The Exorcist

I have an Exorcist story, but you have to read my review first!

We’ve read a bunch of good books this semester, and The Exorcist is one of the best of the bunch. I’d rank it neck-in-neck with The Shining, probably my all-time favorite horror novel. In fact, I enjoyed all the books we read with the exception of two; I must confess to liking The Amityville Horror,which is craptastic but still fun to read in an awful sort of way.

If you have even a passing interest in horror movies, you know the plot of The Exorcist. The movie is faithful to its source material, even using a number of the book’s best lines. I believe Mr. Blatty wrote the screenplay. But hey, we’re not here to talk about the movie!

I have read The Exorcist a number of times. I’d say that number is less than ten, because that book never triggered my OCD, thus making it a must-read. So I know it pretty well. There is a sequel to The Exorcist, Legion, which is well-worth reading also. The main characters of Legion are Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer, believe it or not.

Here are a few impressions, gleaned from reading the book again.

The biggest thing that struck me is how funny the demon is when it talks. Most of the things it says are blasphemous, but they are still funny. The demon has a sense of humor, something God seems to totally lack. This is an interesting decision on Blatty’s part.

Why? Well, there are theological implications. A sense of humor is a very human trait, especially considering I believe that one of the prerequisites for a sense of humor is suffering. That would mean that humans have more in common with demons than with god. Ah, you say, maybe the demon was a good mimic or channeling Burke Dennings, although Father Merrin states that there is only ONE entity possessing Regan. Possible, but unlikely. The demon has a PERSONALITY that comes through when reading the book, and that’s hard to fake.

One of the understated questions raised by The Exorcist is why do people suffer? It’s a good question (which the book doesn’t answer), explored in greater depth in Legion. People should read Legion, because Kinderman’s fabled carp in the bathtub makes an appearance.

Speaking of Kinderman…he’s based on Porfiry Petrovitch, the inspector in Crime and Punishment. The TV character Columbo is also based on Porfiry. Don’t be fooled by Kinderman; he’s a devious bastard. Denning’s death and the church desecrations are the book’s subplot, which hums along nicely beside Regan’s decline.

Here’s an interesting question: who is the main character of The Exorcist? The title refers to Father Merrin, who bookends the book but isn’t around enough to qualify. Father Karras is the demon’s intended target and a solid choice; Regan’s character has no drive of her own; Kinderman is a strong character, but in the same boat as Father Merrin. My personal choice would be Chris MacNeil, even though after a certain point she becomes little more than a spectator. One of The Exorcist’s strengths is the number of interesting characters; even the minor characters are fleshed out.

Anyway, here’s my Exorcist story. When they released the extended theatrical version, I went to see it in the movies. I was too young to see the original version back in 1973! Anyway, the theater was full of kids, and those kids laughed their asses off from start to finish. That’s the first time I realized I WAS GROWING OLD.

 

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose

My new hobby is watching scary YouTube videos before bedtime. My personal favorite is the creepy clown subgenre. There are few things better in life than watching drone footage of a guy dressed up as a clown running through a Nebraska cornfield.  Anyway, most of these videos are goofy. Some are obvious fakes. A few are genuinely disturbing, although maybe not in the way you might think.

Like YouTube videos, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is very loosely based on EVENTS THAT REALLY HAPPENED. Hollywood is way too free with the phrase ‘based on true events,’ btw. You could say Godzilla is based on true events – the fire-bombing of Tokyo really happened. There was no enormous radioactive lizard, which is a pretty big omission, but whatever.

From my point-of-view, what really happened in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is that a mentally ill woman died while undergoing an exorcism. Other people think differently, of course, which is fine, because it’s supposed to be a free country and all that, but when the person in question might have died because of medical neglect then it becomes a different story.

There was a court case. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on that court case. It’s totally fictional, obviously, because the filmmakers want us to believe that Ms. Rose is possessed by a devil(s). Of course, maybe I believe Emily is mentally ill because I’m biased. The Catholic Church has devils of its own. A good example of that is here.

Anyway, the movie wants us to believe Emily was possessed. So she was possessed. Emily is a farm girl who goes off to medical school on a scholarship. Her family is religious – the house is full of cats (11 of them!) and religious memorabilia. The actress who plays Emily is great. She shrieks and grimaces and contorts. I was impressed by the contorting –did you ever notice how people possessed by Satan or whatever are great at yoga? Because that’s what they’re doing. Full wheel seems to be the pose of choice. I find this to be irritating, because I did yoga for years, and there’s nothing demonic about it, so maybe movie directors and artists should stop picking on other cultures!

Since The Possession of Emily Rose takes place in the 20thcentury, there are medical explanations for Emily’s issues that don’t include demonic possession. Epilepsy, mental illness, malnutrition, starvation, dehydration. There’s even the possibility that Emily’s meds are making her hallucinations worse, and also hindering the exorcism, which leads to her stopping those meds. I can buy the first explanation, but the second is bogus.

From what I know about exorcism – mostly gleaned from reading Malachi Martin’s execrable Hostage to the Devil – the host is not responsible for any actions committed while possessed. The host is totally powerless and thus does not dictate the outcome. The fight is a mano-to-mano clash between priest and demon; being powerless, the victim is also extraneous and may not even be aware of what’s happening. What’s the difference if they are medicated? BTW, Mr. Martin was a Catholic priest who supposedly performed a number of exorcisms. Later in life he left the church, so take what you will from that.

The prosecution’s argument is that the priest a. caused Ms. Rose to stop taking her meds and b. didn’t provide adequate medical treatment while she was under his care, making him responsible for her death. I think this is a great argument, but the movie never takes it seriously. Ironically, Ms. Linney (the defendant’s lawyer) is agnostic while the prosecutor is deeply religious. He’s not Catholic, obviously.

The Possession of Emily Rose is effective at what it does. It doesn’t hold a candle to The Exorcist, the granddaddy of exorcism movies, but what does? It scared the crap out of me, even though I thought a few of the plot points were melodramatic and silly. Ms. Linney’s character is troubled by things that go bump in the night, as is the priest who performed the exorcism. At one point Say-tan even kills an important witness in a car crash. I didn’t know his Satanic Majesty cared about court cases, but I guess I was wrong.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose has believability issues. I don’t mean the exorcism. Plenty of people believe in demons and exorcisms. No, there were other things in the movie that drove me nuts. Ms. Linney is supposed to be a hotshot attorney, yet she’s woefully unprepared. She’s surprised about witnesses and doesn’t even know her client’s full story. Other believability issues: the movie is set in America in a religious community and it’s the Catholic church. The good Father wouldn’t be spending his evenings in the klink, and they’d have to move the case somewhere else because of possible bias. Are these nitpicks? Sure. Did they hinder my enjoyment of this movie? No, not really.

However, The Possession of Emily Rose’s biggest flaw is that it treats Emily’s pain and suffering as some sort of half-assed plot device, a flaw mirrored by many, many exorcism books and movies. This is exploitation, especially since many of the victims of demonic possession seem to be women. As Paul Tremblay correctly pointed out in his excellent novel A Head Full of Ghosts, many depictions of exorcisms seem to boil down to a creepy old guy tying a younger woman to her bed. Like I said, earlier – disturbing, although maybe not in the way you might think.

 

The Shining

I’d like to use the space allotted to me this week to talk about Jack Torrance, because after at least twenty rereads of The Shining (I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old) facets of his character still hold a certain fascination for me. I don’t find The Shining frightening anymore – I admire the book’s claustrophobic vibe, but at fifty years old the bathtub scene doesn’t scare me the way it did when I was twelve and I wouldn’t go into the bathroom.

What interests me now is Jack. Wendy and Danny are straightforward characters, in that we know what makes them tick. Jack is interesting in that his desire line isn’t so clear. What makes Jack tick? Let’s talk about him, shall we?

The thing that struck me upon this reread of The Shining is the fact that Jack Torrance goes through the pages of this book in a constant state of piss-off. If Danny is always getting hurt, Jack is always getting pissed off. Big things, little things, it doesn’t matter. Jack starts the book angry, and goes downhill from there. Rage is the key to Jack’s character. The first three words of the book – officious little prick– tell us everything we need to know about Jack.

I guess that’s why my view of Jack has changed over the years. I used to view him as a man in turmoil, but now I can honestly say that I just don’t like him. The description of Jack breaking his son’s arm comes early in the book, and it’s brutal. Looking back, I’m not sure why I kept reading. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre’s fascination with domestic violence.

So why did I keep reading? If I’m being honest, I guess it’s because King makes it obvious that Jack views breaking his son’s arm as the worst mistake of his life. He feels great shame and views himself with pure self-loathing. Yet he doesn’t stop drinking. That is a brilliant character moment. Even after breaking his son’s arm, Jack doesn’t stop. It’s not like Jack can’t stop. He doesn’t stop. All it takes to make him stop is a broken bike.

Yes, this tells us something about the nature of addiction, sure, but maybe it’s also a hint about how Jack really feels about his son. Don’t believe me? The plot of Jack’s puerile play is all about an older man beating an insolent youngster to death. The play is another brilliant character moment, because King doesn’t dwell on it. It’s just another view into Jack’s subconscious. Here’s another: Jack putting a wasp’s nest in his son’s bedroom. This is a man who has conflicted feelings about fatherhood, to put it mildly.

However, the true key to Jack’s character is that he’s in denial about being an asshole. Jack is a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy. Jack isn’t a good guy. Jack is a self-destructive asshole. The Overlook didn’t make Jack beat the shit out of his student. The Overlook didn’t make Jack break his son’s arm. The Overlook didn’t make Jack an alcoholic. Jack did all those things to himself.

Jack tries to quit drinking using sheer willpower, which is lunacy. Let me explain my statement, lest people get the wrong idea: people can and do quit drinking all the time. However, the magnitude of Jack’s drinking problem isn’t something he can just walk away from without repercussions.

To expound upon my point: there’s a reason people go to AA meetings for years after they’ve had their last drink. Jack has no support system. Jack doesn’t seek treatment. Jack decides to hole up in an abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere in the hopes that the experience will somehow solve all his problems and heal his fractured marriage.

It doesn’t work. Why on earth would it work? Jack is broken from the first page on. The book’s big question is whether Jack will also break his son. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the biggest trick The Shining pulls off is making Jack seem interesting enough so that the reader doesn’t throw the book at the wall.

King’s obvious fascination with Jack is a big part of that. King starts the book with Jack. Danny Torrance is the main character of The Shining, but by starting the book from Jack’s point-of-view we get the impression that Jack is our main character. He isn’t. We see more of Jack than Wendy, even though Wendy is a stronger character. Wendy really loves her son and doesn’t harbor subconscious fantasies about murdering him. When the shit hits the fan Wendy kicks Jack’s ass. Jack needs the hotel to bail his ass out, just like he needs Al to bail him out. At the book’s end, Jack even screws up killing his son. YOU HAD ONE JOB.

To conclude, Jack is an utter failure at everything.

Loser.

 

 

Poltergeist (1982)

I saw Poltergeist for the first time at a drive-in movie theatre in Matamoras, PA. It was summertime. Everyone should see a movie at a drive-in during the summer. Anyway, Poltergeist scared the shit out of me. I’ve seen it about a million times since then, so now it’s about as scary as a rerun of Cheers.

Die Handlung: The Freelings are a typical American family. Mrs. Freeling wears mom jeans. Mr. Freeling reads biographies of Ronald Reagan. Their kids have a shit-ton of Star Wars toys scattered all over their bedroom. They even have a dog, a scene-stealing golden retriever. They live in a nice development. All the houses look the same, but that’s fine because it was the 80’s and now it’s a rule that people should have all the uniqueness bled out of them.

However, all is not as it seems. At night Mom and Dad smoke dope. We witness brief glimpses of Dad’s DONALD DUCK FETISH. Thankfully, we don’t get to witness their depraved sex lives, but that combined with the fact that they walk around their own house half-naked and don’t wear suits and dresses at the dinner table leads me to suspect that they’re COMMIE DEGENERATES.

Just kidding. Since it was the 80’s, they’re obviously SATAN WORSHIPPERS.

The weirdness commences at 2:37 a.m. when the TV signs off. That’s right, kids, TV stations used to sign off for the night. This was when we had seven channels on our TVs. And you know what? WE LIKED IT. Just kidding. It sucked.

The weird shit bursts into the Freelings’ lives like a bomb. Moving furniture. Man-eating trees. Creepy clowns. I will give our suburb dwellers this. The ghosts strike fast, before the Freelings have time to react. Before you know it, their youngest daughter is trapped inside the TV.

A bunch of science types come from the local university to help get Carol Anne (their daughter) out of the aforementioned TV. Actually, she isn’t in the television. It’s sort of complicated and the movie doesn’t really explain it. I refer you to the novelization of Poltergeist, which fills in a bunch of plot holes. I don’t recall any of what I read, mind you, but I’m pretty sure the novelization does fill in the backstory.

That’s about as much of the plot as I want to give away. Poltergeist is a great movie. It made me vaguely proud to be an American, because the filmmakers definitely aren’t satirizing Reagan-era America. There’s no way they’d do that. Why are we talking subtext shit anyway? This is a great horror movie! Tobe Hooper didn’t make many movies, but the ones he made were insanely influential.

Wait a second! Did I say Tobe Hooper and not Steve Spielberg? Yes, that’s right. Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. I can see why people would think this is a Stephen Spielberg movie, though. The scene where the guy decides to cook a steak is Tobe Hooper, but the scene afterward, which shows us the EXPRESSIONS OF PURE WONDER on everyone’s faces as the ghosts parade down the stairs, is pure Spielberg. To me, those expressions sort of make them look like cows at the slaughterhouse, but YMMV. Maybe Spielberg directed that scene. Or maybe he told Tobe Hooper: Tobe, what this movie needs is MORE PURE WONDER. I dunno.

Anyway, go see Poltergeist. Ideally, you should be fourteen years old and watch it in a drive-in, but nothing in life is perfect. If you can’t do that, you should see it anyway!