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31 August 2004
Exorcist: The Tedium
I had hopes for this movie. Not high ones, to be sure, but hopes nonetheless. If it could not be a good and proper prequel to The Exorcist (and the chances of that, especially after the death of William Peter Blatty, writer of both the book and screenplay of the original, had been slim), setting up the final battle between Father Merrin and the demon Pazuzu, while giving us, perhaps, some disturbing chills of its own, then I had hoped it might at least be a good example of schlock horror--something fun and theologically ridiculous, like Stigmata or End of Days. Alas, Exorcist: The Beginning (hereafter ETB) succeeds only in being boring. Tedious, and annoyingly so.

It is not a bad movie, per se. Stellan Skarsgard is very good as a young Max Von Sydow. A pity he's not a good young Father Merrin. There were some interesting ideas in the film, but the execution of them was lacking. There were also some creepy hyenas, showing that once in a great while, the failure of CG to imitate reality (even when it's trying really, really hard to do so) works in its favour. One can easily believe the hyenas are twisted, demonic creatures of hell. But none of this is enough to make one enjoy the film.

The main problem, as I see it, is that the movie does not know what it wants to be. At times, it seems to want to be The Exorcist, redux. And yet, at other times, it settles for slasher film tactics, as well as a few clich├ęd scares that not even the slashers bother with anymore. Throw in a crisis of Faith, the ever-present Vatican conspiracy malarkey, and an exciting (well, exciting to a narcoleptic chimp, mayhap) final showdown between good (at least, he seems to be thinking about trying to be good, but he's not sure, and there's that whole crisis thing that keeps getting in the way) and evil (which is more laughable than evil, really), and you have one big, disconnected, gory, tedious mess.

And did I mention the inaccuracies regarding the Church? According to Flambeaux (who recognises he's likely in the minority of people who would have caught any of this), the details suffer egregiously in the film. I admit, none of this affected my viewing, as I'm not all that versed in ecclesiastical history--Flambeaux may give an extended post on this at some point over on Fiat Lux!, but here I'll give an example. Though the movie takes place in 1949, well before the new translation came out of Vatican II, the current English translation of the Roman Ritual is used. A quibble, perhaps, but there are some pretty lousy movies out there that are willing to subtitle entire scenes from various languages--for the sake of accuracy, why doesn't this one? Beyond that, why should it matter whether it's even subtitled? Admittedly, Fathers Merrin and Karras chanting "The power of Christ compels you!" in the original film is darned powerful and effective, but would Latin have changed the effect all that much? There's just something to be said for historical accuracy is all I'm saying. It seems to me as though the writers of ETB based their research on the original film, rather than finding a knowledgeable priest, who likely would have been more than willing to set them straight.

So, what does all this add up to? A very disappointing movie, which nevertheless has been on my mind an awful lot lately. Why? Because it could have, nay, should have been better than it is. If you really want to creep people out, spiritual warfare's a good way to go. It's certainly an unsettling topic. Making people laugh about it is a risky business at best. In the previous post, I quoted The Usual Suspects. Here's another which is even more of a classic than that particular movie itself:

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.


ETB, I fear, could go a long way toward cementing our disbelief by not taking its subject seriously enough (or too seriously in the wrong places--hence the boring).

Some of you may remember
this post some time back. It evoked rather a bit of comment regarding what is scary. It was then (and still is) my assertion and conviction that there is something essential in a good work of horror (The Exorcist, for example) that is universal and can affect everyone. It's not the accidents of horror--the cheap scares or the gore. It's a sense of dread which lingers with us long after the movie is over. This is the failing with ETB, and with most horror these days. The fear doesn't follow us home and make us turn on all the lights and check behind all the doors as it should. ETB can't even manage to be scary in the theatre.

Perhaps I have higher requirements of my horror than most people. As a writer of horror fiction, I kinda have to. But then, I also believe there's a real threat out there that we must needs prepare to defend ourselves against. Know thine enemy, and all that. Horror is one of the best vehicles for the morality tales, the object lessons, and for reminding us there are things in the world which are just waiting for the right moment to claim us, body and soul.

So then, I find a task set before me. What is it that makes some horror do what it ought, while other examples just fall flat? It's not the special effects. I love good FX--we wouldn't have quality X-Men movies without them, after all--but in horror, they are more of a hindrance. The true scare relies too much on the unseen, the manipulation of anticipation, and our acceptance of the reality of the threat. FX are almost a comfort in horror, a reassurance that the devil can't really be in you-- he just makes pretty fires, or lightning, or sandstorms. That's the sort of nonsense that makes us blind to the black things skittering just outside our field of vision. Hand in hand with this is the problem of too much, too soon. Not enough movies hold back the revelation of what's the cause of the mischief. Or if the true nature is held off for at least the first half of the film, the handiwork is blatantly manifest early on. One of the great things about The Exorcist is the tension built up as poor Regan is run through batteries of tests (tests which seem almost as horrible as her later torture at the hands of the demon) to find out what's wrong with her. Is it physical? Is it mental? Only when all of these avenues have been explored, once our preconceptions have been stripped away, should the terrible truth be revealed.

kashi, Stitchwitch, Flambeaux, and I have been working on this question (and for this one thing, I must thank the makes of ETB--they've given us much food for thought). kashi has come up with several good ideas as to what makes horror work. One in particular I'll give here before wrapping up this already too-lengthy post. She drew our attention to C.S. Lewis. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says:
But there's no two views about things that look like Humans and aren't. ...take my advice, when you meet anything that's going to be Human and isn't yet, or used to be Human once and isn't now, or ought to be Human and isn't, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.


It seems that too often in today's attempts at horror, the Big Bad isn't masquerading as one of us. It's what makes some of the best devil movies so good. Would Damien be nearly as creepy if he was obviously a monster? In fact, throughout The Omen the viewer is left with some doubt as to whether or not he has anything to do with the nefarious goings-on. I mean, he's just an innocent child, right? Randall Flagg, who pops up in many of Stephen King's yarns, is equally effective on the creep-o-meter. 'Cause there's something indescribably wrong about him, and yet, he looks human--and that makes it all the worse.

So, where am I going with this? In a word, research. I've begun reading Psycho, by Robert Bloch. The movie is wonderful (Hitchcock himself being one of the masters of horror and suspense), but I've never read the book. As it turns out, William Peter Blatty once said the book was what made him want to write horror in the first place, and is also lauded by the likes of Stephen King and Harlan Ellison. So, I'm going back to basics. Bloch, Blatty, and also the non-fiction works of Father Gabriel Amorth, chief Vatican exorcist, who has several books detailing what the exorcists actually do, and what they're up against. On the movie front, I've several choice selections (most of which I just need to refresh in my memory) ready and waiting, including The Omen, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and many more (and if anyone in the Dallas area's interested in joining for these viewings, please just email and let me know so I can plan to include you). All to research what works and what doesn't, and then write a darned good tale making use of the good stuff, which I can then turn into a screenplay. Because I think I can do what today's films are failing to do. At least, I can try. And I know I can't do much worse than the makers of ETB already have.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   7:03 AM
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27 August 2004
Quoth the Wolf
Been a while, so I figured a quotation was in order. I'll likely be putting up a long post on Monday reviewing Exorcist: The Beginning, which I've been trying to write all week, but could not manage to find the time for.

Now on to the quotation, which should be rather easy (well, at least for a few of you).

"A rumour's not a rumour that doesn't die."
Jelly Pinched Wolf   7:49 AM
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12 August 2004
Spoiled Rotten
Been wanting to post on this for some time, and now that The Village out, this seems to be the perfect opportunity. Might step on some toes, but I guess we'll see how that turns out when we get there.

I hate spoilers. I've got several friends who can't get enough of them, especially when it comes to Star Wars, but I can't stand them. Really, what's the point of watching something if you know all the details, all the twists and turns, the entire story, in fact, before you even sit down to enjoy the movie or show? Granted, one might then ask, why re-watch a favourite movie? Not the same thing. The second, third, millionth viewing of something is a completely different experience from the first. Same as re-reading a book--we focus on different details, notice things we missed on the first go-round, bring to the work new experiences, reflections, and understandings which further enhance our enjoyment (or, sometimes, reveal that the book or movie we really enjoyed the first time is actually not that good--may, in fact, be the worst kind of tripe imaginable). But the first encounter with any work of fiction, screen or paper, is the one that stamps itself forever on our minds. I may now see Coppola's Dracula for the cheesy, bad film that it is, but I'll never forget that first viewing, and the feelings those lush colours and romantic (misguided though I now know them to be) tones evoked.

Spoilers, on the other hand, are true to their name. They spoil. I'm not saying one cannot enjoy a film or story if he knows some details beforehand. But I feel the knowledge really does lessen the experience. I mean, if you're sitting there, waiting for some specific revelation or nifty scene to show up, you can't be giving your full attention to all that's going on. And unwanted spoilers that are thrown at you all willy-nilly by some heedless source are the worst. Take, for example, Kiki of
Wasted Words, who, having purchased the soundtrack to The Phantom Menace prior to the release of the film, discovered a much-unwanted spoiler in the name of one track--"The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon's Funeral." The unexpected death of a character is one of the most heinous spoilers one can have thrust upon them. Trailers show us the entire film sometimes. Critics (and often blog or webpage reviews) are becoming far more indiscreet about revealing important facts without giving spoiler warnings. Not to warn of impending spoilers is just rude. But perhaps this is why so many critics were miffed about the hush asked of them before The Village premiered. Reminds them they shouldn't be dropping essential plot points in the first place. It is quite possible to review or critique a film without revealing essential details--or at the very least warn that such information is forthcoming. Many comparisons have been made between Shyamalan and Alfred Hitchcock, and rightly so. Even in the paucity of information about their stories they operate in a similar manner--because they both knew what made a suspense yarn (or any good story) work. When Psycho premiered, the theatre doors were locked after the film began rolling to prevent latecomers. It wasn't to be known that Janet Leigh would be offed so early, and it would ruin the film to arrive late expecting her, then spend the rest of the movie wondering where the heck she was. Audiences were importuned to hold off speaking of the movie's secrets, lest the twists be ruined for others. Sound familiar?

Which brings us back to the beginning. The most I knew of The Village was that it was directed by Shyamalan, and starred Joaquin Phoenix. I hadn't even a clue that William Hurt was in it. I'd seen a movie poster--that was all. And it was bliss. Not to have any prior knowledge. Not to be swayed by other peoples' perceptions or attitudes. To enjoy every moment as it unfolded, and to be expectant of nothing. Yea verily, this was good. Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but it's the unfolding of the narrative that I live for. The ending is nothing if I don't get there the hard way. I don't want to know what becomes of Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and the other players of Matrix: Revolutions before I see it. I don't want to know anything about the story Shyamalan's going to tell. I don't want to know if Roland of Gilead survives in the final book of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The structure of the story may not put them in that order, but even if the beginning is at the end, we still don't reach that part of the story until we've finished. Take Memento, for instance. Even though the tale is told backwards, if we find out the end before watching it (which is the beginning of the tale being told) it still ruins the story. The tale's ending may be the beginning, but the film still ends with the end. (Not too confusing, eh?) Every story unfolds in its own unique way--it's the obtaining of the details without enjoying the unfolding that I can't wrap my mind around. I want to follow the story, one step at a time, and see where it leads me. Doesn't mean the end will necessarily be worth it after the trial of the story, but at least I'll feel I've taken the right path to it. That's the way good narrative works. The story takes us to the end, not the other way around.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   7:16 AM
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09 August 2004
The Village
Thanks to some movie coupons, we got to see M. Night Shyamalan's The Village this weekend. Rather than try to dance around the issue of giving things away, I refer you to Smockmomma's review
here--it's a great summary of a great movie, and I need not say more about it.

But I will. At least tangentially.

You see, having now read a few reviews of the film, I suspect kashi and I will again be in the minority as fans of this film. I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect the pacing alone might kill a few people. Personally, I loved The Village. Makes me wonder why most other films today are so busy rushing to their silly, inevitable conclusions while still taking two and a half hours to do it. Seems they could benefit from a more leisurely pace. But I digress.

Two important points I will mention: Bryce Dallas Howard as the character "Ivy." She's a true find. Dr. Swietek may have doubts about her abilities, but I don't (the few bad reviews I've read seem to seriously underestimate the abilities, and most importantly the self-sufficiency, of blind people--assuming that because the character gets about the village with such ease, it must be a bad acting job. This idea is pure rubbish). Howard's one to watch, says me. Finally, a young actress who doesn't come off like an insipid beauty queen.

Second point is this: Fear plays a big role in the movie. It's got many facets, and what I love about Shyamalan is that he forces us to remember those sides of ourselves we tend to forget (or would simply rather not admit exist). Fear of the unknown or of the big bad can be pretty darned powerful. But the worst fear is the kind that causes us to make bad or immoral choices. And alas, it may be the easiest to perpetuate. Shyamalan doesn't condemn; he illustrates. And maybe that's what's bothering those who don't like it. Rather than being spoon-fed, they're being allowed to draw their own moral conclusions. Of course, fear does work best when it's keeping us from Truth.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   12:59 PM
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05 August 2004
Quoth the Wolf (Three for the Price of One)
Decided to quote several movies this week. And they're not the easiest in the world, either, so good luck!

#1:

"Look at them, Philby, all alike, every one in an identical bowler hat. Do you want your students to turn out like them?"


#2:

"It's a good thing I can't see far with this leg."


#3:

"By the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution."


Jelly Pinched Wolf   9:22 AM
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04 August 2004
I've Gotta Know
Does anyone else find it both odd and hilarious that Blogger's spellcheck function doesn't recognise the word blog? I love it.
Jelly Pinched Wolf   11:44 AM
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Intermission
Though I've not had much of interest to blog about these last several weeks, I may actually have a couple of rants soon (it's been a while, neh?). We shall see. It's all contingent on my finding the time to write them at home so I can post them from work (having recently rid ourselves of an internet connection at home in an attempt to be more frugal), and to be honest, this blog is pretty low on the priority list of late. But until that time, it must needs be kept on the light and fluffy--and so it continues now.

Last week, kashi and I got to watch Miss Congeniality, with Sandra Bullock. Originally, I had wanted to see this movie for but one reason--a brief cameo by
The Recliners (they're hiding in the background during the first talent contest scene). As it turns out, though, it's actually a good movie beyond that. Sure, it's formulaic, but the writing's darn snappy--far better than I would have expected. And of course, Michael Caine is terrific (but then, that's no real shock).

The following had us rolling on the floor, gasping for air like a pair of defenestrated guppies (which makes sense if you think of the hole at the top of the fishbowl as a window--or the very least a sunroof):

Detective #1: "Miss United States from San Antonio,Texas, home of the Alamo."
Detective #2: "I forgot the Alamo."

It's a complete throw-away line, given deadpan, not even acknowledge by the other characters. But goodness, it's funny! Maybe it only works on screen, but we still snicker at the mention of it.

Anyway, not necessarily require viewing, but if you're in the mood for something light and terribly funny, this one'll certainly work. I'll leave you with a couple other gems:

(Michael Caine's character explaining why it's okay for him to be sarcastic and disdainful) "That is because I am a miserable, grumpy elitist, and that works for me."

(A contestant on being asked to describe her perfect date) "That's a tough one. I'd have to say April 25th ... because it's not too hot, not too cold. All you need is a light jacket."
Jelly Pinched Wolf   8:49 AM
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