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The Last Exorcism: a real head spinner?

She was great at gymnastics...

I went to see The Last Exorcism on Sunday. Probably not the wisest move given my horrific hangover and rather delicate mental state, but it was the only movie that I wanted to see, and it was a great excuse to sit in a dark room and eat for 2 hours.

Now before I get into the crux of this blog, you need to understand a few things:

1) Very few films scare me. I might enjoy the tension, the clever direction or revel in the plot construction … But really scare me? No. Very rare.

2) I’m a big (BIG) fan of The Exorcist; both the book and the film. I even wrote my dissertation on The Exorcist (film) when I was at Uni, don’tchyaknow.

Anyway – to Sunday afternoon and the 16:30 viewing of The Last Exorcism. My expectations weren’t high. Firstly it’s a Eli Roth film (known for his splat-gore movies which aren’t really my thing), and secondly I figured it would be yet another Exorcist wannabe and rip off. But some reviews had persuaded me it was better than you’re usual Eli Roth teenage horror and worth a gander.

Now let’s jump forward 12 hours. It’s 4:40am Sunday night / Monday morning and I’m WIDE awake. In fact, I’ve just had to get up, switch on the lights and cross my bedroom to close my wardrobe doors which are ever-so-slightly and more than a little creepily open. Open enough for, say, a demonic girl to hide in there and still be able to keep one eye on me.

As I clambered back into bed cursing myself for being such a lame twat, I marveled at the ability of the film to have actually managed to infiltrate my subconscious and freak me out, ever so slightly.

But the truth is, whilst The Last Exorcism is quite a well executed supernatural thriller, it’s the central premise of ‘exorcism’ in general has been keeping me awake (as well as entertained) for years. And whilst any number of other horror / thrillers remain completely incapable of affecting me at all, the theme of  ‘exorcism’ is something which gets to me like no other.

Coincidentally, one of my friends (you can follow her on twitter at @CloughPT ) watched The Exorcist at home last weekend as well. @CloughPT had never seen it and, as she told me over dinner to my complete disbelief, she found it ‘dumb, silly and ridiculous’. The main reasons for this were that it wasn’t realistic. A girl’s voice would never change like that, an appearance could never change like that, the head spinning around was impossible etc.. (Also, she did state that the 70s’s fashion in the film was more horrifying than anything else). Funnily enough, CloughPT did say that a film where someone is stalked by a bloke with a knife / axe / gun etc would be much more scary. So I guess you could say CloughPT just didn’t feel it was plausible.

It’s on this point that we differ and I guess that’s why it scares me more.  A bloke chasing me with a big knife, threatening to chop me up? Nope, doesn’t affect me. But films which touch on the paranormal can get to me, whilst films which relate to heaven, hell and everything in between are guaranteed to creep into my brain and sit there for quite a while.

The reason for this? Firstly because you can’t just shoot a demon and chuck him in jail.  Secondly because fundamentally I believe there’s more to the universe than the physical world in which we live and therefore maybe, just maybe, anything is possible.

So do I therefore think the whole concept of demonic possession is plausible? Is this why these films are capable of scaring me more than any other?

Well, when I first read the novel of The Exorcist I was very young, so it had a big impact on me.  There was a very old and battered copy of the original 1971 book kept in a box at the back of the cupboard, along with a load of other books – Frankenstein, Dracula, Peter Benchley’s Jaws and tales by Edgar Allen Poe – all deemed unsuitable for children. And, as we all know, there’s nothing like deeming something as ‘unsuitable for children’ in order to immediately secure their interest.

The Exorcist intrigued me from the very beginning. On the back on the cover was the following quote:

Father Karras asked; “Where’s Regan?”

Regan replied; “In here. With us,”.

Instant intrigue.

Added to this the image on the front cover:

Scary face

That photo scared the beejeebas out of me.  (It was only a few years ago that I learned a rather interesting story about where this image actually came from, but I’ll appendix that at the end of the blog, for those of you who give a toss).

Needless to say whenever I got the chance I delved in the box and randomly flicked through pages frantically searching for the nasty bits.

But one day I stole the copy and took it to my room. I read about 40% of the book before lunchtime. It was utterly, utterly compelling. I think I finished the book within 48 hours. It was certainly the first horror novel I ever read, and it established my love of horror immediately. I was 11 years old.

But did it convince me that demonic possession was plausible? Well The Exorcist is a very well researched and factually-based novel. William Peter Blatty has stated in several interviews that when he sat down to write the novel, he knew the only way he would have a serious impact on the reader would be if he did a successful job of convincing them that demonic possession was a credible condition in the first place.

The novel goes to huge lengths to educate the reader of the grizzly modern realities of how serious mental illness and satanism can run hand in hand. The reader follows the main character (the mother) as she leans on science, modern psychology and medicine to explain the changes occurring within her daughter’s behaviour and appearance. But as the novel progresses Blatty shows how each of the doctors, scientists, psychologists draw a blank until finally admitted the mother may wish to consider taking her daughter to see a Priest. By this time the mother – a staunch cynicist and atheist, much like the reader – is starting to believe… And she takes the reader with her.

Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeal in The Exorcist

But Blatty never loses his grip on reality. Through out the entire book it’s never confirmed that the child is indeed possessed. The doctor’s recommend an exorcism on the basis that shock-treatment might be good for the girl (“Her belief in possession is what caused it, so, in that same way, her belief in the power of exorcism may help the symptoms go away”).

When Father Karras goes to the Bishop to seek permission to perform the exorcism he’s asked whether he thinks it’s a genuine case. “No, I suppose, not really,” he replies, “But I have made the judgment based on the criteria outlined in the Ritual,”.

Even at the very end of the novel another priest asks the mother what she believes really happened. Her reply is as follows: “Honestly? I don’t know. As far as God goes, I am a non-believer. You come to God and you have to figure out if there is one. He never talks. But the Devil keeps advertising… The Devil does a lot of commercials.”

Ultimately I guess my eyes were opened (at quite a young age) to consider that maybe the boundaries of science, spirituality, religion, faith and science are actually all quite blurred. Until then I think I’d lived in a world where such subjects were very black and white. Either you were religious or you weren’t. If you believed in science then you couldn’t have faith. Surely one negates the other.  After reading The Exorcist my eyes were a little more open.

Going back to The Last Exorcism, like The Exorcist, the film uses the cynicism and doubt of an atheist main character to turn a non-believer into a believer and take the audience with him. Similarly they both explore the horrible realities of what some people used to (and in some cases, still do) get up to in terms of devil-worship and satanism, showing that these activities are not restricted to 17th or 18th centuries but instead establish their role within the modern world.

So – The Last Exorcism. The most original horror film in the world? Certainly not. But one which is cleverly crafted.

But I can’t help but wonder exactly how many times the production team must’ve watched The Exorcist whilst repeatedly asking themselves; “What is it about this film that works so damn well… and which elements do we need to steal?”

And – for those of you who read this far – the photo on the front cover of the original print run of The Exorcist is a distorted photo negative by Blatty of his neighbour’s daughter – His neighbour being Shirley Maclaine (who, incidentally, was also Blatty’s inspiration for the central character of the mother). He even offered her the role in the film, to which she replied, “Why would I want to be involved in that capitalist piece of shit?”

Question: if you took a photo of your daughter and it came out looking like that, wouldn’t you call an exorcist in?



7 thoughts on “The Last Exorcism: a real head spinner?

  1. Fab! Don’t get me wrong I totally believe in the paranormal and other beings, just not scared by the film. I just found it all a touch on the silly side. But thats just me and the 3 glasses of wine I’d already had! ha ha

    Posted by Lisa | September 26, 2010, 11:49 am
  2. Brilliant write-up – I am really intrigued to see this film now. I was also really interested in your personal reflections on The Exorcist. It is also one of my favourite films, but funnily enough as an atheist I’ve never viewed it in supernatural terms. I’ve always considered it a brilliant study of how a very disturbed young girl could convince herself and those around her that she is possessed. The exorcism performed is theatrical and symbolic and a ‘last resort’ to undo the delusion the girl is suffering under (that’s how I see anyhow). Interesting to hear other people’s views though. I think we have very similar tastes when it comes to horror!

    Posted by Paull Hammond-Davies | September 26, 2010, 12:35 pm
  3. I’m loving seeing how your writing is developing. Great, engaging content, tightly written, bite-sized paragraphs, compelling headlines, links out to articles and web pages. You should be proud — I know i am 🙂

    Keep it up, gorgeous!
    KJ x

    Posted by guy_interrupted | September 26, 2010, 1:10 pm
  4. Paul, you’re right we do have similar tastes. Try reading the book tho, it does give a slightly different slant on the ‘truth’ about what’s going on. Interestingly Blatty does seem to intentionally make you believe it must be a ‘last resort’ as you say, and Karras believes this too, but when Father Merrin turns up his complete 100% conviction that it’s authentic really flips the situation on its head and leads you as the reader to consider the alternative – something which is reflected in the film, but not to the same degree. funnily enough, when the mother says at the end of the novel that she’s ‘not sure’ if it was authentic, i had an urge to slap her 😉

    Posted by JamesMW78 | September 26, 2010, 1:15 pm
  5. Oh, and if you want scary, just Google info on the Enfield Poltergeist. There are loads of videos on YouTube as well, including one taken by the BBC which shows an eleven year-old girl speaking with the voice of an old man. Spine chilling stuff: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enfield_Poltergeist

    Posted by guy_interrupted | September 26, 2010, 1:16 pm

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