The Devil's Due, Oscar Noms & First Men in the Moon: Podcast 5:3.1

Devil's Due

Volume 5, Number 3 of the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast brings you the latest news and reviews of what’s happening in the world of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. The intrepid CFQ podcasting team analyzes the 2014 nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including GRAVITY and HER; and eulogizes late actor Russell Johnson, most widely known for playing the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, who also featured prominently in several science fiction films. Steve Biodrowski exorcises THE DEVIL’S DUE, a new “found footage” horror film featuring a demonic pregnancy. Lawrence French lionizes FIRST MEN IN THE MOON with a 50th anniversary appreciation of the 1964 science fiction film, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
Also on the menu are this week’s home video releases for Tuesday, January 21, and a look back at the 2012 Blu-ray release of GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE.

Cinefantastique's Greatest Movie Cheats: Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby horizontal
Hello, fellow movie cheaters! Hm, maybe that’s not the best way to describe fans of movie cheats, but it has a nice ring to it. In any case, I am back with another in an on-going series of the greatest movie cheats in horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. This one is a real gem – and long overlooked (even by me, who is deliberately searching for this kind of thing).
Please recall our definition of a “cheat,” which is a variation on movie terminology used when a prop or set piece is moved from its established position in order to create a more pleasing composition on screen (that is, when you move the camera to a new angle, you “cheat” lamp in the background to the left or right, so that it doesn’t seem to jump from one side of the character to another when the shots are cut together). In our usage, a “cheat” is a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, often violating the film’s own internal “reality.” Usually, a cheat works because the trickery is visible, though perhaps subliminal; if you couldn’t see it, the impact would be lost.
Writer-director Roman Polanksi’s 1968 film ROSEMARY’S BABY – based on Ira Levin’s novel, about a young married woman who believes her unborn child has been targeted for sacrifice by Satanists – is generally considered to be one of the great achievements in the horror genre – a subtle exercise in suspense that works because it remains grounded in the real world, its horrors suggested and ambiguous, its supernatural element possibly imagined. What has never been mentioned before (at least until it was pointed out to me*) is that the film features a remarkable movie cheat – one that may be unique. Before we get to the cheat, however, we have to take a look at the set-up.

Rosemary (Farrow) chats with Dr. Sapirstein, played by Ralph Bellamy - although in this scene it may be a body double since we see only the back of his head.
Rosemary (Farrow) chats with Dr. Sapirstein (played by Ralph Bellamy - although in this scene it may be a body double since we see only the back of his head)

Midway through the film, before the suspense has set in, the recently pregnant Rosemary (Mia Farrow) attends a party, where she chats with pediatrician Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). In this scene, Dr. Sapirstein is photographed only from behind; in fact, it is hard to say with certainty whether we are seeing Bellamy or a body double with Bellamy’s voice dubbed in. Whatever the case may be, we get a good look at the back of Sapirstein’s head – enough to recognize the doctor from behind later in the movie.
While speaking in a phone booth, Rosemary does not notice the back of Dr. Sapirstein's head.
While speaking in a phone booth, Rosemary does not notice the back of Dr. Sapirstein's head.

This recognition takes place during a four-minute sequence during which Rosemary, convinced that Dr. Sapirstein is part of the Satanic conspiracy, uses a phone booth to contact her old pediatrician, begging him to see her. While Rosemary is facing toward camera, her back to the phone booth door, a man slides into view; the audience immediately “knows” it is Dr. Sapirstein.
Rosemary turns to see Dr. Sapirstein waiting outside the booth.
Rosemary turns to see Dr. Sapirstein waiting outside the booth.

Finishing her call, Rosemary turns and pauses in alarm when she sees the man. She closes her eyes in fear and desperation; when she opens them again, she is relieved to see that the man has turned around revealing not Dr. Sapirstein but just someone wanting to use the phone (a cameo by producer William Castle).
Rosemary sees that the man is just an innocuous stranger (played by producer William Castle)
Rosemary sees that the man is just an innocuous stranger (played by producer William Castle)

The scene is deceptively simple: a single, continuous take in close-up, with only a short camera move to emphasize the appearance of the man waiting outside the phone booth. But there is more here than meets the eyes – at least the eyes of the character. I have deliberately omitted a few frames in order to convey what Rosemary perceives, which might also represent the erroneous impression that a viewer could take away from the film: that there was a man who looked like Dr. Sapirstein from behind, but he turned around to reveal an unexpectedly innocent face.
What Rosemary does not notice is that, while her eyes are closed, the “Sapirstein” character walks off-screen, then walks back into the shot – or does he? It may not be apparent on first viewing, but if you go back and look again, the switch takes place a little too quickly for the man to have walked away, done a 180-degree turnabout, and come back.
Instead, this is what seems to happen:
Rosemary closes her eyes and "Dr. Sapirstein" exits to the left.
Rosemary closes her eyes and "Dr. Sapirstein" exits to the left.

After Mia Farrow closes here eyes, Bellamy (or his body double) exits to the left.
Rosemary waits, eyes closed; the sinister Dr. Sapirstein is gone - or at least off-screen.
Rosemary waits, eyes closed; the sinister Dr. Sapirstein is gone - or at least off-screen.

For a brief moment the “Sapirstein” character is off-screen, while Farrow plays Rosemary as if she is silently praying for deliverance.
Rosemary waits with eyes closed while the man apparently returns.
Rosemary waits with eyes closed while Dr. Sapirstein apparently returns.

The “Sapirstein” character appears to re-enter the frame – actually William Castle. It is hard to tell from the brief glimpse we get, but if you pause the film and look carefully, Castle’s hair does not quite match the back of Dr. Sapirstein’s head, confirming that a switch has been made.
Rosemary opens here eyes, the man visible just over her shoulder.
Rosemary opens here eyes; the man we take to be Saperstein is visible just over her shoulder.

As she opens her eyes, Farrow is blocking our view of the actor outside the booth, making it difficult to notice the switch that has taken place. When she finally turns, the movement of her head reveals not Bellamy’s Dr. Saperstein but the smiling stranger played by Castle.
Once again, the shot of Rosemary seeing the smiling stranger
Rosemary turns to see the smiling stranger.

What makes this cheat uniquely interesting is that it may not be a cheat at all. On a superficial level, the gag is that Rosemary and the audience think the man outside the booth is the sinister Dr. Sapirstein, but he turns out to be someone totally innocuous; the “cheat” is achieved by simply having Castle quickly replace the other actor. However, the switch takes place in full view of the camera, leaving the scene open to a second interpretation: that we are supposed to notice the switch, even if Rosemary does not; although we sympathize with her relief when she re-opens her eyes, we have to wonder whether she was right the first time: maybe that was Dr. Sapirstein, and he has simply gone off to alert the other Satanists that he has located Rosemary. In which case, the “cheat” of using Bellamy (or his double) to fool us into “seeing” Sapirstein is not a cheat at all but rather an accurate depiction of what happens in the scene.
There is a delicious ambiguity to this interpretation: Was it, or was it not, Sapirstein? Was it, or was it not, a cheat? And on a meta-level, was it, or was it not, Bellamy’s body double in either or both scenes?


As intriguing as these questions are, there is yet a third, equally intriguing interpretation of the scene. As much as ROSEMARY’S BABY is a story of witches, Satanists, and the Anti-Christ, the film is also a study in paranoia, with Rosemary driven to hysteria by fear for her baby. In the phone booth scene, she thinks Dr. Sapirstein has found her. She closes her eyes as if wishing him away, and it works: when opens her eyes, he is gone – like magic. What we may be seeing in the shot is an externalization of Rosemary’s inner mental state: her fear manifests as the appearance of Dr. Sapirstein; the appearance of the harmless stranger represents a return to a semblance of normalcy, a momentary quelling of paranoia, as Rosemary briefly gets a grip on her emotions that have been driven to extremes by both the events around her and the hormonal changes inside her body. In which case, we’re back to calling the scene a movie cheat, because two actors were switched right before our eyes to create an erroneous impression. The difference is that, in this new interpretation, the switch conveys not a mistaken identity but a paranoid delusion.
That’s an impressive amount of significance and meaning to pack into a single shot, making this scene worth a second look not only to spot a great movie cheat but also to appreciate the subtle tour-de-force machinations of a master filmmaker at work.
Note: This article has been updated to explain our definition of movie cheats, in order to clarify that it is not a derogatory term.

  • A tip of the hat to Ted Newsom for pointing out this overlooked movie cheat.


Drive Angry: CFQ Spotlight Review Podcast #6

Yup, Cage doesn't flinch as the car explodes in slow-motion behind him.
Yup, Cage doesn't flinch as the car explodes in slow-motion behind him.

Twisted metal, slow-motion explosions, outrageous gunfights, and more bodies than you can count – some naked, some bloody, some both – and all of it in 3-D! It’s a rip-roaring trip down the Road to Hell as the Cinefantastique Podcast crew (Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski)  hitch a ride with Nicolas Cage for DRIVE ANGRY, the movie that dares to reveal what Satan really thinks of Satanists. Is this the film that GRINDHOUSE tried (and failed) to be? Listen in, and find out!

Sense of Wonder: The Exorcist Today

Last night I attended one of the nationwide Fathom screenings of THE EXORCIST (1973), featuring the new documentary TO HELL AND BACK, which charts the making of the classic horror film. Never having attended a Fathom event before (it’s a bit like watching television in a theatre, with digital image projected on select screens around the country), I am pleased to report that the picture quality was very impressive: with  colors that were sharp and clear, the film looked as good as it ever has. It is also reassuring to note that not too much digital restoration has been performed: the photography retains the slightly grainy 1970s look that lends a documentary atmosphere to the proceedings. Assuming that the upcoming Blu-ray disc and iTunes download (which become available on Tuesday, October 5) are transferred from the same source, this bodes very well: THE EXORCIST has been preserved, not cosmetically embalmed.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the documentary TO HELL AND BACK. Not that I expected it to be bad, but after decades of reading about THE EXORCIST, I doubted there was much new to learn – especially after the wonderful behind-the-scenes features on the 25th anniversary DVD. However, TO HELL AND BACK has a devilishly good ace up its sleeve: besides interviews with producer William Peter Blatty, director William Friedkin, actress Linda Blair, and cinematographer Owen Roizman, the documentary includes never-before-seen screen tests and behind-the-scenes footage shot by Roizman on the set, depicting how many of the effects were done (the projectile vomiting – a brief startling shock in the film itself – goes on for what seems like minutes during rehearsals). Again, the presence of this short but insightful featurette bodes well for the home video release; though I already own two versions on DVD (the 1973 original and the 2000 “Version You’ve Never Seen”), I am seriously considering triple-dipping on this one.

All that, however, is secondary to the experience of revisiting THE EXORCIST on the big screen, along with an appreciative audience. In a way, the screening was something of a personal achievement for me: it was the first time I was able to sit through the film without becoming seriously disturbed. (For the record, I almost achieved this in 2000, but then the new footage – i.e., the Spider Walk – showed up, and my nerve faltered once again.)

I suspect that modern audiences will wonder what all the screaming was about; is this really the film that allegedly made people pass out and/or throw-up? But as William Friedkin told me, people who go just to get off on the effects, don’t. THE EXORCIST works because it takes a serious approach, asking you to buy into the possibility of possession – and, by extension – the existence of God and the Devil – on a deep, dramatic level.

Now that that shocks have worn off after all the years, it is pleasantly ironic (for those of us who were there when the film made its debut) to note how subtle THE EXORCIST is, in many ways. There are long stretches when little happens, except for the recurring sound of rustling in the attic. Big chunks of screen time are occupied with the personal lives of the characters, such as Father Damien Karras’s trip to see his mother in New York. Much of the horror derives not from demonic possession but from the medical science used in a vain attempt to locate the etiology of Regan’s illness.

I also remain impressed with the way the William Friedkin managed to avoid going archetypal while depicting THE EXORCIST’s battle between Good and Evil. There is a fine review of Moby Dick – written by D. H. Lawrence, I think –  that praises Melville for keeping the novel grounded in the semblance of a believable story about a hunt for a whale, even as the book piles on metaphors and symbolism that could have rendered the whole tale as an abstract allegory. Friedkin achieves something similar here: THE EXORCIST, we can see clearly now, is a film about people, who feel lost and helpless, who are trying to do their best, whether or not they are certain that God is watching over them. The film has a very scaled-down, credible tone, quite different from the adult fairy tale stylings of, for instance, HORROR OF DRACULA.

This leads me to my final point. From time to time, some critic will complain that THE EXORCIST’s view of evil is too small scale to mean anything (Stephen Thrower in his book Beyond Terror: The Flims of Lucio Fulci, comes to mind). Why, they ask rhetorically, does the Devil waste time tormenting a little girl in a room? The very fact that the question is asked shows that these viewers have missed the point.

Leave aside for a moment that the revised 2000 version (which is the one screened last night, which will be available on Blu-ray along with the original cut) offered an explanation in a restored bit of dialogue between Father Merrin and Father Karras. Focus instead on the entire vision of the world as it is presented in THE EXORCIST.

Father Karras (Jason Miller), troubled with guilt over his mother
Father Karras (Jason Miller), troubled with guilt over his mother

Everywhere the camera turns, we see examples of Satan’s work: the former alter boy, now a drunk sitting in his own urine and vomit in a subway; the pathetic inmates of an insane asylum, staring into space, helpless and lost in their own psychosis; the priest-psychiatrist – Karras – who has lost his faith because he has seen too many wounded souls that he could not repair. As if that were not enough, THE EXORCIST throws in a film-within-a-film, depicting campus unrest (with hints of potential political violence). Although never mentioned, the echo of Vietnam reverberates silently somewhere in the distance, and the the Georgetown setting tacitly reminds us of corruption in Washington, D.C. (this was the era of Watergate). Evil, if we only open our eyes and look, is everywhere present; the Devil’s fingerprints are scattered everywhere throughout the film, as the Evil One strives to breed despair in the human race.

Even if we do not believe in a literal Devil, the symbolism is clear: Evil is at work in the world. What happens to Regan Theresa MacNeil is only one manifestation, a small microcosm that brings the larger world into clearer focus. That’s what good dramas do. Although I dislike the oft-heard claim “It’s not a horror film,” in the case of THE EXORCIST I can accept it to the extent of saying, “It’s not just a horror film.” As shocking as it once was, hopefully we can now see more clearly that it truly is, as Friedkin has often said, a film about the mystery of faith – a faith all the more mysterious when set against the weary world view depicted in THE EXORCIST.


The Last Exorcism: Cinefantasique Podcast 1:29

In the mood for an exorcism? Then join Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski as they scourge the unclean spirits of THE LAST EXORCISM, casting out the plot spoilers and narrative inconsistencies that bedevil the tortured soul of the new faux-documentary from producer Eli Roth and director Daniel Stamm.
Also in this episode, a look at this week’s video releases, including the THRILLER 14-disc DVD box set and the new limited edition Blu-ray disc of THE EVIL DEAD. Plus, the usual round up of news, events, and more in episode 1:29 of the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast.


THE LAST EXORCISM – Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm Interview

Below is a written transcript of an exclusive Cinefantastique interview with Daniel Stamm and Eli Roth, the director and producer of the new film THE LAST EXORCISM. The Interview was featured on The Cinefantastique Podcast 1:28 and was conducted by CFQ’s own Dan Persons!
CFQ: “Let me start with you Daniel. One of the things I noticed in your bio was that at some point you hitchhiked across the United States with only your ID. From doing that, what did you bring from your experience there into this film?
DS: “That’s a tricky question. I think what that did to me was it gave me a good overview of how different the different states in the U.S. are and how the one thing that connects them all – all my experiences – were that they very spiritual. There were a lot of people talking about God, lot of people talking about Jesus, which is something I never encountered hitchhiking in Europe. You could go through all of Europe and no one would ever mention God, where as hitchhiking from the east coast to the west coast, God came up in almost every single conversation. People were terrified to take me with them because hitchhiking has a different feel over here than it does in Europe, so a lot of people would say, “You know I’m terrified right now, but God told me to take you with me” or “I couldn’t just let you stand by the side of the road”. So there is this kind of deeply ingrained spirituality that I saw in that journey, which I think is a lot of what THE LAST EXORCISM is talking about.
CFQ: “Eli – your name is on this, your reputation precedes you. The thing is this film is breaks rather noticeably from that reputation.Were you concerned with that ?”
ER: “No, it was actually exciting for me. I love gore and I love blood in movies but I really love all kinds of movies: I love PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, I love CLOVERFIELD, I love DISTRICT 9. Those were very different films and when I read the script for this – it was actually before any of those came out – I thought it was one of the best, scariest, smartest scripts I had ever read. Originally, the writers were going to direct it and the intention was never to make a gory film. I’ve made my name synonymous with blood and guts, which I’m very proud of but I also feel that people associate a different level of smarter horror with me. The fans know that if I’m going to get involved with a film that is PG-13 and is not a particularly gory film, there must be something very special about it.
I also love films that are at THE RING/THE GRUDGE end of the spectrum, anything that is well done and smart. Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING is one of my all time favorite films and, even though I’ve never made that movie, I love those kinds of stories. I think it’s the kind of thing where, looking back over the course of my career, people will see different projects I have made and they all have one common theme but they’ll all have different levels of blood. I think as long as the fans know what they’re in for and aren’t expecting Hostel 3 and know that this is about possession not power tools, I think they’re going to love what Daniel has done. Daniel made a film that is so smart and so fun and really does a great job of slowly building the tension and really keeping the audience guessing the whole way through. It’s just as exciting for me to be apart of a film that I think is a great addition to the exorcism cannon of films as I was about HOSTEL.
CFQ: “In this particular film, Cotton Marcus [Patrick Fabian] relies on a lot of stage illusions. How much of that is reality, how much of that actually happens with these types of exorcisms, how much is invention?”
DS: “I think it’s hard to say because there are more exorcisms happening today than at anytime in history all over the world – in all religions – and I’m sure that every single one of them has a certain element of stage magic to them. I think that they function very differently in India than they do over here, so we kind of pulled from different sources. We never quoted one source and said, “This is what our research shows is being done” but its just different ideas and some are made up of ideas of what you could do if you were in that situation.
CFQ: “This film walks a real line as far as whether there is a supernatural element to it or not. How difficult was that to achieve? Were there any concerns about playing that line as carefully as you are?”
ER: “Well, that really came about in the writing and development in the screenplay. You want the audience to think one thing and just when they think they have it figured out, you add in a new layer that they never saw coming but something that makes sense; Not a twist for the sake of a twist but something that engages you further going, “Oh my god I didn’t see that” or “That’s weird!” And for me, what’s unique and fun about the film is in this documentary format that, at first it’s Cotton Marcus in control and he basically slowly loses control to Nell. Its really about the clash of Science and Religion, but in this it’s the Reverend that’s coming from the scientific point of view saying, “She’s Crazy” and it’s the father coming from the place of devout faith saying, “She said she was possessed”, “She IS possessed”, “The demon is still in here”, “Get it out!” So suddenly it’s not even about being possessed or not it’s about getting her to stop behaving that way or the father is going to shoot her. What I loved about the script – and what I think Daniel did so brilliantly – was playing it all very real but never answering the question; just really keeping the audience, leading them one direction and then another direction and that’s what Daniel did so brilliantly in the film.

CFQ: “I’m doing some writing for another website and in doing some preparation for that I watched a lot of exorcism films. It’s sort of amazing to see, in contrast to your film, how many of those other films are grounded in Catholicism, to the point where it comes as something of a shock that there is this Evangelical aspect to THE LAST EXORCISM. In reading the script, did that surprise you or was that an appealing factor for you?”

ER: “No, I think what makes it interesting is that a lot of people don’t know that there are exorcisms in every religion and our movie exists in a world where the characters have seen THE EXORCIST and they mention it, acknowledge it and talk about THE EXORCIST and reference it. But what we discovered in the development of the script in the writing and figuring out how scenes are going to be shot and discussing things with Daniel is that pretty much everything people think about exorcisms comes from THE EXORCIST. If you think about zombies: there were zombies before NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, they were the kind of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE that was kind of voodoo based. And George Romero comes out with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and suddenly, they eat your flesh and if you’re bitten you turn and shoot them in the head. Every rule of zombies is literally is derived from Romero. And in that same way THE EXORCIST is such a cultural landmark that things people think of…everything about it comes from that film.
I think that – even these movies that are dealing with Catholicism – a lot of these films haven’t even bothered to do research beyond it or weren’t interested in doing research beyond it. Or maybe that was what the subject matter was – there are certainly fine films like THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE – but I’m talking about more knock-off movies. We didn’t want this film to feel derivative, and Daniel was very specific about not making a specific denomination. We didn’t want to say that this is something that only happens to Catholics. We wanted to make it much broader so that you could really apply it to any religion.

Read the entire interview, and listen to the entire podcast (which also includes a lengthy discussion of PIRANHA 3D) by clicking here.


Sense of Wonder: The Exorcism of Emily Rose – Fact or Fiction?

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) horizontal poster

This upcoming release of THE LAST EXORCISM on Friday has fans of cinefantastique thinking back, inevitably, to THE EXORCIST (1973), the Oscar-winning horror classic that really upped the ante in terms of mainstream movies willing to pull no punches when it came to shocking viewers. (THE LAST EXORCISM even contains a clever dialogue reference to the older film: the minister Cotton Marcus [Patrick Fabian] notes that, when it comes to exorcism, the Roman Catholic Church gets all the press, “because they have the movie.”) However, THE LAST EXORCISM actually bears a stronger similarity to THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), in terms of setting, circumstances, and tone. In particular, both films strive to unnerve audiences by playing with the concept of “reality”: THE LAST EXORCISM is presented as a faux-documentary; THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE IS presented as “inspired” by a true story. This breaking down of fictional barriers adds an extra layer of tension, but in the end the makers of THE LAST EXORCISM do not seem intent on presenting their film, a la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as if it were the genuine article. What about the makers of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE? Since the possibility that movies may be “real” seems to hold endless fascination for viewers (judging from the number of hits this website gets from visitors seeking to learn whether PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is a “true” story), I want to take this opportunity to delve into that question.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a serious, sincere effort to combine horror with the structure of a courtroom drama. The result is that the story is told with a level of conviction often missing from modern horror films, allowing viewers to become emotionally involved and thus far more vulenerable to the scares when they strike. Perhaps the film works so well on viewers because of the true story claim, as much as its own inherent qualities, and this is where I start to draw the line. The attempt to make a believable horror film is laudable; the fact that the horrific events have consequences for the characters (instead of serving simply as gratuitous set pieces) lends the story credibility. However, we should not let that fool us into thinking that what we see on screen really happened.
It didn’t. At least, not the way it is portrayed in the film.
I have no problem with filmmakers taking inspiration from real life and then fictionalizing it (that’s what William Peter Blatty did with THE EXORCIST), but there should be no pretense that the fictionalization is in any way authentic.

Tom Wilkinson as the priest on trial for the death of Emily ROse
Tom Wilkinson as the priest on trial for the death of Emily ROse

My objection to the “true story” conceit of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is that the story is framed as a courtroom drama. We all know that Hollywood never lets reality get in the way of a good story, but generally speaking, you can usually depend on films about court cases to be a bit more accurate, because trials have official transcripts that can be used as a basis for a screenplay, providing an accurate account of what was actually said under oath. By presenting the story in flashbacks, based on what we hear from the witness stand, the filmmakes seems to imply that they are giving us an accurate account of what was said to have happened. The film then portrays many of these scenes in different ways, according to the interpretation of each witness. In a sense, the filmmakers seems to be saying: we are offering up the facts of the case and leaving you to be the jury who decides whether Emily was sick or possessed. Which would be okay if we were getting the actual facts. But we’re not.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE EMILY ROSE has a credit at the beginning, telling us that the film is “based on a true story.” Before the closing credits, there are also a few title cards, telling us what happened to the characters next. One even informs us that one of the characters in the film cooperated with an author who wrote a book that served as the basis for the film. Yet the actual credits for the movie’s script reads “written by” rather than “screenplay by.” The Writers Guild of America makes a clear distinction between the two credits: “screenplay by” is used for adaptations of existing material; “written by” is used for original scripts. In other words, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is an original story, not an adaptation of a non-fiction book.
To their credit, Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (who also directed and produced, respectively) are honest and forthcoming when discussing the extent to which their film is fictionalized, making it clear that there was an actual case that gave them the idea of making a “courtroom horror film,” which they then developed, creating characters and using ideas derived from other research into the phenomenon of possession.
When asked at a recent preview screening about the misleading title cards (which seem to suggest that the film’s characters are real people), co-writer Paul Harris Boardman replied, “Many people have remarked on the epigraphs at the end of the film. Even though it’s inspired by a true story, the characters have been fictionalized. That [title card] only really says how [the defense attorney played by Laura Linney] facilitated getting case files to a person who wrote a book that inspired the film. Those were actually very true to the underlying [story]. Erin Bruner’s character was almost completely fictionalized. There was a female defense attorney in the case. She did help the author of the book get information—that’s about all we know about her, so she’s completely created. In terms of the others, there are a lot of instances in the film that parallel things that happened—a lot of the broad strokes of the exorcism things, the manifestations of the possession, the behavior she had. The structure of the story, the way it unfolds, is very much what we created. Through some other sources, we had researched some real exorcisms to pull some things about how these exorcisms unfold and what characteristics the people would have. It’s pretty close. We tried to be true to a lot of what [we researched].”
Curiously, Boardman did not mention the book’s title. When I asked him why, he explained that the book is actually titled The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, and although he and Derrickson did purchase the screen rights to the story, the people involved in the real case wanted to keep the connection to the film quiet. Although a doctor involved with the case is given a screen credit, the story of the film does not have much in common with the book, except for the general outline of events. (For example, only one rite of exorcism is performed in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE; in the Anneliese Michel, daily exorcism were performed over a series of months).
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose, the fictional stand-in for Analise Michele
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose, the fictional stand-in for Analise Michele

You can read details about the real-life case here: “Was the real Emily Rose Truly Possessed?” and “The Real Emily Rose.” Both articles seem to be regugitating the same basic information; I’m not sure which was written first, but I recommend you read at least one to get a good idea of how different the film is from its source material. (Surely the more amusing of the two articles is the first one. The author, a self-proclaimed paranormal investigator, claims there is “no evidence whatsoever for the idea of demonic possession.” This would not be amusing in and of itself, but it becomes amusing when he immediately follows up by insisting that there is “good evidence” for ghosts,hauntings, Big Foot, and other psychic phenomena.)
In the end, what Boardman and Derrickson have done is not all that different from William Peter Blatty, who told me during an interview (as he has told many others, before and since) that he was inspired to write THE EXORCIST by an actual cases of possession he had read about in 1949. “I was a graduate at Georgetwon University at the time,” he recalled. “It stuck in my mind. I thought, ‘If I ever do go ahead and write, I’d like to write about this, non-fiction.’ But I never wrote a word.”
Blatty, despite what you may read on the Internet (including the usually reliable, never pretended that the novel he eventually wrote was a true story. And neither the book nor the film of THE EXORCIST made any such claims, either in the advertising or in the credits. (Director William Friedkin may have made a few careless statement to the effect that the novel was based on a true story, but he never pretended he was making a docudrama.)
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a good film that seeks to address the topic of faith in a manner somewhat similar to THE EXORCIST, presenting us with horrible events that may or may not be supernatural in origin and asking if the presence of the demonic, ironically, does not also suggest the existence of the angelic. Although the film cannot hope to match its historic predecessor (director Derrickson calls THE EXORCIST his favorite horror film of all time), THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE stands on its own feet as a worthwhile successor. Not only is it better than the ghastly rip-offs that followed THE EXORCIST (e.g., BEYOND THE DOOR), it is much truer to the spirit of THE EXORCIST than last year’s official sequel, THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, which tried to turn the material into a typical special effects horror franchise. THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is not a true story, but it is a very believably-told story. That is an all-too-rare thing in the horror genre, and it makes EMILY ROSE perhaps the best horror film of this year.

This article is updated from an earlier article, copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski

The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Interview with Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) group in the barn

As part of an American Film Institute series at the ArcLight Cinemas, the screenwriting team of Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman answered questions after a preview screening of their film THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, before it opened in theatres on September 9, 2005. The film had garnered attention because it claims to be based on a true story; but in fact, Derrickson and Boardman admitted that they used the bare outlines of an actual case as a structure to create a RASHAMON-like courtroom drama in which different characters present their interpretations while leaving the conclusion open enough for viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Boardman, who also produced the film, began by explaining that he and Derrickson got the idea while researching another project, when a New York police officer (who also styled himself as a paranormal investigator) played them an audio tape of an exorcism.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: It was very scary, and told us a little bit about the story related to that. When we got back from the trip, we started researching and found some public domain things, articles and eventually a book that was out of print. That was our jumping off point for this. After we got into it, we ended up fictionalizing it and turning the story into something [else]. We took certain dramatic license with it, but we took the basic events and the basic structure of that case as our inspiration.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: Once we decided to tell the story, in the real case I think it was the idea of a girl having died and a trial following an exorcism that presented obviously what we tried to do in the movie, which was to combine two genres of film. That was what excited us about doing it initially—to see if we could make it work, to blend two genres that we love into one film.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: We both thought right away that the courtroom was a great arena for debate. We like the film RASHAMON. People talk about ‘RASHAMON this and that,’ for all these movies, whenever there’s multiple points of view. In this case it’s actually much closer to that structure, where you present evidence. By doing that, you get to look at something in several different ways. That was something we wanted to do from the beginning. We decided pretty early to start with her dead and go backwards—sort of the SUNSET BOULEVARD approach. It’s an interesting challenge for a film, because you can have a character who’s already dead but you have to be interested. [helped make film different from EXORCIST]
SCOTT DERRICKSON: We tried to put at the center of the movie the question of why did she die, and what is the truth behind this phenomenon? And ultimately to not answer it.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: We have a Scully-Mulder approach to this material, with me being a little more the skeptic and Scott the believer. We approach it and try to be very fair and even-handed to both points of view, to our points of view. That’s how we approach it analytically.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose Jennifer Carpenter strapped to the bedIn order to get up to speed on their subject matter, Boardman and Derrickson found it was necessary to delve deeply into research.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: It wasn’t until the initial excitement had passed that we realized we didn’t know a lot about exorcism and possession; we didn’t know a lot about courtroom procedure either. So there was a tremendous amount of research. I read maybe two dozen books on possession and exorcism, from a variety of perspectives, from skeptical psychiatric perspectives, Catholic perspectives, Protestant perspectives. It didn’t matter what the perspective was; the material was incredibly dark and deeply disturbing. To read so many of those books in a row, that was the only time I felt a little weirded out.”
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: He actually took all the material, brought it to me, and said, ‘Look, this doesn’t bother you quite as much as it bothers me. I don’t want it in my house.’
SCOTT DERRICKSON: All my exorcism tapes are in his garage!
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: I’m Hell Central now!
SCOTT DERRICKSON: It was interesting. I was surprised at how many documented cases are out there, how much information is available about this subject. We viewed videotapes of real exorcisms. The whole 3:00am thing—there was a number of books that talked about this idea that 3:00am was the demonic witching hour. After I read that, I kept waking up at 3:00am—exactly! It started to freak me out a little bit; that’s why it ended up in the script. For me, that was the only strange thing that happened, and that was during the research phase. Once we got into the writing, then it became creative and fun. Making the movie was real positive. We don’t have great mythological stories about the “Curse of The Exorcism.”
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: That 3:00am thing is a perfect example: Is that the power of the Devil or the power of suggestion? Or is it both? It was working on him, on some level.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: There was one guy in New York who has this vault of stuff. Of all the things he showed us, the one Paul and I found most compelling was not a videotape of an actual exorcism or had any paranormal phenomena. It was a tape this cop had made, interviewing an Italian family in New York who were having all this demonic activity in their house. He interviews them separately, like a police officer, to see if their stories match up. It was probably the most disturbing. The level of fear that these people had, all of them—you could feel how terrified they were. By the time it was over, all you could think was, ‘They’re not lying.’
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: It was actually very striking for me. My angle is, even if I don’t believe necessarily in demonic forces, I think it’s cavalier to dismiss people’s beliefs when they have real credibility about what they feel and what they believe. It’s a character study: What makes someone that afraid? You see this girl who’s terrified, and she didn’t seem coached to me. I thought, ‘That terror is very real.’ So however you examine that, our character is going through that kind of terror. That’s an incredibly empathetic character for me.
Structuring the story as a courtroom drama was one way to avoid the inevitable comparisons to THE EXORCIST — and also to avoid any semblance to the coutless terrible movies that followed in its wake (which includes everything from BEYOND THE DOOR to THE EXORCIST II).
The Exorcism of Emily Rose WilkinsonSCOTT DERRICKSON: In cinema, you have to be crazy [to make an exorcism film] after THE EXORCIST. It’s my favorite horror film; I think it’s the best horror film ever made. You’re not going to make a better movie than that. People who tried to imitate that movie have pretty notoriously failed. It’s daunting. Why it’s not more a topic of discussion in popular culture, I don’t really know, because it happens more often than you think, in both Catholic and Protestant churches.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: For better or worse, that is the shadow of THE EXORCIST. It was actually a very good film. A lot of people remember the state of art of shock special effects at that time, like pea soup or the spinning head. That’s what people relate to, and they relate to this slew of films that came since then that try to out-exorcist THE EXORCIST. In some ways, what we’re trying to do is show more respect to the people who do look at this more critically. When you look at all these true-life cases, whether you believe in possession or not, there are very valid, credible cases. We found that to be very frightening. We try to go back to cases we’ve read about and stay close to what has been documented.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: For me the singular challenge wasn’t the creative element of moving back and forth between courtroom drama and horror; that was hard, but I think the biggest challenge was how to take the subject matter seriously and somehow give it some kind of even-handedness, knowing that people would want to see that scary, crazy stuff happen. So part of the challenge was trying to give all of that and make that interesting and realistic, but also try to be even-handed with the ideas. Paul and I really do have different views of the world, and we wanted to pay respect to both of those ways of looking at the world. The goal was to make something entertaining and scary, and also give people something to dialogue about when the movie was over…to just get some questions on the table without popping in an answer or trying to persuade an audience how to think about these things. It’s not easy to get into a conversations possession—at least no intelligent ones.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: We’re both disturbed by the fact that religion has become very polarized and politicized in this country. Religious ideas and the examined life and this questioning what life is all about, are very personal. We wanted this film to cast a wide net, so that people could come at it from all sorts of points of view: mine, his, and various others. It has been gratifying in preview screenings that different people find the film stimulating and challenging.
Although THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE eschews projectile vomiting, levitation, and rotating heads, it does work up a good head of steam as a horror film. In fact, according to Derrickson, the film narrowly avoided an R-rating just on the grounds of its disturbing intensity.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose Jennifer CarpenterSCOTT DERRICKSON: Watching Jennifer Carpenter work herself up into hysteria [as Emily], I think everybody got very energized. We actually got an R-rating on the film when we first submitted it to the MPAA. I think we cut less than, maybe, ten seconds out to get a PG-13: little things here and there, like the autopsy photos were in color; we had to make them black-and-white. They were all relatively painless. One of the things we had to cut was in the barn exorcism. When she first sits down on her knees and growls at Father Moore with hatred — when we shot that, her face contorted so severely, it was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. I was sitting next to Tom Stern, our director of photography, next to the monitor, and he kept saying, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ It kept getting worse, until she looked like an alien. Finally, the scene was over and I yelled cut. Steve Campanelli, the camera operator, put the camera down—it was a hand-held shot—and walked over to the monitor. He was white. He said, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that? Do you know what was going through my head? I thought, she just became possessed—we got to get out of here!’ It was so great; that was one of my favorites. That was hard to cut. The MPPA was like ‘It’s too disturbing.’ I remember arguing with them: ‘So, if I had a worse actress, I wouldn’t have to cut this. That’s what you’re telling me.’ No make-up effects, no special effects. It will be on the DVD, I’m sure.
The fact that THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE takes a serious approach to its subject matter is not an indication that Derrickson is afraid of the horror genre label; in fact, he is quite a horror fan.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: I think the horror genre needs fresh air. Luckily, Asian cinema has given it a boost that’s kept it going.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: Scott was really fascinated with Dario Argento’s films, in terms of the cinematic qualities, particularly SUSPIRIA.


SCOTT DERRICKSON: I actually showed SUSPIRIA to Tom Stern. His response was ‘Well, it’s total crap, but he had a really good idea.’ Which kind of made him excited. I don’t think SUSPRIA is total crap, but I thought [Stern’s reaction] was interesting. What he thought was a good idea was the idea of trying to combine bright saturated colors with beautiful art design and untypical aesthetic beauty in a horror film. That inspired him to do something that was interesting and scary, rather than going the typical Gothic route. It’s very funny. The studio really wanted a campus that was Gothic. We’ve seen that in every horror film ever made! We ended up fighting that; we went for a very modern [approach]. It did my heart good on the set when Tom said, ‘Why don’t we Argento this window over here?’ It made me so happy!

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005): horror film review

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) posterIn terms of quality if not quantity, the exorcism genre just about began and ended with THE EXORCIST (what else has been worth watching, except perhaps William Peter Blatty’s follow-up THE EXORCIST III?). Consequently, it might sound like damning with faint praise to say that THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is the best film of its kind in a long time. But truthfully, the film finds a way to justify its existence despite the inevitable comparisons to the classic in whose shadow it will inevtiably stand, and it actually manages to work on a level very similar to THE EXORCIST, without being slavishly imitative. In fact, it is far more faithful to the spirit of that film than most of the EXORCIST sequels have been.
Basically, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a courtroom drama about a failed exorcism: the subject, a young woman (Jennifer Carpenter) died while in the care of a priest (Tom Wilkinson), who is charged with negligent homicide. A female lawyer whose star is rising (Laura Tinney) takes the case at the behest of her boss, who seems more interested in serving the interests of the local Catholic diocese than that of the client, who refuses to take a plea bargain because he wants to tell Emily’s story in court and let the jury decide.
The possession and exorcsim scenes all take place in flashback while various parties (doctors, psychiatrists) testify about what happened to Emily. This technique allows the film to portray her suffering a la RASHAMON, but with a significant difference: there is little disagreement about what actually happened to Emily; it’s all a question of interpretation. By giving us the facts as seen through the eyes of the various beholders, the film is asking us to be the jury that decides the case, and the information provided is very intentionally left open to interpretation.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)Rather than seeming wishy-washy and indecisve, this results in a film with a great deal of tension and suspense. Structuring the story as a courtroom drama increases the horror because it takes place in a believable context: whether you think Emily is ill or possessed, what happens to her is almost beyond endurance. Moreover, because the fate of the priest rests on the trial’s outcome, it’s clear that the horrific events in the story have dramatic consequences: what happens is part of a convincing story, not just a series of gratuitous special effects shocks.
This sets THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE a level above the standard shock fest, in which the horror often exists for no other reason than to freak out the audience, while the characters run around almost anethsitized to what is happening, except in so far as their lives are in danger. (For an example of this phenomenon, look no further than CURSED, the silly werewolf film in which, after tons of gore and death and carnage, the surviving characters walk away smiling and happy, as if nothing had happened.)
In THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, on the other hand, the fact that the priest is on trial gives the horror some dramatic weight. Since Emily is already dead, the story cannot be about saving her life; instead, it is an examination of what happened to her and who is responsible, if anyone, for her death. This almost inevitably leads to an attempt to examine questions about faith, as the characters try to find some meaning in what happened.
In this sense, the film is most simlar to THE EXORCIST, which also looked at the mystery of faith. The difference is that in the film version of THE EXORCIST (as opposed to the novel), the impact of the special effects was so powerful that viewers never questioned whether the possession of Regan Theresa MacNeil was genuine or not. EMILY ROSE tries to leave the question more open, although in the end it does come down heavily in favor of keeping an open mind toward the possibility of the miraculous.
Besides the clever story conceit, much of the horror should be credited to the excellent score by Christopher Young (who always seems to do great work in this genre) and to the performance of Jennifer Carpenter in the title role. The special effects deployed are actually very mild: no projectile vomiting, levitation, spinning heads, or crucifix masturbation scenes here. Instead, the horror arises from seeing Emily Rose lose control of herself, perhaps wracked by an epileptic seizure, while simultaneously suffering from demonc visions (which could be explained as manifestations of psychosis). Carpenter’s work, twisting her face and contorting her body with little or no assitance from the makeup and/or special effects departments, is is both terrifying and heartbreaking – more than enough to make the film chilling.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose Tom WilkinsonTom Wilkinson and Laura Linney are extremely convincing in their roles, and the supporting cast is uniformly good as well, even those who come on for only a scene or two. The production design, cinematography, and direction combine to showcase the cast in a film that is at once a good courtroom drama and a creepy horror film, whose scares are all the more effective because they seem to take place in the real world.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE perhaps overdoes the spook angle a bit much, as if afraid of boring viewers. The horror is not limited to Emily’s possession, and the movie is not above tossing in a gratuitous shock or two. There are lots of quite interludes interrupted by sudden, loud banging, and one potential witness is struck down by a car, as if Satan is preventing him from testifying; the only problem is, he had already decided not to testify. (Surely, the Prince of Darkness should reward bad behavior?)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose Laura LinneyAlso, Linney’s defense attorney hears more than a few “things that go bump in the night,” as if the forces of darkness are attacking her because she is defending Father Moore (Wilkinson). We’re supposed to see this as a visual expression of her “long, dark night of the soul’ (she feels guilty for helping to aquite a murderer — who killed again). The Hollywood transformation from cynical career-climber to crusading defender of the innocent is a bit predictable, if sincerely handled. To some extent, it undermines the versimilitude of the story: instead of a legal examination of a possibly preturanatural phenomena, this subplot makes the film feel a bit like a contrived Hollywood hybrid. (You can almost hear the studio execs chortling with glee: “It’s John Grisham meets THE EXORCIST — I like it!”)
In the end, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE tries to offer an upbeat interpretation, suggesting that Emily was a martyr of sorts, who willingly accepted her suffering for the benefit of others. The idea is that her torment at the hands of demons proves the existence of the diabolic and, by extension, the existence of the divine (an idea at the heart of THE EXORCIST). Fortunately, the film does not force the interpretation on the audience but leaves it as something that some of the characters believe. In this way, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE manages to take on some heavy philosophical issues, using its subject matter to provoke debate on an interesting subject, without too obviously preaching a sermon. The result should please open-minded believers and non-believers alike.


The Exorcism of Emily Rose Jennifer CarpenterAlthough the credits and the advertising campaign for THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE claim that the film is “based on a true story,” there seems to be not much more than a bare fragment of truth in its script. Before the end credits, a title card tells us that a character involved with the real case cooperated with an author who wrote a book, which served as the basis for the film. Although screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman purchased the rights, neither the book nor the author is named. The book is in fact The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, and the basic point of similarity between the actual events and the film story is that a young woman dies during an exorcism and the priest was put on trial for negligent homicide (in real life, her parents were charged as well). In the actual case, it seems clear that the young woman’s death resulted from negligence: she died after undergoing an exhausting series of exorcisms for months, which apparently included continually genuflecting until he knees gave out (in the film, only one ritual of exorcism is performed). An authentic adaptation of the true story would have more likely been a film about a misguided priest whose efforts inadvertently kill someone he’s trying to save — not an uplifting Hollywood story.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005). Produced by Paul Harris Boardman. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson. Cast: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott, Mary Beth Hurt, Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

The Ninth Gate (2000) – Horror Film Review

The original DVD, released on July 18, 2000, now out of print

Roman Polanski’s diabolical little thriller may not rise to the level of his acknowledged classics in the horror genre; nevertheless, it represents a return to form for the director of such memorable films as Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Decades later, THE NINTH GATE may not be groundbreaking in the way those films were back in the 1960s, but it features the same sure-handed control of cinematic elements.
Unlike modern horror films, THE NINTH GATE takes a more classic approach to its subject matter, slowly and carefully building up and sustaining suspense, with an undercurrent of supernatural dread, while seldom offering overt shocks. The storyline is basically a Satanic variation on Dashiell Hammett’s  The Maltese Falcon, with Johnny Depp as Corso, an ethically unscrupulous procurer of rare books. A rich collector named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires Corso to authenticate a Satanic volume in his collection. Once he takes the job, Corso encounters a Satan-worshipping widow (Lena Olin) and an enigmatic motorcycle-riding woman (Emmanuelle Seigner), who turns out to be his guardian angel of sorts — although demon may be the more appropriate designation.
The audience is supposed to respect Corso because because he is a talented professional, good at what he does, regardless of the fact that he behaves without ethics. Yet by the end of THE NINTH GATE, Corso has, like Sam Spade before him, given up on just completing the job and collecting his paycheck; he has become consumed by the mystery, which he wishes to solve for its own sake. The film’s wicked joke is that the character’s spiritual awakening dives in the opposite direction of salvation. Apparently Lucifer’s chosen one (for no apparent reason, except perhaps that the Devil likes his style), Corso puts the pieces together and unravels Lucifer’s mysterious puzzle. When last seen, approaching a castle gate (presumably the ninth gate of the title) from which emanates a blazing, glorious light (recall that “Lucifer” originally meant “bringer of light”), Corso is presumably heading toward—what?
Damnation? If so, THE NINTH GATE’s vision of damnation is a strange one. The Devil-worshippers we see preparing for a black mass are derided mercilessly by Balkan, who interrupts and chastises them for chanting “mumbo-jumbo.” His sentiments echoes those expressed earlier in the film by the owner of another copy of the rare Satanic volume. The film seems to tell us that these Satanists are just in it for the orgies and the kicks; they are not carrying on the true faith. Yet somehow Corso, the non-believer, winds up receiving the Devil’s blessing, and in some way, apparently, we are meant to see this as an achievement. Needless to say, this ending (which lacks the visual and/or dramatic punch it really needs in order to cap the film satisfactorily) did not go down well with audiences in theatres, but it does make a kind of sense in the context of the film.


THE NINTH GATE’s was original released on DVD by Artisan Entertainment on July 18, 2000. That now out-of-print DVD has sinsce been replaced by Lionsgate’s May 22, 2007 DVD, which was followed by Lionsgate’s subsequent Blu-ray disc on August 11, 2009. These later releases essentially recreate the bonus features from the Artisan DVD, while improving upon the Artisan disc’s interminably slow opening menus; the Blu-ray disc also offers a new 1080p high-defintion transfer. The special features include an isolated music score, a featurette, a gallery of satanic drawings, storyboard selections, theatrical trailers and TV spots, cast and crew info, production notes, scene access, and an interactive menu.
The featurette truly puts emphasis on the suffix “ette”—it flashes by in about the length of time one would expect for a commercial, but it does include a nice moment or two (such as Depp’s observation that you begin the film by hating Corso because he’s a bad guy, but by the time you’ve grown to like him near the end, he has in fact grown even worse).
Fortuantely, Roman Polanski’s audio commentary makes up for the disappointing behind-the-scenes featurette. The director is clearly uncomfortable sitting through THE NINTH GATE again; right off the bat he calls the experience “unusual” and emphasizes that he doesn’t go back to his films “unless compelled to.” Later, he explains, “I avoid watching my films because most of the time I feel like I would like to improve certain things. In other moments, I’m straight ashamed of certain things I did, and it just doesn’t do me any good to revisit this.” This discomfort is apparent also in the way that the commentary drops out and returns periodically throughout the film, no doubt indicating various stops-and-starts during the recording process.
Despite this, Polanski turns out to be a thoughtful and amusing commentator on his own work. His voice is slow, and occasionally he apologizes for his pronunciation, but overall his English is good, and he delivers numerous behind-the-scenes details and philosophical tidbits that make the experience amusing and informative. During one of his many explanations for not wanting to re-view his films and ponder the way he might have improved them, he states that after a certain point, one is no longer improving a film; one has only the illusion of making it better and “better is often the enemy of good.”
Most interesting from a technical point of view is that this deceptively simple film is loaded with hundreds of special effects of the most invisible kind (often to establish settings or enhance live-action effects, sometimes to film tricky bits of action without putting the actors in danger). In an amusing early note, Polanski points out that the opening skyline shot of Manhattan was filmed by a second-unit; he discretely neglects to mention that this had to be the case—not because it’s a shot not involving principal actors, but because the director is a fugitive from justice in this country (since pleading guilty to a rape charge in the 1970s) and cannot legally return to the location. There are other amusing omissions. At one point, the director explains his reasons for casting Emmanuelle Seigner (“I thought Emmanuel had the right looks for the role, and she can be enigmatic”), but he neglects to mention that he’s married to her.
In other interesting asides, Polanski also confirms the film’s debt to the writings of Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler, admitting that the proceedings are almost a parody of the private detective genre. He mentions, “It’s a good thing to make a movie about a book…now that it has competition from the computer.” On the subject of his Satanic subject matter (which he handled before in Rosemary’s Baby), he claims, “I’m not a believer, but the Devil is a good guy to make a film about—even if you don’t see him” (as indeed you don’t, in either film). He adds that Rosemary’s Baby was a more serious take on the subject matter, so he felt compelled to set that film up so that everything could be interpreted without recourse to the supernatural—as a paranoid delusion by Rosemary, brought on by the strain and stress of her pregnancy. THE NINTH GATE, on the other hand, is a “fairy tale for adults,” so he felt no concern about downplaying the supernatural element.
Polanski briefly addresses this element during the film’s closing scenes. After describing Johnny Depps’s character as a “mercenary” who later comes to want “access to the mystery,” he adds a few words about Seigner’s unnamed character “who clearly represents the Devil.” Still, Polanski stops short of clearing up the details: he leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether the character is merely servant of the Devil or the Devil disguised in a form that would appeal to Corso, and he states clearly, “I’m not going to explain the film.”
Commenting on THE NINTH GATE’s existence on DVD, Polanski says he was thinking of adding missing scenes for the disc, but there were none to be had; although some scenes were trimmed or shortened, none were entirely cut out. Later, he mentions that all the insert shots of books (which revel important clues to the mystery) were very carefully planned for the benefit of nitpickers who like to rewind and check details over and over again, looking for cheats and/or continuity errors.
“I challenge anyone to find any lack of logic in this!” the director proudly states.
Near the end, he states that there is no better way of seeing a movie than in a theatre, but viewing one at home is the next best thing, so he is grateful for the invention of DVDs, because the image quality of VHS is poor and Laserdiscs were too heavy and clunky.
Finally, after a cigar and some chocolate to help him through the film, Polanski signs off by sighing, “Well, this was an experience!”
Perhaps a trying experience for him, as a director forced to sit through one of his finished films when he would much prefer to be looking forward t his next work, but for us in the audience, the experience is perfectly enjoyable. THE NINTH GATE may not be a perfect movie (typical of Polanski, the deliberate pace is a bit too deliberate, and the climax could have used something more…climactic maybe?); nevertheless, this is a worthwhile film, and Polanski’s commentary provides a glimpse of a talented mind still capable of applying the craftsmanship necessary to fashion an effective, suggestive horror film without relying on shock effects.
THE NINTH GATE may not appeal to the MTV audience (Polanski himself states that the film’s style is a reaction against flashy contemporary fashions in cinema), but fans of thoughtful, intelligent horror movie-making, with carefully modulated scenes and performances that lull you into accepting the incredible story,will find the subject matter intriguing enough to be worth investigating. Just don’t lose yourself in the mystery as Corso does.
THE NINTH GATE (2000). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by John Brownjohn & Enrique Urbizu and Roman Polanski. Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford, Jack Taylor, Jos Lopez Rodero, James Russo.