By C. Michael Forsyth
I was gearing up to see the recent DVD release “The Last Exorcism” when “The Rite” arrived in theaters. So I decided to review them together. But I had never seen the “Exorcist,” I’m embarassed to admit, having been too young when the R-rated film debuted in 1973. Obviously one couldn’t adequately judge the two newer movies without comparing them to the granddaddy of demon-busting flicks. So I ended up seeing THREE exorcism movies back-to-back in a week. It was enough to, well, make your head spin.
“The Last Exorcism” is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in months. It borrows from “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” the conceit that the nightmarish events of the film are accidentally caught on camera, in this case, the camera of a pair of documentary filmmakers. The device explains away corner-cutting tactics such as shaky hand-held camera movements, minimal coverage and an absence of recognizable actors. (The movie was made for $1.8 million, a paltry sum by Hollywood standards). This “found footage” sub-genre is certainly at high risk for becoming an annoying cliché, and I doubt filmmakers are going to be able to return to the well many more times. But here the gimmick seems perfectly suited to the subject matter.
The focus of the documentary is Reverend Cotton Marcus, a slick, smooth-talking evangelical preacher who comes from a long line of clergymen — and exorcists. Now convinced that exorcisms are a bunch of hokum, he invites the filmmakers to accompany him on a final exorcism, planning to debunk the practice on camera. When he and the crew reach the remote farm where a distraught man is convinced his teenage daughter Nell is possessed, they get far more than they bargained for.
The documentary style works especially well in establishing Cotton’s character without the typical Hollywood exposition. The first 10 minutes of the film, in which the Baton Rouge preacher’s home life, philosophy and ministry are explored, could easily be mistaken for a real documentary. Traditional elements of priest and hero stories — the loss of belief, even the “one last mission” theme — are slipped in smoothly without us even noticing. An interesting choice of the screenwriter was to make Cotton a protestant, rather than the familiar Catholic priest. Evangelicals have indeed jumped on the exorcism bandwagon in recent years, so this adds an element of realism.
The naturalism helps to root the story and the characters firmly in the real world, before the supernatural element is introduced — something I always like in horror flicks. The naturalistic style also distinguishes the movie from “The Exorcist” and other predecessors, lending it a surprisingly fresh feel.
Key to the film’s success is Patrick Fabian’s performance as Cotton. His believability is what makes the film believable. And the believability is what makes it horrifying. I like that Cotton is portrayed as a brave, decent and intelligent man. It’s rare that an evangelical preacher is depicted as anything but a bigoted, hypocritical buffoon. Frankly, I appreciate it anytime a minister gets to be the hero. My own father was an Episcopal priest (the ones who can marry) and one of my happiest movie memories was when he took me to see the “Poseidon Adventure,” starring Gene Hackman as a virile, two-fisted preacher.
My only minor beef: the producer/soundwoman and cameraman are off screen for most of the movie, so that when they become endangered, we’re not invested enough to worry about their fates. The movie’s ending is far more satisfying than either “Blair Witch Project” or “Paranormal Events,” which were both rather anticlimactic.
“The Rite” is a very different movie, a big-budget star vehicle shot on location in Rome. It’s about a young Catholic seminarian who is sent to Vatican City to learn the ancient rite of exorcism at a special new Papal academy. Initially skeptical, he’s soon singing a different tune when he assists veteran exorcist Father Lucas, played by Anthony Hopkins, in a knock-down, drag-out battle with a demon who’s possessed a pregnant teen. The events are “inspired by a true story,” which is a Hollywood producer’s way of saying “total bullshit.”
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
The big twist here is that Anthony Hopkins’ character himself becomes possessed, and the young priest-in-training then must battle an implacable demonic foe to save his mentor’s soul. The movie would be more interesting if we didn’t know this turn of events was coming. But the plot twist has been revealed in many reviews and news articles, so the cat is kind of out of the bag.
In an interview, Hopkins described this as his greatest movie role and I can see why. Imagine the acting challenge: He has to be first good, then the embodiment of evil, then evil with the good part of him trying to get out. Knowing Hopkins’ work, this performance would either be Oscar-worthy or an embarrassing slab of hammy overacting. As it turns out, Hopkins knocks it out of the ball park. In a sense, this is a role he was born to play. Some reviewers have charged him with chewing the scenery, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s just an easy thing to say, I suppose. Yes, at points he’s rather animated but the guy is POSSESSED for Pete’s sake! More often, his performance is eerily understated. I’d just about lost faith in Hopkins, after his phoned-in performance in “The Wolfman.” Now he’s back in fine form.
The weak link of the film is the young seminarian Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue). Hollywood formula demands that our hero be as poorly armed as possible when facing the enemy. So, it’s not surprising that, as with Father Karras in “The Exorcist,” the priest-in-training is experiencing a crisis of faith. To have an exorcist movie where the hero priest has the full power of God on his side would be like equipping Bruce Willis with a nuclear bomb in the next “Die Hard” movie. However, “The Rite” goes way overboard in this department. Not only is Michael not a priest yet (unlike in the “true“ story), he’s a borderline atheist — so much so, it takes a real leap of faith, so to speak, to believe that he went to seminary to begin with.
Yes, the movie’s structure demands that the protagonist be spiritually outgunned when he goes toe-to-toe with the demon — and that he does it alone. But this is engineered in a very clumsy manner. My friend Sean sometimes complains about what he calls the “why don’t theys” in films. You know, like “Why don’t they just go to the police?” This movie is marred by a fairly egregious why don’t they. Michael, who is not even an ordained priest, mind you — goes up against a demon powerful enough to possess the Vatican’s top exorcist alone, because he can’t get in touch with the exorcism school’s main lecturer. He’s not only in Vatican City, but actually at the Vatican’s special exorcism academy! Couldn’t he round up some lesser exorcists or at least priests (hey, even a couple of nuns or altar boys) before confronting Satan?
Well, maybe I’m just being silly. That’s like asking why movie cops never wait for backup before taking on an army of hoodlums.
So, seeing the exorcism movies in reverse chronological order, I saved “The Exorcist” for last. There’s not much call for me to “review” this 1973 classic, which garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, and is widely judged one of the scariest movies of all time. And that’s lucky for me, because its impossible for me to fairly evaluate it.
So many of the critical scenes I was already familiar with through pop culture: the spinning head, the projectile vomiting, the horrific makeup. So much of it I’ve already seen imitated or even parodied. (A possessed Laraine Newman leading an aerobics-style “exorcising” class, complete with 180-degree head turns, on Saturday Night Live; the late, great Leslie Nielson trying to save Linda Blair from a second round of demonic invasion as a bumbling exorcist in “Repossessed.”)
I can only imagine how audiences back in the ’70s must have responded when Linda Blair as the possessed girl Regan masturbates with a crucifix until she bleeds, shoves her mother’s face in her bloody crotch, then just seconds later spins her head fully around. Bear in mind, at the time this movie came out, most people (like the mom in the film) had never heard of exorcism; it was the dirty little secret of the Catholic Church.
Of course the pea-soup puke looks a bit silly now. But still very shocking to me today are those streams of vile obscenities, spewing from a 12-year-old girl’s mouth.
Some aspects of the film don’t hold up very well. The pacing seems slow by today’s standards. The special effects, surprisingly, are still quite effective. And what holds up best of all is the acting. The performance by Linda Blair is really quite extraordinary and must have been difficult for such a young person. Jason Miller, making his film debut as the tormented, conflicted Father Karras, was intense and believable. Most impressive of all is Max von Sydow as the elder exorcist Father Merrin. He has such presence that although he is absent until nearly the end of the movie, he instantly takes command of the screen when he appears for the final confrontation. Considering how aged and worn he appears in the film, I was surprised to see him alive and well as a creepy old psychiatrist in last year’s “Shutter Island.” Now he’s 82 but he was only 44 when he starred as the “old” priest in “The Exorcist,” making his performance even more remarkable.
Three exorcism flicks. Each very different, each entertaining in its own right. I must say, however, that as scary as the demon-possessed folks in these movies were, none could hold a candle to my own daughter this afternoon. Just try to take a splinter out of the finger of a thrashing, screaming, panicked 8 year old girl and you’ll see what I mean!
Click HERE to check out the mind-numbingly scary Hour of the Beast.