Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Devil Made Me...

Eek! An invisible evil creature has entered my body and taken it over for malevolent purposes! What ever shall I do?

Demonic possession movies have never, ever been scary to me, simply because I don't believe in superstitious nonsense. You can go crazy or get become very ill and appear to the ignorant and gullible to be possessed, but you aren't. Maybe that's why I think the best possession movies are the funny ones (though not all the funny ones are good).

Possession movies are about the fear of losing control; be it your mind, body or life in general. They're also about laying blame for our negative actions - if I'm possessed by demons, I certainly can't be held responsible for throwing my mom's super-gay director out of my window to his death down an infamous Georgetown stone stairway, now can I? And I suppose we can owe the Possession sub-genre to that infamous stairway, don't we? The Exorcist came out when I was 12 years-old and already a rabid horror fan. I was desperate to see it, but not allowed. People lined up for blocks; people fainted in the aisles; people ran shrieking out of theaters. People couldn't stop talking about what many people still consider to be The Scariest Movie Ever Made. Now, just so you know just how old your Uncle Prospero is, this was in the days before the VCR and movies were periodically re-released to theaters without a "Special Director's Cut Edition You Never Saw Because the Effect Never Looked Right" and when The Exorcist was re-released in 1978, my father finally deemed me old enough and took me to see it. My reaction? Meh. I think what really killed it for me was the completely fake-looking head twist. Dick Smith's makeup was brilliant in turning pretty young Linda Blair into a demonic monster, but the head twist was so obviously fake that it completely took me out of the movie, squarely back into the reality of the impossibility of such a thing. I'm not saying The Exorcist is a bad movie - far from from it - it deserves to be a classic for many reasons. It's just that for me, scary isn't one of them. A state-of-the-art remake from Del Toro or Jackson (or even Raimi) is long overdue.

Director William Friedkin would later be accused of abusing cast members of his adaptation of screenwriter William Peter Blatty's novel. And, as with many a horror movie (Poltergeist), there are stories about a curse and creepy things that happened on set during the movie's filming. Of course, no one who made or makes money off the movie denies these stories, and why should they? The faithful will still believe and the rational will still be entertained. It's a Win-Win, really.

In 1974, a cheap Italian rip-off of The Exorcist was released in the U.S. as Beyond the Door. It stars Juliet Mills ("Nanny and the Professor") as woman not only possessed, but pregnant to boot! I've never seen it, though from what I've seen of it, I don't think I ever need to:

That same year, the Blaxploitation Horror movie Abby took on the Devil for African American believers:

I actually have seen Abby, though it's been a very long time. I don't imagine it was an actually good movie, though.

Director John Boorman returned to Blatty's characters for his gonzo sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977. Blair, Kitty Winn (Sharon) and Max Von Sydow (Father Merrin) return, while Louise Fletcher, Richard Burton and James Earl Jones join in the fun. Goofy, weird and oh-so-silly (Darth Vader wearing a locust hat?), Boorman's sequel is like spoiled clams after a delicious sorbet - funny to think about, but not so good going down for real:

Now, take the crazy factor of that trailer and multiply it by about 90 minutes, and you will know how truly awful that movie is. I saw in the long-gone Town Theater, even then a crumbling relic, and the scariest part of the movie was a ceiling tile falling down in the row in front of us.

Fast forward a few years to 1981 -- I'm living in the O.C. and my sister tells me about seeing the scariest movie she's ever seen. It's a little indie horror movie that she says scared the crap out of her. So, I take my lonesome self down to the nearest mall theater to see The Evil Dead. And while I find myself annoyed that it is hardly a movie to make me crap my pants (the budget had to have been all of a buck two-fifty), I am struck by the filmmaker's clever and inventive camera work and twisted sense of humor. Sam Rami's story about a group of friends who invade an "abandoned cabin in the woods" and accidentally awaken a bunch of ancient "Candarian Demons" deserves its cult status if only for Raimi's audaciousness as a guerrilla director who didn't know he was inventing an entirely new style of film-making.

Six years later and with quite a bit more money, Raimi's sequel Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn hits theaters and is really more of remake, than a sequel. What it does, however, is ramp up the comedy and exploit handsome, square-jawed star Bruce Campbell's exceptional aptitude for physical comedy. Campbell deserves every accolade that comes his way and his status as a Cult Movie Icon is all thanks to the bloody, slap-stick insanity that is EDII:DbD. Eyeballs fly like a Stooge's cream pies and chainsaw prosthetics deliberately change sides like Igor's hump in Young Frankenstein.

Not too long ago, a mad group of Canadians went and turned Raimi's films (with his blessing) into one of the funniest contemporary musicals, ever. Video from the actual show is hard to come by, but this fan-made video will give you an idea of how funny the show's lyrics are:

Blatty took matters into his own hands in 1990's Exorcist 3, with his 'official' sequel (based on his own novel, "Legion"), directing George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson and Jason Miller in Exorcist III: Legion. An amnesiac (Miller) shows up in an asylum as a hard-boiled cop (Scott) investigates a series of murders in D.C. 'Patient X' bears a strange resemblance to a certain priest who died after performing the exorcism of certain actresses daughter in Georgetown and the cop begins to suspect something less than natural may be at play:

Certainly a better film than Boorman's sequel and a rather faithful adaptation of the novel, Blatty's film still fails to scare me, though I have to admit Blatty is at least a better director than King.

Also in 1990, director Bob Logan went the Zucker Brothers route with his atrocious spoof, Repossessed. Linda Blair plays a housewife who had been possessed as a child and is once agin possessed as an adult. Leslie "I'll Do Anything for a Buck" Neilson is a Catholic priest and Ned Beatty is a televangelist in this craptacular movie that elicits pity more than laughter:

Raimi visited Candaria one last time in 1992's Army of Darkness, a decidedly comedic entry in the Evil Dead series. Campbell's Ash character finally becomes the badass everyone thinks of him as, and Raimi goes nuts with the slap-shtick. Giving Ash the physical, emotional and psychological beating he wouldn't use again until Allison Lohman's Christine in Drag Me to Hell, and adding tons of stop-motion, split-screen and animatronic FX, Army of Darkness ultimately fails simply because it tries too hard. This may be "my boomstick!" but using a line from classic Sci-Fi as an ancient spell is a little too self-referential for me:

PS - Bonus points (good for nothing other than bragging rights) if you can quote the referenced line and it's source.

One of the most recent recent Possession movies I can remember is The Exorcism of Emily Rose, starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson and Campbell Scott is a movie that can't decide if it wants to be a Horror movie or a Courtroom Drama. It fails at both:

And last, and practically least, there is this fall's undeserving hit Paranormal Activity, which suffers not only from over-hype, but a boring script and a cheesy ending.

And then there are two versions of the same movie; Exorcist:The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, by two different directors (one of the strangest moves by a studio in a long time):

So, can anyone make a movie about Demonic Possession that can actually scare me? I doubt it. I'm much more afraid of lunatics with razors, machetes, axes and/or guns than I am of invisible beings out to control my body just for shits and giggles. How about you? Do demons, devils and pookas scare you?

Honestly, the only person I actually believe the Devil made do it was Flip Wilson as Geraldine:

More terrors, anon.

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