Friday, October 14, 2016

Movie Musings: Exorcising my Right to Avoid Possession

With a cat named Hobbes, this is extra scary.
It is probably pretty apparent to most readers of this blog that I like horror films. Over the years I've seen most subgenres of Horror and enjoyed most of them. I like a good ghost story. Slasher films can be a lot of fun. Throw a good monster movie into the mix and I'm a happy camper. Mind bending physiological horror are some of my favorite films. And if you can manage some Lovecraftian cosmic horror, well then you've got a big fan. It doesn't matter if the horror is generated by the natural or the supernatural - I'll give the movie a solid chance and enjoy some part of it.

But there is one horror genre that just doesn't work for me, no matter how many different films I try. If you've got a demon or devil possessing your main character for the bulk of the movie, odds are I'm going to find the whole thing pretty uninteresting.

Anyone else remember this one?
I thought that maybe I was just watching the wrong possession movies. I think the first time I saw a possessed character on the screen it was in parody form. So yeah, I saw Repossessed before I saw The Exorcist. After that most of the possession movies I saw were like the idiotic House of Exorcism. Most were too over the top and cheesy to be scary.

But I started to suspect that maybe the movies weren't the issue. It was my mental malfunction. The real clue arrived with the film The Conjuring from 2013. People went bananas for that movie and called it one of the best horror films of the decade. I was excited and went in with high hopes. I found the movie well acted and put together, but not very scary. I figured I was overhyped. So I gave it another spin about a year later and... um yeah, still not very scary. In fact it was getting kind of funny.

Maybe it was just that movie. I'd go back to what most folks consider the best of the best when it comes to possession films: The Exorcist. This was a movie that put the fear of God into everyone in the 70s. Folks were getting possessed just watching the movie. And I constantly see it near the top of any horror fan's top 10 list. I'd seen the movie before, back in the 1990s. But the experience wasn't very good. First of all it was on VHS and font loaded with a half hour documentary on the movie. This documentary pretty much spoiled the entire plot, all the best scenes and director William Friedkin came across like a conceited, smug, jerk. Yeah didn't start off on the right foot at all.

But enough time had passed that I felt I could give The Exorcist another chance. I watched it in 2016 with high hopes. My final verdict is - it is a well made and well acted film. It has some very interesting thematic angles to it. But it didn't scare me at all. I found it to be pretty darn slow and kind of funny.

"Did you just compare me to Satan?"
Of course I think this movie suffers from the same issue that North by Northwest suffers from. So many movies have borrowed elements from the original films that they now feel overly familiar and lack any suspense or drama - because we've seen all the beats before.

But I think there was a deeper challenge going on for all these possession movies. I have a real issue with the entire concept of demonic possession. I end up asking all these questions during the film and it distracts me from getting pulled into the situation.

Let's get this out of the way. I'm not a religious person. I know quite a bit about the Catholic faith and Christian religion as a whole (had to take a couple of courses about the religion on college and most of my family are of the Christian faith). I find interest in it from an mythological point of view, but I'm in no way a believer in the dogma. But even with that in place, I don't think that is my main issue.

"I have faith in you guys. You'll possess someone
worthy next time, right? Get it... faith! Ha!"
I end up wondering what The Devil or his minions are thinking when they take possession of a little girl, or a lunatic already locked in an asylum, or a little impoverished boy living in a third world country. If you are an evil force and you can take over human bodies, why aim so low on the power chain? Why not go for someone with authority or wealth or power. Then you can do some serious damage to human civilization and really mess with God's creations. The Devil would rather take over the meekest of folks so he can get in a battle with a priest (who is usually questioning his faith in all these movies) and get spanked. How embarrassing. I think Satan and his demons need to work on their core competencies and overall strategy.

But I kid the lord of the underworld.

Now I've heard from some people that the corruption of innocent souls is what makes The Devil and his minions most happy. Ok, fine. So he gets off on the possession of people who are pure but not able to do much in the grand scheme of things. But couldn't Satan hurt more innocents by possessing someone with power? I mean, it just doesn't make any sense to me.

So the whole movie I'm pondering the idiocy of Satan and his minions and not being scared at all.

"Yeah I just out performed the
devil. Not bad, eh?"
That is not to say that the concept doesn't have some kind of horrific potential. The key horror of possession is the loss of control and the loss of self. This is a horrifying concept, and one I've seen executed with skill in many films and television series. Something like Cronenberg's The Fly is based on the body rebelling against the mind. Or you get Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, who has the ability to force you to do his will. It is very much possession, but what makes it frightening to me is that Kilgrave has a clear agenda and desire. All in his path become his toys. His acts aren't pointless and easily thwarted.

Or take another example that really works, Prince of Darkness by John Carpenter. In this case you are dealing with an incarnation of The Devil, and he can possess and control people. But what makes it even more horrifying is that his controlled minions are working to free him. Stopping the possessed humans is important because if you don't, The Devil will be freed and destroy the fabric of the universe. The stakes are frightening on a cosmic scale in this movie, and makes the possession of a single child in a fancy apartment in New York seem kinda silly and pointless.

The hell of "Cure" is the very personal kind.
What about personal horror, the idea of losing your mind. Again, other movies do that with greater effect. Perfect Blue puts us in Mima's shoes as she starts to unravel over the course of the movie and that is very disturbing and unsettling. Or Lost Highway with our lead character losing his mind and possibly his identity after being accused of murdering his wife. These movies feature a personal hell that is much more upsetting to me than random demons randomly possessing someone because they are bored and want to scare a few people.

You could see these possession movies as metaphors for mental illness, and The Exorcist even shows that as a possibility. In that lens I can understand how they are supposed to be frightening. But the added weight of Christian Mythology actually weakens the concept for me. I find Prince of Darkness to be the most disturbing of the possession type of film, and really it only uses possession as a portion of its horror. The real terror in that movie comes from the cosmic fear. The more you think about the implications of what is on the other side of that mirror the scarier that movie gets.

I've come to the conclusion that traditional possession movies are just not my cup of tea. I end up finding them funny or frustrating (usually a combination of the two). I don't feel I can review them without that bias, so don't expect me to post a review of The Conjuring or The Exorcist any time soon. But maybe I'll give Repossessed another spin.

Update: I just gave The Conjuring another viewing, and in the context of watching a another movie before it, I actually appreciated it a bit more. Still didn't find it terribly scary, but I will say it is very well put together and generates some solid suspense and a couple of creepy moments. The big bonus is that it is the ghost of a witch possessing the mother, and not a demon or devil. I can imagine a human with such limited goals as possessing someone in their old house. So the movie doesn't have the same type of issue as The Exorcist or its many imitators have in that regard.


  1. That is very much my reaction to such movies and to the Exorcist in particular. You have to buy into at least some of the religious aspects for any of the movies remotely to be scary – or even interesting.

    I suppose that’s why I’m OK with alien invaders but not with demons – the former are merely wildly improbable, so I can suspend disbelief easier. At least Buffy (not intended to be scary anyway) offered a whole multidimensional multiverse explanation in which all manifestations of every mythology (incompatible in a single universe) were just one dimension bleeding into another at a point of contact. Hellraiser (of which I’m not a big fan for other reasons) did something similar.

    1. Yeah, I'm all for inter dimensional threats. And really "Prince of Darkness" takes the same tact. "The Devil" is just a name for this entity from another dimension trying to break into our world and fill it with chaos.

      I'm a fan of Hellraiser. Just revisited the second film a couple days ago. It's a flawed bit of fun, so much over the top acting and gore, but you can tell everyone is having fun.

  2. Well, I'm pretty sure what I would say wouldn't change your mind, and I'd caulk it up to personal taste and preference. I like those films & they work for me just as much as any other and better than some horror films. I guess if you analyze any of the horror genre they fall apart. Another thing, as I got older, not many horror films are scary (particularly modern horror). Perhaps it comes with age. I find them interesting at times, maybe having some chilling moments, cringe inducing or having some jump scare type things. I guess it's like a roller coaster and they are exciting, maybe harrowing at the time, and then it's over. If that's scary then ok, it's scary, creepy, etc. (at the time). I think that worked better when I was younger though and was scared by anything.

    Speaking of The Exorcist though, you asked why a spirit would possess a child, well they are innocent (golly that could happen to anyone). So you corrupt something innocent, and it has these almost inconceivable powers just starting out. What if that "thing" grew and grew? How could it be stopped? The same applies I guess to The Omen and Damien, would she or he become the Anti-Christ (or at least have some sort of uncontrollable powers)? Plus I think with The Exorcist a lot of that has to do with the time it was made. Before it most horror of that nature or even in general wasn't taken very seriously and it elevated it through a convoluted, mature story, well done sets & actors, score, script, lighting, etc. For me, I don't see much difference in say a devil or evil demon, ie. Cenotibes, Jason, the spirit forces in The Evil Dead films, etc. They are all just an evil force much like the Boogieman of folklore. I don't think one has to believe in religion one way or the other for the Boogieman or unseen forces or bumps in the night to startle you. That said though, it just may not be your cup of tea.

    1. I think my issue is with the concept of the devil and his powers. He is usually discussed as this ultimate evil with nearly unlimited abilities. With all that power, why aim so low? Now, I do realize that in some of these movies they make a point of saying that the devil (or demon) isn't actually terribly powerful, and that is why they latch onto weaker people and possess them. But then I don't get the goal of such a thing. Most of these demons/devils end up acting completely insane and exposing their presence.

      This is why "The Omen" works a little better for me. Damien may not be evil, he may just be a kid that is viewed that way by parents who are dealing with their own problems. Especially in the first film, he seems like a kid with some emotional issues, but surely he can't be the son of Satan, right? He hides his evil so well, or it is buried so deep that it makes the film work. Eventually the series went off the rails, but if they kept his acts more subtle as he rose up the chain of power, suddenly the concept of an anti-christ in a powerful position of authority is scary.

      But you do make a good point. Most horror films are essentially fantasy stories with a darker bloodier spin on them. And like any fantasy story, the more you think about it or nitpick it, the less potent it becomes. For some reason, these possession movies just invite me to over think. :)