In cults circles (especially among fans of Italian horror cinema in general and director Mario Bava in particular), THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM is probably the most (in)famous alternate film version in existence – a complete do-over of Bava’s excellent and ethereal LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) with added scenes of (you guessed it!), exorcism and all that entails: bile, vomit, and profanity. What may make HOUSE OF EXORCISM unique among alternate versions is that (as its producer Alfredo Leone is fond of pointing out) it actually has a separate copyright date, distinguishing HOUSE OF EXORCISM as a separate film unto itself. The irony here is that, if HOUSE OR EXORCISM holds any interest at all (a position seriously open to debate), that interest lies not on the merits of the film itself but on its relationship to LISA AND THE DEVIL.
The original is an atmospheric, ambitious work, filled with suggestion and ambiguity about a tourist named Lisa (Elke Sommer) who loses her way and ends up in a chateau with a strange family, who seem to recognize her as someone named Helena. Is she a reincarnation of a dead woman, or are these the ghosts of the past? Is Leandro (Telly Savalas) simply a butler, or is he an incarnation of the Devil, tormenting Lisa by making her relive events of her previous life over and over? In the manner of many such movies, which combine artistic aspirations with genre obligations, it’s not a fully satisfying experience in a conventional sense, and it’s sometime hard to determine whether the questions lingering over the narrative are a part of an intricate puzzle box or simply a matter of sloppy screenwriting. Fortunately, the film bravura visual qualities pull you into its weird world, so that any puzzling plot developments become part of the dreamlike experience.
Apparently this was too much for U.S. distributors, who passed on LISA AND THE DEVIL after it was completed in 1973. Hoping to get some return on his investment, Leone went back and shot more footage (apparently directing the additions himself) featuring Sommer and Robert Alda as a priest. The result was THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which was released in Italy in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1976 – a film that mimics THE EXORCIST (1973) only close enough to remind viewers how inferior the ripoff is.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM begins with a much more bombastic opening music cue, beneath a completely revised opening credits sequence, with graphics emphasizing crosses against garish red backgrounds. After that, there is some attempt to simulate the visual style of the original, and the new footage blends relatively seamlessly at first (though sharp-eyed viewers will note that Leandro is shot only from behind to disguise the absence of Savalas). In the added scenes, instead of simply losing her way and hitching a ride that takes her to the chateau, Lisa suffers some kind of fit; taken to a hospital, she exhibits signs of possession, so Father Michael (Alda) performs an exorcism, which more or less lasts the rest of the film, with footage from LISA AND THE DEVIL intercut like flashbacks or dreams.
The possession scenes pilfer THE EXORCIST’s bag of tricks, adding little new and nothing worthwhile. There is some stunt work with a contortionist that’s halfway creepy and some belabored attempts to use adult nudity and innuendo show the evil spirit tormenting the priest with his guilty feelings over an affair from before he took to the cloth; a particularly risible moment occurs when Father Michael’s dead girl friend materializes to seduce him – in a room whose walls are covered in puke (it doesn’t help that the hospital set, where the exorcism takes place, looks more like a toolshed). Like almost every other film that followed in the wake of director William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, HOUSE OF EXORCISM eschews any attempt at grappling with its subject matter in a realistic way, instead simply serving up a bunch of recycled cliches like so many obligatory genre elements: Lisa contorts, pukes, and levitates on cue because that’s what happens in a film with “exorcism” in the title – but it’s all gratuitous mayhem, with no thematic underpinnings.
There are a few transitional bits to visually justify cross-cutting between the two narrative threads (i.e., as Lisa wanders lost in a scene from the original, the camera zooms in on a broken pocket watch, before cutting to a closeup of someone looking at his wrist watch in the hospital to which Lisa has been taken in the new footage). However, the logical connection between the two threads remains elusive. In one early addition, a repairman, working on a mannequin for Leandro, notes that Lisa looks exactly like Helena, suggesting that Leandro plans to “use” her tonight, instead of Helena – presumably in the drama about to unfold at the chateau. Later in the hospital, the possessed Lisa declares to no one in particular, “You won’t use me in your games tonight!” The implication seems to be that the scenes in the chateau represent events that the spirit of Helena is somehow avoiding by possessing the body of Lisa. Or something like that…
What is mildly interesting is that the film eventually feels some obligation to spell out, however incoherently, what is happening. In between hurling profanity and invective at Father Michael (“Don’t break my balls, priest!”), Helena, speaking through Lisa, offers a sort of running commentary on the events in the chateau, spelling out not only what is happening but also why. In a sense, she becomes the Greek Chorus, explaining the story to the audience.
The completely unexpected result of this is that HOUSE OR EXORCISM emerges feeling less like a ripoff of THE EXORCIST and more like DAUGHTER OF HORROR, the re-release version of DEMENTIA (1955), which added narration to clarify a nightmarish scenario that was originally intended to perplex audiences with its dreamlike surrealism. Is this enough to make HOUSE OF EXORCISM interesting, even if not worthwhile? Not really. The explanation proffered by HOUSE OF EXORCISM makes little sense. Unlike DAUGHTER OF HORROR, whose narration may actually have enhanced the movie, providing answers that did not feel tiresome or trite, HOUSE OF EXORCISM does not emerge as an intriguing alternate version; its exposition simply reminds us that we would have been better off watching LISA AND THE DEVIL and figuring things out for ourselves.
In HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Helena is speaking in the past tense about things she has experienced, but she also insists that these events at the chateau are taking place again tonight, though it is not completely clear how that could be possible without her participation. Are we to assume that Helena and Lisa’s spirit have traded places and that Lisa is now in Helena’s place, trapped in some kind of limbo where the events of the past repeat endlessly? If so, the explanation is unsatisfying – why should Lisa suffer for Helena’s sins? As elusive as the original film was, the implication ultimately was that Lisa and Helena were the same, and the events in the chateau represented her past – perhaps another lifetime – catching up with her.
With this element obliterated, the ending pushes Lisa aside to focus on Father Michael as he travels to the chateau to exorcise the house itself. Why? No particular reason, except perhaps that placing this new character in the setting from the old footage would forge a slightly stronger link between the film’s two narrative threads. This leads to a relatively uneventful climax in which the priest wanders around the building, assaulted by wind and threatened by snakes, while shouting to cast out the devil.An abruptly edited flash of lightening seems to show him going up in a puff of smoke, but by that time viewers are past caring.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM is, top put it bluntly, an abomination. Back in 1975, when there was no other way for U.S. viewers to see LISA AND THE DEVIL in any form, there may have been some justification for the existence of HOUSE OF EXORCISM; now, however, the film is nothing more than a historical footnote, a curiosity for Bava fans who want to see the their idol’s masterpiece bastardized into one in a long line of EXORCIST ripoffs. As understandable as producer Leone’s intentions were (was it better to leave the film unseen in a vault or get it on the screen in some form?), HOUSE OF EXORCISM takes Bava’s intriguing original and spoils it with crude vulgarity. If you really want to see a marriage of LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE EXORCIST, rent both of them and watch them back to back.
THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975). Produced by Alfredo Leone. Directed by Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (as Mickey Lion). Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfred Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto natale, Francesca Rusishka. Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinit, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Carmen Silva, Franz Von Treuberg, Espartaco Santoni, Alida Valli, Robert Alda. Rated R. 92 minutes.
What kind of film is worthy of the sacrificial lamb slot that is the first release of January? What sort of slipshod storytelling does it take for audience members to start hurling epithets at the screen as the credits crawl? How disposable is the project when the host of a podcast devoted to genre film repeatedly gets the title wrong? Why, that would be THE DEVIL WITHI… ‘scuse us… THE DEVIL INSIDE, yet another attempt to recast horror through the blurry lens of the mockumentary.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons ring in the New Year by exploring DEVIL’s flawed theology, shallow characterizations, and ambiguous narrative gambits. And, with the help of input from theofantastique.com‘s John W. Morehead, they discuss whether the recent rebirth of the exorcism genre is an accurate reflection of these anxious times. What’s revealed in discussion may surprise you — maybe even more than the film itself.
Also: Steve gives his capsule thoughts on the alien-invasion-in-Moscow flick, THE DARKEST HOUR, and Dan provides takes on THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN and the imaginative fantasy short, A GOBLIN’S TALE. Plus: What’s coming in theaters.
The Devil and the related phenomenon of demonic possession, have been the source of several horror films for the years. Previous decades offered THE EXORCIST (1973), with its Roman Catholic perspective, and the various films that made up Protestant responses to it in THE OMEN (1976) and its sequels. Moving forward into more recent cinematic history, we have seen THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), and a dual release of diabolical films in 2010: DEVIL and THE LAST EXORCISM. Our fascination with the ultimate supernatural villain continues in 2011 with the recent release of THE RITE, which returns the horror treatment of Satan and demonic possession to the Catholic roots of THE EXORCIST. As a result of our present social and cultural circumstances, which echo much of the turbulence of the 1970s, we may be calling on Satan to help us deal with our current angst. As we will see, paradoxically, he may also provide some with faith in God.
THE RITE tells the story of a young American, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who has decided to leave the family business of running a mortuary with his father (Rutger Hauer) in favor of entering Roman Catholic seminary. As he explains his decision to a friend, the Kovaks do only two things, undertaking or the priesthood; with his increasing dissatisfaction with the former, it is time for Michael to explore the possibilities of the latter. Kovak completes his program of study, but just before taking his ordination vows, he submits his resignation because he lacks the faith that underlies the work of the priesthood and the church. One of his professors, Father Matthew (Toby Jones), sees potential in Kovak and, instead of accepting Michael’s resignation, sends him to a school in Rome that trains priests in the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism. It is here, Father Matthew argues, that Kovak may find the faith that he needs to become a priest.
After beginning exorcism studies, Kovak is assigned to work with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a priest whose many years of experience include thousands of exorcisms. Father Trevant is aware of Kovak’s struggle with faith, a struggle that Trevant himself has experienced from time to time in the past. Trevant immediately enlists Kovak’s help in assisting with exorcisms; the first involves the alleged possession of a pregnant teenage girl. After watching Trevant interact with the teenager, Kovak’s skepticism remains. He believes that her strange behavior can be accounted for by deep psychological problems, and that what she really needs is a psychiatrist. But after his experiences with Father Trevant, the allegedly possessed girl, and another case of possession, Kovak’s skepticism becomes more difficult to maintain. Eventually, he experiences strange phenomena, has deeply troubling and surreal dreams, and begins to wonder whether there may be some truth to the possibility of possession. As the film reaches its climax, Father Trevant and Kovak both have their faith tested, on the one hand, and given an opportunity for confirmation on the other, thanks to the presumed presence of evil supernatural entities.
Before addressing what I believe is the major thrust of THE RITE, I would like to make a few minor observations. At one point in the film, as Kovak begins his exorcism studies in Rome, he has a spirited exchange with the priest teaching the course, and Kovak notes that while the church accepts the veracity of demonic possession without hesitation, if someone reports a UFO sighting and alien abduction, the claim is immediately suspect. For Kovak, both claims are just as unlikely, so why should a strange claim in a mainstream religious tradition be privileged over a paranormal claim in what is often considered part of the cultural and religious fringe. Here THE RITE stumbles upon not only a question that can be found in any number of skeptical publications, but also an often unacknowledged issue in popular expressions and the academic study of religion. Phenomena like demonic possession or Marian apparitions are more likely to be take seriously, at least by believers, than other experiences by other segments of society outside the religious mainstream.
The second observation involves two of the actors in THE RITE. This film represents Anthony Hopkins’s return to horror, his prior effort being THE WOLFMAN (2010). Interestingly, in both films Hopkins plays a man who must wrestle with an internal evil. In THE WOLFMAN he battles the effects of a werewolf curse and releases his inner monster to roam and attack at will because, he says, “The beast must have its day.” In THE RITE his character likewise wrestles with an inner evil, but in this instance the evil is resisted, and deliverance is desired rather than unbridled relishing in that evil.
Another actor in this film completes the final part of my second observation, and that is Alice Braga. In THE RITE Braga plays a journalist, Angeline, struggling to know whether her deceased brother (who struggled for years with mental difficulties and claimed to hear voices) was really suffering from mental disease or demonic influences. Like Kovak, Angeline wrestles with the issues of faith and skepticism. It is worth noting that this is not the first time Braga has taken a role that depicts a character addressing faith in the face of evil. In I AM LEGEND (2007), Braga played Anna, a woman who believed that even in the face of a worldwide plague that turned most of the human population into contagious, monstrous creatures, God’s voice could still be heard if humanity was willing to listen.
It is here that the latter half of my second observation above leads to what I view as the major focus of this film: developing religious commitments in the midst of a skeptical age. But THE RITE presents this idea in a curious fashion, almost by “backing into” faith as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to this film’s reasoning, although life’s experiences, coupled with the reigning cultural narrative of the sciences as the arbiter of truth, make it very difficult to maintain traditional religious commitments in terms of belief in God, the presence of supernatural evil through demonic possession proves the existence of the Devil; by extension, this then proves the existence of God. If Satan exists, then God must exist as well.
Although this reasoning is problematic, it is not difficult to understand in light of Kovak’s experiences that are displayed in flashbacks and dreams over the course of the film. Kovak’s father runs a mortuary out of the family home, and thus young Michael was exposed to the unsanitized reality of death from a very young age. In addition, his mother died when he was a child; it was her death, coupled with his father’s enlisting Michael to assist with his mother’s embalming, that led to Michael’s functional atheism symbolized by the young Michael bending and twisting a crucifix behind his back as his mother’s casket is lowered into the ground. Many irreligious as well as religious convictions often begin at the experiential level, and then develop rational justification and support over time. Kovak’s lack of faith is understandable in light of the close proximity of death since his youth, and the loss of his mother, a woman of religious convictions.
Kovak’s experiences are mirrored by countless individuals in our late modern period. As just one example, a recent story in THE NEW YORKER on Guillermo del Toro included a telling paragraph which echoed similar sentiments in a National Public Radio interview of the past in which the gifted film director described his atheism as a result of his experiences with the corpses of young children in his native Mexico. In his view, no human beings can have souls, and no God can exist if even these innocents are tossed out like garbage. In other interviews with del Toro, we learn that other experiences played a part in his lack of faith, such as an overbearing religious grandmother, but the point is that the experiences of one of the greatest contemporary horror and dark fantasy film makers echoes the struggle of faith of Kovak in THE RITE. It is indeed difficult to believe in God, or in anything.
Yet here an unlikely source provides for positive religious inspiration. It is through his battles with evil personal entities – which he comes to believe are supernatural – that Kovak comes to accept the existence of the Devil. And as mentioned previously, if the Devil exists, it is argued, then in light of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then God must exist as well. Of course, there are other possible explanations, even if possession is granted as a legitimate phenomenon. After all, anthropologists have described possession across a variety of cultures and religious traditions. But it is interesting that in our skeptical age, the Devil is construed as a proof of God’s existence.
It remains to be seen how much longer Satan will be given a starring role at the box office. We have been fascinated with him for years in literature and cinema, as well as in religion and culture. Perhaps the moral ambiguity of our times – ever increasing since THE EXORCIST burst on the screen at a previous time of social upheaval and sent viewers vomiting from the theaters – demands the ultimate villain. By pointing beyond ourselves to an external and supernatural source of evil we can exorcise not only our individual but also our societal demons as well, and come to embrace faith, in something.
The Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast goes to Hell in a handbasket this week, as Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski scourge the evil spirits possessing THE RITE, the new exorcism-themed horror film starring Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). Allegedly inspired by true events, the screenplay by Michael Petroni (suggested by Matt Baglio’s book) has skeptical seminary student Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) reluctantly attending exorcism school at the Vatican, where he meets expert exorcist Father Lucas (Hopkins), who tries to convince him of the reality of the Devil. Mikael Hafstrom (1408) directed. Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, and Franco Nero co-star.
Is this THE EXORCIST for the 21st Century, or is it just warmed over pea soup? Come along and find out.
IFC Films releases this foreign horror film, directed by Manuel Carballo and starring Stephen Billington, Tommy Bastow, and Doug Bradley. A rebellious young girl (Sophie Vavasseur) slowly discovers that she is possessed by a twisted, evil force. She is soon forced against her will to use extreme measures to free herself. The film, which also stars acclaimed UK actors Jo-Anne Stockham and Stephen Billington, recently had its world premiere at the Sitges Fantastic Film Festival. Also known as THE POSESION DE EMMA EVANS.
After a Video on Demand debut in January (through major cable outlets), the film moves into limited release in February, including an engagement at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, California.
Video on Demand: January 5
Theatrical: February 3
Official Website: Click here
Warner Brothers (the studio behind THE EXORCIST) releases this supernatural thriller through its New Line subsidiary. Allegedly inspired by true events, the plot follows skeptical seminary student Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who reluctantly attends exorcism school at the Vatican. While in Rome, he meets an unorthodox priest, Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), who introduces him to the darker side of his faith. Directed by Mikael Hafstroem (“1408″), “The Rite” is a supernatural thriller that uncovers the devil’s reach to even one of the holiest places on Earth. Mikael Hafstrom (1408) directs from a screenplay by Michael Petroni, suggested by Matt Baglio’s book. Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, and Franco Nero co-star.
Release Date: January 28
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.
Is THE LAST EXORCISM this generation’s version of THE EXORCIST? No: , with its faux-documentary style, backwoods setting, and ambiguous attitude toward possession, the filmcomes across more like an unholy hybrid of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. By turns satirical and startling, THE LAST EXORCISM takes a low-key approach that emphasizes believability that yields impressively eerie dividends as it follows a minister who who sets out to debunk the practice of exorcism by allowing a documentary crew to film him at work. This laudable attempt at creating serious horror is guaranteed to make viewers sit up and scream – this is definitely not a roller-coaster joyride slasher flick. Unfortunately, THE LAST EXORCISM loses its way in the second half, particularly with an unsatisfying ending that undermines much of what has come before.
Imitation documentaries should have worn out their welcome by now, but at least initially, THE LAST EXORCISM makes good use of the form, allowing Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) to fill us in on his background as a child preacher who grew up to become a minister an exorcist. Since reading about an exorcism gone wrong (in which the possessed subject was accidentally killed), Marcus has had a change of heart if not a complete crisis of faith: although he rationalizes his past exorcisms (by saying they removed the “thought” of possession from the victim), he feels he can prevent future deaths by exposing exorcism as a fraud.
It’s a good set-up. Marcus is an ambiguous character, but he seems (initially) to be sincere in his attempt to make amends for his past, and we can’t really blame him for what he used to do (he was raised to be a preacher by his father and never stopped to question that upbringing). However, his attempt to debunk exorcism on camera takes a weird turn: instead of exposing some other fraud, Marcus commits fraud himself. Whatever his avowed motives, he allows himself to be documented as he bilks a gullible farmer whose daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) appears to be possessed.
Perhaps this is the filmmakers’ way of maintaining Marcus’s ambiguity, but the film itself seems to overlook the problem: the on-screen documentarians are unconcerned with the criminality they are witnessing, and Marcus himself has no concerns that the film they are shooting might ever be used in court against him. These early scenes are marred by a slightly self-satisfied air: as we in the audience are invited to laugh at Marcus’s deception, THE LAST EXORCISM borders on condescension, even outright contempt, toward its rural characters, who are being played as rubes.
Unfortunately for Marcus and his crew, the case he chose proves to be more difficult – and dangerous – than imagined. Nell continues to exhibit signs of possession after Marcus completes his exorcism, and her father Louis (Louis Herthum) would prefer to kill her rather than leave her possessed by a demon. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Marcus has no choice but to continue with the exorcism, even though he is convinced that Nell would be better served by a doctor.
Here, THE LAST EXORCISM ratchets up the tension in an effectively edgy way. Marcus goes from being a confident con man, in charge of the situation, to being in totally over his head. There is a certain satisfying thematic irony in seeing someone perpetrate a hoax and then find himself hoist on what he thought was his own bogus petard: it’s almost as if rural American were getting its revenge on the sharp city slicker. Needless to say, THE LAST EXORCISM is not the kind of film in which we can expect the character to learn his lesson and redeem himself; in the manner of E.C. Comics and Robert Bloch (e.g., “The Grim Reaper” episode of THRILLER), he is more likely to pay the price for his perfidy. It’s a “no win” situation, as one of the documentary crew says, and the audience fears the consequences will be tragic at least, and possibly lethal as well.
At this point, the early satire goes out the window as THE LAST EXORCISM morphs from a pseudo-documentary into an all-out horror show. The conventional camera style adjusts to include spooky angles and shadowy lighting, while ominous music arrives on the soundtrack. Although there is an unnecessary moment of gore (a real cat would be too quick to be bludgeoned by a camera in this way), thankfully, most of the manifestations of possession are kept low-key and believable; as in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, most of the horror comes from seeing the possessed girl contort herself in horribly painful ways, leaving the question of whether the case is “authentic” open to question. ( For example, the eerie poster image of the girl pinned to the ceiling does not appear in the film, unless you count a shot of Ashley sitting atop a hutch).
The stylistic shift is actually a welcome touch: like an earlier montage (which intercuts Marcus perpetrating fraud with shots of him explaining the magician style tricks he uses), the use of manipulative music and editing suggest that, unlike THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, we are watching not raw footage but a finished documentary. However, unlike DIARY OF THE DEAD (in which how the documentary came to be complete is actually part of the story) THE LAST EXORCISM is cheating – something that will not be apparent until the misguided ending.
This last-minute misstep should not blind us to the film’s virtues, in particular its performances. In a convincing cast, the two leads stand out. Despite the quibbles one may have with Marcus, Fabian makes him engaging, and he perfectly manages to the character’s midpoint shift from confidence to concern; you feel the level of sincerity that drives him to stick with the case even after his involvement should have been officially over. Bell also manages to pull off a convincing metamorphosis, from innocent to demonic, with the right shading to leave us guessing whether she is possessed or mentally ill. Even better, the occasional overt outbursts of violence are overshadowed by the subtle, quieter moments, like the sinister hint of a smile she flashes at the camera – and by extension at the faux-documentary’s cameraman, who has begun to fear that Nell intends to kill him.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE ENDING [SPIOLERS]
After building to a frenzy that seems to resolve itself into a rational explanation, THE LAST EXORCISM reaches one of those unsatisfying “conclusions” that is obviously just a set-up for a twist. Learning a new key fact, Marcus and crew head back to the farm one last time, where they encounter a satanic ceremony. At first the imagery has a creepy Nathaniel Hawthorne vibe, presenting a shadowy “alternate” reality that exists in the dark forest at night, conflicting with the character’s safe daylight assumptions. However, when Nell gives birth to a baby that is described as “not human” we realize that THE LAST EXORCISM has tripped into the realm of bad ’70s exploitation, abandoning credibility in favor of “it’s only a movie” schlockiness. Do we really need another film telling us that isolated communities are nothing but a front for nefarious cult activity?
As Marcus races towards the flames – which flare as if to suggest an actual demonic presence – THE LAST EXORCISM could have been on the verge of a powerfully dramatic conclusion that would have resolved its mysteries. Instead, it opts for the arbitrary “got you in the last scene” conclusion that raises more questions than it answers. This provides a jolt or two and even pays off on an earlier set-up (a drawing by Nell that foretold the outcome), but it undermines the earlier use of editing and music: the abrupt BLAIR WITCH-type coda leaves us wondering who was left alive to manipulate the film in post-production – a concern that does not seem to trouble THE LAST EXORCISM’s actual filmmakers.
It is unfortunate that THE LAST EXORCISM takes the generic way out in its final moments, which violate the integrity of the project. I am not a big fan of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but at least it stayed true to the conceit of a being a “found” film. THE LAST EXORCISM delivers an intriguing story with more than enough scares to satisfy cinematic thrill-seekers, but if producer Eli Roth, director Daniel Stamm, and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland had stuck to the rules they themselves established, their film could have been even better.
Whether or not it stays true to its faux-documentary conceit, THE LAST EXORCISM ultimately abandons its aspiration to be something more than just an effective genre film. Early on, Marcus states that if you believe in God, you must believe in the Devil, as if this were an incontrovertible theological truism. THE LAST EXORCISM is not particularly interested in exploring this idea – which is far from universally accepted in religious circles – nor does the film have much interesting to say about exorcism, possession, faith, or religion, which are used as a foundation for effective scare tacitcs. On this level, the film mostly delivers, but it lacks the resonance that made THE EXORCIST an enduring classic.
UPDATE: I have to admit that Boston.com’s Jesse Singal summed up THE LAST EXORCISM much more succinctly than I:
It’s like director Daniel Stamm and his crew realized they were treading awfully close to making a film with real depth and edge that horror audiences might hate, and they just couldn’t pull the trigger.
THE LAST EXORCISM (Lionsgate: August 27, 2010). Produced by Eli Roth. Directed by Daniel Stamm. Written by Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland. Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley, John Wright Jr., Shanna Marcus, Justin Shafer, Carol Sutton, Victoria Paternaude, John Wilmot, Becky Fly, Denise Lee, Logan Craig Reid. Shot under the title, COTTON.
In the year 2000, twenty-seven years after its initial release, William Peter Blatty finally gave his complete seal of approval to the film version of THE EXORCIST, which he scripted and produced, based upon his novel. Ever since the film came out in 1973, the author has expressed his disappointment with William Friedkin`s final cut, even going so far as to enumerate those flaws in his book The Exorcist: From Novel to Film. Basically, nearly twenty minutes of material was removed in order to get running time down to two hours and two minutes, and the result “to my mind at least,” Blatty once told me, “are some glaring construction flaws.” For the film’s re-release in 2000, eleven minutes were restored; plus, new shots were added, and some footage enhanced with brief, nearly subliminal special effects. The question for viewers, of course, is whether or not this new material makes a substantial difference to the viewing experience.
The answer is a definite yes: the revised cut is substantially enhanced by the restorations. Whether this is enough to convert those who never liked the film is another matter, but those sitting on the fence post might be swayed, and longtime fans should be pleased to see a fuller rendering of the material, containing some brief but crucial moments that lay a more solid foundation for the thematic underpinnings of the story.
That said, one must still acknowledge that, even with the enhancements, the film is not and never will be a replacement for the book. Blatty’s novel runs some four hundred pages and contains voluminous material that could (and probably should) never be filmed—much of it relating to mental illness and psychic phenomena, in an effort to establish possible alternate explanations for Regan’s “possession.” The truth of the matter is that the film never really diverged that much from the book, except in terms of omissions. Now some of those omissions have been reinstated. They don’t really change one’s interpretation of the film (especially if you were familiar with the source material to begin with), but they do make the interpretation much more clear to people who perhaps were too disturbed by the power of the shock effects to see past them and to the message of faith that was intended.
The changes fall into three categories: restorations, remixing, and additions. Taking the middle one first, the new soundtrack is rendered in wonderfully atmospheric multi-channel stereo that often seems to put the audio in the middle of the action. This works especially well not only in the shock sequences but more particularly in the quiet moments, when subtle audience cues seem to surround the viewer with a sense of omni-present evil. If there is a flaw here, it is that the remixed track may layer the sound on a bit too thick. The old version effectively juxtaposed loud outbursts with moments of near-dead silence. The new version sometimes seems to obliterate the silence, making the juxtaposition less effective. Instead of loud contrasted with silent, we now have loud contrasted with not-so-loud.
The impact of the restored scenes varies. Still missing is Regan and Chris MacNeil’s walking tour of Washington, D.C., and it’s probably just as well. Even Blatty, in The Exorcist: Novel to Film, admitted that the early omitted scenes were “boring”; his problem with their removal was that they left continuity gaps. One of those gaps is filled by the inclusion of an initial visit to the doctor, but a new gap is created. Whereas the old version contained dialogue references to a missing doctor scene, we now see the doctor’s office first; unfortunately, it is not altogether clear why Chris (Ellen Burstyn) thinks her daughter (Linda Blair) needs medical attention. Sure, there have been ever-so-slight hints of manic-depressive behavior, along with one dialogue reference to a shaking bed, but the film really relies on the dialogue in the doctor’s office to explain what’s been going wrong with Regan. If there is an upside to this sequence, it is that the examination scenes themselves have a slightly creepy, foreboding quality, showing us the first images of Regan displaying behavior that, while not Satanic, is certainly odd and upsetting coming from a previously innocent-looking young girl.
Later additions are more impressive. The spiderwalk, cut because the effects didn’t work in their day, has been rendered now (thanks to digital touching up) in completely convincing imagery. Brief but extremely effective, this scene will surely become the “must see” moment of this version, joining the crucifix scene as one of cinema’s most memorably horrifying moments (which is all the more impressive when you realize that we’re talking about just a few shots running maybe twenty seconds).
A few additional lines of dialogue with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) allow the character to show a sense of humor that helps humanize him, instead of leaving him as the archetypal white-hated hero who rides in to save the day. Offered some brandy for his coffee, he jokes, “The doctors say I shouldn’t, but thank God, my will is weak.” Ellen Burstyn`s blank-faced reaction (she doesn`t get the joke) is priceless. It`s a nice moment of comic relief just before the intensity of the scenes that will follow.
Even more brief, but far more crucial, is the dialogue between Merrin and the confused Father Karras (Jason Miller). The lines, an attempt to give a possible explanation for the possession, are already being dismissed by some critics as pretentious exposition, but in truth they form the crux of a moving dramatic moment. You almost literally see the light go on in Karras’s eyes as the import of Merrin’s words sinks in: “I think the point is to make us despair… to see ourselves as animal and ugly… to reject the possibility that God could love us.” This is exactly Karras’ problem, and this realization makes his renewed strength five minutes later much more understandable. When a distraught Chris asks whether her daughter is going to die, there is a wonderful cut from a two shot to a reverse angle close-up of the priest, who much to his own surprise says, “No” with a kind of unexpected confidence that can only be attributed to faith. Now at last, we have some kind of clue as to the reason for the transition.
Of all the footage removed from the film, this is the bit that hurt the most, and its restoration is the most important reason returning to The Exorcist (the spiderwalk notwithstanding). The reason for the removal was supposedly to speed up the pace, but the scene itself remained in the previous cut (minus dialogue), with the priests sitting on the stairs in between bouts of the exorcism ritual. The inclusion of the actual dialogue adds only a few seconds—hardly enough to affect the film’s overall pace—and the dramatic impact is easily worth the extra running time.
The final addition is the inclusion of Blatty’s “Casablanca” ending, with Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) befriending Father Dyer (Reverend William O’Malley), the implication being that even after the horror and sacrifice that have occurred, there is still a chance for hope and happiness in the world. Back in 1973, leaving Dyer staring in seeming despair down the Hitchcock steps might have fit with the mood of the nation, but only the most cynical critic would insist that this was a more profound or powerful ending. The restored coda, presumably, will send viewers of the theatre realizing that the film was not intended to bombard them with a sense of hopeless despair.
So much for the restorations; what about the additions? As often is the case with new editions (be they books or films), the artists seem unable to resist the temptation to rethink the material instead of merely correcting past errors. In this case, a few new and/or enhanced shots have been added. Mostly they are effective, but some show definite signs of reappraisal. It’s rather like musicians playing an old hit twenty years later: they add a new lick here or there to refresh the material, but the new performance only makes sense in context of the original; it’s a variation on a theme, a new touch added to an old standard, but it’s not necessarily something that should have been there from the beginning.
Case in point: the new opening scene. A moody tracking shot from the Georgetown townhouse that dissolves to a statue of the Virgin Mary (one that will be desecrated later in the film), the scene makes no sense out of context. If you haven’t watched The Exorcist or at least seen stills from the film, you have no idea what the significance is supposed to be, whereas familiar viewers immediately recognize, “That’s the place where it all will happen,” while sensing a familiar nostalgic thrill of anticipation. It doesn’t exactly hurt the film, but it doesn’t help much, either. It’s most important impact, perhaps, is to state from the opening frame that you are indeed seeing a new version; otherwise, audiences might get worried waiting through that first half hour for a sign of something new.
Later additions consist not so much of new footage as of old footage that has been enhanced with new special effects to convey a stronger sense of a demonic presence. During the restored first doctor’s examination, there is an additional “subliminal” image of the demonic face previously glimpsed only twice in the film. The new cut is clearly in color, whereas the old ones looked like black-and-white.
This perhaps counts more as a “restoration” than an addition, but the image ties in with other later ones that clearly are additions: this face is seen again, like an afterimage of something briefly glimpsed, when Chris MacNeil returns to an apparently empty home and finds the lights flickering on and off for no apparent reason. The impact of this previously unseen image is truly remarkable, and the effect is pumped up even further by the gradual revelation of yet another near-subliminal image, a faintly discernable silhouette of the statue of the demon Pazuzu, glimpsed in the shadowy darkness of Regan’s room as her mother looks in the door. The effect is genuinely unnerving, provoking as much verbal reaction from the audience as any of the more overblown shocks that the film throws at them.
On top of this, just before Regan attacks the psychiatrist attempting to hypnotize her, there is also a brief morphing type effect that superimposes a demonic countenance over her features, clearly indicating that her actions are the result of the evil influence inside her. The image somewhat foreshadows the climax, wherein Father Karras’s face briefly assumes a similar look. In that case, the transition back to his normal countenance seems to have been smoothed over a bit with a digital enhancement; in the old version, it somewhat resembled a simple jump-cut. (This last enhancement may actually have been done for the DVD; either way, this is the first time it has reached the big screen.)
The end result of all this imagery is to increase the surreal quality of the film, the sense not only of physical shocks but also of spiritual evil lurking in the dark. The impact is impressive, but even more than before it emphasizes the supernatural explanation for the phenomenon of possession—an element that was left open to debate in the novel. At first, the new cut seems to be hewing closer to the book, with the initial doctor’s exam seeming to lay the groundwork for a psychological explanation, but the new imagery undercuts this interpretation completely.
Of course, the power of the special effects always had audiences convinced that the Devil was at work in the film, but previously much of the imagery was presented in a way that was at least somewhat open to another interpretation; for example, the infamous 360-degree head-spinning shot was bracketed by reaction shots of Jason Miller, implying that what we’re seeing is a hallucination in his mind. Likewise, when the statue of Pazuzu manifested itself in the old cut during the exorcism, the shot in no way matched with the objective shots surrounding it; again, we were left feeling that what we were being shown was a vision perceived by the characters, not an objective reality. These new images, however, are not directed at the characters; they are aimed straight out of the scene toward the viewing audience. With no possible subjective interpretation, the only way to read them is as evidence of an actual demonic presence. Not that anyone ever really doubted, but now even a tentative alternate interpretation is pretty much untenable.
So what’s the bottom line? From the day of its first release in 1973, The Exorcist was the greatest horror film ever made, and it remains so to this day. The restored version alters the classic in noticeable ways. Sometimes, the film is obviously better; in other cases, it is merely different. To some extent one might consider it closer to the perfect realization of what it was meant to be; on the other hand, it sometimes plays like an extended variation on a familiar theme. One way or the other, the film remains worth seeing, and it’s safe to say that, as it was in 1973, so also will The Exorcist be the best horror film released in the year 2000.
THE EXORCIST (originally released 1973; revised version released 2000). Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel. Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley, Barton Heyman, Peter Masterson, Rudolf Schundler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Thomas Bermingham.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski
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.