The Exorcist, Lost Souls, and Possessed (review)

Sympathy for the Devil

Ya have to feel for the poor fallen guy. Not only was he cast out of paradise for, if you believe his PR people, the minor offense of trying to show up the boss, but now he is reduced to working in mostly bad films as a boogeyman so generic and undefined that his mere name is supposed to evoke horror. Do screenwriters bother with characterization or motive for Old Scratch? Rarely — the Prince of Darkness is supposed to just coast on his rep as the Ultimate Bad Dude, and yet those selfsame screenwriters must, by storytelling necessity, declaw him, prevent him from taking full advantage of the hellish forces at his command. You can’t have a too-powerful antagonist, or your good guys would be finished before they even got started. Is this any way for the sovereign of an entire otherworldly demesne to be treated, I ask you?
Possession is nine-tenths of the law
Catholic priest and archeologist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow: Snow Falling on Cedars, Nuremberg) did not learn his lesson from Indiana Jones: archeological digs can be dangerous places, hiding not only buried treasure but buried terror. Poking around at a dig in Iraq, Merrin comes up with an ancient representation of the Devil that weirds him out and stops clocks. Not terribly demonic, true, but Lucifer is busy elsewhere: In the ritzy Washington DC neighborhood of Georgetown, he’s digging his hooks into the unbaptized spawn of a misguided atheist. Stupid atheists… we never learn.

The 1973 frightfest The Exorcist is back in theaters (with some unnecessary extra scenes restored), and while I can’t say it’s still as spooky as it was the first time around — being only 4 years old back then, I would likely have been forbidden from seeing it if I’d even been aware of such things as movies — but I can say that it is spookier than most of what passes for a horror film these days. The story — written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel, and directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection) — is slow to get going, leisurely and deliberately building a tower of fear in a way no movie would be allowed to get away with today. No oversexed teens are hunted down in ever-more-ridiculous chase sequences that end in bloody messes; very little blood is spilled at all. And instead of lingering on the truly gross and scarifying, Friedkin only allows us quick glimpses of the unearthly things going on here, which is infinitely more frightening, leaving you wanting more.

Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is a fun, loving preadolescent, one who adores horses and likes to draw. She’s a lovely kid, but alas, her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn: Requiem for a Dream), is an actress — which everyone knows is akin to being a whore — who, to pile on the evil, is not only separated from her husband but doesn’t go to church and likens priests to “witch doctors.” So, quite naturally, faithless-by-default Regan is a prime target for demonic possession, which turns the sweet child into Carrie with a bad case of Tourette’s Syndrome. The torrent of vulgarity that streams from Regan’s mouth as she sinks ever more deeply into the grip of Old Nick is actually shocking, and the horrible medical tests Regan is put through, in search of a scientific explanation for her affliction, are as truly awful as the grotesque effects of her possession.

Possession is obviously the cure for what ails the atheistic and skeptical, for Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the angst-ridden Jesuit priest who’s also a shrink (ie, a man of logic and science), finds his doubts about the supernatural put to rest by his attempted treatment of Regan, and by the time Merrin shows up to lead an exorcism, well, there isn’t a disbeliever in the MacNeil house. It never really makes any sense, of course — if Satan wants to “make us despair,” according to Merrin, by changing someone so dramatically through possession, why not go after the Pope? I guess atheists are supposed to be an easier catch, not having God on their side and all, but if that’s the case, why not possess some of the one billion Chinese atheists, or all those faithless Swedes? If Satan could take on the Almighty, surely a president or a prime minister wouldn’t be too much trouble — wouldn’t a world leader projectile-vomiting green goo at a press conference be more effective at evoking despair than a defenseless little kid going crazy in the privacy of her bedroom?

This is what I mean about taking the bite out of Beelzebub. At least The Exorcist keeps you biting your nails long enough to forget how little sense it makes till after it’s over.

Deliver us from half-bad movies
Oh, if only the same could be said for Lost Souls, quite possibly the silliest of the recent bunch of Satan- is- coming- to- eat- your- soul movies. If screenwriter Pierce Gardner and director Janusz Kaminski aspired for creepiness, as it can be assumed they did, then they have failed miserably. If, however, they were aiming to create a cheeseball of a flick that will live forever in the annals of Bad Movies… well, they failed there too.

Things start out promising enough, at least if corn was the goal. Catholic priest Father Lareaux (John Hurt: Contact), Deacon John Townsend (Elias Koteas: Apt Pupil, GATTACA), and their lay assistant Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder: Alien Resurrection, Edward Scissorhands) head to a psychiatric hospital to perform an exorcism on a violent sociopath and murderer, moving in grainy, overexposed slow motion through the grim and horrid hospital. Diaphanous priestly garments flitter in bands of sunlight. Hairy male facial pores fill the screen. Oh no, I thought, it’s Stigmata all over again!

But soon enough, Lost Souls settles into a kind of monotone, a bland and listless tale that feels like it’s checking items off the Spooky Movie Checklist as it goes. There’s the requisite skeptic, crime writer Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin: The Thin Red Line), whose very soul, in which he doesn’t even believe, is in mortal danger. There are the angels that pop up from nowhere just when they’re needed, only to disappear again without explanation. There are the numbers overloaded with mystical significance: 666, of course, and a 33rd birthday on which something of demonic importance will occur. (See, ‘cuz Jesus was 33 when he was crucified… oh, never mind.). Minions of Satan lurk everywhere, precisely where you’d expect them to be. And the Devil’s evil plan has a silly flaw that someone so powerful should have been aware of — you really think the Prince of Darkness would have a Plan B. The soundtrack is full of ringing church bells and choral pieces in minor keys, but although the music keeps insisting something weird and preternatural is happening onscreen, I could never find it.

First-time director Kaminski is Spielberg’s favorite cinematography of late — he shot Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Amistad, so you’d expect Lost Souls to have a grim beauty to the way it looks, and it does, drenched in endless rain, sepia tones, and visual gravitas, even if it is hilariously inappropriate. But if Kaminski wants to make a film of cultish badness, he’s going to have to try a lot harder than that. One or two moments of laugh-out-loud ludicrousness — such as when fragile Maya puts, well, the fear of God into Lucifer — just won’t cut it.

Don’t get me wrong: Lost Souls is bad — so bad that Alfre Woodard (Mumford) goes wisely uncredited in a small role, and John Hurt manages to be unconscious and offscreen for much of the film, the both of them trying to minimize their embarrassment. But the film is never really bad enough. What’s needed here is a Keanu Reeves, a Kim Basinger, someone who genuinely lacks any comprehension of how truly preposterous a story this is and thinks they’re shooting for an Oscar. Then we’d have had a film to compete with Devil’s Advocate or Bless the Child, a film to be laughed at by the ages.

Little devil
Based on the supposedly true story that inspired The Exorcist, the Showtime Original film Possessed supports the notion that the truth is usually duller than fiction, and needs to be gussied up a little to make it more dramatic. Ironically, though, it’s the obvious desire on the part of director Steven E. De Souza, who cowrote the screenplay with Michael Lazarou, to keep the story close to the alleged actual events that keeps this film from even hoping to compete with its big-screen brethren.

Eleven-year-old Robbie Mannheim (Jonathan Malen: Bless the Child) is a creative, imaginative child who reads scary comic books, plays at stage magic and ventriloquism, and goofs around with a Ouija board with his great-aunt Hanna (little more than a cameo for Piper Laurie: The Faculty). Combine all this with a dad (Michael Rhoades) who’s a disgruntled ex-Catholic who disses priests, and young Robbie is a prime target for demonic possession, as fans of these kinds of stories are well aware. It’s 1950s middle America, and the Mannheims’ bright, sunny, pastel house is soon host to telekinetically tossed objects and a steady stream of creative profanity… like the shadow of nuclear armageddon and communist paranoia that hangs over the happy U.S. of A.

The metaphor is a bit strained, yet the idea that this kid could merely be reacting to the tension around him is barely explored before it is discarded in favor of exorcism. Father William Bowdern (Timothy Dalton), the skeptical Jesuit priest and theology professor who takes it upon himself to help Robbie, first pegs Robbie’s behavior as “a cry for help,” but that explanation is quickly forgotten as Bowdern and his assistant, Father Raymond McBride (Henry Czerny: The Ice Storm), prepare to cast out whatever demon is occupying Robbie’s body and soul.

How reliable a witness could the real Bowdern have been? Here, he is an angst-ridden drinker, tormented by his battlefield experience in WWII — he believes that Satan has been gunning for him since then. Any affect Bowdern’s state of mind might have had on his dealings with Robbie are ignored, except when they lend support the contention that the kid actually is possessed by a demon. Then again, it’s hard to know how much of this tale to accept as supposedly true — the timing of its events has been switched from Eastertime, as the book upon which the film is based reports, to Halloween, to prop up another strained metaphor: that of the “old gods,” represented by the pagan celebration of Halloween, giving way to the one God, represented by All Saint’s Day, November 1, the day after Halloween. And since Satan is a Christian character and has nothing to do with the pagan religions, the metaphor doesn’t quite work anyway.

When Possessed sticks to Bowdern’s misery, the film is riveting — Dalton is terrific as a man wallowing in his own despair. But too much of the film focuses on the mechanics of Robbie’s possession and the rites of exorcism to drive the devil away. And Robbie’s inhuman behavior is never really terribly frightening — swearing and spitting, wetting his bed, screaming and thrashing about. “This is evil?” Bowdern asks the demon at the final exorcism; “I’ve seen hell front row center!”

Bowdern’s derision echoes my own reaction. If we’re to believe Robbie Mannheim was actually possessed, and his story is not just an exaggeration by scared parents and suggestible priests, we need some more dramatic evidence than Possessed offers.

The Exorcist
viewed at public multiplex screening
rated R for strong language and disturbing images
official site | IMDB

Lost Souls
viewed at a semiprivate screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for violence/terror and some language
official site | IMDB

viewed at home on a small screen
rated TV-MA
official site | IMDB

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