Scary Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)


Title: The Exorcist
Release Date: December 26, 1973
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Hoya Production
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t planned on watching The Exorcist, but I added it at the last minute to my scary movie lineup. I can’t remember the first time I watched this movie, but I know I was definitely too young. I saw it several more times over the years – in whole or part – and then in the summer of 1990 I attended a five-week program for high school students at Georgetown University. That summer I became intimately acquainted with the setting of the movie, and of course watched the movie as a group. By that point, as a jaded 16-year-old, I found the movie more funny than scary. At any rate, I don’t know if I’ve seen it again in the past 30 years so it was worth revisiting.

Me, circa 1994, recreating a cinematic moment at the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown.

There’s something about the blockbusters of the 1970s where the way they are remembered in the popular imagination is not quite what the movies were about. Jaws was not about a shark eating people, but about three men of different backgrounds learning to work together on a boat and forming a bond. Rocky was not about boxing but about a man who happened to be a boxer learning to believe in himself. The Exorcist is not about a girl possessed by demons but about a priest going through a crisis of faith.

I’d forgotten how much of the movie does not deal with possession or the exorcism and the slow build it takes to get to that point. The ten minute prologue set in Iraq completely escaped my mind. Can you think of any other movie that introduces a character, as they do with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and then not have him return for 90 minutes. The connection of the Iraq scenes with the rest of the movie are never made obvious but I do appreciate that they were beautifully shot and like how there’s always sound in the background (picks and shovels, blacksmiths, dogs, etc.) that are discordant but musical.

I also didn’t really remember much of the main part of the film in Georgetown, such as Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) filming on the university campus or Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travelling to New York to see his ailing mother. There are also a lot more scenes of Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing medical procedures. I was surprised to learn that Regan getting cerebral angiography freaked out a lot of people in the audiences back in the 70s, because I don’t medical procedures disturbing for the most part. (Two movies that I’ve watched this month, Frankenstein and The Exorcist, were both said to cause extreme horror and revulsion to audiences of the time although I’d consider them tame compared with some mainstream horror that’s been released in the past four decades).

The acting performances in the movie are universally good with Miller, Burstyn, and Blair being particularly good. I’ve wondered why I never saw Miller in anything but I’ve learned that he was primarily a playwright and unfortunately also struggled with alcoholism. Still, if there’s one performance that you’re going to be remembered for, this one was excellent. The 44-year-old von Sydow, with the help of some terrific makeup, puts on a great performance as an old man and looks a lot like von Sydow would look when he actually reached that age.

Lest I go to far in my “it’s not about a girl possessed by demons” thought, this movie does have it’s fair share of horror and gross out moments, as well as disturbing behavior for a 12-year-old. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you if you’ve never seen it, because it really does also contain a thoughtful and nuanced story as well. For me, the darkest part of The Exorcist is learning how cruel William Friedkin was on the set. He allowed stunts to get out of hand so that they caused injury to both Burstyn and Blair, and Blair was given no protection from the extreme cold on the set as well as deliberately trying to frighten or anger the actors on the set. That to me is more unsettling than anything in the movie which is beautifully made and has an underlying message of hope in humanity.


Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Sixth Sense (1999)


Title: The Sixth Sense
Release Date: August 6, 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Production Company: Hollywood Pictures | Spyglass Entertainment | The Kennedy/Marshall Company | Barry Mendel Productions
Summary/Review:

In the summer of 1999, The Sixth Sense seemingly came out of nowhere to be a BIG! HUGE! DEAL! that everyone was talking about.  The biggest thing that people talked about was the movie’s SHOCKING TWIST! Getting the gist of what the film was about – a child who saw the ghosts of dead people – it was pretty easy to put 2 and 2 together and figure out the SHOCKING TWIST on my own.  So, I had no interest in ever seeing the movie.

It turns out, The Sixth Sense is actually a pretty good movie and like The Crying Game before it, overemphasizing the SHOCKING TWIST does a disservice to the movie. Knowing the SHOCKING TWIST, I was impressed that the movie is told from the point of view of Bruce Willis’ character, a child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe.  Crowe takes an interest in a troubled child, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who reminds him of another patient he feels he failed to help.  If you know the SHOCKING TWIST is coming, the clues are all there and director M. Night Shyamalan even includes a gag with Crowe performing a terrible magic trick which lampshades the idea of misdirection.

What I like about this movie is that it is a story of empathy.  What Crowe helps Cole to realize with his ability to see the ghosts of the troubled dead that he can help them instead of fearing them.  And, along the way, Cole helps Crowe as well, in ways that aren’t readily apparent until the close of the film.  There’s a lot of talking in this film and it works because Haley Joel Osment is up to portraying a child believably participating in those conversations (poor Jake Lloyd must’ve looked like an even worse child actor having The Sixth Sense released in the same year as The Phantom Menace). Shyamalan also does a great job of incorporating Philadelphia as a character in the movie, especially as a historic city with lots and lots of troubled dead people.

The Sixth Sense is thoughtful, full of heart, and overall is well done.  It’s definitely worth seeing at least once, but I wouldn’t put it on my Top 100 of all time list.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (1984)


Title: Ghostbusters
Release Date: June 8, 1984
Director: Ivan Reitman
Production Company: Columbia-Delphi Productions | Black Rhino
Summary/Review:

I saw Ghostbusters in the movie theaters three times in 1984, and countless times on tv and video over the years since then (often at the prompting of my sister who perhaps loved the movie more than me).  My most recent viewing on the Fourth of July coincided with my first ever visit to a drive-in movie and the first time my children watched Ghostbusters (they loved it too!).

I can’t review this movie objectively.  Despite it’s weird premise, the movie was and remains one of the funniest movies ever made. I’ve always appreciated the little details they built into the movie such as all the visual references to Stay Puft Marshmallows that appear well before we ever see the Marshmallow Man.  On this viewing, I noticed that the music works so well in the film too, both the original score and various pop songs worked into the soundtrack (and yes, I had the soundtrack as a kid).

One thing I don’t like about Ghostbusters is the underlying Libertarian message that comes out in things like the villain being a government agent played by William Atherton who arbitrarily uses his power to bring down hard-working entrepreneurs.  I’ve always liked Bill Murray, but on this viewing I also noticed that Peter Venkman is very creepy.  On the upside I better appreciated the work of Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis as Egon Spengler and Louis Tully. Despite any quibbles I may have, Ghostbusters stands the test of time.

Oh, and despite what you might have heard elsewhere, the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot is really good too.

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)


Title: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 1
Summary/Review:

Before watching this ostensible gritty reboot of the 1990s sitcom Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, I learned a few things I didn’t know.  First, Sabrina originated decades earlier as a comic book character.  Second, Sabrina lives in the same universe as the Archie comics!  Third, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina originated a few years back as a comic book. So essentially this a television adaptation of a gritty reboot of a comic book.  It’s a good concept though as it naturally follows that if you’re going to tell a story about a teenage witch that you should follow through on the full meaning of witchcraft and Satanic worship.

Let it be known that this is NOT for kids (well, young ones, teenagers will probably love it).  Granted, much of the horror is jump scares and creepy creatures, but there’s also a horrific scene of ritual cannibalism and a lot of violence.  Much of the show is highly stylized, with it being hard to tell what decade this is supposed to be happening in.  Apart from actual witches living among the mortals, the town of Greendale just feels a strange place, not like a real American town, but an amalgam of television towns.

I don’t think I would like the show’s writing or stories all that much if it wasn’t for the excellent cast who carry the show.  Lucy Davis plays Sabrina’s goofy and more lenient Aunt Hilda while Miranda Otto regally portrays her more elegant and stern Aunt Zelda. Chance Perdomo is effortlessly cool as Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose who is living under house arrest and casually helps Sabrina with her misguided plots.  Michelle Gomez follows up her genius Doctor Who role as Missy by playing Sabrina’s teacher Ms. Wardwell, who offers guidance to Sabrina while secretly guiding her into a sinister plot.  Sabrina’s best mortal friends are Roz (Jaz Sinclair) a young activist at her high school and Susie (Lachlan Watson) who is bullied by jocks and experiencing gender dysphoria.  Roz and Susie both give a Sabrina a realistic strong tie to the human world while also helping tie together the supernatural events with the social issues they symbolize.

A couple of things stand out as problems with the show.  One is the performance of Kiernan Shipka as the lead character.  She always seems to respond to everything with a deadpan expression and very little real emotion, even if a tear is rolling down her cheek.  I don’t want to say she’s a bad actor but it strikes me as a curious decision to have her play the character that way.  The other thing is that Sabrina’s knowledge of witch history and spell casting seems to vary on what is convenient to the plot.  She pull of amazing spells in one scene and express basic ignorance about things in the witching world the next.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is good but not great tv but definitely some cotton candy fun worth a binge.  I expect I’ll be back for more

Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter


Author:  William Ritter
Title:  Jackaby
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2014)
Summary/Review:

This detective novel set in 1892 in a fictional city in New England openly acknowledges that it is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the opening pages.  Even “Sherlock Holmes with fantastical and supernatural elements” has been done before, but Jackaby remains fresh and entertaining.  The title character is an investigator who can see evidence of the paranormal.  The story is narrated by Abigail Rook, a young woman seeking adventure who steps off the ship at New Fiddleham and quickly becomes Jackaby’s assistant embroiled in solving a series of grisly murders.

The narration wisely stays with Abigail as we see Jackaby slowly become a warmer character, but still retaining an air of mystery.  The story has a lot of humor mixed with moments of horror, although nothing overly terrifying.  It’s a fun story and I will seek out other installments in the series.

 

Favorite Passages:

“Monsters are easy, Miss Rook. They’re monsters. But a monster in a suit? That’s basically just a wicked man, and a wicked man is a more dangerous thing by far.”
This makes them dreaded creatures, feared and hated by any who hear them, a treatment far disparate from the honor and appreciation they used to receive for their mourning services. Banshees themselves are not dangerous, though, just burdened with the task of expressing pain and loss.

That the battles are usually in her head does not lessen the bravery of it. The hardest ones always are.

Happiness is bliss–but ignorance is anesthetic.

Recommended booksThe Diviners by Libba Bray,  The Monster in the Mist by Andrew Mayne, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, The Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, and The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Rating: ****