My mother told the A and E receptionist ‘He’s sustained a bad a cut.’ I leant in to the window and corrected her. ‘Actually, I’ve been stabbed,’ I said. It’s possible I sounded irritated, but I was speaking the truth. My sister had stabbed me in the upper left arm with a long, white-handled kitchen-knife. I had a small towel wrapped around the wound to soak up the blood. Continue reading
In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.
Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston. Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.
The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.
The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.
Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.
Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it
Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.
Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.
But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.
Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.
Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.
Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.
Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.
It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.
The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.
Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.
Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.
Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.
Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?
One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.
Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable. Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.
Those blades are blunt.
In the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino gave us what was something of a novelty at the time. His characters were talking. That’s not the same as having characters exchange dialogue to further the plot. His characters talked to each other. From the speech about the subtext to Madonna’s Like a Virgin to the bullshitting about tipping, the easy, realistic dialogue made us another character at the table: we were listening to ordinary folks talk, and because we’re ordinary folks, an invisible wall was removed and we were sat having breakfast, too.
The dialogue is one of the immediately recognisable things in a Tarantino picture. The exception to this rule, the Tarantino movie which isn’t rammed with Tarantino dialogue, is Inglorious Basterds, but that movie still has two scenes which are two of the best scenes in the Tarantino canon.
So what are six of the best scenes in Tarantino’s writing?
Reservoir Dogs in not going to be included in the six scenes. Why should it be given what came after it? On the fair logic that the more you do something the better you get, Dogs should be his worst film, right?
This list runs in no particular order and I’m not bothered about the release sequence. The list is simply six of the best scenes and why I like them.
True Romance (1993)
Drexel Swings the Lamp
This scene is beautiful because Tarantino understands Drexel’s savagery, and also how a savage thinks. Those thoughts are demonstrated by the dialogue. In this scene Christian Slater has gone to the HQ of his new girl’s pimp to get her stuff and tell him Alabama – the peachy chick in question – isn’t coming back. She’s had to tell him that old Drexel is only just human, and that’s a compliment. He sniffs out Christian Slater instantly, and knows he should have nothing worry about.
The whole psychology of the scene rests on the Chinese food. Drexel invites X to sit down and have a bite, and that’s a move to see how confident Clarence is. Tarantino has Drexel explain this to us. He shines the lamp at Clarence and tells him ‘You’ve already given up your shit.’ Straight away, we wonder, what? How’s that? And that’s when Drexel explains had Clarence sat down for food, and acted like he wasn’t worried about anything, then Drexel might have thought Clarence didn’t have anything to worry about, and the implication is that he would have then started to wonder why not – and begin worrying himself. It’s a beautiful bit of psychology which shows the instinct developed by animals like Drexel and the innocence of old Clarence. It reminds me of an old wildlife documentary I saw where two tribesmen jogged right towards some lioness and her cubs, and she picked them up and ran from these two skinny humans. It also strongly implies that Drexel is not just quick, but fucking dangerous.
Which he is.
It’s written beautifully. The audience starts off with Clarence’s POV because we don’t know what to expect, either. Clarence’s first look at Drexel is ours, too. When he’s explained the psychology of Chinese food, us and Clarence both know there’s a wild animal sat over there, but we don’t know what Clarence has planned. Then we shift over to Drexel’s POV, as we don’t know what’s in the envelop, either. When we and Drexel see the envelope’s empty, and Drexel correctly updates his assessment of Clarence and states we’ve got a ‘mother-fucking Charlie Bronson’ in the room, we’re primed for action.
And we get it.
Clifford Smokes a Chesterfield
Clifford is Clarence’s father, a security guard and former police officer. The clichéd Italian mobsters (possibly clichéd because wrote them that way on purpose) interrogate him to find out where his son has gone with Drexel’s drugs. What’s important, here, is Clifford refusing a Chesterfield to begin with, then asking for one a little later. In between these moments, he’s decided the gangsters are going to kill him and there remains a possibility he was mistaken about that.
Upon thinking he’s about to be topped, he asks ‘Can I have one of those Chesterfields, now?’ He then delivers the famous ‘Sicilians are descended from Niggers’ speech. This is not a ‘racist’ speech, there is depth, here: the speech is actually a condemnation of racism. The kind of casual racism Tarantino is condemning here is the kind Eddie Murphy brilliantly jokes about in Raw when he does the sketch about Italians after just seeing Rocky. Eddie Murphy is taking the piss, but Tarantino isn’t. He’s going for the throat with this speech, and the whole speech is clearly motivated by a hatred of racism, and aimed at one category of casual racist.
When I first watched this scene, I didn’t understand what was happening until Clifford began smoking the cigarette. It was the sound of it burning as he sucked it, and bits of ash flicking off it, that made it clear he was really fucking enjoying this cigarette, enjoying it like it was his last, and that’s when I ‘got’ what was going on. The scene ends with the tragic irony that the whole speech was a waste of time because, although Clifford keeps his mouth shut about where Clarence and Alabama have gone, they leave their address on his fridge, so it was all for nothing. At least he got the Sicilian speech in.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Landa Drinks the Milk
This is the entire first scene to Inglorious Basterds, which begins with Landa’s strangely pleasant manners and ends with the murder of the Dreyfus family who are hiding under the floorboards. Talk about a scene having an ‘arc’.
What actually happens, here?
The film begins with a dairy farmer and his daughters going about their normal business, when a Nazi staff-car – with motorcycle outriders – approaches the house. The farmer, Perrier La Padite, tells one of his daughters to get him some water and go inside, but not to run. Running looks ‘guilty’.
The man in the car is Col. Hans Landa of the SS, and he sits at the table. He is offered wine, but – and this is oddity number one – Landa, because he’s on a dairy farm, chooses milk instead of wine, and drinks his glass down with theatrical pleasure, praising the farm and its cows for the delicious milk. What does drinking the milk do?
Drinking the milk is one way we learn something about Landa’s character. He’s on a dairy farm, so he drinks milk. He blends in with his surroundings, in other words, and he makes something of a show of enjoying it. This is important.
What follows is a pantomime.
Landa questions La Padite about the Dreyfus family – a Jewish family, hiding from the Nazis – and wants to know what La Padite has heard about what happened to them. La Padite tries to shrug this off by saying he’s heard ‘only rumours’ and this animates Landa, who says he loves rumours because, whether they are true or not, rumours can be revealing. La padite then, as he lights his pipe, says he’s heard ‘rumours’ the Dreyfus family escaped into Spain . Landa asks, ‘So the rumours you’ve heard have been of escape?’ I would have liked to have seen Landa’s face when he gives this line, but the camera stays on La Padite and drops slightly to show the pipe in La Padites’s mouth looking like Pinochio’s nose. We already know they are under the floorboards, and now, thanks to the ‘rumour’ about their escape, Landa is now convinced they are, too.
I think this is the confirmation he needed, as he always was suspicious. Consider the information he asks for. What number of children in the family? Ages of the children? He doesn’t ask for more than that because he’s not really there to find that out, he just wants confirmation that they are under the floorboards.
It’s here that Landa gives his ‘rat’ speech. He tells La Padite that if the German shared any characteristics with a beast it would be the predatory cunning of the Hawk, and if the Jew any characteristics with a beast it would be that of the Rat.
It’s here that he explains why he drinks milk while on a dairy farm.
He engages the farmer on his dislike of rats, and suggests the farmer wouldn’t be too kind if one scampered in the door. The farmer agrees, then Landa suggests that any filth spread by a rat a squirrel could equally carry, and he also points out that rats and squirrels, aside from the tail, look quite similar, yet he bets La Padite doesn’t have the same feelings for squirrels as he has for rats. La Padite has to confess he doesn’t. Landa then explains that he can ‘think like a Jew’ and that he understands the kind of behaviour a person is capable of after they have ‘abandoned dignity.’ It’s this ability which allows to work out the family are under the floorboards.
Landa is probably a homosexual, and therefore member of a minority persecuted by the Nazis, and he’s hiding by acting like an enthusiastic Nazi. This is how he knows how to ‘think like a Jew’. He knows how persecuted minorities think, and what a person will do to stay alive.
Donny Swings the Bat
This is one of the most memorable scenes from Inglorious Basterds. A German soldier is questioned about the positions of his comrades stationed ‘up the road a piece’ and he refuses to reveal their locations. He is told, quite simply, that Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the Basterd nicknamed The Bear Jew, is going to beat him to death he if doesn’t talk. The Sgt theatrically raises his hand and respectfully refuses, while touching the Iron Cross he got for bravery.
In one version of the script I read, there’s some backstory shown of Donowitz getting his Jewish neighbours to sign the baseball bat he’s taking to Europe to beat Nazis to death with. It’s an American kind of brutal death, being battered with baseball bat, Imagine if Donny was instead Donald, and English officer who used a Golf club or a Cricket bat. Would it have worked? I don’t think so. In addition to having this very American death imposed, the Americans are seen scalping the dead Germans, like the ‘Indians’ did to some white Americans. In one simple stroke, Tarantino equates the holocaust of the American ‘Indians’ with the genocidal doings of the Nazis. So while the American punishment is being dealt to the heads of the captured Nazis, we are reminded that Americans have their own ‘history’ to remember, so perhaps we shouldn’t take too much of the moral high ground.
I think he was going for a small act of moral fairness with the German Sgt by having him sit calmly and with immense bravery while The Bear Jew comes out the tunnel swinging. Indeed, he stabs at the Iron cross on the German’s chest and asks if he ‘got that for killing Jews?’ showing a little bit of obsession on Donny’s part. ‘Bravery’ he replies, sitting as like a Buddhist.
Donny looks almost sad as he tees up the bat, ready for the first blow. But by the time the German’s head is battered this way and that a few times (which is shown in a long-shot which is somehow unsatisfying) old Donny’s blood is flowing to where it’s needed, and he’s shouting about ‘Teddy fucking Williams!’ whose knocking one out the park and so on.
There’s no attempt to hide or in any way sweeten the near psychopathic violence of the Americans, and it’s this which is important, too. How do you deal with Nazis? You can’t talk to them, or reason with them in any way. You just gotta kill the fuckers.
Death Proof (2007)
Mike offers Pam a Lift, not a Ride
Consider the following scene. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) throws his car keys along the bar because Pam (Rose Mcgowan) asks the bartender if there is anyone he will vouch for to give her a ride home. It’s a classic western shot. Most of the time what gets slid down the bar is a shot or bottle of whisky, but this is a modern movie, so it’s a bunch of car keys. (Pam actually asks Mike if he’s a cowboy.) There is irony there, and it’s at the expense of Pam, who knows less than the audience. Of all the guys to ask for a lift, Stuntman Mike is the last dude you’d want driving you home. She doesn’t know it, but we do.
(Think of all the movies you’ve seen where the scream queen wanders down to the cellar without a torch. It’s a cliché. It aint believable, but it’s popular. It works. Why does it work? It works because an audience enjoys knowing more than the characters on the screen. Knowing more than the characters do is irony in action.)
That’s one type of irony, but what about other types? This is where things get a little complicated.
After the car-key slide and a little conversation Pam asks Stuntman Mike if he is offering her a ride home and whether he’ll be okay to drive later. (For completeness ‘icy-hot’ is a logo on the back of Mike’s jacket.)
Follow the conversation closely:
PAM: So, icy-hot, are you offering me a ride home?
MIKE: I’m offering you a lift if when I’m ready to leave, you are too.
PAM: And when are you thinking about leaving?
MIKE: Truthfully, I’m not thinking about it. But when I do you’ll be the first to know.
PAM: Will you be able to drive later?
MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a teetotaller. I’ve been drinking club-soda and lime all night and now I’m building up to my big drink.
PAM: Which is what?
MIKE: Virgin Pina Colada.
Notice that Stuntman Mike corrects Pam. It’s not a ride he’s offering her, it’s a lift. Once you get that the rest of what this exchange actually means should fall into place and allow you to see where old Stuntman Mike is coming from.
Run the same conversation again, but have them say what Tarantino actually means. Pam is just checking if old Mike is going to be getting ‘friendly’ later:
PAM: Do you want to have sex with me?
PAM: Will you try to have sex with me later?
MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a dickless virgin who’s terrified of women. I’m not really interested in you because I’m building up to my big crash scene.
PAM: Which is?
MIKE: The virgin’s penis collider.
So the irony is double layered. There’s what the conversation really means, and in addition there’s poor old Pam who has no idea just how unfriendly Mike is going to become.
Django Unchained (2012)
Django takes the Dynamite
This wonderful scene comes toward the end of the movie, and by this time, we know Django is heading back to Candyland to have a word or two with the white folks over there. This scene is splendid for a few reasons. First, it allows the murdered King Shultz to be proved right, even after he’s dead. He tells Django to keep the handbill of his first kill for luck, and it’s this handbill Django uses to get the interest of the guys taking him to the mining company, so it’s nice that Schultz’s wisdom is in play after he’s dead.
Django sells the idea of going back to capture the outlaws, and shoots the men transporting the slaves. Well, one of them gets blown up. Just as he’s about to ride back to Candyland, he goes to the slave cage where the slaves have been watching him go about his ruthless business, and takes the dynamite. It’s here the scene is superb. What does Django say to the slaves? What bit of inspirational pep-talk do they get which will change their lives for the better?
Django takes the dynamite, rides off looking like an Indian, and leaves them there; and it’s in his silence that he fucking roars at them and us. If you want to do something, do it. Don’t wait around for anyone’s permission. Django’s speech is conspicuous by its absence. This is smart because, had he spoken, what half-assed motivational bullshit could he have spewed? Much better to say it by showing it.
Get off your own ass.
The Exorcist isn’t about religion. It reveals how much people hate children. It’s really about a child being tortured.
– Max Von Sydow
Good and Bad Critics
I’m a film critic. You almost certainly are, too. If you’ve ever told a friend to go to see such and such a movie, or to avoid a movie because it’s terrible, you’re a critic. If they do go to see the movie, or if they do make sure to avoid seeing it based on your recommendation, that makes you a salesman into the bargain. But are you a good critic or a bad critic?
There is a simple way to explain the difference between a good and a bad critic: a bad critic will say ‘I hated it’ or ‘I loved it.’ Anyone can do that. A good critic will say they loved it or hated it then give you reasons. That’s the difference which makes the difference.
It might sound obvious, but try asking your beloved for reasons why they liked or disliked a movie next time they’re wearing their critic’s hat and see what happens. Ask them to be as specific as possible and an argument won’t be far in the distance. It could easily go something like this:
‘Why did you hate the movie?’
‘I just did, it was rubbish.’
‘Yeah, but why? What was it you hated?’
‘It just wasn’t my thing, you know? Not my cup of tea.’
‘No, I don’t know. Can you be more specific? I mean, do you actually know why you hated it?’
‘Why are you questioning me like this?’
‘I’m not, you said you hated the movie, I’m just asking if you’re able to tell me why.’
‘I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘I’ll be specific: you’re a cunt.’
If I decide to say that Tarantino’s Death Proof is his best movie, then I should be able to follow it up by explaining it’s a movie which tickles the cocks of his male fans during the first half, then brutally slices them off in the second. Any bloke who hated Stuntman Mike come the end of the movie needs to reflect on why they liked him in the first half. They should then decode the dialogue between Kurt Russell and Rose McGowan at the bar. I’m talking about the point from which Mike slides his keys along the bar to where Tarantino, playing the bartender, Warren, sums up Mike’s drink – a ‘Virgin Pina Colada’ (Virgin’s Penis Collider) – by pointing at him and saying ‘virgin.’ It’s a wonderful exchange between Russell and Mcgowan that leads up to that, and the way to decode the dialogue is to ask why Mike corrects Pam by telling her he’s offering her a lift, not a ride…
Or I could claim that George Clooney’s performance in From Dusk till Dawn was worthy of an Oscar – which it certainly was. Again, reasons should be offered. I could argue that it’s the way Clooney shows his character’s thought process and reasoning through small cricks of the neck and almost subliminal facial tics which marks this performance out as award-worthy. Or that the beautiful, understated pragmatism he shows when he decides his brother has to be killed is an example of the ‘less is more’ idea in action.
It doesn’t matter if these reasons are good or bad or agreed with or not, it matters only that they are offered and the position taken rises above the ‘It was good because I say so’ or the ‘It wasn’t my cup of tea’ level. Reasons are the difference between a good critic and a bad one.
Mark Kermode is a good critic – he gives reasons for what he likes and dislikes and, as it happens, I’d respect him as a critic without my slim (and glaringly self-serving) definition of the difference between good and bad. I think he’s very good. But I can’t understand his love for The Exorcist. It makes no sense.
I know that one man loves munching muesli while another loves munching muff, but personal taste is only part of the story. Let me put my confusion in context. If a person with a normal job said they thought The Exorcist was their favourite film, I’d automatically assume that was a question of personal taste: a matter for them and their psychiatrist; but if a film journalist, an actual movie critic, claims The Exorcist is the best film ever made – well, questions need to be asked about the story.
Let me make something clear. If Laurence Olivier – as Othello or Heathcliff, doesn’t matter – enters a scene, slams the door behind him and delivers a splendid speech while the wall of the set wobbles, that says nothing about the quality of the story. That should be obvious. The movie Left Behind, one of the stupidest movies ever, has a bible thumper tell Cassy Thomson that he hasn’t been ‘raptured’ into heaven because he’s lost his faith, and lost it years ago. He’s been going through the motions. Yet all the new-borns on the maternity ward – for reasons unknown to me (or the screenwriter) – have been raptured upstairs. When there’s a howler like this in the story’s logic, its premise, or whatever you want to call it, it’s not the fault of the set-designer.
This is a distinction worth making. Kermode cannot think The Exorcist is the best movie ever made for reasons which have nothing to do with the story. That would be ridiculous. This is fiction we’re talking about, the story is the point.
The question of what defines a ‘good’ film as compared to a ‘bad’ film is harder to answer than the same question about good and bad critics. It’s obviously possible to have a good story demonstrated by a poorly made film, and a stupid story demonstrated by a competently made movie; so, although technical questions are not beyond my scope in respect to The Exorcist film or novel, I’m interested more in why what is offered to the reader and viewer is absurd given the story’s premise, and those considerations don’t rely on whether we’re talking about a novel or a movie: I’d happily discuss the absurdities of Exorcist: The Musical or Exorcist: The Stageplay.
In other words, the medium used to deliver the story is of secondary importance to the story itself, and no technical skill or director’s “vision” can rescue a stupid story with top-notch cinematography or clever editing. How can it be otherwise?
This is why Kermode needs help: it’s not so much the movie that’s the problem – William Friedkin is no idiot and the movie is competently made – it’s the story. There are some fiddly questions to answer. Once you’ve decided a movie is “good” how much of that depends on the story, how much on the technical accomplishments of the director? How much on the acting skills of the players, how much on the actual dialogue they have to memorise? We’ve already seen, thanks to Tarantino’s Death Proof as the example, that the dialogue can mean more than the surface words before a player is hired to read them. Yet obviously the performance is important. Diane Keaton, telling Al Pacino in The Godfather II she’s had an abortion without his knowledge, is an example of the delivery of the lines taking the lines themselves to another place entirely. The surface words could be taken literally, but that seems to require Keaton to put some emphasis on “I,” changing ‘I had it killed’ to ‘I had it killed.’ She doesn’t do that, yet that’s the line that causes Michael to slap her. She’s mocking him, his family and the patriarchal tradition. It’s a beautiful scene which wouldn’t have its subtlety if Keaton had laid down the emphasis that a literal reading would require. Or take a simpler example. Robert Duvall telling Marlon Brando they shot Sonny on the causeway, ‘he’s dead.’ Duvall’s voice falters on the last word. To say he lifted the words off the page would be an understatement. Sometimes it does matter who’s in a film. I’m not immune to performance; it’s not all about the material and the assumptions of the story for me.
The first Jurassic Park might have been a technical triumph, but there’s not much story to talk about. If a critic said the film was the best ever made, it would a fair assumption the critic was a sort of tech-head, and it was only the effects and the visual power which did it for him. You can’t say that about The Exorcist, so the story must be a part of anyone’s claim it’s the best movie ever made.
The novel was a commercial success, selling millions of copies, and a person might assume the source material was competently written. It’s an easy mistake to make. There’s also another easily made mistake I’m mindful of in respect to criticism. You shouldn’t assume a character is there to offer the disguised opinions of the writer. However, if the narrative expresses attitudes which are not dialogue, and are not the character’s thoughts through obvious attribution or ‘free indirect style,’ then it is fair to assume those attitudes are held by the author, for who else owns them? Who put them on the page? And it is that which then allows for some gentle speculation: yes, maybe, the author is hiding behind his characters here and there?
I think Blatty let a little too much of himself onto the pages of his famously awful novel, and I think he knew it.
Behind every holier than thou, sanctimonious, Dan Quayle type, I’ll show you a man who pays two transvestites to piss in his face.
- Jack Nicholson
Mark Kermode begins the discussion of the novel (in his thesis) with the following: ‘In 1971, William Peter Blatty, a relatively unsuccessful author who had worked mainly in comedy screenwriting, managed to persuade Bantam books to publish his supernatural Horror novel The Exorcist.’ Read any page of the novel and you’ll realise Kermode deserves a Knighthood for services to understatement. My copy of the book is the paperback ‘40th anniversary edition,’ the cover of which claims it’s ‘The most terrifying novel ever written.’
Blatty’s prose is hilariously over-descriptive, contains incomplete sentences, and he didn’t care enough to attempt any improvement. There are numerous examples of his prose making no sense at all. Almost everywhere it’s appalling, in many places, gibberish.
The ‘prologue’ sets the tone for the rest of the book. This is where we meet Von Sydow’s character, Fr. Merrin. The novel begins by referring to Merrin as ‘the man in khaki’ – but, after we’ve been given his name, continues to refer to him this way. This is very strange.
The priest is served tea by a person Blatty decides not to dignify with a name, referring to him as ‘The Kurd’ (which is not far off how we should refer to the book.) By page two our ears are being twisted by his style:
The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt. The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma.
The final word renders everything after ‘eyes’ redundant. Personally, I think it deserves an exclamation mark. Once Blatty had written his way to his glaucoma ‘eureka moment’ he should have exorcised what went before it. Things get worse very quickly. We don’t know if he enjoyed his tea, but he ‘paid for his tea and left a tip of fifty fils on a splintered table the colour of sadness.’ The colour of sadness?
By the next page (page 3) Merrin is in the company of his friend, ‘the Mosul curator of antiquities.’ He has the amulet of Pazuzu, the demon which is going to be causing trouble later. This is our introduction to the demonic, and after it’s decided (out of nowhere) someone wore the amulet for protection, Mr Mosul comments:
“Evil against evil,” breathed the curator, languidly fanning himself with a French scientific periodical;
I laughed out-loud.
By page five, Merrin has wandered off to ‘The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar.’ This is where he ‘sifted vibrations’ and found the limestone statue of Pazuzu. Blatty uses skill and subtlety to show us the significance of this after giving us our first description of the demon:
Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis, and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.
Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.
He bowed his head.
It was coming.
Oh, please. This is only page five. Blatty has told us that Pazuzu is going to be making an appearance later, which is sweet of him to tip us off (who wants an element of the unknown in a horror novel?) and he manages to do it without telling us how his character knows it. So in the space of six lines we have a demon standing on either talons or feet (‘taloned feet’ seems confused) and a character blessed with spontaneously occurring information about the future; and information which makes all those pages with doctors testing Regan a frustrating (but hilarious) waste of time.
The prologue ends with Merrin planning to leave Iraq and return to the United States. His journey begins with ‘his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would be hunted by an ancient enemy whose face he had never seen. But he knew his name.’
Well that’s alright, then. At least he knows his name.
The ‘prologue’ contains an embarrassment of riches in respect to examples of the ludicrous. Consider this:
The man in khaki fixed his gaze on a speck of boiled chick-pea nestled in a corner of the Arab’s mouth; yet his eyes were distant. ‘Home,’ he repeated.
The word had the sound of an ending.
‘The States,’ the Arab curator added, instantly wondering why he had.
The man in khaki looked into the dark of the other’s concern.
By asking the following question I’m actually ignoring a great deal. Is Merrin focusing or in a daydream? It’s difficult to know because Blatty doesn’t care enough to make things clear. And if the nameless Arab is confused about what the author has made him say, he should spare a thought for the tortured reader. The ‘prologue’ is five pages of rubbish which leaves us assured that things can’t get any worse.
Things get worse.
Chapter One shifts the action to Washington DC and we are told that the prologue we just endured might have been irrelevant to begin with:
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.
By asking the following question I am ignoring a great deal. Difficult for whom? Can it be clearer that Blatty hasn’t a clue what he’s doing? By page nine I began to whistle in amazement that this rubbish sold as many copies as it did. Certainly you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you definitely should never judge a book by its success, either. The public has a lot to answer for.
Once Blatty has written-off his prologue, he deftly describes the house in which the horror is to take place:
The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight.
Tight? Tight? I have no idea what that word is doing there, and I doubt the author would be able to explain it either, so I’m going to move on for the sake of my sanity.
He introduces us to Regan on chapter one’s first page, also to an attitude toward ‘the help’ which might have been ‘written in’ (among other things) without the author realising it:
Regan, her daughter, was sleeping down the hall; and asleep downstairs in a room off the pantry were the middle-aged housekeepers, Willie and Karl.
Do we need to know where the help’s bedroom is? Perhaps some snobbery has slipped onto the page unnoticed? Bear in mind, the Columbo-clone snob detective we’re forced to meet later, refers several times to Willie and Karl as ‘the servants,’ a rather hoity formulation when simply ‘the staff’ seems more appropriate. (The snob cop is called William.)
The first time we see Regan, she’s asleep, and Blatty feeds us this first look with more than a spoon full of sugar:
Her pretty eleven-year old was asleep, cuddled tight to a large stuffed round-eyed panda. Pookey. Faded from years of smothering; years of smacking, warm, wet kisses.
To say that Regan is introduced with just a little too much syrupy ‘aw, shucks’ ‘gee whizz, mommy’ American, so-sugary-it-will-rot-your-teeth prose, would be an understatement. Consider the first morning in the tight house. Regan’s mother goes down for breakfast:
Looking down at her plate, she smiled fondly at a blush-red rose against its whiteness. Regan. That angel. Many a morning, when Chris was working, Regan would quietly slip out of bed, come down to the kitchen to place a flower on her mother’s empty plate and then grope her way crusty-eyed back to her sleep.
Well, the little angel wouldn’t plop the flower in the bean-juice, would she? This is absurdly forced, yet required for setting Regan up as a cloying, sickly fucking kiss-ass who we can find annoying enough to enjoy watching her rape herself later on.
Regan isn’t eleven for very long, and her birthday party offers the only creepy scene in the book. Consider the following. Regan, in the early stages of her possession, is in a sulky mood prior to her twelfth birthday:
Regan folded herself into silence. She stayed totally quiet all during the drive home, her mood persisting all the rest of that day and then, disturbingly, all through Monday.
On Tuesday, Regan’s birthday, the spell of strange silence and sadness seemed to break.
The sarcasm and contempt are obvious, but whose words are these? They are not dialogue, and they are not ‘free indirect style’ – belonging to the narrative but really the thoughts of a character , so we have no choice but to conclude the attitude is Blatty’s. He doesn’t have the basic common-sense to hide his contempt behind a character.
Following this, Regan is on her mother’s film-set where the director, Burke Dennings, is spoiling her:
Always a kind and gentle man when sober, Dennings had the lights rewarmed and, loudly calling it a ‘screen test,’ filmed the scene as Regan blew out the candles and cut the cake, and then promised he would make her a star.
That’s creepy. When a director tells a twelve year-old girl he’ll make her a star the deal might involve a bit of the old ‘give and take’? Read your Mario Puzo. Let’s remember that Blatty, before typing The Exorcist, worked as a screenwriter and one must assume he had a fair working knowledge of the entertainment industry. Could this be peverse ‘insider’ humour? And this interpretation is justified later when Dennings is hurled from Regan’s bedroom window while no other adult is in the house…
If you’re going to present the story of a mother worried that her daughter might need a psychiatrist rather than a run-of-the-mill medical doctor, and do so in a story in which we know the daughter is being slowly possessed by a demon and will end up needing a priest, how fortuitous it is that Blatty has a character who is priest and psychiatrist. Karras is first seen visiting his wreck of a mother:
He sat in the kitchen and listened to her talk, the dingy walls and soiled floor seeping into his bones.
Karras, spongy dude that he is, actually absorbs the walls of his mother’s apartment. Perhaps it was he who absorbed the life out of her? Not only do we have the clanging coincidence of his psychiatry qualification, but also a crisis of faith into the bargain. I wonder what will happen to his doubts?
Regan’s behaviour deteriorates and her mother has to have some frank conversations with the medical profession. This is where Blatty forces another mention of the child Chris lost years before. He can’t be bothered to show Chris’s attitude, so he just tells you she’s got it. Regan’s mother is asking if the only doctor she trusts could come over and check her daughter personally. The author shoves in a memory for justification:
She was remembering Jamie and his lingering infection. Chris’s doctor at the time had prescribed a new, broad-spectrum antibiotic. Refilling a prescription at a local drugstore, the pharmacist was wary. ‘I don’t want to alarm you, ma’am, but this…well, it’s quite new on the market, and they’ve found that in Georgia it’s been causing aplastic anemia in young boys.’ Jaime. Gone. Dead. Ever since, Chris had never trusted doctors. Only Marc, and that had taken years.
Where should one start with that? With the pharmacist whose information is better than the doctor’s, or with a new drug which affects only young boys in Georgia? The dialogue is absurd ‘I don’t want to alarm you, ma’am,’ (but really I do, so I’m going to.) And there’s that horrible ‘yes but no but’ rhythm to the final two lines.
By the end of the page, the doctor Chris trusts, the doctor it’s taken years for her to feel safe with, offers his thoughts about Regan with the subtlety and bedside manner you’d expect from Jason Voorhees:
‘Now what would you say,’ he proposed as an instance, ‘if you were my internist, God forbid, and I told you I had headaches, recurring nightmares, nausea, insomnia and blurring of the vision; and also that I generally felt unglued and was worried to death about my job? Would you say I was neurotic?’
‘I’m a bad one to ask, Marc; I know you’re neurotic.’
‘Those symptoms I gave you are the same as for brain tumour, Chris.’
What a nice man: talking to a friend of many years about her sickly, precious daughter and the symptoms she’s suffering from (apart from worrying about her job, obviously, Regan doesn’t have one because she’s a child) and he gives her a cold slap. And he does it – allowing for the conversational ‘rhythm’ – because he disapproves of her sense of humour.
There’s no effort gone into this at all; to the characters or the dynamic between them. What does Chris like about this doctor, that he’s blunt to the point of being unpleasant?
The doctors are not really characters, they’re disinterested drones. This is part of another conversation between Regan’s mother and someone called Dr. Klein:
‘Extraordinary strength is pretty common in pathology.’
‘Oh, really? How come?’
Klein shrugged. ‘Who knows. Now, beside what you’ve told me,’ he continued, ‘have you noticed any other bizarre behaviour?’
That’s hilariously lazy. But the doctors aren’t done with Regan just yet. Matters come to a something of a climax after the hypnosis session. Her mother hears something of a rumpus and rushes into the bedroom and switches on the light to find
Regan and the doctors writhing on the bed in a tangle of shifting arms and legs, in a melee of grimaces, gasps and curses, and the howling and the yelping and that hideous laughter; Regan oinking and grunting like a pig, Regan neighing like a horse, and then the film racing faster with the bedstead shaking and violently quivering from side to side as Regan’s eyes rolled upward into their sockets and she wrenched up a keening shriek of terror torn raw and bloody from the base of her spine.
Can any thinking person believe this was written for theological reasons? Given Hollywood’s love of remakes and reboots, perhaps the film’s remake will be directed by Roman Polanski?
We don’t know at this point if this is the climax of the interactions between Regan and the doctors, but we can admire their efforts in trying to get to the bottom of things.
We’ve had the sneering sarcasm about sulky kids cheering up in time for their birthday, but he manages at least two more thinly disguised sneers. The first of these comes when Karras and the Columbo-clone snob cop are discussing the vandalism in the church:
‘And it couldn’t be some teenage lout?’
‘No, it couldn’t.’ Karras turned to look at Kinderman again. ‘It’s the Latin,’ he said.
‘The Latin? Oh, you mean on the alter card.’
‘Yes. The Latin’s flawless Lieutenant, and more than that, it’s got a definite style that’s extremely individual.’
I wonder about that little exchange. Perhaps as he typed it, Blatty realised that a teenager not being fluent in Latin was hardly a reason to sneer, so quickly tacked on the after-thought? The second is when Karras questions Regan’s mother about her daughter:
‘Would you consider her precocious?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Nancy Drew and comic books, mostly.’
She can’t find even a defensive compliment for her model-making, flower arranging brat? Gee, thanks mom. Perhaps her mother has been spending too much time with those diplomatic doctors?
I consider Blatty convicted, but there’s more to this than a nasty attitude to the young. There’s the playground idea of what’s shocking. Swearing or sex isn’t “controversial” or “shocking” unless you’re an adolescent or a troubled adult.
All the sex-talk spewed out by the possessed demonstrates the failing imagination of the writer. It’s the same in many movies. These are demons talking: not just non-human supernatural entities, like ghosts, but never-human entities. They come from hell, yet they can’t think of anything more shocking than playground sex-talk?
Consider just how hard Blatty was trying to shock with the famous masturbation scene:
Chris rushed at the bed, grasping blindly at the crucifix while, her features contorted infernally, Regan flared up at her in fury and, reaching out a hand, clutched Chris’s hair and, powerfully yanking her head down, firmly pressed Chris’s face against her vagina, smearing it with blood as Regan undulated her pelvis.
Good grief. Whose features are ‘contorted infernally’? (I feel obliged to point out something other than the obvious.) Read it out-loud in a lispy, breathless, school-boy voice. You might get a sense of the excited little mind required to write something like that.
Though Blatty has already told us Regan yanks her mother’s head ‘powerfully,’ he can’t resist telling us it was ‘firmly pressed.’ His adolescent mind is desperate for us not to miss the point. He wants us to know, yes, they really did touch.
This wasn’t shocking in 1971 and it certainly isn’t now. I’d bet The Rice and Lloyd-Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, caused more controversy by using that word to describe JC.
Karras visits the tight house but isn’t immediately convinced Regan is possessed. There seems to be some irony here. This priest won’t rush to conclusions about the supernatural, he will do his research. In one scene we have the hilarious image of a ‘sceptical priest’ reading a ‘scholarly work on witchcraft.’
The author explains the reasons for the priest’s scepticism. It is unclear from these reasons if it is the character or the author who needs the psychiatrist:
The cause of his scepticism and his doubts, his attempts to eliminate natural causes in the case of Regan’s seeming possession, was the fiery intensity of his yearning to believe.
I suppose if you’re a sceptical priest who reads scholarly works on witchcraft, or an author who doesn’t care about what he’s typing, those reasons might do nicely. I should have thought that Karras’s attempts to look for natural explanations were caused by his scepticism, wouldn’t you? But wait, that’s not what he’s saying at all. Karras has been trying to eliminate natural explanations, which suggests he already believes she’s possessed but needs bit of a nudge over the line. But if that’s the case, then his ‘scepticism and doubts’ seem to dissolve to nothing.
So there an example of a passage which, if you read it quickly, makes no sense; but if you read it slowly and think about what the author actually says, still makes no sense.
That Mark Kermode deserves his honour for services to understatement should be a point nobody could disagree with.
This book is shocking for the wrong reasons. No band releases the first rough-cut demos as finished work; no studio releases footage which is unedited and claims that’s the film done. The paying public would refuse the offer to trade. I don’t know why this book did so well. What can be so likeable about a semi-literate novel which has disguised child-rape fantasies and which sneers at the young, considering them stupid by definition?
It’s the snob cop who allows more sneering to be ‘written-in’ to the book. To call Kinderman a ‘Columbo-clone’ is correct. Blatty makes him a waffling, can’t-get-to-the-point-bumbler, who (naturally) has a sharp mind under the disarming exterior. He even has the cop suddenly ‘remember’ something and say, ‘and another thing’ before he talks to Karl outside the house. That was yet another scene where I laughed out loud.
The snob cop seems a bit clingy to me. He’s always asking people to go to the movies with him. But why does he invite people he meets while working? Doesn’t he have friends?
The cop tells Chris he likes to talk about the movie, to offer some criticism after the lights come up. Well, why not? Almost all of us are film critics. He tells Regan’s mother about a film of her he’s watched six times, but there’s
..one tiny, almost miniscule flaw. And please believe me, in such matters I am only a layman. Okay? I’m just audience. What do I know? However, it seemed to me the musical score was getting in the way of certain scenes. It was too intrusive.
After building the suspense, I was disappointed with such a banal observation and was hoping for something specific from a critic with sensitive ears.
There are two other exchanges which must be mentioned. In the first the snob cop is asking Karras to the cinema, in the second, Fr. Dyer:
‘Are you busy? I’ve got passes for the Biograph. It’s Othello.’
‘That depends on who’s in it.’
‘Who’s in it? John Wayne, Othello, and Desdemona, Doris Day…This is William F. Shakespeare! Doesn’t matter who’s starring, who’s not!’
‘I’ve got passes for the Biograph tomorrow night. You’d like to go?’
‘Who’s in it?’
‘Who’s in it?’ The detective’s eyebrows bunched together in a scowl as he gruffly answered, ‘Heathcliff, Sonny Bono and in the role Catherine Earnshaw, Cher. Are you coming or not?’
Perhaps it should say, ‘the role of Catherine Earnshaw’? (I don’t know, and by the time I got to the latter scene certainly didn’t care. But the image of John Wayne in blackface is amusing.)
Consider those two brief exchanges. This snob cop – who refers to the housekeepers as ‘the servants’ – is irritated because he thinks the writing is enough. His tastes are more refined than those of the priests he asks, and he wants them to know it. And that’s the measure of the snobbery because the priests are of a high status in this book, much higher than the clumsy, clanging doctors.
Would a film buff and critic, as this policeman is supposed to be, really think it wouldn’t matter who was in a film, given how sensitive his ear is meant to be to the music on the soundtrack?
A defence of sarcasm is that it can be funny, but there’s no humour in the snob cop’s sarcasm – only contempt for the lesser-mortals who don’t have the artistic sense he does.
Regan is eventually deemed possessed and the Church give the order for the exorcism to go ahead. It’s at this point the ‘man in khaki’ is mentioned again. Karras is impressed:
The news stunned him. Merrin! The philosopher-paleontologist! The soaring, staggering intellect! His books had stirred ferment in the Church, for they interpreted his faith in terms of matter that was still evolving and destined to be spirit that at the end of time would join with Christ, the “Omega Point.”
Chris passes one of Merrin’s books to Karras, showing him a passage she has marked out. Blatty, for some reason, is happy for us to read some of this great theologian’s work, presumably so we, too, can appreciate the ‘soaring, staggering intellect.’
It might have been prudent to leave his work for our imaginations.
The exorcism itself is a bland few pages of religious waffle, mostly in English, though I would have thought the author would have wanted to more of the flawless Latin with the individual style.
The only part of the exorcism which is interesting is when Karras asks a pretty sensible question:
‘We say the demon cannot touch the victim’s will.’
‘Yes, that is so. There is no sin.’
‘Then what would be the purpose of possession. What’s the point?’
That is a long overdue question. I would have had this question coming from the mouth of Regan’s mother much earlier in the book, rather than from a priest assisting in the ritual, but that we get it at all is better than nothing.
We get lot of dialogue from Merrin in response to the question. He begins by saying ‘Who can know? Who can really hope to know?’ and then wanders off into vagueness and banality for almost a page and a half, though he closes with a flourish:
‘And yet even from this – from evil – there will finally come good in some way; in some way that we may never understand or even see.’ Merrin paused. ‘Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness,’ he brooded. ‘And perhaps even Satan – Satan, in spite of himself – somehow serves to work out the will of God.’
The most pertinent question about demon possession is offered to the priest with the towering intellect, and all he can manage is a long-winded version of ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ This is the cop-out answer many religious offer when a sensible or difficult question is asked. It’s a worse answer than ‘I don’t know’ because it contains self-delusion and doublethink.
That’s about it all that happens.
Merrin’s heart gives out, Karras takes it badly. He invites the demon to ‘come into me’ and then jumps out the window, taking a header down the steps. Regan and her mother leave the tight house and that’s it.
The final laugh comes in the ‘Author’s note’ where he tells us he has ‘taken a few liberties with the current geography of the Georgetown University…moreover, the house on Prospect Street does not exist.’
It’s sweet of him to let us know the tight house was a figment of his imagination.
Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which everyone in himself calls religion.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
That the film’s director and one of its main players disagree on what The Exorcist is actually about is interesting. Friedkin said the movie tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the world, both good and evil, Von Sydow said it’s not about religion, but reveals how much people hate children. How can they disagree so starkly? Who’s right? Are they both wrong? Are they both right?
The basics are easy to summarise. A young girl begins to demonstrate odd behaviour and her mother gets her checked by the medical profession. They tell her that they can find nothing physically wrong with the child. Her behaviour gets worse and the poor love ends up strapped to a bed screaming obscenities at whoever happens to be there. Eventually, after realising medicine won’t work (there’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem, don’t you know) her mother gets a priest in to have a look at the child. The priest diagnoses a bad case of demonic possession and calls for a colleague – an expert on such matters – who comes over and the two of them have a crack at forcing the demon out of the child and back to the higher frequencies where it can get up to no harm.
During the struggle to evict the demon, one priest dies, and after the struggle which follows the discovery of the dead man, the second priest kills himself rather than be possessed by the demonic entity. The child is returned to normal and remembers nothing of the incident, and not even her shredded spinal-cord or mutilated vagina are enough to jog her fucking memory. Those are the basics of it. Anyone could flick through the movie and see that is, more or less, what happens. That is what the story is about– at least on the surface.
Friedkin’s comment is about the basic presupposition of the story: if demons exist, then a reality other than our own three-dimensional reality exists; if demons exist, their opposite numbers, angels, exist; and if angels exist then God exists, and if God exists, then (as far as Blatty cares) Christianity is true. That is the point of The Exorcist: it is meant as Christian propaganda.
Kermode knows all about the propaganda angle and uses a lengthy quotation about this from the author in his thesis. Chapter two of that thesis, ‘Paedophobia in Modern Horror Fiction,’ has a first essay entitled ‘The Strange History of The Exorcist.’ The first half of the quote mentions the “true life” possession case (more on this later) which gave Blatty the idea for his novel, but it’s the second half of the quote I’m interested in:
In my youth, I had thought about entering the priesthood; at Georgetown had considered becoming a Jesuit. A novel of demonic possession, I believed – if only I could make it sufficiently convincing – might be token fulfilment of deflected vocation. Though let me make it clear that I would never write a novel that I thought would not engross or entertain.
Kermode is suspicious and begins his commentary by saying ‘If we accept Blatty at his word we can conclude that his intentions are evangelistic [..]’ I’m unsure if I’m going to take him at his word, and for two reasons.
First, I raise an eyebrow at how he finds equivalence between a vocation into the priesthood and the writing of a horror novel. Perhaps he recognises this himself? Notice the expression ‘token fulfilment of deflected vocation.’ He seems to want to have things both ways, here. On the one hand he’s fulfilled his ‘vocation’ – or ‘done his bit’ for the team – on the other he can hardly claim that writing one novel is comparable to decades of service in the priesthood, hence the ‘token’ part of his revealing phrase.
Second, if the book really was meant as Christian propaganda, then it is certainly rubbish propaganda to start off with. The author doesn’t understand his own position.
Simply, the existence of demons in no way presupposes the existence of angels. Why should it? The late Christopher Hitchens summed this up nicely during a debate with two rabbis on the question of an afterlife. He suggested, with a sort of amused shrug, that maybe there was a God, but one with a sense of humour: good people go to hell. If there is an afterlife then the nature of it is whatever it happens to be. It could be the case that God is an evil god; it’s not a stupid idea philosophically, and for instance, in 2011, the philosopher Stephen Law took on the theologian William Lane-Craig in a debate at Westminster Central Hall and set out the basics of such a case in response to Craig’s beloved Cosmological Argument. Blatty’s idea, that the existence of angels presupposes the existence of demons is just daft. The Exorcist story is flawed from the off.
Some might object and say to me ‘calm down, dear – it’s just a story – it is fiction,’ and they’d be right, it is. I’ll happily grant the fiction-writer any premise at all: be it vampires and werewolves or worm-holes and alien intelligence. I don’t think fiction must be realist, who would? But The Exorcist is different in that its author has claimed a more serious motive than simply a desire to ‘engross or entertain’ (which he fails to do) so it’s worth looking at the foundation upon which his story sits because I’m sceptical about his motivations for writing the book to begin with. And in any case, if a person wanted to write a story which presupposed the existence of angels, why not write a story which has a few angels in it?
That’s the first problem with The Exorcist – the motivation for writing the story is philosophically incoherent, and therefore any story which comes from this confused beginning is going suffer whether the writer is a genius or not, and Blatty is not.
This doesn’t have to be the case with a premise which assumes the existence of dark spiritual forces. Oculus (a superb horror movie) manages to offer a coherent story based on a similar, ludicrous premise: the existence of malevolent forces not of this world; yet at no point does Oculus become absurd, because (and more importantly) the movie is written in such a way as to allow the visions and all the other goings-on to be symptoms of mental-illness from which the characters might be suffering. We can believe that Karen Gillan hallucinates an apple which is really a lightbulb because the entity is playing games, then drops the spell once she’s bit into it, or we can believe the hallucination is all hers and she’s shocked back to reality once her mouth appears cut. Both are possible given the movie’s presentation. A premise which is fantastic can be used as one explanation within an ambiguous scenario, adding a layer of uncertainty to the viewer.
This is why The Exorcist story is not scary. The story squats on top of its premise and remains there without offering anything ‘unknown’ or even ambiguous or uncertain of any importance. Demonic possession isn’t scary because we know what’s going on: a person is possessed by a demon. Door closed on the imagination. To properly scare a person the writer needs to appreciate that people scare themselves, and leaving some things unknown, or at least ambiguous, allows the person to fill the space with whatever scares them the most.
Orwell understood this which is why the Big Brother machine didn’t have a universal torture method inside room 101. There are no spaces for a person to fill with The Exorcist.
Another movie which understands the effectiveness of leaving some things unknown is Sinister. This movie is almost the perfect horror film, though the last sixty seconds, when the creepy entity appears with the kid in the home-movie being projected, ruin it. Up to that point we know that, although families have been murdered horribly in the backstory, one child from each family remains missing. That is scarier than the found footage we’ve been watching along with the too-curious Ethan Hawke, and it’s scary for the reason mentioned – we don’t know where those missing children are, but we’ve been told they are missing, so our subconscious minds have no choice but to start imagining.
Here’s a simple example. Stephen King withholds the information about who or what sends out the ‘the pulse’ in Cell. King knows what he’s doing. Here’s a simpler example: he injects a tiny element of the unknown into his novel Revival by choosing to tell us that nobody knows who set the lighting rod into the granite, yet he didn’t have to mention it. There are too many examples to mention. But here’s one which cannot go unmentioned:
‘…Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!’
He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.
To say that Heathcliff doesn’t react well to Cathy’s death would be the least of it, and that passage could easily have inspired the spooky warning be careful what you wish for.
Wuthering Heights is a fine example of a novel in which a character is possessed by a demon; indeed, Lovecraft calls Wuthering Heights ‘a piece of terror literature’ and says of Heathcliff ‘that he is in truth a diabolic spirit rather than a human being is more than once suggested.’ And that’s the point – it’s suggested, not gracelessly vomited in your mouth. There are several hints that Heathcliff might be more (or less) than human. For instance, our hero, embracing the frail Cathy too tightly for Nelly’s liking, isn’t grateful for the housekeeper’s concern:
‘..on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species.’
If Lovecraft is mistaken and Heathcliff isn’t a demon, then he’s certainly possessed by one. It doesn’t matter which it is. Things are implied to keep our psychology, our subconscious, a little on edge.
In addition, Bronte leaves two huge unknowns in Wuthering Heights: We are given no explanation for Heathcliff’s history: his parents and place of birth are unknown: old-man Earnshaw picks him up off the street and takes him home.
Where did he come from?
The second is even creepier. No explanation is given for how Heathcliff earns his fortune during the three years he is absent from Wuthering Heights. We are left to wonder who or what helped him become a man of means so quickly.
Where did he go?
Where Heathcliff has been is the same ‘unknown’ as the question about the missing children from Sinister.
Why didn’t Blatty understand this? Why didn’t he care?
What is “great” about a horror novel which demonstrates its author doesn’t know or care about the psychology of fear?
Five minutes of research will show that he claimed scaring his readers was never his intention; his claim is somewhat convenient. One wonders if, had the book been terrifying, he’d claim that was an accident. But this claim increases my scepticism about his motivation for writing the story.
Stories of eternity in hell have been the method used to terrify people, especially children, for centuries. By lying to children and terrifying them you can influence what they believe as adults. It’s a basic tactic and a very old racket. The scare-stories are a fundamental part of the modus-operandi of the religious recruiter. So to have no intention to scare (absurd in itself when writing a horror novel) is to drop the evangelist’s ace-card.
By denying he attempted to scare his readers, it follows he chose to be less persuasive than he could have; yet he’s also claimed to have made a (face value) evangelical case – yet persuasion is the ultimate point of evangelism.
The Exorcist doesn’t offer any sickly descriptions of the bliss of Heaven, either – true enough – but that’s a problem for Blatty, not me. It means his daft story just fails in the other direction as the Christian propaganda he claims he wanted it to be. Could it be his claim about motivation is simply ‘justification after the fact’?
What of Max Von Sydow’s comment, that The Exorcist has nothing to do with religion and is really about a child being tortured?
Subtext is obviously important and can be ‘written in’ to the story without the author’s conscious knowledge. Stephen King came to realise, for instance, that his novel, Misery, is about alcoholism. (Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ is a metaphor about this process and Alan Moore, in Writing for Comics, makes a similar point about thorough research.)
This happens thanks to the process of writing: just sitting there, hour after hour, typing away can produce an altered state, a sort of hypnotic trance, in which material gets typed into the story without the author being consciously aware of it. This material can manifest itself as the subtext or theme of the story; or sometimes the author might discover he doesn’t think what he thought he thought about a particular topic. When this happens it can be a pleasure or a shock (or maybe a shocking pleasure?) but there’s no doubt this happens. Any writer would confirm it and there’s no reason to believe Blatty doesn’t know it. He might even have been embarrassed by it.
Another interesting little psychological idea is that humans do what they do for emotional reasons, then find intellectual justification after the fact. Robert Cialdini, for instance, talks about this in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He suggests this is true whether we are buying a car or battling our way through the initiation to become a warrior of a tribe, and suffering brutal torture, to earn the ‘right’ to wear different coloured headdress from the uninitiated. (This is interesting by itself and might explain why certain ‘elite’ military regiments put so much emphasis on the colour of the beret.)
We intellectualise after the fact.
Even Kermode, die-hard Exorcist fan that he is, seems not to believe Blatty’s justifications. He says in his thesis that most critics thought the author’s reasons were ‘eccentric.’ This is just politeness on the part of anyone who thinks it – with a hint of excuse-making thrown in. His reasons were not ‘eccentric’ – they were probably ‘bullshit.’ The Exorcist is the semi-literate, barely disguised hate-fuck fantasy of a religious whack-job.
Hollywood movies make demons look barely competent in the possession business. These creatures seem to be extremely powerful and utterly ineffectual in equal measure.
As Karras asked Merrin, what does a demon gain from a possession? It gets to torture the person who is possessed and this, in turn, allows mental anguish to be inflicted upon the family of the possessed. An evil and sadistic entity, which enjoys inflicting suffering, gets to do so. That’s okay as far as it goes, but could it go further?
The priest demands that it enters him to spare the girl at the end of the story. The demon does so and attempts to force the priest to kill Regan. To protect her, he jumps out the bedroom window, falls down the stone steps and lands squarely on the spot marked ‘Hollywood legend’.
What’s the demon doing at this point?
If it could ‘jump’ from Regan into the priest then why not jump back and have Regan go the way of the priest? The demon has Regan ‘softened-up’ as it were so the lock on her psyche should be easy enough for a powerful demon to pick. (In any case, at this point, the demon has ceased squatting in Regan’s mind only moments before, so what are the chances she’s had time to put up the psychic shutters?)
So there we have an example of power and no power at the same time. Also, that the demon had to ‘jump’ from Regan to the priest is interesting. In doing that we see the demon has not the ability to be in two places (in this case, two minds) at once.
The symptoms of possession come and go – the possessed has lucid moments now and then which are used to beg for help, thus implying they are aware that something is wrong. And at other times the demon seems to be the only one at home, spitting obscenities at whoever is in attendance.
So where are the demons during the lucid moments? Having a break? Out to lunch? Possessing someone else, maybe? Perhaps one victim’s lucid moment is another’s time to vomit and climb the walls? Perhaps the mind of the victim, at some level, is battling the demon and the lucid moments represent periods during this struggle where the victim has the advantage? Whatever the reason for the demon being quiet at certain times during the possession, it seems to become mighty annoyed when a priest enters the room and begins the exorcism procedure, which is odd when its behaviour is the thing which brings the priest to the scene.
If I was a demon and I did not wish to be driven out of my victim then I might decide to stay hidden in some way. If the incantations from a priest were enough to get me evicted then I would not want a priest to show up to begin with. Why not possess a dog, or an eagle, or an astronaut on the space-station, or a prime minister or president?
What of that sweary sex talk? Pazuzu uses sexual language to taunt those close-by. Regan grabs her mother’s head, shoving it into her vagina, screaming “Lick me! Lick me!’ The sexual language doesn’t function as much more than a distraction to the priests in attendance. All the talk of cock-sucking and cunt-licking and ass-fucking might prevent them from concentrating, but anything it shouted would do that, so why sexual obscenities? What does it say about the writer, and what the writer thinks of the human animal, that all his imagination can come up with is sex talk? But assume the sex talk is a tactic, and assume it works, and the exorcism fails. We’re left with a girl tied to a bed, the demon victorious and then…what? The girl/demon goes on a rampage and uses preternatural strength to break the necks of policemen and anyone else it fancies until cornered and shot? It’s a fair question: what would have happened to Regan if both priests had failed and old Pazuzu had remained in there?
Why would some of the best hell has to offer wish to torment one uninteresting human for such a time? No reason is given; it is simply the case that it’s happened. Though the demon might be deriving twisted pleasure from torturing Regan and her family, it also suggests that they don’t have anything better to do, or that she might be worth the effort, but if she is – why?
The Exorcist is hardly the only story with this problem; more recent movies care even less about the point of possession than Blatty did, and that’s saying something.
The Devil Inside is one such movie, but it actually starts off ok. The documentary-style shooting is one which lends itself to the idea of an exorcism because such a procedure would very likely be filmed in this way. The shaky camera, the lack of space – these things add to the surface realism, giving the viewer the chance to enter the action more thoroughly than if the footage was laden with production values and effects and set-pieces: this is one advantage first-person-visual has over third-person-visual.
Consider the first exorcism shown. A young girl is strapped to a bed in her parents’ basement. Our first sight of the girl is genuinely horrific. She is under her bed sheet and contorted grotesquely out of shape. That is a sight which affects the viewer because what we are looking at is a thing which should not be: a human bent and twisted into a sick yoga parody, something from Lovecraft.
The girl is injected with a muscle relaxant and her bones crack, dislocate and twist themselves as her form is returned to normal. This scene does make one think of Regan’s head turning 360 degrees in The Exorcist – a scene which shocked many, yet is one of the more ludicrous sights in that film. The Devil Inside’s contortion-in-reverse is not so absurd because the contortions seem to be possible without killing the possessed human. Regan’s head-spinning would have left the child dead after the demon leaves her for the unfortunate priest, yet she is fine at the end of the film.
Once relaxed, the attending priests set to work to rid the girl of the thing which possesses her, a demon called Berith.
This allows us to know the two priests (who are performing exorcisms off-the-books) are serious practitioners of the ritual and just the fellows to help sort out the lead-character’s mother. This victim isn’t the point of the film, but even this victim, when in demon-mode, has to mention blow-jobs to one of the priests.
The mother has been possessed for fifteen years and by four demons. If four of them are in there, surely there’s a good reason and the victim is worth the effort? Alas, nothing is suggested as an explanation (but they might be enjoying baffling the incompetent doctors.)The Exorcist has but one demon doing the possession-for-the-sake-of-it, four is ridiculous.
One of the most offensive possession movies ever – and a film which is actually worse than Left Behind – is The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The movie should actually be called The Implied Gang Rape of Emily Rose, because that’s what it’s about. A young farm girl gets raped – the rapists take Emily’s virginity – and she’s tortured by the guilt for the rest of her miserable life.
The film is another attempt at Christian propaganda, and in this respect it’s better than Blatty’s child-rape wankathon, but that just makes it more insulting to the intelligence.
That is a basic outline of the subtext. One could say that, after reading the outline, they know what the film is about.
The key to this conclusion lies in the flashback scenes which come while hearing the testimony of the witnesses in court. Without carving up each flashback scene and attributing it to each witness, I’ll give another outline of the story-within-a-story which the flashbacks represent and mention some scenes from the present in more detail.
A young and attractive farm-girl is jumping up and down on her bed because she’s heard that she has won a scholarship to university. Her mother bursts in to her room and Emily stops her child-like behaviour and becomes serious, telling her far-from-worldly mother that a scholarship means “they pay for everything”. This tells us from where Emily is coming: a non-sophisticated, non-metropolitan, simple background of good, honest work “down on the farm;” Sunday-school and bible-class; in other words, a traditional god-fearing all-American background. (They’re big on chastity, by the way.)
We then cut to a close up of a Martini – two olives, not one – on the counter of an ultra-modern metropolitan bar. This is where the hot-shot city lawyers hang-out and drink expensive martinis. The place is chrome and glass and the exotic alcohol on the shelves behind the bar give the place colour. Its customers are sharp-suited city sophisticates, and Erin Bruner is first seen here, doing a deal with her boss to take Fr. Moore’s case in return for promotion. She is clearly the opposite of Emily Rose. That is the first thing to note: the church-bake sale purity of Emily in contrast to the slick, amoral lawyer.
Erin Bruner takes the case after making sure there is something in it for herself (she’s obviously a bitch) and her boss is happy because she recently won a case for a client (who is not featured in the movie, but is very relevant to Bruner’s story arc and will be mentioned later) and is, therefore, on something of a roll.
Emily Rose finds herself away from the protective bosom of her family for the first time. There she is: on her own in for the first time, sleeping in a dormitory at university. Some things need to be noted about the university. The place is, without doubt, the most poorly lit educational establishment I’ve ever seen represented on film. The place is unreasonably dark and yet universities are meant to be the places of enlightenment. I wonder why the university is portrayed this way.
One scene, in which Emily has a vision of another student’s face becoming demonic is set in a class-room with students at desks, but the room is sufficiently dark that you wouldn’t be able to read your notes; in addition, this particular lesson is taking place at night. The non-subtle implication is that universities are dark and miserable places and should be avoided. (This is, actually, far from standard with Hollywood movies, even horror movies. There are too many movies to mention in which the college or high school the doomed characters go to, or are already attending when the film starts, is packed with noise, life and colour and parties involving lots of booze and lots of sex. One could get the impression from Hollywood’s depiction of college-life that it’s one big fuckathon.)
After leaving her life of dust and dungarees for the unlit university, she has a nasty experience. She wakes up at 3:00am, disturbed by something, and wanders out into the hall to check. We get a shot of a corridor with the door now swinging open. This is an odd shot (demons don’t use doors) but wasn’t filmed by accident, so I wonder what the director was trying to suggest?
She goes back to her room and climbs back into bed. What is this girl, newly left-home and on her own in the adult world, wearing in bed? She doesn’t wear a short, slinky night-shirt or cropped top and shorts – nothing like that, there’s no dirty, shameful, gratuitous flesh on display; no, Emily is wearing a passion-killing boring nightdress which no red-blooded frat-boy would ever strain his jock-strap for a chance to get into. So it’s clear the good-girl from the good Christian home has kept to her roots and not become a dirty slut who has sex outside marriage. It’s the laughable bed-wear which convinced me about the rape, not just the sex.
This is when she gets attacked, for the first time, by the demonic entity. Invisible hands pull her covers away and an unseen weight holds her down. She is left crying and shrieking on her knees at the side of her bed after this attack and the scene is exactly what one would expect after a rape. She runs from her room, sobbing, into the night.
Now, it needs to be mentioned that it is not only Emily Rose, in flashback, who is “visited” by demons, her priest’s lawyer, Erin Bruner, is harassed by the forces of darkness in the present day. It is her contact with the demons which confirms what the entities require of a potential human host to gain access. The answer is guilt. The back-story is that Erin recently got a “not guilty”, and that victory was one of the reasons for her boss offering her the Fr. Moore case. As Erin sits in her local cocktail bar – the sophisticated bar with all the glass and chrome and exotic booze – she sees a news story on the television about a man just arrested. That man is, obviously, the guy she got-off and – would you believe it? – he’s only gone and killed someone; thus confirming that slick-lawyers are shysters and giving Erin a perfect reason to find the Christian goodness lurking under her weapons-grade ambition and begin to see the error of her godless ways. (This process of finding herself and changing her shitty attitude takes the rest of the film, but is complete when she speaks to Fr. Barron for the last time, when she has, in a symbolic way, become a Christian and by definition redeemed herself.) The murder on the television news gives Erin – crucially in terms of the movie’s underlying theme – a reason to feel guilty about something.
After seeing this news story and realising she put a bad man on the streets to kill, the very next shot shows the consequences of that guilt. She comes out of a toilet cubicle and approaches the sinks to wash her hands. There is, it appears, nobody else in there. Then she is startled by a loud crash and a tall, black-clad figure exits a cubicle and approaches the sink next to her. It is unclear if this figure is male or female, but, in addition to the black clothes, this male or female figure is wearing either a hood or scarf, obscuring its head. Erin gives this odd addition to the cast-list a quick, nervous look and exits the bathroom. The figure doesn’t look at her, but we can clearly see that its eyes are hidden in dark shadows giving it an obvious and deliberately sinister appearance. This is a demon. The point of this scene is to show that the guilt she feels about getting a bad guy back on the streets is the doorway the demons use to get access to their victims; and the intensity of guilt is in direct relation to the intensity of the possession or the mischief the demons are able to enact upon the guilty person. Erin feels not much guilt about the guy she let off, so the demons can only clang a door here and there in her apartment. Emily’s guilt is significantly more intense.
Emily Rose has not one, but six demons inside her wreaking havoc, so one is forced to ponder what the poor love feels guilty about? There’s also the idea of possession to begin with, and the question of why six demons would infest the mind of this unlucky female.
Emily Rose should be better, smarter, slicker and cleverer than The Exorcist, but it’s more ludicrous – it’s a downright ugly movie. It rejects knowledge, reason, education and enlightenment for dumb hick myths of the supernatural.
I have to check every few weeks that this insulting trash was made by the same bloke who made Sinister. I can hardly believe it.
While possessed, Emily has a vision and is told that heaven is not indifferent to her suffering, and is offered the chance to end her agony by dying straightaway. That doesn’t seem very charitable, but remember God moves in mysterious ways. Emily is told the demons will not leave her alone if she goes back to her body. Heaven is not indifferent, but won’t be sending anyone out. That the demons will not leave her alone is another way of saying she will never get over the guilt and trauma of the gang-rape.
Heaven does suggest that if she returns to her physical body, suffers at the hands of the demons for as long as she can last, others will learn from her example and be inspired to come to Christ because, obviously – and here we go again – if demons exist and can do terrible things to us, it rather suggests that angels exist and we might want to take out some religious insurance. Her sacrifice is for the greater good and a lesson to us all. I’m sure I’ve heard that story somewhere before.
Emily Rose, in all but name, becomes a modern day messiah, her case bringing about an increase in people coming to the church and leaves everyone happy.
There’s nothing about this film which is any good. A person could argue that there is at least a reason for the possession of Emily, unlike Regan, but the reason is the subtext, remember, not on the surface of things. On the surface we are meant to believe she’s actually possessed by demons with nothing better to do.
This should be the other way about, with the rape on the surface, as something we see has happened to her, and the guilt/demonic dynamic happening down in the subtext where we can’t see it and have to ask if she’s really possessed or losing her mind because of that guilt: a similar ambiguity to the structure of Oculus. To have the physical in the subtext and the supernatural on the surface is a strange way to arrange matters.
And Emily Rose is, like Blatty’s novel, claims to have been based on a true story, and it might be claims like this which annoy me more than anything else about films like this.
It might be true that these tales were based on true stories, but ‘based on a true story’ just means it’s true the story was reported, not that the story was true. The ‘true stories’ Emily Rose and The Exorcist were based on were not genuine cases of possession because demons don’t exist.
The story would just be ridiculous, but for the author’s claim it was written for theological reasons. Because of that, the story is worse than ridiculous, and shouldn’t be taken seriously by any thinking person.
If a critic says The Exorcist is the best movie ever made, then I say that critic can’t really take that position without the story having something to do with it. The Exorcist is not so special a movie that someone could think it the best movie ever made without the story playing some part in why they like it.
The problem is, the story is theologically illiterate – and utter garbage into the bargain.
The Exorcist is a thinly disguised child-rape fantasy, written by a strange person who really dislikes children.
You don’t think so?
Read my extended essay on the novel and the story the novel demonstrates. I explain, using many examples from other movies and novels, that the author of The Exorcist hasn’t a clue about the psychology of fear and wrote a novel which might reveal more about his character than he intended. I make the case that the theological ‘motivation’ for writing The Exorcist could easily be justification after the fact given how much child-rape imagery is in the book.
The book was so successful that nobody is going to admit what is obvious to anyone who reads it and can just state the case openly.
Shame (2009) could be all done in an hour. It’s artificially long – too long for its action, certainly.
Alright, so Michael Fassbender plays a porn addict who can’t create proper relationships because, for porn ‘addicts’ there’s not enough immediate stimulation in real relationships.
His psyche has an ulcer.
This is how it shakes down in real life:
The ‘addict’ realises he doesn’t find (let’s say ‘women’) attractive. He notices this about himself one day. He knows this is odd because he’s not gay – he likes women. So why is he not noticing them anymore? He’s not looking at them on the street like he used to, or noticing what they’re wearing. Once he realises this, he realises he has an actual psychological problem.
Too much porn conditions the brain to expect immediate pleasure – or pleasure quite quickly. A gentleman wants these periods of manual labour to be over quickly, and doesn’t realise he’s training his brain.
So when the gentleman has the company of a lady, he might find that he suffers from one of three possible ‘issues.’
First – and although business is conducted to the woman’s satisfaction in one way – he can’t satisfactorily conclude proceedings. He might not be bothered by this, but the women will not be happy, and will see this as a failure on her part..
Second, business is conducted okay for a while, then the chap softens his position and allows the woman to rest.
Third, the poor devil doesn’t need to soften his position in the first place.
That Fassbender wants to screw his sister (and not for the first time) is, probably, more the cause of his psychological trouble than his addiction to porn is. The porn doesn’t help, but his sister is the real cause of his trouble.
We first see her in the shower – and this scene is very interesting.
We know that, whoever’s in the apartment, they’re in the shower because we can hear the water running. They also put some music on.
So what follows?
Fassbender grabs a baseball bat, and rushes into the bathroom shouting ‘I’ll fucking kill you!’
This is quite clever.
Who did he think was in there, The Yakuza? The London Irish?
He storms the bathroom because that guarantees him a look at his naked sister, and he pushes his way in carrying the huge hard-on he’s got for her – the bat.
This happens while I Want Your Love by Chic blares on the soundtrack, by the way.
She asks him:
‘Don’t you fucking knock!’
And he replies, with some surface justification:
‘What the fuck, why would I knock? I live here.’
The question acts as plausible deniability. But he’s denying things to himself – not his sister.
This is the point: sure, why would he knock? But that he wouldn’t knock is hardly a reason to come storming in like the SAS. If he was concerned enough to arm himself, and be concerned enough to think he better take the intruder by surprise, he could easily have called the cops, or left the apartment and called them. His action is paradoxical.
He’s trying to convince himself he was in danger through his behaviour, but his unnecessary behaviour reveals he never really thought he was in any danger to begin with.
After a few moments he gives his sister a towel, and she throws it back after a moment, revealing herself to him again and smiling, says:
‘Good to see you.’
This is his sister’s fishing line. Now he’s supposed to say, while staring at her naked body:
‘Good to see you, too.’
But he walks out instead.
They’ve been screwing in the back-story and this has left them both damaged. He’s got a fixation with porn because normal sexual relations don’t give him the thrill he got by screwing his sister, and she’s got scars across her arms from self-harming, and is uber-needy with a car-crash relationship.That’s about it, really. They argue about her being in his apartment. He doesn’t like having her around because he wants to screw her.
And she’d let him.
I’ve wondered why zombie movies and shows are so popular. They certainly are popular so there has to be a reason.
I wondered before what is the subtext to these movies and shows – or to zombies themselves? Why do we like them?
I thought that, perhaps, the popularity was in the childhood game of cops and robbers: basically (but with zombies) we get to ride about killing bad guys: we get to act like heroes, saviours and soldiers all in one go. It’s an ego trip, in other words.
I now think the truth might be much darker than that.
I watched the final scene of episode five of Fear the Walking Dead, where Ruben Blades is looking at the chained double-doors, and immediately the image of John Hurt, lying on the table in Alien (1979) came to mind.
It was the way the doors were bulging and looked like they were stretching which made me think of that famous scene.
Then my thoughts were of how a woman’s belly can look when a baby is stretching.
It was pretty obvious that behind those doors, something was trying to get out, and I’m sure that during the season finale, all those walkers will escape (be born) into the action of the episode – and that’s what we’re all now waiting for.
Back in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiments into obedience to authority and discovered something depressing about the nature of the human: we will easily harm, torture or even kill another person if instructed to do so by ‘authority’ figures. These findings were unwelcome by many; for instance because Milgram showed the ‘Nuremberg Defence’ might actually be a defence – or a solid reason, at any rate – for the facilitating of mass murder by who in many cases were civil servants, not ideological Nazis.
It’s easier (and more agreeable) to conclude the ‘I was only following orders’ defence is a weak excuse used by evil people than it is to accept that humans might have something savage in their natures, or, more bluntly, that a tendency to cruelty and sadism is the default position. It doesn’t suit our geocentric idea of ourselves as the ultra-evolved master-species to be told how fucking base we actually are.
What we desire, on unconscious levels of awareness, can manifest itself in our dreams and sometimes our waking fantasies; so it makes sense that we might be attracted to some external stimulant – be it a song, movie or television show – which reminds us of those instinctive desires in some way. As Huxley states in Heaven and Hell:
Most dreams are concerned with the dreamer’s private wishes and instinctive urges, and with the conflicts which arise when these wishes and urges are thwarted by a disapproving conscience or a fear of public opinion.
Could it be that zombies are not so different from what the human is once you take away the controlling elements of language and society? And shows such as The Walking Dead are popular because they allow a psychic vibration to flow back to our savage selves?
Zombies are popular because an unconscious recognition happens between what we see and our animalistic true natures.
More bluntly still:
Zombies remind us of ourselves: of the part of our evolved natures that’s waiting to break out from behind our civilised masks just as soon as society falls.
Got a problem with that?
Read your Stanley Milgram.
The Babadook is a complicatedly simple movie. Behind the fourth wall (or inside the fictional action) is a kind of ‘third wall’ which stands between symbolism and realism within that fictional world, and it’s this third wall which the movie breaks – and that might be the movie’s problem.
Consider Goldberg and Mccann in (because this is a movie blog) Friedkin’s (1968) version of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They are symbols: of religious authority and state power, but also symbolise two repressed people, in this case Jews and Irish, while still representing actual individual characters – real people – in the play. The Babadook is written in a comparable way in that the monster (initially) represents the mother’s grief over the death of her husband, but the grief is intense enough to actually break the internal wall between symbolism and in-context realism and manifest itself into the movie’s reality. Her grief becomes an actual character in the movie.
Had the behaviour of the mother been just symbolic of the grief she’s feeling and its negative power on and over her, then her son wouldn’t have been afraid of Mister Babadook because he wouldn’t have existed in his reality; in his reality he would have just had an ever more insane mother to worry about.
It’s a rather stark situation we’re given to watch: a worn out mother – who hasn’t slept properly for years – is shown reassuring her son there’s nothing in the wardrobe – a classic childhood fear. But there’s no cuddle for warmth or encouragement: she appears almost bored with the routine and pays not much attention to her son clinging to her, and it’s the shot of them lying in bed – where the mother moves as far away as she can from her son while remaining comfortable – which illustrates the emotional distance she wants to have between them. Some critics have suggested the monster represents her grief, and this is true, but what’s more dramatic is what she does with that grief. She uses it to blame her son for her husband’s death.
(Her tiredness is what finally tears her sanity. Tiredness can cause significant problems, and one thinks of Peter Mullan in Session 9 (2001) as an example of the problems caused by fatigue.)
The mother is in a constant state of mourning for her husband, but also for the emotional attention a man would give her. This is understandable, and realistic. Though it might seem strange that she rejects the kindly romantic advances from a co-worker, given what’s missing in her life, this demonstrates the extent to which her mind is locked in the past, and that is demonstrated by her checking the door to the basement is safely locked tight. The basement is her memory.
So the basics are that she feels intense grief over the husband’s death, blames the son for his death because the crash happened while the husband drove her (in labour) to the hospital, and the emotional distance she subsequently feels is the cause of the son’s ‘behavioural problems.’ In other words he doesn’t feel loved so is fighting for attention.
This is standard drama; that’s not to say it’s bad drama – it isn’t – but it’s standard drama in the sense there’s some element of circular tragedy to the relationships shown: there’s a reason for almost everything.
What works – and is mighty impressive given the movie is the director’s first feature film – is the lack of cheap and easy ‘sudden bang’ shocks which are popular because they’re easy. The Babadook slowly builds its tension, drawing the viewer in to the action by creating trust because the viewer is not waiting for the next ‘jump’ so relaxes into the action. This is done so well that when the mother has really lost it and is trying to kick the door in, we’re in the room with the kid, hiding…
A woman I work with once told me ‘I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something…’
If such a person would submit to forensic questioning, and would answer honestly, it would be quickly established that they were just afraid of death. This doesn’t mean afraid of dying, it means afraid of being dead – of not existing. It is, initially, a horrid thing to consider.
This is why O’Brien tells Winston that he will be vaporised, removed from history, that no record of his existence will remain: he was playing to an innate fear of the dark in all of us, and those lines where O’Brien talks of deleting Winston from history are where religion and the state are fused.
It’s no coincidence that human fears find themselves being the inspiration for all kind of fiction – from rape to death, and Lucy is no different. Ultimately, it’s a movie about surviving death and is religious propaganda for that reason.
Name me a religion which doesn’t offer the survival of death as one of the benefits?
The film is mash-up of other movies: Limitless (2011) and The Matrix (1999) most obviously, but there’s also allusions to The Hulk (which is really Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde) and (why not) I Spit on your Grave (1978, 2010) for the hot-chick-revenge-movie angle.
There’s also – and who could miss it – the tedious feminist line in that the film starts with Lucy being trapped with handcuffs and forced to do something against her will by a man; then gets tortured, beaten and so on, by men and gets something stuck inside her against her will. I mean, like – hello?
All the classic elements are there. The only nice guys are Morgan Freeman as the fatherly scientist and the ugly French cop who plays the token ugly and gets (better than nothing) a brief snog with Miss Scarlett.
I read someone slagged the film off because it uses the myth that humans access but 10% of their brains, but it can never be right to attack a fiction writer for writing fiction, and this criticism is misplaced – the movie is good fun, but it’s not hard science fiction – it’s more just disguised religious fantasy fiction.
If it was better (and it’s not bad) I’d have more to say about it.
I used to think the idea ‘you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead’ was a daft idea. I used to think if you thought someone was a rotter, then you should jolly well say so whether they were alive or dead. If you hated them when they were alive, this shouldn’t matter when asked to comment after that person’s death.
Billington’s biography changed my mind.
Pinter was certainly worthy of an official biography, but having it written by your biggest fan is always going to be a mistake. The only thing missing is a declaration of love from Billington to Pinter. The analysis of many of Pinter’s plays and screenplays is rather good, and the book is worth it for that reason, but Billington’s fawning – and his over-use of the word ‘art’ – makes things just a little too sugary, but it’s just bearable.
What is disgraceful about this biography is the back-handed character assassination done to the late Vivien Merchant. Billington chooses to suggest to us that Pinter’s adultery in the 1960s with Joan Bakewell, and his adultery with Antonia Fraser in the 1970s, were due to vague “marital problems”, and that those problems had their root in Merchant’s resentment of her husband’s success after ‘The Caretaker’ was written. While Merchant and Pinter were both actors, she was more famous. The play changed the dynamic and she didn’t like it, apparently.
Pinter had adulterous affairs for years and years, and eventually left his wife for Fraser. When this happened, Merchant spoke to the press and the story ran for a while. This is Billington on that very topic:
“What kept the story alive were Vivien’s indiscretions and her refusal to accept the role of the mutely suffering wife. Everyone else, to their credit, maintained a stoical silence.”
Billington doesn’t seen to care that wrong-doers easily keep their mouths shut; in addition, might Pinter’s indiscretions have had some causal relationship to the story and the scandal? In complaining that talking to the press was not to her credit, Billington is in-denial of the nature of the female.
Billington’s attitude to Vivien Merchant gets worse. Consider this on the occassion of Pinter’s second wedding:
“The scene was set. The guests were invited. A marquee was erected on the lawn of the house in Campden Hill Square where Pinter and Antonia had lived for three years. But at the very last moment Vivien refused to sign the relevant divorce papers so the marriage took place two weeks after the reception: a small vindictive triumph for the disgruntled Vivien.
While wrestling with the agonies of divorce, Pinter had also been struggling with the seemingly intractable problem of turning John Fowles’s ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman…..”
Notice the cold, indifferent, change of subject to Pinter’s “agonies.”
After reading that, I checked (it’s true!) to see if Billington was married, so clueless does he seem to be about the nature of the female human. He seems to either not know or not care that a lady, when her husband leaves her for another woman, can sometimes feel a pang of displeasure and a sharp need to deal with that sensation. And why does he not assume Vivien Merchant’s behaviour might have been connected to her own agonies? After her divorce, it took Vivien Merchant two years to drink herself to death.
Notice also, the little (and non-amusing) allusions to playwriting and acting….”refused to accept the role”…..”the scene was set.” Rather smug and annoying, I think.
Let me be clear: I don’t care if everything was Merchant’s fault.
The lady was, quite obviously, significantly unhappy and Billington should have not let his devotion to his subject paint her as an envious anti-intellectual.
Had I have been a friend of Merchant’s, and upon reading this almost excellent work, I would have socked Billington in the goddamn face and he would have stayed plastered.