The Exorcist (1973)

2017 #150
William Friedkin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English & Arabic* | 18 / R

The Exorcist

Did you know The Exorcist was based on a true story? I didn’t, until I watched some of the special features on the Blu-ray release. “Based on” is a bit of a stretch, to be honest. “Inspired by” would be more accurate. But you get the sense from author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty that he believes all this stuff so much that he thinks “based on” would be fine.

The Exorcist does start out very plausibly. It’s about Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), a sweet 12-year-old kid living with her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C. But one day Regan begins to act oddly: delivering insults and soiling herself at a party; yelling obscenities; slapping her beloved mother; somehow causing her bed to shake uncontrollably… Doctors run tests, but they reveal nothing. The only suggestion they’ve left to give is that Regan may believe she’s possessed by an evil spirit, and that she might be tricked into believing she’s cured if the church will perform a little-known procedure called an exorcism.

Worried mother

Everyone’s so busy talking about The Scary Stuff when it comes to The Exorcist, no one ever tells you how low-key and grounded a lot of it is. Okay, the talking in voices and spinning heads and vomiting green gunk and bloody crucifix masturbation are pretty memorable, so fair enough. Before that, though, it’s more of a character drama, about a single mother struggling to handle what appears to be her daughter’s out-of-control mental health problems. Meanwhile, a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), struggles with a crisis of faith brought on in part by his ailing mother. Naturally these two threads align when Chris calls on Karras to investigate Regan’s condition.

Another thing I’ve never heard about The Exorcist is how good Miller is. This is his film debut, before which he was a stage actor, but he delivers a very naturalistic performance as a man of the cloth who also has his head screwed on — his training in psychology keeps him suitably skeptical of what’s going on with Regan. Events conspire to challenge his point of view, of course. Karras has the clearest arc of anyone in the film, giving Miller the most scope to develop his role. I’d venture he’s the film’s most interesting character.

Father Karras

That’s not to dismiss Burstyn, who’s also excellent as the very together mom who begins to crack under the increasing strain of her daughter’s worsening, inexplicable condition. As said daughter, Blair’s performance is certainly memorable, though the potency of Regan is aided by special effects and voice work from another actress. Although second billed, Max von Sydow only pops in at the beginning and end in the titular role of Father Merrin. It’s no wonder someone later thought Merrin’s past was ripe for a prequel, because there’s a backstory there that’s only hinted at.

And no one ever says how little Tubular Bells is in it, either.

The thing people do say about The Exorcist is how scary it is. Tales of audiences fainting and running out during its initial theatrical run are the stuff of movie legend. Today its releases are branded as “the scariest film ever made”, with the justification of several polls that have named it thus. I can well believe that, in the early ’70s, it was indeed the most shocking film most people had ever seen, certainly from a major studio. The extreme bad language, the gruesome special effects, the morally depraved acts, and all of it happening to a child…

Regan... or is it?

It was surely an element of sensibilities being offended (especially in America), as much as it was actual horror, that provoked such radical reactions from audiences back in the day. Nowadays we’re a bit more deadened to those things — the last 40+ years have served up plenty of elaborate gore, and potty-mouthed pre-teen girls are more likely to be found in comedies (Hit-Girl is even younger than Regan when she utters the C word in Kick-Ass, for example). I also thought it frequently undermined its own intensity by cutting away from the scary scenes to more mundane stuff. Maybe the goal was to never give those scenes an ‘out’ — we always seem to leave them when supernatural stuff is still going on — but for me it killed the momentum that was building.

That’s not to say the horrific and shocking stuff is no longer powerful. What really works in its favour is how long the film spends being grounded and plausible — most of the first hour is a ’70s social drama about a child with a mental health problem. That level of realism helps the later horror scenes be all the more effective. They quite quickly transcend the realms of the plausible (unless you’re some kind of religious fanatic, I guess), but the grounded setup lends weight to them nonetheless. The climax in particular — the actual exorcism — might just be silly without the realistic world it’s been placed in. Instead, it’s a suitably tense climax.

The exorcism

Obviously it was the extreme stuff that caught people’s attention and earnt The Exorcist a reputation that it still trades off to this day. However, I’d say it’s best regarded, not as a fright-fest, but as a film about characters: the mother who’ll do anything for her child; the priest battling with a crisis of faith. It’s a drama about real people in extreme circumstances, it’s just that these extreme circumstances happen to be horror movie fodder. In this respect it’s such a film of the ‘70s, which I mean in the best possible way.

5 out of 5

The Exorcist was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

* IMDb lists half a dozen other languages, but Arabic’s the only one I remember being significant enough to earn subtitles. ^

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Interstellar (2014)

2015 #110
Christopher Nolan | 169 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Nine months on from its theatrical debut, I’ve managed to remain remarkably spoiler-free about Interstellar, the ninth feature from director Christopher Nolan. “Matthew McConaughey lives on a farm and somehow ends up in space with Anne Hathaway,” is about all I knew going in. That and the somewhat divisive critical reception it had received, leaving what many had assumed could be an Oscar favourite with a disappointing tally of nominations (and its studio to have backed the wrong horse, resulting in Selma’s even poorer showing — but that’s a story for another day). I don’t consider myself a so-called ‘Nolanite’, but I have enjoyed most of his pictures (I didn’t love Inception as much as many, but still placed it third on my top ten that year), and found Interstellar to be no exception.

The story (beyond “the McConaissance spreads into space”) sees a near-future Earth where most of the crops have died and mankind is struggling to survive. The US government even pretends the space race was a hoax, in order to put future generations off attempting such innovations. Former test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) holds little truck with such BS, trying to raise his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (a memorable Mackenzie Foy), to be a mite more intelligent. During one of the many dust storms that engulf their community, strange pockets of gravity in Murph’s bedroom point Cooper to somewhere secret where some people he used to know are doing something secret that, ultimately, sends Coop into space on a mission from which he may never return. Murph is not best pleased.

More plot happens. Interstellar is the kind of film where you could get an awful long way through the story just trying to explain the setup. That’s a certain style of storytelling, and in its own way a positive one — a plot that is constantly moving and updating, rather than one that presents a basic setup, runs on the spot with it for a while, then wraps it up. The latter is how most narratives unfold, which is why reviews can so often summarise said setup and that’s fine. Nonetheless, Interstellar’s first act goes on too long, and could do with a good trim. (For an alternative view on why the first act is in some respects the best part of the film and needed more development, read ghostof82’s review. I don’t disagree, but I do think to give that area more focus would’ve necessitated a wholly different movie.) It’s important to set up Coop’s home life on Earth, as well as the near-future world from which the story springs, but all this could be achieved much more economically than it is here. This is a movie, not a miniseries: sometimes it pays to get a wriggle on. The whole film could’ve done with such a tighten, in fact, not just the sometimes-aimless first act and the flat-out overlong finale.

Flipside: maybe this is a “first viewing” problem. How many great films are there where, on the second or third or fourth viewing, you just wish it was a bit longer, had a bit more for you to see? Last time I re-watched The Lord of the Rings I was amazed how quickly they flew by, and that was in their extended form too. Yes, I’m now one of those people who thinks 12 hours of people walking across New Zealand countryside isn’t nearly enough. But I digress. I don’t know if Interstellar is one of those films that would end up with you wishing there was more of it, but if it is, well, there’s already some there.

Based on a skim through online reaction, some viewers would indeed love even more, while others would despise it. One thing I find interesting about this apparently diverse reaction is that you can find an abundance of negative/semi-negative comments and reviews by people who write such things, but nonetheless the average user scores on the likes of IMDb and Letterboxd remain high. Maybe it goes down better with (for want of a better generalisation) the wider audience than film critic/blogger types?

For many (though not all), criticism/acceptance seems to hinge on the aforementioned final act. Without getting into spoilers, then, “it’s too far-fetched” is one criticism I’ve seen. Of a science fiction movie. I guess it depends what you’re expecting. The rest of the film is grounded in realistic or plausible science, so when it really pushes at the boundaries of the unknown at the end, some people struggle to accept that. But the vast majority of what we see isn’t yet possible — it’s all made-up science fiction (albeit based on real theories and, in some cases, expanded from existing technology) — so what’s wrong with a third act that does the same but in a more extreme fashion? Because it is, at least in part, inspired by some genuine theories. (So much work went into the science that it merited a 50-minute documentary on the Blu-ray. Which I haven’t watched, so I suppose it might say it’s all poppycock. Considering the film has inspired at least two genuine academic papers, though, I’m inclined to say not.) I think it’s very much a case of “your mileage may vary”. For all the people who think it goes too far but only at the end, I’m sure there are just as many viewers who thought the ending was exactly as daft and/or reasonable as the rest of the film, depending on their tolerance level for sci-fi.

From a filmmaking perspective, there is surely nothing to fault. The visuals are incredible. As you’d expect, the IMAX footage looks absolutely stunning. Every time the Blu-ray reverted back to 2.40:1 I was a little disappointed. A sneaky part of me thinks Warner deliberately make these sequences look less good to ramp up the quality of the IMAX footage (I felt the same about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray), but maybe I’m just being paranoid. The effects work is also sublime, once again demonstrating the awesomeness of modelwork for spacecraft and the like. The CGI vistas and space phenomena are nothing to be sniffed at either, mind. There’s also a particularly interesting featurette about how they created zero-G. Impressively, even in behind-the-scenes footage, where you can see the wires, it still sometimes looks like the cast are genuinely floating. (On another technical point, more than a few reviews complain of the sound design, specifically the music being too loud. Either the film has been remixed for home release or it just isn’t a problem on a home-sized surround sound system, because I had no such issues.)

A semi-regular criticism of Nolan’s work is the lack of focus on characters or emotion, often sidelined for an epic scope or tricksy narrative. Interstellar certainly has a… debatable climax, and it definitely has an epic scope too, but it’s also one of the most character-driven and emotional films on Nolan’s CV. In particular, there are strong performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain (as an older Murph); Anne Hathaway is largely understated, but slivers of emotion seep through when appropriate; and Michael Caine actually gets to do a bit of Acting in a Nolan film for a change, rather than just turning up as a wise old dispenser of exposition — though don’t worry, he does that too. One of the stand-outs for me was David Gyasi, getting a role that was subtly stronger and more thought-provoking than several of his more famous colleagues, and executing it with aplomb too. Similarly, the voices of semi-sentient robots TARS and CASE — Bill Irwin and Josh “he’ll always be ‘that guy from Dirt’ to me” Stewart, respectively — are highly entertaining. Apparently they were inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is another mark in their favour, though thankfully they’re not just a rip-off used for comic relief.

Interstellar is a “big” movie — it’s full of big ideas, a big scope, big emotions, big stakes (the entire future survival of mankind!) Some people love that kind of scale; others hate it. Whichever camp you’re in, a bad or good movie (respectively) can sway you away. It’s tough to say which of those Interstellar is with any degree of objectivity, because so many people have had so many different reactions, from outright love to outright disgust. I’d say it’s certainly not perfect: it’s too long, and the qualities of the ending are debatable for all kinds of reasons — not least that any sense of it being a twist (which is how it’s structured) is negated by it being eminently guessable 2½ hours before it’s very, very slowly explained to us.

For all that, though, I loved it a little bit. It’s a spectacle, but a thoughtful one. Even if it doesn’t develop those thoughts as fully or comprehensively as it could, and arguably should, it really tries. If a few more big-budget spectacle-driven movies could manage even that these days, we’d all be better off for it.

5 out of 5

Interstellar debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:15pm and 8pm.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

2014 #136
Darren Aronofsky | 97 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / NC-17*

Requiem for a DreamOn Coney Island, the faded and decrepit one-time pleasure place of New York City, four people — Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and his mother Sara (Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn) — find themselves accidentally drawn into a whirlwind of drug addiction. Not to put too fine a point on it.

A lot of people say that Requiem for a Dream is the bleakest or most depressing movie ever made, and you kind of think, “yeah well, we’ll see — how bad can it be?” For most of the film, that notion is indeed misleading. Not that it’s a happy-clappy affair, but it’s a very watchable drama, not a gruelling slog through misery. However, I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes later. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.

The rest of the film may not be its equal in terms of condensed impact, but it’s of course vital in leading you to that point. These characters lead relatively normal lives — not exceptionally bad, certainly not exceptionally good, but pretty humdrum and bog standard. They all try to better themselves in some way — Sara through diet pills, Harry and Tyrone by getting rich through selling drugs — and it all goes horrible awry.

It may be a descent into misery, then, but director Darren Aronofsky keeps it watchable through pure cinematic skill. The editing, camerawork, lighting, sound design, and special effects are all incredible throughout. There’s a surfeit of ideas and innovations from everyone involved. And yet they are never show-off-y for the sake of it — this isn’t a Guy Ritchie movie. None of the tricks or striking ideas are put there to render the film Cool, even in the way they are in some equally brilliant films (Fight Club, for example). No, everything that is deployed is done so in aid of emulating a real-life feeling or experience, or conveying a concept or a connection. At times it’s breathtaking.

I must also make special mention of the score by Clint Mansell. The primary theme is arguably most famous for being used in The Two Towers trailer a couple of years later (that’s certainly where I discovered it). Something that works fantastically on the trailer for an epic fantasy war movie might not sound like it sits well in a junkie drama, but it really works.

Requiem for a Dream may have a bit of a reputation at this point; one that might put you off viewing it, or possibly only deigning to attempt it in a certain frame of mind. While there is an element of truth to that, it is a brilliant film — not “enjoyable” in the easily-digested blockbuster sense, but as a mind-boggling and awe-inspiring feat of filmmaking, yes. Incredible.

5 out of 5

Requiem for a Dream placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* After the film was given an NC-17, it was decided to release it Unrated — so, technically, it’s not NC-17, it’s Unrated. Ah, the quirks of the US classification system. (There’s also an R-rated version, which is the same except for some shot removals and replacements during the ending.) ^