Movie Review – The Witches (2020)

The Witches (2020)
Written by Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis, like I said about John Landis while reviewing An American Werewolf in London, is a director that gave us some fantastic movies in the 1980s and then seemed to fade in subsequent decades. In Zemeckis’s instance, he seemed to keep putting out quality work in the 1990s, but it was the new millennium and deluge of motion capture technologies that took him into a new realm of filmmaking that often hasn’t paid off. These instances always cause me to wonder if all that success ultimately had a negative consequence, removing the things that made Zemeckis’s movies fun because he simply wanted to play with some complicated new toys.

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Movie Review – The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)
Written by William Peter Blatty
Directed by William Friedkin

There will never be another horror film like The Exorcist, which is in the context of it becoming a cultural phenomenon. I was born eight years after it was released, and I can remember hearing stories about how people passed out in the theater or ran screaming out of the building. I’d glanced at quick clips of the film during shows like Entertainment Tonight when they talked about the movie in retrospect. I think that hype has died down because of the decentralized nature of media in the digital age. There have been much more extreme horror films released since in regards to gore and the depiction of demon possession. However, The Exorcist is a Horror Masterwork, not because it’s unrelenting scary in any capacity, but because it balances both terror and humanity.

Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) lives in Georgetown while filming a movie directed by her good friend Burke Dennings. She’s brought along her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) while Chris’s marriage to her husband has fallen apart weeks prior. Chris and Regan take up residence in a brownstone two-story home attended to by the husband-wife housekeepers. Everything is cozy and typical until Regan begins exhibiting strange behaviors. They are subtle at first and pawned off as hormonal issues or possibly ADHD. Things grow more sinister until it becomes utterly unavoidable that an evil presence has taken hold of Reagan’s body and is tormenting her.

Meanwhile, we follow the parallel story of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who is struggling with his faith while caring for his aging and ailing Greek immigrant mother. We learn through artifacts around her home that Damien was a prizefighter once, and at some point, he abandoned that sport to pursue a degree in psychology. Now he works as a psychiatrist for the church, helping both the congregation and his fellow clergymen. His destiny crosses paths with Chris and Regan and a veteran priest, Father Merrin, who is well-studied on matters of demon possession. This all leads to one dark night where the forces of light confront the monsters that dwell in darkness.

Now that the media hype has died down, decades later, The Exorcist is not a nailbiting jumpscare fest but rather a well-thought-out grounded tragedy with a very optimistic ending. William Friedkin has always played with heightened and grounded senses of reality. His more recent work has been more overtly stylized, but in the 1970s, with pictures like The French Connection, he went for a more documentary filmmaking style. He was interested in the process and the steps a person took in doing their job.

Friedkin approaches Regan’s condition and the exorcism in the same manner. For most of the picture, the young girl is undergoing blood tests, getting brain scans, etc. It’s only the last 30 minutes that we actually watch the exorcism. Even that ritual is seen as a series of neutral, emotionally disconnected steps that purge the demon from the girl’s body. Merrin approaches the task like a plumber would clear out a pipe while Karras has his emotions betray him but ultimately save the day. As the demon taunts the priests, they leave the room to collect their thoughts and Fr. Merrin explains that the devil wants them “to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.” In turn, this implies that adherence to ritual and procedure is what elevates humanity above the beasts. To become possessed is to fall into a place of pure emotion and illogical thinking.

There’s a rich air of mystery throughout The Exorcist, with so many unexplained components left for the audience to contemplate. The entire opening in Iraq, following Fr. Merrin as he leads an archaeological dig and confronts the statue of a demon he seems to recognize, seems disconnected from the rest of the film until Merrin resurfaces at the end of the second act. Regan’s possession is never logically explained. We get hints about it through her use of the ouija board and Chris’s discovery of a stone demon’s head. There’s the crucifix discovered under Regan’s pillow that no adult in the house will admit they gave to her, and they seem honest in their answers. The biggest question in the whole picture is, “Why did the demon possess Regan?” She’s a child who doesn’t even show signs of malice or evil. That is what makes this such an unsettlingly story ultimately, that someone who seems the least like to become a conduit of evil so easily could. Fr. Karras’s crisis of faith coincides with this discovery, how could God create a world where something so evil could exist?

Friedkin refuses to take the easy way out and answer your questions. Sadly, many of the sequels that were to come decided to explicitly try to explain things, which is why they are so terrible. The perfection of the first film is that it just acts as a recordkeeper, showing us what happened without allowing us to understand. In turn, the audience is forced to grapple with the great existential questions these events imply. Is innocence a non-existent concept, a fantasy invented so that we can believe our children are safe from the evils of the world?

There is heavy subtext about the sexual maturation of women present throughout The Exorcist. Regan is a girl just at the age when she might begin menstruation. She violates herself with a crucifix, producing blood and taunting her carers with sexual obscenities. Before things become so ostentatious, she’s just a cranky girl getting a check-up at the doctor, letting a profanity slip when she doesn’t want to be poked or prodded anymore. In many ways, what we see is an adult nightmare of female adolescence played out, particularly in how American Christians perceive sexual maturation. You need only look to the fundamentalist fervor over abortion to see the bizarre relationship between these religious people and sexuality. The unborn, voiceless & powerless are the most precious of all and so innocent, while the minute after they are born, filled with the potential of having a different set of opinions than the conservative Christians, they become unimportant and not worth the time. Regan’s experience is a direct confrontation with this mindset, mocking their Puritanical mores for being naive and intolerant.

There is so much happening in The Exorcist, much more than relegating it to a cultural novelty that spooked audience members in the 1970s. It is an enigmatic film that wants you to actively engage in the ideas it presents. There is no pipe smoking expert, a la Psycho, who will exposit for the audience’s benefit in the final ten minutes to explain to us what just happened. Regan is saved, she and her mom are leaving, and the people who live in Georgetown are left to contemplate what just happened with no easy answers coming any time soon.

Movie Review – Books of Blood

Books of Blood (2020)
Written by Adam Simon & Brannon Braga
Directed by Brannon Braga

I cannot convey to you how awful this movie is. It’s not rare to find a bad adaptation of a Clive Barker work, but this is possibly new levels of disconnect from the tone of the writer’s stories. It sadly doesn’t surprise me because, for as ambitious as Hulu seems to be about creating original horror content, they have yet to deliver any that is enjoyable to watch. I was pretty let down by the adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth as the Hulu original film Wounds. I didn’t care for that picture for the same reasons I walked away feeling lousy about Books of Blood.

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Movie Review – Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)
Written by Joseph Stefano
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic films ever made. Even people who have never seen the movie have likely seen it parodied, especially the infamous shower scene. It’s interesting to note how mixed initial reviews of Psycho were. Hitchcock directed Vertigo and North by Northwest, very classy, glamorous thrillers in the two years prior. Psycho is definitely sleazy in comparison, especially the exploitative nature with which is approaches sex and violence. Hitchcock had to restrain himself to a degree, but he definitely gets away with a lot because of who he was.

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Movie Review – Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now (1973)
Written by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant
Directed by Nicholas Roeg

I was a child when I first encountered the work of Nicholas Roeg, and I didn’t even know it. That was in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It’s not considered Roeg’s work and near the end of his career when projects weren’t as abundant. In college, I really discovered the magic of his particular style of filmmaking by watching his films from the 1970s (Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth). What drew me to him was this picture, Don’t Look Now, a measured, tense horror film about the inevitability of death and the weight of grief. This is all done through a brilliant editing technique that simulates clairvoyance.

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Movie Review – Candyman (1992)

Candyman (1992)
Written & Directed by Bernard Rose

Portions of major cities have been allowed to decay for one reason, the people that live there are not considered worth the effort to keep the area maintained. In America, this is typically seen in non-white neighborhoods, often low-income housing for Black people. I used to work at a school that serviced a nearby housing complex, and the city built a wall that blocked this neighborhood from the view of high-end hotels downtown so that guests wouldn’t see the area. The city spent money to build but not to improve that neighborhood but hide it from monied eyes. The same thing happens in the U.K., where Clive Barker set his short story “The Forbidden,” which would serve as Candyman’s basis.

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Movie Review – The Human Voice

The Human Voice (2020)
Written by Jean Cocteau & Pedro Almodovar
Directed by Pedro Almodovar

The present COVID-19 global pandemic has forced those in the film industry to change many of their practices. From production to distribution, those who are forward-thinking are adjusting to a world where the traditional exhibition of movies just isn’t going to be possible for a while. I have been most pleased to see many film festivals offering limited virtual viewings of the film they show this year. I will likely never travel to Vancouver, Toronto, or New York City to attend their respective film festivals, but I am willing to pay to view festival circuit films in my home. The Human Voice is the first picture I have viewed in this manner, and it has made me excited to do it again.

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Movie Review – I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Ending things can have many different meanings. At first, we assume our main character’s internal monologue is referring to breaking up with her boyfriend. For most of the movie, that appears to be the intent of the phrase. However, as the walls of reality melt away, and our perspective begins to shift, we start to think about how much more fatal “”ending things”” can be. Does anything end or, when we think life has ended, do we fall into a jumbled void of memories and imagined experiences, drowning in our own confusion? Charlie Kaufman never gives us something easy to decipher, and he desires to challenge our mindset.

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Movie Review – Ordinary People

Ordinary People (1980)
Written by Alvin Sargent
Directed by Robert Redford

American culture still has problems talking about mental health, but it was considerably more complicated when Ordinary People came out. This was also the directorial debut of actor Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute, a non-profit dedicated to helping independent filmmakers create their work. Redford always stood out as an actor who physically appeared as the atypical Hollywood glamor star but who chose work that didn’t always focus on his looks. Throughout the 1970s, he picked smartly written work closely tied to his political and philosophical views. With his first gig as a director, he managed to make a film that would never be a crowd-pleaser but focused on essential issues that movies often sidestepped.

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Movie Review – Somewhere in Time

Somewhere in Time (1980)
Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

I approached this film with moderate expectations but found myself enjoying it quite a bit. Somewhere in Time is a melodrama dripping with maudlin sentimentality. But it’s a well crafted one, so those excesses and silly bits can easily be ignored or enjoyed. The film is based on the novel Bid Time Return, also written by Richard Matheson. Between this film and my Twilight Zone series, I have enjoyed Matheson’s work this year. I’d only previously read I Am Legend, but I think I may need to do a deeper dive into his work. Somewhere in Time feels like a Matheson episode of Twilight Zone, which is stretched out a little longer and gives us a relatively decent tragic love story.

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