Tag Archives: The Exorcist

The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

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Though the word “horror” was not used to describe a film genre until the 1930s, films including supernatural or frightening elements, usually adapted from fictional sources, began to be made as early as the 1890s. Between 1910-1920, quite a few European films featuring the supernatural, witchcraft, or superstitious beliefs were released. The German film Nosferatu, though an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was the earliest vampire-themed production. Many of the earliest American horror films, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — both based on novels — were considered dark melodrama rather than horror, if only because of their stock characters or romance elements.

In the 1930s, horror films began to do more than just startle or frighten audiences. Filmmakers inserted elements of Gothic fiction into their stories, giving audiences dangerous mysteries, ancestral curses, remote and crumbling castles, doomed Byronic heroes, and oft-fainting heroines. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau contributed elements that belonged more to science fiction than to Gothic horror, such as the “mad” scientist or doctor who, playing God, wants to re-animate corpses or manipulate human genetics to create some superior being but instead develops monsters. In 1933, the mad scientist appeared alongside Gothic elements in James Whale’s film The Invisible Man, known for its “clever and ground-breaking special effects,” and a new film genre was successfully underway.

In the 1950s-1960s, the subject matter of horror films began to include contemporaneous concerns along with the science fiction, supernatural, or Gothic elements. Alien invasions, deadly (atomic) mutations, demonic possession, post-apocalyptic worlds, and social alienation were prevalent in horror films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Godzilla (1954), The Innocents (1961), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The terror of demonic possession reached its apotheosis in 1973, when The Exorcist — the first horror film ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture — demonstrated that a horror film could be as artistic as it was frightening.

Based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Exorcist tells the story of a young, innocent child possessed by demons. The novel was inspired by the 1949 story of a mentally ill boy, Roland Doe (psyeudonym), who was the last person to be subjected to a Catholic Church-santioned exorcism. According to the film’s director, William Friedkin, Blatty originally wanted to write a non-fiction account of the thirteen-year-old boy’s experiences in a psychiatric hospital but couldn’t get enough details: Blatty dramatized the story instead.

Linda Blair as Regan, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

Extremely faithful to the book, the film version of The Exorcist tells the story of 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair),

Ellen Burstyn as mother Chris MacNeil, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

who lives with her actress-mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).

Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

When Regan’s personality begins to change, and when she complains of strange events, such as her bed’s shaking, her mother initially seeks helps from the medical community. Examined by doctors and psychiatrists, Regan is initially misdiagnosed with personality disorders, rebellious attention-seeking behavior, and brain lesions. Subjected to tests that are as frightening as any demonic possession could be, Regan suffers but does not improve. In fact, her condition worsens.

Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant Kinderman, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

When one of Chris MacNeil’s colleagues and friends is murdered after having been alone with the severely ill Regan, Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) begins to investigate Regan, terrifying Chris that her young daughter will be accused of a crime she may have committed but of which she is not morally guilty.

Jason Miller as Father Karras, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

In desperation, Regan’s mother seeks help from a local Jesuit psychiatrist, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is experiencing his own crisis of faith after the death of his mother and his inability to successfully counsel his fellow priests.

Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

Although skeptical of demonic possession, Father Karras soon concludes that something supernatural and demonic is, in fact, happening to Regan. Karras does not have the experience to help her, however, and he decides that he needs the help of an expert exorcist: Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, known most recently for his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones).

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and winner of two — Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing — The Exorcist is still the highest-grossing horror film ever made (the earnings for the new version of Stephen King’s It have not yet been adjusted for inflation).

The film’s weaknesses are the same as those in its source material: its inability early in the story to decide if it is a murder mystery or a horror story, for example, and its extended scenes setting up the “innocence” of the major protagonists.

The Exorcist © Warner Bros

The film’s strengths outweigh any weaknesses, however, and its exploration of faith, maternal devotion, and possible psychological illness are still powerful more than 40 years after its release. The complex special effects are outstanding, as is the demon’s terrifying voice, which was supplied by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge.

Regan (Linda Blair) floats, watched by Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller), The Exorcist (1973) © Warner Bros (Photograph Allstar: Cinetext Collection)

The Exorcist is available for rent ($2.99 SD / $3.99 HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial subscription to Cinemax), Cinemax (free for subscribers), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Demons, Demons Everywhere: Cinemax’s Outcast, Review

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You don’t have to be a fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead to be captivated by Cinemax’s new horror thriller Outcast, based on the graphic novels-comics by Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta. You don’t even have to be a fan of the authors themselves. It helps, however, to be a fan of the horror genre, since the shows packs in a hefty weekly dose of demons, Satanic and personal.

Based on the premise that one’s inner demons can be almost as terrifying as being possessed by Hellish ones, Outcast explores the way a person’s past can haunt him as much as any supernatural demon. The major protagonist, Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) grew up with a mother who, supposedly possessed by demonic forces, violently abused the boy.

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Later, after she became catatonic and was committed to a Home, Kyle was taken in by a foster family who eventually adopted him. His sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) tries to take care of Kyle now that he is separated from his wife and daughter.

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In conjunction with Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) — one of the most fascinating and complex characters in the series to date — Kyle confronts the demons who seem to be gathering in various inhabitants of Rome WV, all the while wondering what it is about him that causes him to constantly encounter these demons, who address Kyle as “Outcast.”

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At first, the show had some major weaknesses. The constant flashbacks to Kyle’s childhood, when he was abused by his demonically possessed mother, Sarah Barnes (Julia Crockett) were repetitions of the same few flashbacks: they were repetitious because they didn’t provide new information on Kyle’s childhood, his character, nor his mother’s nature. Also, they occurred every few minutes, which got tedious in the extreme.

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Additionally, each of the first three episodes featured an exorcism, leading me to fear that the show would degenerate into an Exorcism of the Week format.

Fortunately, both of those weaknesses disappeared by the fourth episode, “A Wrath Unseen,” as the show stretched its focus to explore the personal lives of the characters surrounding Kyle, including his sister Megan and her husband officer Mark Holter (David Denman, below L), who is conducting an investigation with Chief Giles (Reg E. Cathey, below R) into dead and mounted animals left in the woods, and a bloodied camper.

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Reverend Anderson is one of the strongest characters in the early episodes, since he is more  unpredictable in his attempts to help his congregation defeat demons. Is he doing it for God, or for his own reputation? We’ve yet to discover that.

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Apparently, Rev. Anderson has been doing this for a while, but suddenly, the demon possession of individuals in Rome has multiplied exponentially. Except for the fact that this would be immediately noticed by law enforcement and medical personnel since there’s quite a bit of physical violence inflicted on those who are possessed, both by the demons themselves and by Kyle as he aids the Revered in his attempt to exorcise the demonic spirits, the show handles the actual violence relatively well. Some of it is on-screen, but most is off.

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One of the most gruesome moments happens in the first scene of episode 1, “A Darkness Surrounds Him,” with a possessed boy, Joshua (Gabriel Bateman), and a bug. In the highlights of the show aired immediately afterward, the director and writer stated that young Bateman himself thought of many of the possessed behaviors for his character.

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While that may be true, it is clear that Bateman has seen The Exorcist quite a few times, since much of his demonic actions — levitating, talking in Voices, puking green-pea-soup — are directly from the classic film.

That’s one of the things that slowed the premiere down because viewers had a “been there, seen that” feeling. The show improved in the second episode, “(I Remember) When She Loved Me,” which concentrated on Kyle’s past, including his relationship with his mother, which wasn’t all demons and physical abuse, making the demonic possession more tragic.

By the fourth episode, the show has found its comfort zone in the horror genre, terrifying viewers with hints of demons — personal and demonic — instead of just rolling out the Exorcist special effects. Veteran character actor Grace Zabrieski as Mildred, a congregationist who was supposedly exorcised two years previously, displayed her acting talent by threatening both Kyle and the Reverend.

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The investigation into the gruesome bloodied camper finally expanded, while a visit from someone in Megan’s past released her own demons, those of her husband, and those of adopted brother Kyle. Brent Spiner’s character Sidney, introduced in episode 2, is not yet doing more than lurking about, but I suspect that will change. (If it doesn’t, it would be a dreadful waste of Spiner’s talent.) At this point, it’s unclear whether Sidney is the Devil himself or just a powerful and very well dressed demon.

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The show’s super haunting and spooky opening credits will get your attention fast. Outcast airs Fridays at 10p.m. ET on Cinemax. You can watch the premiere, “A Darkness Surrounds Him,” free on Cinemax (or on its YouTube Channel) and watch all the episodes on MaxGo.

Scary in a completely different way from Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, Cinemax’s Outcast is sure to grab horror fans by the throat and not let them go. Enjoy the trailer, my fellow Outcasts.

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Books That Changed My Life

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Someone on Twitter asked, “What books have influenced you or made an impact?”

How could any serious reader answer that in 140 characters or fewer?

Influenced me? How? My own writing style? That’s easiest to answer. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, anything by Alain Robbe-Grillet, anything by Chris Bojhalian, James Joyce’s short stories and the last (Molly) section of Ulysses.

Made an impact on me? Not sure what that means. Books you think about over and over? Books you read over and over? I don’t know. There are so many that I’ve read multiple times, for different reasons. Still, I couldn’t answer that in a Tweet. Or two. Or three.

What books irrevocably changed my life?

Ah, now that question I can answer.

When I was about 6 and T.S. Eliot died, the local newspaper ran a front page story about him, complete with picture and excerpt from his epic (and not always very good) The Wasteland. (When authors die today, they’re lucky if they’re mentioned on CNN’s ticker, momentarily, at the bottom of the screen during the morning news.) At 6, I tried to read The Wasteland excerpt myself, but couldn’t get it all, so I asked my mother who the man in the photo was. After she glanced at it, she said, “Some poet.”

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I asked her to read from the poem. She must’ve been in a really good mood that day because she actually did it. I was standing in the living room, looking up at a tiny window near the ceiling where shafts of sunlight poured in, watching the dust dance in the brilliant light, and listening to the most beautiful language I’d ever heard. I thought to myself, “One day, I’m going to write words like that, words that sound like music.”

My path as an author and life-long reader had just been chosen for me, and it began with poetry, specifically with Eliot’s The Wasteland, which you can read here, free, since it is in the Public Domain.

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When I was 8 and discovered Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales changed my life dramatically (this link will take you to the Prologue, free). My parents were always throwing my books away (after hitting me with them) because they thought the books were a waste of time since “women were supposed to get married and have babies so they didn’t need to read.” When I discovered a funny, dirty, interesting book written in English which they couldn’t understand (because it was in Middle English), it was an incredible epiphany.Unknown-8I was sitting at the kitchen table reading “The Miller’s Tale” and giggling hysterically over the arse-kissing part. My mother demanded to know what I was reading that was so funny. I obediently showed it to her. After a few seconds, she shoved the book back, asking, “WTH is this? It ain’t even in English.” I answered, “Old English” (because that’s what I thought it was). Her response, “You know, men don’t like smart girls. You ain’t never gonna get nobody to marry you if you keep reading crap like this.” (Only, being my mother, she didn’t say it quite so politely.)

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Since I was only 8 but already associated “marriage” with “control”, I thought, “Oh, goodie,” and kept on reading (although I did cover my mouth to laugh more quietly). Since she hadn’t found the book offensive, she hadn’t thrown it away. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English was the first book that gave me some power in my life: if my parents couldn’t understand what I was reading, I could read it without punishment. It also began my lifelong love of learning foreign languages: I’d simply read books in languages my parents couldn’t understand. No “crime”, no punishment. Besides the fact that Chaucer’s writing gave me power and increased my love for language(s), I adored all the characters in The Canterbury Tales, especially the Wife of Bath, looking for her 5th or 6th husband while on a “holy” pilgrimage to St. Thomas à Beckett’s burial shrine. What a riot.

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Though I read virtually everything I could get hold of (mostly in secret), the next book that altered my life taught me about espionage and spy-cunning. I was 12 when Zeffirelli’s classic film Romeo and Juliet came out, and, like all the girls my age, I desperately wanted to see it. That wasn’t going to happen: there was nudity in it – OMG! I decided I wanted to do the next best thing. Buy the book. My parents guffawed: “I had to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar once,” said my step- (later adoptive) father, “and couldn’t understand it at all. If I couldn’t understand it, you can’t.” I was actually forbidden to purchase the book, and, furthermore, threatened with bodily harm if I was caught with it.

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That was when I learned to become a spy, an undercover agent, a female James Bond. I cased out my classmates, deciding relatively quickly that my partner-in-crime would most likely be the girl with shoe-polish-dyed-black hair who defiantly wore thick black eye-liner despite constantly getting detention for doing so. She was 2 years older than I, but still in the seventh grade because she’d skipped public school so much, she’d been held back two grades, and then sent to Catholic school after she’d been caught smoking her parents’ stolen cigarettes with a boy behind the family’s garage. Yep, she’d do.

She had an older brother who could drive to the nearest bookstore to buy the book for me. After I laid out my plan, she said she’d ask her brother and get back to me. The next day, in a corner on the playground, while looking in the opposite direction and pretending not to talk to me, she informed me that her brother had agreed but only on the condition that I also pay for his Coca-Cola (which came only in bottles that you had to uncap with metal bottle-openers, and which nobody called “Coke” back then). I was also instructed that I’d have to give her a “gift” for her part in this risky affair. I was specifically told what the “gift” was to be. I agreed to all terms and immediately handed over all my accumulated stash of allowance money (25 cents/week for all household chores, including laundry, cooking, cleaning up, etc.) Oh, by the way, her older brother instructed her to tell me that he got to keep any leftover monies for gas and his time. I had to agree that, since he was the only one with a car, said conditions seemed reasonable.

For over a week, I waited anxiously, worrying constantly that the plot would be discovered, and I’d be tortured into a confession, revealing my accomplices. Finally, one day, Shoe-Polish-Hair-Girl gave me our pre-arranged signal, tapping on her uniform pocket three times, nodding once. How my heart pounded as I watched the classroom clock, how slowly its hands moved until the bell rang for lunch and recess. Outside on the playground, My Girl and I casually passed each other. I dropped one of my mother’s redder-than-red lipsticks (that I’d stolen from her dresser) into my co-conspirator’s coat pocket while she slipped the coveted Romeo and Juliet into mine. I immediately ran the length of the playground, down the steps to the church beside the school (I, too, was sent to Catholic schools, though for a different reason: despite my family’s being Jewish, the schools were supposed to offer “protection” from anti-Semitism). I covertly slipped into one of the confessionals with the contraband book. Even at that age, the irony was obvious to me.

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In the dim silence of that curtained space, I gazed longingly at my treasure for as long as I dared, rapturously and repeatedly kissing the cover — which featured Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in a furtive, soulful embrace — before I began to dismantle the book. I tore off both front and back covers, ripped them to shreds, snuck out of the confessional, and crept around the empty church, depositing the shreds into separate waste-bins. Next I took the book out the opposite side door, away from the school’s playground, dropped it into the dirt, where I then stomped on it, bent it, ripped some of the pages (but carefully, so no words were obscured). I also scraped the spine of the paperback against the rough stone of the church until its print was illegible.

Success. It looked like some raggedy old book without anything to outwardly identify it. I returned to the schoolyard in triumph and immediately began reading. My Girl in the black eye-liner and dark red lipstick nodded once at me in passing. I nodded furtively before returning to my treasure.

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At home, I continued reading. Openly. Defiantly. Because neither my mother nor stepfather could tell what I was reading. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s language and with Romeo and Juliet’s story.

Did I understand it all? Of course not: I was 12 years old.

Have I loved Shakespeare ever since? Absolutely.

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His Romeo and Juliet taught me that love was tragic but beautifully written. Sigh. Again, with the beautiful language. Getting hold of Romeo and Juliet also taught me how to become a covert operative in order to deceive my parents so that I could read (almost) as many books as I wanted. It also taught me that, sometimes, the people you can trust most in the world dye their hair black with shoe-polish (until they can afford the real hair dye in a box like my mother used).

Although this first meeting scene is not as touching as the version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, it has a special place in my heart because it was this film which made me want to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the first place.

The love song, played in this video, was a top hit on the radio that year, and I adored the film when I finally got to see it. It’s Romeo’s and Juliet’s first meeting, from Zeferelli’s 1968 film. Since the play is in the Public Domain, you can read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet free of charge.

Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was my next life-changing book. And I  mean the book, not the movie. At fifteen, making plenty of money with all my baby-sitting jobs every night of the week and every single weekend, I’d bought the hardcover copy myself from another student who’d finished it. I removed the cover from the black hardback, and kept the spine lowered whenever I read.

One day, when I was about halfway through the book, my mother hung up the phone with my aunt, marched into the living room, and yanked the book from my hands. I protested vociferously. She claimed that my aunt had just read the book, or part of it, at least, and stopped, horrified by the scene where the satanically possessed daughter masturbates with a crucifix. Did I even know what masturbation was? she demanded loudly. I had to admit that I did not (my dictionary, also forbidden, was hidden under my mattress: I’d have to look the word up later).

My step-father then volunteered himself for the “awful task” of determining if I could finish reading the book I’d bought (though I’d already passed the crucifix-masturbation scene) by “bravely and unselfishly” reading it himself. After three weeks of annoyed but helpless waiting, I learned my sentence. My step-father announced that The Exorcist was, indeed, unfit for me to read. I was outraged. Not only had I bought the book myself but the very man who’d forced me to learn the actions (though not the words) for rape, incest, sodomy, and forced fellatio, was now deciding that I couldn’t read a book. My book. I crossed my arms over my chest, narrowed my eyes, and gave him, as they say, a look that could kill… (It never occurred to me to wonder when or how my parents realized I was reading a book called The Exorcist, I was so outraged by their taking it away.)

Though I’d never had study-halls before (too boring), I suddenly decided that I needed not one but two. The first in the morning and the second during lunch-period (I didn’t eat anyway). Both were granted because I was such a good, well-behaved, obedient student. I immediately purchased a new copy of Blatty’s book from another student and read it during my two study-halls, keeping the novel stored in my locker at school, never taking it home.

(Though we were technically too young to see the film version of Blatty’s novel when it came out, theater managers weren’t as strict as they are now about letting you into R-rated films as long as you looked like you were at least 17 (I was 15): we went with a friend’s older sister, who showed her ID, said she was our sister, too, and that we were all allowed to see the movie. The film version of one of the scenes that my stepfather objected to in the novel, though my parents themselves freely used such obscenities (and worse) was more horrifying that I’d imagined.

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Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist taught me that “a room of one’s own” — despite Virginia Woolf’s insistence — isn’t always sufficient: what one really needs is an off-home hiding/storage area to which no one else has access or keys.

After I turned 16 and purchased a ’68 VW Beetle with over 100,000 miles on it — so I could get to work without paying one of my friends for a ride — that VW’s massive front-end trunk, which locked, became the new “room of my own”- the storage facility for all my books. The keys never left my body, even when I slept. One does what one must to survive. And blossom, even in the intellectual desert that was my family.

Other books have changed my life, and me, but those are a few that I remember most vividly, and which I’ve read (and taught) countless times over the years. Though I do not have the original Romeo and Juliet, having replaced it with The Complete Works of Shakespeare, I do have my first copy of The Canterbury Tales and of The Exorcist. These books are some that are dearest to my heart: not just because of their beautiful writing or their stories, but because they, literally, changed me, my view of life, and my ideas of what I could accomplish if I was determined enough (and it my accomplices-in-crime didn’t confess under torture).

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What books have dramatically and irrevocably changed your life?
How?
I’d really like to know.

Use as many characters as you need.

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