Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Terror of 'The Exorcist' and 'The Wicker Man'

Today's edition of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at two film celebrating their 40th anniversaries: The Exorcist and The Wicker Man. Among the many things distinguishing these pictures is the way they frighten their audience. Although they are both horror films, each of them demonstrates a distinct approach to terrorizing the viewer. [Note: Spoilers Ahead.]

The Exorcist
The term “religious film” generally calls to mind pictures like The Passion of the Christ or Jesus of Nazareth, movies that deal specifically with Biblical narratives. But this term ought to be applied more broadly than that. The Exorcist is unique as a religious horror film and its religiosity is a key part of its terror.

When The Exorcist was revised into the cut that is now known as The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, the film had several scenes added. Most of these were additions of a small sort such as an alternate opening sequence, an exchange of dialog between the priests, and a preliminary visit to the doctor by the possessed girl and her mother. Among the most notable additions was in the ending. As originally written and shot, a local priest visits the family as they move out of the house and sees them off. He is later joined by a police detective who has been prowling around in the background of the story. The two men hit off a friendship and the picture ends on a hopeful note. For the theatrical release, the entire exchange between the priest and detective was cut, ending the film very abruptly.

The truncated ending always bothered producer and writer William Peter Blatty in part because many critics and moviegoers interpreted The Exorcist as a story in which evil was triumphant. Blatty was upset by that reaction, as it was exactly the opposite of what he had set out to do, and he felt the extended ending corrected the tone of the film.

However, with the original ending restored, the ultimate meaning of the conclusion and of the film itself is still somewhat ambiguous. Friedkin and Blatty’s flabbergast response to the audience’s dark interpretation of the ending is not entirely fair and Blatty is na├»ve to argue that tagging a two minute sequence onto the denouement would change the momentum of the film. In fact, the popularly dark understanding of The Exorcist is a direct result of the way the film is made.

The Exorcist is shot in a cold, verite style and it does not use music or other cinematic techniques to manage the audience’s emotional reactions. The film does delineate decisively between good and evil but the presentation of evil in The Exorcist is overwhelming while goodness is frail. Given that unbalanced screen presence, and given that the climax of The Exorcist unfolds so quickly as to evade reflection, it is no wonder that audiences have often come away from the film feeling as though the Devil was the victor.

Perhaps the most important addition to the extended version of The Exorcist is the brief exchange between the two priests. While Fathers Karras and Merrin break from the exorcism ritual, the younger priest asks his elder why this is happening. His response:
“I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”
This piece of dialog is really the thesis of The Exorcist and when juxtaposed with the climax it does a lot for Blatty’s case about the meaning of the film. The movie does depict good fighting against evil and ultimately good does triumph: the girl is saved and priest’s faith is restored. But that is the silver lining in what is still a very dark cloud. As The Exorcist depicts it, the struggle between good and evil is not equally matched, and to fight on the side of good is a Sisyphean effort that may require the ultimate sacrifice.

The Exorcist is an assaultive film, one that gets in the viewer’s face with an uncompromising depiction of evil and corruption. In the era of slasher and torture films, its visceral horrors are significantly less shocking. But The Exorcist remains unnerving because its filmmakers concoct a formulation of evil that is so feral and so nihilistic that it does not offer a heroic alternative. Horror villains like Dracula, Freddy Krueger, and Hannibal Lecter eventually become embraceable and even strangely heroic figures while Frankenstein’s Monster and Norman Bates are pitiable creatures. But the demon of The Exorcist does not inspire admiration or pity. The image of this infernal being parasitically attached to the body of a young girl is a desecration of too much that is sacred. The confrontation with this monstrosity reaches beyond the immediate circumstances of the film and touches something primal in the audience.

Now, as in 1973, American audiences have lost their faith in most of the institutional pillars of society. Government, the military, the press, professional sports, and organized religion have scandalized themselves to a point in which it is nearly impossible for citizens to be anything but jaded. That leaves art and in particular motion pictures as one of the few places that people can go for relief. A film like The Exorcist turns the movie theater into a sacred space in which viewers can get, for lack of a better term, a spiritual experience.

The Wicker Man
The Wicker Man is properly categorized as a horror film but much of what is in the film does not suggest itself as a horror picture. As a British film from the early 1970s, The Wicker Man does not have the story or settings that characterized the pictures of the Hammer studio which were popular at that time. The film plays even more strangely for a contemporary audience. The movie was offbeat in 1973 and for today’s audience it is often just plain weird. The depictions of pagan sexuality come across like scenes of a 1970s soft core adult feature and the strange musical numbers look like something out of a family-oriented movie. But the weirdness of The Wicker Man is why it works so well, why it has been adopted by such a devoted cult audience, and ultimately why this film is rightly categorized as a horror picture.

A lot of horror films are deliberately scary, which is to say they are imagined and executed in a way that puts the viewer in direct confrontation with darkness. Such pictures take place in haunted homes, ruined castles, or disheveled farm houses and the characters are assaulted by malevolent spirits, the undead, or psychotic murderers. These familiar settings and antagonists are comfortably scary. They are recognizable as a terrible place in which lurks a horrible creature and these stories generally involve mainstream characters who ultimately destroy the monster.

The Wicker Man doesn’t work that way. This film is headed by a mainstream character but he isn’t entirely sympathetic and he arrives in a place that is not obviously threatening, at least not in the way of Dracula’s castle. Instead he is met by a community that upends many of the basic beliefs and values of mainstream culture and the longer he spends on the island the less recoverable traditional reality seems to be. The folk music, strange costumes, and bizarre traditions give this film the atmosphere of a carnival. In that respect, The Wicker Man is unsettling in the same way that a clown can be frightening.

In some horror films the images and ideas are only frightening for particular audiences while in other horror pictures the source of terror stems from something universal to the human experience. The Wicker Man includes both approaches.

As a police officer and a devoted Christian, Sergeant Howie represents mainstream society, especially in 1973. His values are the values of the mainland culture, he carries the authority of the government, and he repeatedly reminds the islanders of those facts. But during his time on Summerisle, Sergeant Howie’s authority is constantly undermined until he is eventually overcome. The finale of The Wicker Man is the immolation of the establishment and so the horror in this will be most resonant for viewers who share Howie’s religious and political views.

But The Wicker Man isn’t just disturbing for conservative (in the most basic sense of the word) viewers. The movie gets to more essential fears of being an outcast or simply sticking out in a crowd and it does that by way of religion. The police sergeant is an emphatic Christian and he expresses indignation at paganism, often belittling the islanders’ ideas and traditions while proclaiming the truth of his own religious views. This makes him an outsider and his otherness and isolation are constantly highlighted by the detective’s own proclamations as well as by the filmmaking techniques. The Wicker Man has many scenes emphasizing the detective’s isolation such as numerous shots from Howie’s perspective in which the villagers stare at him silently. This plays on nearly universal fears of standing before a crowd, which is rooted in evolutionary instincts of being exposed. The end of The Wicker Man is so powerful and so haunting because it validates a suspicion that most of us harbor, that the stupidity of large groups of people can actually be lethal, as well as a deeper animalistic fear of the pack turning on us.

The religious aspect of The Wicker Man takes a further turn in the finale. As Sergeant Howie meets his fate, he invokes the Christian god and proclaims that the Almighty will smite his enemies. Of course, that does not happen and among the final images of The Wicker Man are pagans and a Christian singing competing hymns to their gods. The final impressions the film leaves are not of religious martyrdom or pagan triumph but of the empty promises of superstition and the horror of delusional fantasies leading people over a rational and moral precipice.

The fears that The Wicker Man plays upon are not as obvious as the dread of being murdered or eaten alive or even being attacked by evil spirits but the fears that it invokes are nevertheless powerful. The oblique style of the movie, its strange characters, and its fairytale-like setting make it uncanny but at the same time disguise its horror. There is something fascinating and puzzling about the movie and that may be why it has continues to play for audiences four decades after its release despite its flaws.

No comments: