A Saturday matinee screening of Paranormal Activity was the first and only time I have ever heard anyone actually scream in a theatre. I don’t mean a quiet whimper followed by an embarrassed laugh or a frightened little squeal. No, I mean a full-on, open throated howl of terror.
The release of Paranormal’s prequel last weekend got me thinking about other big screen scream worthy scenes. So just in time for Halloween are some leave-the-lights-on movie moments.
If Alfred Hitchcock had any doubts about the effectiveness of the shower sequence in Psycho they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from the father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in Les Diaboliques and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing Psycho. Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
The shower scene was terrifying but at least it was allowed to stay in the movie. In 1931, Frankenstein star Boris Karloff demanded the scene in the movie where the monster plays with a little girl, throwing flowers in a pond be cut from the picture. It’s a cute scene until the beast runs out of flowers and tosses the little girl into the water, leaving her to drown. Karloff, and audiences, objected to the violence against the youngster and the scene was shortened, then removed altogether and remained unseen until a special videotape release 48 years later.
More recently, The Exorcist (now beautifully restored on Blu Ray) so traumatized audiences with shots of the possessed Regan MacNeil’s 360-degree head spinning that in the U.K. the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade were on-call at screenings to tend to fainters. Star Linda Blair says she wasn’t traumatized by the film, but admits there has been one long lasting side effect. “You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me to make my head spin around,” she says.
Blair may have been unfazed while shooting her gruesome scenes, but not all actors emerge unscathed. Elisha Cuthbert was so grossed out while shooting the notorious blender scene in the down-and-dirty flick Captivity she says she felt “physically ill twice” and had to have a bucket nearby.
Scary scenes one and all, but recounting them begs the question, why are we drawn to them?
The quick answer comes from Alfred Hitchcock who said, “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”
Richard joins NewsTalk 1010 host Jim Richards on the coast-to-coast-to-coast late night “Showgram” to talk about the best movies to watch on Halloween, why Canada makes great horror movies and why “Frankenstein” is still scary 88 years after its release.
Formatted almost like a film school lecture, “Leap of Faith,” a new documentary about the making of “The Exorcist” and now streaming on Shudder, is a master class in how a classic movie was made.
In the almost fifty years after the release of a movie that was heralded as everything from “religious porn” to “pure cinematic terror,” “The Exorcist” has not lacked for critical analysis. Thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled printing books and articles on the subject while in the internet age everyone who has ever stepped into a theatre seems to have written something about the film. “Leap of Faith” does everyone who has ever posited an opinion on the film’s meaning one better. It goes to the source with an in-depth interview with the movie’s director William Friedkin.
Documentary filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe goes long with the director on the creative process, nailing down the definitive stories of how the 1973 horror film came to be. Much of the information was covered in the 2014 autobiography, “The Friedkin Connection,” but here the director’s way with a story and Philippe’s use of visuals makes the stories cinematic.
This isn’t a casual fan doc. Friedkin and Philippe dig deep to uncover the film’s visual influences—everything from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 “Ordet” to Magritte’s “The Empire of Light” series—to how recording the score ended a long-time friendship. There is great detail on the casting, the filming of controversial scenes and why star Max von Sydow, who once played Jesus in a film, had so much trouble performing one of “The Exorcist’s” most pious and famous sequences.
Over and over Friedkin talks about following his instincts and making decisions that either seemed counterintuitive or deemed too costly by the studio. “I didn’t question my instincts,” he says, which I suppose is at least part of the reason the film is called “Leap of Faith.” There’s the obvious reason and then there’s the small leaps of faith that those working with Friedkin had to take along the way. Hearing about his battles with everyone from studio heads on down to get his vision to the screen is an interesting reminder of Hollywood when creative vison could trump corporate interference.
“Leap of Faith” isn’t a flashy film. It’s a detailed, if straightforward, making of documentary that connects the dots between the filmmaker and his faith in an interesting, if long winded way.
In “Deliver Us From Evil” Eric Bana is Sarchie, an NYPD cop partnered with Butler (Joel McHale), his wisecracking sidekick.
Like Messrs. Tango and Cash, they are fearless but somewhat mismatched. Sarchie is a cop with “radar,” a nose for trouble, while Butler is a wisenheimer who, when a disheveled suspect grimaces at him, foaming at the mouth, says, “Do you think she’s single?”
A series of seemingly unrelated 911 calls—a domestic dispute, an incident at a zoo and a possible home invasion—change the story from cop drama to supernatural police procedural. Strange things happen. Holy candles won’t burn in the house of one of the 911 callers. One of the perps speaks Latin and scratches until her fingers bleed.
Skeptical at first Sarchie refuses to blame “invisible fairies” for the strange behavior, but working with a Jesuit Priest, Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), Sarchie and Butler become convinced there is more at play here than just human nature.
The investigation leads them to a trio of men, (Chris Coy, Dorian Missick and Sean Harris) soldiers who returned from Iraq with PTDS (Post Traumatic Demonic Possession.) Piecing together the links becomes a dangerous job for Butler, Sarchie and even the officer’s family (Oliver Munn and daughter played by Lulu Wilson).
“Delivers Us From Evil” relies on jump scares—those “boo” moments that get your heart racing—and while a few of the jumps work, most simply deliver a jolt with nothing behind it, but there is at least one shock cat lovers are going to h-a-t-e.
There is plenty of atmosphere—apparently it rains all the time in the Bronx—and a few creepy moments—was that a snake or an old pipe?—but the truly eerie stuff is underplayed when a movie like this should be really dialing up the action.
It’s all a bit dull. There are no truly memorable moments. We’ve seen the exorcism stuff before—without the head spinning and pea soup—in everything from “The Exorcist” to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” but the thing that really sinks the movie’s momentum aren’t the stock characters or lack of new thrills but the exposition scenes that explain the obvious. Director Scott Derrickson, who also made the considerably creepier “Sinister,” doesn’t trust the audience to follow the simple story so he has the characters walk us through it almost one line at a time.
“Deliver Us From Evil” doesn’t feel like a summer movie. Usually we look to July and August to deliver us from lame movies but this one has the feel of those horror flicks starring a familiar-but-less-than-household-name that fills up theatres in January and February.
The spooky new supernatural thriller Deliver Us From Evil sees Eric Bana play a jaded NYC police officer. “I’ve seen some horrible things,” he says, “but nothing that can’t be explained by human nature.”
That changes when he meets a renegade priest (Édgar Ramírez) who convinces him a plague of demonic possession has infected the Big Apple. Working together, they combat the evil forces with exorcism and faith.
Deliver Us From Evil is based on a nonfiction book of the same name authored by Ralph Sarchie (with Lisa Collier Cool), a sixteen-year NYPD veteran who investigates “cases of demonic possession and (assists) in the exorcisms of humanity’s most ancient—and most dangerous—foes,” in his spare time.
“Before going out on a case,” he writes, “I put aside my gun and police badge and arm myself with holy water and a relic of the True Cross.”
Sarchie’s story joins a long list of exorcism movies with roots in true events.
The Exorcist, the granddaddy of all demon possession movies, is based in part on the 1949 case of an anonymous Maryland teenager dubbed Roland Doe. He was determined by the Catholic Church to be under a diabolical spell when strange things started happening — levitating furniture and holy water vials crashing to the ground — after he played with a Ouija board.
Exorcist author William Peter Blatty first heard about Doe’s story when he was a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1950. He drew from newspaper reports and a diary kept by the attending priest, Fr. Raymond Bishop, as the backbone of his novel.
The character of Father Lankester Merrin, the elderly priest and archeologist played by Max von Sydow in the movie, was based on British archaeologist Gerald Lankester Harding. Blatty said Harding “was the physical model in my mind when I created the character, whose first name, please note, is Lankester.”
In recent years hits like The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins as a real life exorcist tutor, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose with Tom Wilkinson as a priest accused of murder when a young woman died during an exorcism, are based on true events.
Finally in The Possession, a haunted antique carved “Dybbuk” box — containing an evil, restless spirit — turns the behaviour of a young girl (Natasha Calis) from angelic to animalistic. The owner of the real-life box offered to send it to producer Sam Raimi but the filmmaker declined. “I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he said. “I’m scared of the thing.”
“The Exorcist” was released 40 years ago to great fanfare.
“This film, when it came out, lived at the very center of popular culture,” film critic and author Richard Crouse told CNN. “It was the only thing that people talked about. The speed of popular culture wasn’t as fast as it is now. Even a big hit like ‘Gravity,’ people are excited for a week, excited for two weeks, and then it fades away until awards season comes around. But it wasn’t like that in 1973. This movie, for a year, really inked out all available entertainment space.”
Crouse, author of the book “Raising Hell,” recalled “stories about people throwing up at screenings…
Canadian film critic Richard Crouse seems to have his hands full with regular gigs in mainstream television, radio and print journalism, yet still manages to find the time to indulge in his lifelong passion for cult cinema. His most recent tome is The Son of the 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a follow-up to The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, both of them containing a heavy amount of the macabre.
Making up a list like this is tough. I’m sure I’ll remember a classic or two that I should have included after I hit the send button, but, off the top of my head, here are my faves…
1. The Exorcist 1973, Directed by William Friedkin. The single scariest night at the movies this ten year old ever experienced.
2. Let the Right One In 2008, Directed by Tomas Alfredson. A vampire film without a castle, a cape or coffin. Loved it.
3. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein 1948, Directed by Charles Barton. Perfect mix of corny laughs and scary stuff.
4. Ginger Snaps 2000, Directed by John Fawcett. Great reinvention of the werewolf myth.
5. Frankenstein 1931, Directed by James Whale. For my money the best of the classic Universal monster movies.
6. Dawn of the Dead 1978, Directed by George A. Romero. Probably the greatest zombie flick ever.
7. Rosemary’s Baby 1968, Directed by Roman Polanski. Evil atmosphere you could cut with a knife.
8. Psycho 1960, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I still get creeped out in the shower.
9. May 2002, Directed by Lucky McKee. Really underrated horror film that deserves to be better known than it is.
10. The Host 2006, Directed by Joon-ho Bong. Big bug movies don’t get much better than this.
Demonic possession has been terrifying moviegoers for decades.
The Exorcist, the most famous fiendish film, created such a stir with audiences that in 1973 Newsweek ran a cover story entitled The Exorcism Frenzy. Complete with stories of queasy theatre-goers and their Exorcist barf bags, it helped create hysteria and make the movie one of the biggest hits of the year.
The impact The Exorcist had on audiences has yet to be duplicated by any of the dozens of possession movies released in its wake, but this weekend’s The Devil Inside is hoping to bring a little good old-fashioned hellfire back to theatres.
The devil, of course, is the star of any possession movie, even if you don’t actually see him. What’s more petrifying than the idea of Old Scratch taking over your body and making your head spin 360 degrees?
But what about the brave priests who battle Beelzebub? Here’s a few cinematic celebrants who have gone mano-a-mano with Mephistopheles.
Father Lankester Merrin, as portrayed by Max von Sydow in The Exorcist, presided over the most famous Satan skirmish.
The statuesque Swedish actor played Merrin twice — he’s seen in flashbacks in Exorcist II: The Heretic — while Stellan Skarsgård played him in two prequels.
The loopiest of devil hunters must be Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) from the Ken Russell film The Devils. He is a corrupt and despicable holy man who convinces a group of terrified nuns to fake a mass possession with the words, “You will scream! You will blaspheme!” His other questionable methods include “forcible colonic irrigation” with holy water and torture.
Barre isn’t the only real life exorcist to be portrayed on film, however. Both The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins as a real life exorcist tutor and The Exorcism of Emily Rose with Tom Wilkinson as a priest accused of murder when a young woman died during an exorcism, are based on true stories.
More fanciful is Leslie Nielsen as Father Mayii in Repossessed, an Exorcist parody co-starring Linda Blair, who played the possessee in the original film. When told she “has an ungodly voice and maniacal facial expressions” the skeptical Mayii replies, “That doesn’t prove a thing! She could be related to Joe Cocker.”
And finally, Beetlejuice has a different kind of exorcist. Michael Keaton plays a supernatural character called in as a “bio-exorcist” to rid a house of its human inhabitants.