). Simply put, 1981’s The Evil Dead isn’t so bad, it’s good (Rocky Horror-style); it’s so bad, it’s almost unwatchable (Valley of the Dolls style). By no stretch of the imagination does 2013’s Evil Dead remake meet the magic of the sequels, but it is also, simply put, a better constructed film than the original even if it ultimately lacks any of the magic that would make the original sequels so brilliant.

I used this metaphor on Facebook after I watched this film Saturday night with my sister and her room mate but it’s good enough that I can use it again. On a “fucked up movie” scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and 10 is Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, the Evil Dead remake clocks in at a solid 9. I have a friend who passed out, like literally fainted, when she saw this movie in theaters. My sister’s roommate started getting nauseous during the film. Gory barely begins to cover this movie, and while I’m a fairly vocal advocate of hating the “torture porn” genre of horror, Evil Dead (which is no way a “torture porn” film; it’s just extremely violent) has to get points for crossing the line not once or twice but like five or six different times. That it manages to mix sadistic violence with the franchise’s established dark humor is very impressive.

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In the litany of reasons why this film is in nearly every technical way better than the first, the characters actually have meaningful backgrounds and personalities in this entry (even if they’re still horror movie thin). Mia (Jane Levy) is a heroin addict who retreats to a cabin in the woods (side note: I really need to review Cabin in the Woods, the best horror movie since Let the Right One In) with her friends and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) so she can kick her habit. True to the original, the group finds a book in the basement of the cabin with warnings to not read it and pictures of demonic rituals on the inside. Ten bucks if you can guess what they do with this book (not really paying anyone). And when demons begin to possess the campers one by one, a bloodbath (often literally in this film’s case) begins.

I really can’t oversell how outrageously violent this movie is. It is at a Rob Zombie or Planet Terror level of cinematic sadism (though it’s not nearly as funny as Planet Terror which is the ultimate B-Movie horror throwback). I am pretty desensitized to violence in any media (whether that’s movies, television, or video games, especially video games) and I was consistently shocked at Evil Dead‘s ability to shock me with it’s level of violence and gore. But, once you get past the initial shock (though, like I said, the film constantly finds new ways to top itself), you realize that the movie becomes almost comically macabre. It enters such a range of over-the-top spectacle that there’s simply no way the film is trying to be serious. It begins to poke fun at the own shock tactics it’s been using. Still, if you have a low tolerance for blood, guts, bones, and brains, stay the hell away from this movie.

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While I have a very low opinion of the original Evil Dead, it did have some things going for it. Bruce Campbell was rough in it, but you knew he was something special despite all of that, and Sam Raimi brought technical and cinematic wizardry on such a tight budget. In virtually every regard, this remake is a better, more structurally sound film than the original, but it never has that magical moment where you think, “man, this could really be something special.” There’s no stand-out element of the film other than just how far they’re willing to push the button (and the test the audience’s stomachs). I spent the whole movie thinking, “This could really use Bruce Campbell.” And, boy, if the movie had more of the comedic undertones of The Evil Dead 2, it could have been a modern cult classic in its own right.

As it is, 2013’s Evil Dead (so far the only film I’ve reviewed from this year; more will arrive I promise) is an astonishingly consistently fucked up movie that gets points for just how much it was able to get under my presumed to be desensitized skin. I’m not much of a horror fan because 95% of it is garbage. Evil Dead is probably garbage but it is entertaining/disturbing/blood-drenched garbage and you have to admire the cajones it takes to push things that far. When so much of the horror genre is brain-dead and formulaic, Evil Dead‘s willingness to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable at least makes it a semi-refreshing alternative to its genre peers.

Final Score: B

(Don’t watch this trailer if you’re sensitive to the issues I’ve outlined. It’s the Red Band trailer.)

 

As a long-time apologist for the endings of The Sopranos and The Dark Tower saga, I’m a firm believer that fictional journeys (and life) isn’t about the destination. It’s the journey we took to get there. While I may not share the same vitriolic response that others do to those two particularly controversial endings, they obviously left me less than satisfied. However, they fit the themes of the series and didn’t completely subvert or ruin the series themselves. They may not have offered all of the closure we desired but they made sense within the context of the universes they took part in. What happens when an ending almost completely destroys whatever credit you were willing to give a film in the first place? 2010’s The Last Exorcism had the makings (til the final five minutes) of an excellent and modern look at religious superstition and to be a deconstruction of the “possession” genre. It didn’t quite make it.

Filmed in the increasingly popular “mockumentary” style (which is an improvement over the overdone “found footage” style. actually now that I think about the ending, it still is found footage. son of a bitch. ), The Last Exorcism is the tale of snake oil salesman preacher Cotton Marcus. Called into the ministry at a young age by his father, Cotton is a master of the “entertainment” and “theatrics” side of religion. He makes his living as a traveling exorcist though he’s more than willing to admit to the cameras that his services are placebo only and that he doesn’t believe in demons. After a different exorcism performed by other religious figures results in the death of an autistic child (Cotton’s son is autistic), Cotton finally realizes that his “services” could one day do more harm than good and wants to hang his hat up. He calls in a documentary film crew to expose to the whole world the sham that is modern exorcisms by performing one last “exorcism.”

Cotton’s final exorcism takes him to the home of the Sweetzer family. The fundamentally religious Louis Sweetzum (Louis Herthum), who has become a drunk and zealously religious since his wife’s passing two years ago, believes that his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon. Their cattle has been mutilated and Nell wakes up every morning with her clothes covered in blood with no recollection of how it happened in the first place. Although it’s obvious that Nell is a disturbed little girl, Cotton and the documentary crew firmly believe that she is suffering from some type of repressed trauma. When they perform their first “fake” exorcism, they leave the farm believing their work is done. However, when Nell shows up at their motel room five miles away (with no way to know how they were there) later that night, it’s obvious their problems are bigger than they thought.

The film is more than a little “talky,” and the first 2/3 of the film aren’t afraid to openly ridicule religion and superstition (especially in regards to outdated practices like exorcism). It’s easily the most commendable part of the film. As you’re walked through the world of Cotton Marcus, the scam artist, you get a myriad of details on how he uses misdirection and illusions to trick not only his “marks” for exorcisms but also his congregation (where he utilizes cheap card tricks as part of his sermon and even proves that he can ramble about banana bread recipes and still get thunderous applause). There are great jump cuts as Cotton is performing the fake exorcism on Nell where he walks you through all of the smokes and mirrors that go into the noises that play during the exorcism as well as how he can get the “possessed” to convulse and to have the furniture shake. It’s fascinating stuff for all of the skeptics in the room.

Patrick Fabian was a wonderful fit for the shim-sham artist Cotton Marcus. While he obviously has a conscious and he goes into detail about the regret he feels about the scams he’s run over the years, he’s got a natural hustle. While he can’t quite deliver as electrifying a sermon as Walton Goggins in that classic episode of Justified, you can see why people have been falling for his schtick since he was a kid. It’s the little things in his performance. It’s the way you can see how Marcus takes pride in the slickness of his routine even though he knows it’s bullshit. It’s the stubborn way he clings to his belief that nothing out of the ordinary is occurring despite the increasing evidence to the contrary (i.e. Ashley suddenly speaking Latin or finding his motel) even though the lines of doubt are written all over his face. I’m not saying the man deserved any industry awards but he was great for the part.

Ashley Bell received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her part as Nell Sweetzum, and she too is a young starlet with plenty of talent. She has to play several different roles in the film. There’s sweet, innocent normal Nell. There’s catatonic and/or terrified Nell. And there’s demonically possessed evil Nell. She transitions wonderfully into all of these parts. When she’s still normal, there are quiet moments where she gets a new pair of shoes (that cost more than she spends on clothes for two years) from one of the documentary people or she shows off her skill with the recorder to Cotton. There’s a legitimately disturbing moment at the motel before Nell is murderous where she tries to molest the female documentarian. Then finally, there’s a great scene where what may or may not be the demon has taken over her and she taunts Marcus and everyone else. Ashley Bell was able to switch between creepy and adorable on a dime.

The film certainly delivered it’s fair share of creepy moments. I watched the film alone in the dark in my first night in my new attic bedroom, and I won’t lie. I certainly jumped quite a few times. The film was far more disturbing when the nature of whether Nell had really been possessed or not was a little more ambiguous. The film was a little too reliant on “jump” scares which means it’s scare factor goes down significantly with repeat viewings, but for your first go, the sight of Nell hiding on top of a tall shelf she should not have been able to reach or making creepy poses through a window should unnerve everyone in the audience. Much like The Exorcist, the film is able to create a unsettling dichotomy between the innocence and sweetness of Nell with the horror that she is forced to go through as some force beyond Cotton’s explanation ravages her.

However, the film totally falls apart in the final five minutes. Even more so than my regular complaint that no Hollywood film ever seems willing to allow the “possessed” to simply be suffering from dissociative personality disorder rather than an actual demonic possession, the film’s ending is absurd twist that seems more forced than the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan film. Without wanting to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film yet, it comes off as a rather poorly done homage to Rosemary’s Baby. The ending doesn’t so completely ruin the film as to make it unrecommendable. If you like “possession” films, The Last Exorcism has a great premise which it sadly doesn’t live up to. It’s a mixed bag, but if you’re looking for a decent scare, you could do worse.

Final Score: B-

With 1965’s Repulsion, Roman Polanski proved himself to be the master of psycho-sexual horror. While the film took a while to get off it’s feet (apparently a trademark of Polanski pictures), few films have left me feeling so completely disturbed. With the unsettling subversions of Freudian sexual iconography (let’s not get into the hand’s extending from the walls) as well perversions of Catholic imagery, Repulsion transcended Catherine Deneuve’s stilted acting to scare the holy hell out of generations of viewers. Polanksi’s 1968 classic, Rosemary’s Baby, is far more well-known although ultimately less satisfying. It can be genuinely eerie and Polanski’s stylistic direction is as memorable as ever. But even more so than the tepidly paced Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby tests the patience of its viewers and Mia Farrow’s performance is underwhelming to say the least.

At a conceptual level, Rosemary’s Baby could have even eclipsed the psychological mind-games of Repulsion. It was only in the actual execution where it really faltered. Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and his stay at home wife Rosemary (Radio Days‘ Mia Farrow) have just rented a room in a fancy apartment with a dark and storied past in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They have two neighbors on their floor, the kindly but eccentric Castavets, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer). Guy and Rosemary want to have a baby, and after Rosemary has a nightmare where she’s raped by a demon as naked occultists (including her husband and the Castavets) watch. Shortly thereafter, Rosemary finds out she’s pregnant and slowly comes to the conclusion that her husband and neighbors are conspiring to hurt her and her baby. Is it real or is it all in her head?

One can applaud Polanski’s attempt to delay the introduction of any of the horror or thriller elements to the story if it meant he had spent the beginning of the film developing the characters in a meaningful way. That isn’t what happens. Although the film makes liberal use of foreshadowing (Rosemary’s old landlord detailing the history of their new apartment building, eerie chanting at night, the sudden suicide of a younger neighbor), the film makes you wait for any real plot development. And that time isn’t spent making us sympathize or understand Rosemary and Guy. Though it’s obvious Guy is a bit flippant and sarcastic, all you really learn about Rosemary throughout the entire film is that she’s willing to go to extreme lengths to take care of her unborn child. Compared to Polanski heroines like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, she is as one-dimensional as you can imagine.

However, from the second that Tess has her nightmare involving her rape by Satan, you realize you’re still in the world of Roman Polanski (pre-the murder of his wife by Charles Manson). During Rosemary’s multiple dream sequences (the film has Rosemary dream multiple times so that you are never really sure whether her nightmare was real or a dream), the film gains a surreal, Lynchian quality (though I suppose, since Polanski came first, it’s insulting to compare him to Lynch) that breaks the monotony of much of the rest of the film. Whether it’s a sudden stylistic shift where the film looks like it was shot on home video, or using hand-held cameras (Polanski was highly influenced by the French New Wave), Polanski infects the viewers with the same unease and paranoia that’s gripping the young and increasingly unhinged Rosemary.

Mia Farrow comes off (similar to Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls) as slightly touched in the head and not quite in the way the role calls for. With her high-pitched voice, affected manner of speech, and general obliviousness to the world around her, you sometimes wonder if she’s a little disabled mentally. Although you innately sympathize with Rosemary’s situation (her doctor ignores her severe pregnancy pains, her husbands claims that the night of her demon nightmare he had sex with her while she was asleep), her performance alienates you because she seems so detached from the situation happening around her. It’s almost as if Mia Farrow doesn’t realize the severity of what’s going on in Rosemary’s world as her two modes are passive obliviousness or campish over-acting. She never finds a balance between the two.

Thankfully, the rest of the supporting performances are top-notch. Ruth Gordon excels as the nosy, talkative, and flamboyant Minnie Castevet. When she whirls into a scene, you may not catch every word out of her motor mouth, but you’ll certainly know she’s acting circles around everyone else in the scene. I’ve heard some call her performance “hammy” but it’s what the role called for. I haven’t seen any of the other nominees but Ruth Gordon’s Oscar seems well-deserved. John Cassavetes is a proto-Don Draper (with an even darker side) as the glib and narcissistic Guy. Sidney Blackmer also nails the difficult part of simultaneously being a kindly grandfather figure as well as an ominous, foreboding menace. The interplay between the three lead supporting stars is wonderful and nearly makes up for the non-presence of the actual star.

The film’s decision to wait until the very last scene to reveal whether Rosemary was crazy or actually at the center of a Satanic conspiracy was well-played (and assuages the primary complaint I have with The Exorcist). Although I would have certainly preferred the film to come down on the other side of conclusion it followed through on, the film’s last twist at least made the ending more bearable. While the film gives Rosemary plenty of evidence that she’s part of some plot, most of it sounds like crazy conspiracy theory talk if you look at it too deeply. Polanski gives you ample reason to believe that perhaps Rosemary is just got a few screws loose (and with Mia Farrow’s addled performance, it’s easy to believe it). Although the film can get a little too heavy-handed with its occult symbolism (666 makes numerous appearances), the film will leave you torn as to what’s real and what’s imaginary.

For classic horror fans, Rosemary’s Baby‘s place in the established canon makes it required viewing. It’s fans often see an undercurrent of feminist commentary (which would be in line with Polanski’s body of work) on the isolation and mistreatment of modern women, but I didn’t really catch that. I can see why people believe it’s there, but I don’t necessarily buy that was Polanski’s plan all along. At the end of the day, Rosemary’s Baby is a psychological thriller with enough truly inspired moments to warrant recommendation but at the same time, it is burdened by enough troublesome flaws that it doesn’t come whole-heartedly.

Final Score: B-

 

What does it say about a genre that the film that I consider the height of the market isn’t even a movie that I can give an “A+” to. I like horror (well, I like good horror. 99% of it is just fucking terrible), but I think that as a cinematic avenue, it might be an inherently inferior form. Because I truly believe that The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made (and it’s one of the only horror movies that I actually find to be frightening), but when I think about the other films on this blog that I’ve awarded top marks to, I just can’t put The Exorcist in the same league as movies like 8 1/2 or Tree of Life. I can name exactly one other horror film (particularly if we characterize The Silence of the Lambs as a psychological thriller) off the top of my head that I’d be willing to give an “A” too (Let the Right One In), and there are handful of other horror films that I’d be willing to give “A-“‘s to. And that’s really it. Maybe it’s the way that the vast majority of horror films put scares ahead of engaging character development and therefore sacrifice an ability to emotionally invest the audience in the fates of the film’s heroes and heroines. Great cinema is about great characters and great stories (and occasionally, if your name is Fellini or Lynch or Bergman, about great visual odes to your own medium), and with the exception of Let the Right One In, I can’t really name any horror films that allowed me to become fully invested in fleshed out, three-dimensional characters. Still, The Exorcist earns itself an immense deal of good will by being without question the most frightening film of all time and one of the few movies that can instill genuine disturbance into the mind of this vocal atheist and skeptic.

While the film begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq, where Father Merrin (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) stumbles across some ancient artifacts which may or may not be of demonic/Satanist origin, the actual film is centered in the otherwise quiet Washington, D.C. suburb of Georgetown. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful actress in D.C. to film a movie raising her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), by herself. Their life is normal and happy (besides Chris’ absent husband) until one day when Chris and Regan begin to hear strange noises coming from the attic. Regan also seems to be convinced that she has communed with a spirit through a Ouija board that she found in the home’s basement. Their terror only escalates when Regan begins acting strangely, starting out by peeing her pants in a nearly catatonic state in front of a party that Chris was throwing and then resulting in full on tremors and spasms where Regan’s entire bed is shaking more than any 12 year old girl could possibly cause. After a series of extensive medical and psychiatric tests, none of the doctors or psychiatrists can come up with a reasonable explanation for Regan’s behavior and in a last minute desperation, Chris enlists the help of a local father (in the midst of a crisis of faith), Father Karras (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on her daughter who is increasingly under the obvious control of something beyond the normal. Along with Father Merrin, Father Karras attempts to save this young girl but it might cost him his own life in the process.

The Academy Award for Best Makeup didn’t exist yet in 1973 (it wouldn’t be invented until 1980 specifically for the film The Elephant  Man) but if it did, it would surely have gone to The Exorcist. This movie is nearly 40 years old, but moments where I felt the film’s effects had aged poorly were few and far between. This was back before CGI defined every single sci-fi/fantasy/horror film and make-up artists had to rely on good old human ingenuity to create compelling images that were beyond normal human experience. And The Exorcist succeeded with aplomb. Once Regan starts to really succumb to her possession and her body is covered in lesions and sores and pustules and what not, she is incredibly difficult to look at and it’s all thanks to the marvelous make-up work of the film’s effects crew. Possessed Regan is one of the most iconic figures in the history of horror and the film really nailed that disturbing and grotesque feel that I’m sure the movie’s script asked for (as well as the source book material). I’m just praying (figure of speech since I haven’t actually prayed in years) that I don’t dream about her disturbing visage this evening. Her face or the rare glimpses we get of Captain Howdy. That’s pretty much the last thing I need.

The film’s sound design is also a marvel (considering it won the Oscar for Best Sound, that’s not shocking). There’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening in this film, visually and aurally, and the fact that there’s almost always something happening at the edge of your perception adds a lot to the overall creepiness of the film. I’m a firm believer that sound design is one of the most important aspects of any horror film. It can be used to up the inherent paranoia and tension of the genre to nearly unbearable heights. All of the best horror films rely more on the audience’s imagination and a philosophy that what we don’t see is more frightening than what we do. The Exorcist succeeds in the technical department because its’ unnerving score paired with the endless stream of ambient effects and the more brutal and perverse noises played when Regan/the demon are in full evil mode. It’s disorienting to an almost whiplash inducing degree. To make it even better, the film will often slip in a couple frames of some demonic image just long enough for your eyes to register what you saw but not long enough for you to make sense of the image. From virtually every behind-the-scenes perspective, The Exorcist was a resounding technical triumph.

That was all without talking about the film’s spine-tingling script once. The movie takes its time getting to the possession (because it wants you to become emotionally invested in Chris, Regan, and Father Karras [though I would argue it fails to really develop anyone besides Father Karras in an interesting way]), but once Regan really starts to lose it, the movie is a non-stop ride into the heart of darkness. By the film’s end, you’ll never be able to look at a crucifix the same way again, and outside of a Stephen King novel, I can’t really think of a single bit of horror that was so willing to corrupt the innocence of a child. However, the film’s script is where it falters and that’s not even counting the way that I felt the movie tried to be more character driven than it had the acumen to be. For a healthy portion of the film, an argument could have been made (and was made by most of the doctors) that Regan wasn’t possessed. She was just suffering from some particularly violent strain of schizophrenia. I just wish the film had waited a while longer to make it so obviously clear that she was in fact possessed by a demon. I think the movie played that trump card too early, and honestly, it would have been just as disturbing seeing this 12 year old girl shoving her mother’s face into her bloody privates whether she was possessed or crazy. Ambiguity and the power of one’s imagination is the sign of a great horror writer, and this movie just played it’s cards a little too obviously. It’s not something that ever really bothered me when I watched this movie when I was younger, but seeing it as an adult now, it just seemed a little too heavy-handed.

I’ve written a lot today (3000 words for Game of Thrones alone) so I’ll draw this to a close. Had you asked me what score I was going to give this movie before I actually watched the movie (based on my memories of the film), I would have said “A+” but it didn’t work out that way. I guess my tastes have matured a little bit since I was younger. I haven’t watched this movie in high school so I feel like I came into this film with the perfect mix of nostalgia and freshness to make a good, objective review. Still, I do honestly believe it’s the best straight up horror film of all time. I actually think in retrospect that Let the Right One In is a slightly better movie, but I almost don’t like characterizing it as a horror film. If you’ve somehow missed seeing The Exorcist at any point in your life (my sister watched it for the first time today and was decidedly not impressed), it’s one of those films that any self-respecting movie fan has to see. I think it’s survived the intervening years since it’s release like a champ even if I’m not quite able to call it a perfect movie.

Final Score: A