MOVIE REVIEW: Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper

Poltergeist poster

Poltergeist came out in 1982 and was an instant hit, commercially and critically. It was also the first time most of the American public had ever heard of poltergeists.

It’s the story of an average American family in Orange County California — Steven and Diane Freeling (played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) and their three kids, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Steven is a successful real estate developer and Diane is a stay-at-home mom. The kids are happy and the parents love each other. Life is good.

Then one night, Carol Anne wakes up and wanders into her parents’ room where the TV is still on, but the station has signed off for the night. She sits and stares at the static, talking to “the TV people.” The same thing happens the following night until a large, white apparition “hand” shoots out of the TV and smashes into the wall above Steven and Diane’s sleeping heads, triggering an earthquake. And that’s when things start to get really strange.

At first it’s just whimsical, slightly scary stuff, like the kitchen chairs stacking up by themselves when Diane’s back is turned, and the weird spot on the kitchen floor that, when sat on, can shoot you across the kitchen floor at a nice, little speed. But then, that night a huge thunderstorm rolls through the area. Suddenly, the creepy, gnarly tree outside Robbie’s and Carol Anne’s window crashes through the glass and snatches Robbie. While the family is out in the raging storm trying to help him, Carol Anne is sucked through a portal in the kids’ closet.

And that quickly, this average American family’s whole world changes. They are plunged into a strange world of part-time parapsychologists, rooms full of mysterious electronic equipment, and small, abrasive mediums. However, the medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein in her first major film role) is a paranormal badass. In the process of helping the family, she goes head to head with an entity she calls The Beast, who is holding Carol Anne hostage. She is tough, and if she had a battle cry it would be “There’s no crying in psychical research!”

Tangina, along with the parapsychology team, walk the Freelings through the nightmare and help them recover Carol Anne in one of the most intense, gooey rescue scenes ever. It was also one of the most satisfying conclusions movie goers had ever seen. So much so, that people actually started to get up from their seats and leave, anticipating that the credits would roll soon! (Being an old credit-reader from way back, I kept my seat. I’m very glad I did!)

Even though Tangina has declared, “This house is clean,” and Steven has left the family at home while he goes to the office one, last time it’s not over.

While Diane is taking her last bath in the house before they move out, and the kids are playing in their packed-up room, The Beast makes his final play for Carol Anne. Robbie is attacked by the hideous clown doll and dragged under his bed. Diane is dragged across the ceiling before being forced outside and into the new pool they were having dug. Skeletons pop up all around her in the muddy water, but she manages to drag herself out and rescue her children. Coffins are bursting up out of the ground everywhere they look, blocking their path. Then Steven arrives with his boss. Realization strikes and he yells at him, “You moved the headstones, but you didn’t move the graves!”

Classic stuff.

It doesn’t get much better than this, folks. It had many, many good scares in it that have stood the test of time. Which is pretty amazing all by itself. Anyone who hasn’t seen it definitely should. But just the first one. The sequels are all rubbish.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Exorcism of Emily Rose, directed by Scott Derrickson

 

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I thought The Exorcism of Emily Rose was an excellent demonic possession film. Like every other film of that type it is a “true account” of an actual exorcism that took place for over ten months in Germany in 1976. Unlike those other films, however, this one was heavy on courtroom drama and very light on green slime. And for that reason, if for no other, I found this story to be a credible one. Not only that, it was pretty damned scary.

Emily Rose (played by the awesome Jennifer Carpenter, of “Dexter” fame) is a young college student enjoying her freshman year when strange events begin to plague her – she wakes up at 3:00 A.M. and smells something burning; out in the hall a door opens and closes itself; objects in her room get knocked over, and an invisible, heavy weight presses down on her in bed and chokes her. (It’s never spelled out, but I’m guessing this is when the actual possession takes place.) It gets progressively worse after that – she can’t eat, hallucinates that the people at school have demonic faces, and ends up in the hospital, diagnosed with epilepsy.

Eventually her family concludes she is possessed and asks their parish priest, Father Moore, to perform an exorcism. Unfortunately, Emily’s physical condition has deteriorated so badly that she dies during the ritual.

So far this has been a pretty standard tale. But when Emily dies, and the medical examiner says it wasn’t from natural causes, the state decides to prosecute the priest for negligent homicide.

The trial pits a religious prosecutor against an agnostic defense attorney who is hoping to make partner at her firm with this case. The prosecutor (played by the delightful Campbell Scott) drags in one medical expert after another to contend that Emily was both epileptic and psychotic. The defense attorney, who has been having some unnerving 3:00 A.M. experiences of her own, decides to go balls-to-the-wall on her courtroom strategy – what if Emily really was possessed by a demon, she asks the jury. What if she was never epileptic, nor psychotic, but instead actually possessed by a demon. Wouldn’t the priest’s actions then be reasonable and right?

This was a very interesting movie to me. For one thing, it took an outrageous premise – demonic possession – and, instead of going for the gore and the slime and the Indian burial grounds tropes, they went in the opposite direction. They asked, What would it be like in the modern era if someone died during an exorcism ritual? The answer is obvious – there would be an arrest, a trial and prison for the exorcist. The fifthteenth century and the twenty-first century just collided – BOOM.

So between this realistic setting and the amazing restraint the filmmakers showed by not slathering us all in green Jello and ketchup, I thought The Exorcism of Emily Rose – and the story it was based on – may actually have happened.

And if that’s not cool beans, then I don’t know what is.

BOOK REVIEW: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist

The Exorcist starts in Iraq, where an old priest on an archeological dig discovers a small amulet of the Assyrian demon, Pazuzu. He returns to America in a hurry, convinced he’s about to meet an old adversary very soon.  It then switches to Georgetown University where Hollywood actress, Chris MacNeil, is shooting a movie. She and her eleven year old daughter, Regan, are living in a rented house near the school while the film is in production. Regan is a sweet kid who also plays with a Ouija board and has a mysterious playmate she calls “Captain Howdy”. Soon strange poltergeist-like things start happening to Regan, and the situation gets very bad, very quickly. When the best doctors around can’t pin down the cause of Regan’s problems, they recommend she get in touch with an exorcist. Her mother, an atheist, gets in touch with the resident psychiatrist priest at Georgetown, Damien Karras, because there is literally nothing else to do.

Karras, a poor boy from Brooklyn whom the Church took in and educated, recently lost his mother. He is suffering heavy-duty guilt and has lost his faith. He reluctantly agrees to see Regan as a psychiatrist, but her mother keeps pushing for an exorcism.  Chris knows there’s something horribly wrong with her child, which she’s been told is not medical, while Karras is blinded by his scientific skepticism and lack of faith in God, or Devil.

I loved this book when it came out, along with the movie which came out two years later. (Yes, people really did faint and vomit during the movie. And run out of the theater.) Even though there is a lot of dissension when it comes to comparing movies to the books that they are based on, and vice versa, The Exorcist wins either way. Because the book’s author was also the screenplay writer, it is nearly impossible to discuss the book without also discussing the movie — The characters in the book are brought to perfect life in the movie, which made everyone — writer, readers, audience and producers — very happy.

Just like all the other “true account” stories we’ve read this semester, The Exorcist is based on a true story, but unlike all those other books this one really stands the test of time.  A big reason is that Blatty created some great characters in The Exorcist – Damien Karras is my favorite tortured priest. His adorable colleague, Father Joe Dyer, is adorable. Detective Kinderman is my favorite Columbo-impersonator, and Burke Dennings, the movie director, is an artistic genius in the field of profanity. Chris MacNeil and Regan are also well-drawn characters, just scaled down to more normal “human” proportions than the others. The Exorcist is also much more than a hair-raising story of demonic possession, and Hollywood shenanigans.  It is a deeply felt story of faith and redemption, and one of the few books to address the question of evil in the world in a sincere and thoughtful manner. Pretty heavy tunes for a “horror story”.

Incidentally, The Exorcist is loosely based on an actual exorcism performed on a boy in 1949 in St. Louis, Missouri by a Jesuit priest. Blatty heard the story while he was a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Honestly, this book practically wrote itself.

We should all be so lucky.

Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. 1971. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1994. Print.

MOVIE REVIEW: Paranormal Activity, directed by Oren Peli

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Paranormal Activity is one of those “found footage” horror films that surfaces every few years to scare the latest crop of high school and college students. These horror fans generally love them because there’s always that slight possibility that they might be real. Movie studios love them unconditionally because they are always so damned profitable.

Paranormal Activity is the story of a woman, Katie, living with her boyfriend, Micah, in his house in San Diego, California. Micah is a day trader, and Katie is a student. Katie has already revealed to Micah that she’s been bothered by some kind of ghost ever since she was a kid before the movie starts. Also, early in the movie, Katie brings in a psychic who tells them she is haunted by a demon that feeds off negative energy, and that she should not communicate with it. Naturally, Micah has the idea to put a video camera in their bedroom so it can record what, if anything, happens while they’re asleep. Oh, and he also sets about looking for ways to communicate with it.

That this couple is in trouble is apparent early on.

Despite Katie’s insistence that she hates Ouija boards and doesn’t want Micah to bring one into the house, Micah does just that.  And what do we see one night when they both leave the house with the camera running in the living room? The planchette moves around the board spelling out some mysterious message and then the board bursts into flames. Take that, asshole boyfriend who never listens and refuses to acknowledge my feelings!

To be fair, though, the camera captures a lot of odd, but minor, events for the next several nights – noises, lights, doors closing, creaks, more flickering lights and eventually, a demon screeching.  During the day, Micah often picks up the camera and follows Katie around while he’s talking to her about her ghost experiences, including into the bathroom. One night Micah decides to sprinkle baby powder all over the floor in their bedroom, and the camera records strange footprints being made in the powder. The weird footprints lead to the attic and up in the attic is a burned photo of Katie when she was a girl.  When Katie becomes upset and wants to talk to a demonologist, Micah hates the idea, which is odd, given that he’s been so into “investigating” this whole haunting thing up until that point. However, when the demonologist is unavailable (how busy can those guys be?) she begs the original psychic to come back. Again, against Micah’s wishes.  When the psychic does show up again, he is such a useless weenie – refusing to do anything to help them because it would only make the demon angrier – that he’s an embarrassment to psychics everywhere.

Despite the obvious low-budget clunking (bad dialogue, bad acting, and implausible plot points) this film did have its moments – I thought the scene where something pulled the covers off one of them was good and creepy. Ditto for the scene where Katie gets out of bed in the middle of the night and just stands there, looking at her sleeping boyfriend – for two hours!

In general, this film was a disappointment, but not because it didn’t have a lot of cool special effects, or that it was slow in places. It failed, for me, mainly because Katie and Micah – the people we should be rooting for — quickly reveal themselves to be dim-witted and unlikeable. Since there was no real script (the actors were given a general outline of the scene before shooting and told to improvise), we are left to blame the actors in this situation and not, for once, the writers.

BOOK REVIEW: Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story, by Elaine Mercado, R.N.

GravesEnd coverGrave’s End is another “true account” ghost story. Only unlike The Amityville Horror, this story was not handed over to a professional writer for “touching up”. It is written in a straight-forward, journalistic style – this is what happened, this is who it happened to, this is how we all felt about it, and this is how it stands right now. Dull stuff compared to the sensationalized, and sensationalistic, Amityville Horror we just read! However, it can be claimed, too, that unlike The Amityville Horror, this ghost story might actually have happened.

When we compare the two incidents we see many differences:

  • Intense cold, devil pigs, green goo and ghostly marching bands in Amityville Horror
  • Feelings of paralysis, suffocating dreams, fleeting shadows and ghostly orbs in Grave’s End
  • Amityville Horror was a vacant, murder house on the market at a bargain price
  • Grave’s End was partially occupied and remained so for over 18 months after Elaine and her husband bought it
  • George and Kathy Lutz abandoned their haunted house in less than a month’s time
  • Elaine and her family are still living in their haunted house as of the book’s publication (2001)
  • The Amityville Horror was a hugely successful book and was adapted into several movies over the years
  • Grave’s End went unnoticed by nearly everyone, even people with a strong interest in the subject (like me!)
  • George and Kathy turned to a priest for help when things got really scary, but never felt like they could confide in any close family
  • Elaine had a strong ally in her brother, Ron, and turned to a famous parapsychologist, Dr. Hans Holzer for help
  • The whole Lutz family was terrorized by what went on and they all wanted to escape
  • Elaine and her daughters all felt the effects of their haunting, but Elaine was the only one terrified by it – the girls just thought it was interesting, and they were upset when the house was finally “cleansed” and most of the hauntings stopped

The extremely low-key handling of the events that happened in Grave’s End may have been due to a fear of a media backlash, such as occurred after The Amityville Horror was published. It may also have been the result of having an R.N. for an author, and not a Hollywood writer. And it may be so non-sensationalized because it was all true, and that’s how real hauntings look.

It certainly feels that way, in large part because there were no invisible pigs with red eyes, or cold, winter rooms full of flies. If my own ordinary experiences (and those of countless TV ghost-hunting shows) are any indication, that’s about the most anyone can expect from a real-live haunting – a few orbs, some funky shadows seen out of the corner of one’s eyes, and some weird, unpleasant nightmares.

One thing that Grave’s End showed me is that truth is just as strange as fiction – despite all the crazy crap that went on, and despite how thoroughly miserable Elaine felt for years – people have to be just about thrown out of a house they own, no matter how haunted it is, because they just refuse to leave!

Mercado, Elaine, R.N. Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story. 2001. Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2006, Print.

The 100 Scariest Horror Novels of All Time

A list of the Best Horror Books ever? Awesome. Let the arguing begin!

Horror Novel Reviews

Compiling a Top 100 list isn’t easy. I’m bound to offend some and win over others. That’s the nature of the beast, I suppose. Whether you agree with this list or not, you should be able to track down a few new treasures you’ve been missing out on, and you’ve got time to line up some reading material for Halloween. Anticipate loads of familiar names to fill this one up (a few are featured multiple times), but don’t be shocked if you stumble upon some fresh names as well. Check it out, from vintage classic to modern masterpiece, novella to full-length novel, these are the greatest 100 horror books on the market!

100. A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood

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Alison’s Littlewood’s A Cold Season didn’t win over hearts unanimously, but I found it extremely creepy, fully engaging and chilling to the marrow. There’s a slick Wicker Man vibe to this…

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