Possession & Exorcism – 6WH

The power of Christ compelled me… to watch a bunch of exorcism movies this weekend. This is one of the more popular sub-genres since The Exorcist came out 50 years ago – there was an immediate glut of imitators after the release of that movie, but it’s remained a stalwart fallback over the decades. Today we’ll cover one of the first imitators, an exorcism-adjacent flick, and a more modern take. For the record, I also watched the new 50th anniversary 4K of The Exorcist (it looks fantastic!), which turned out to be a bad idea since it’s kinda the greatest, and everything else pales in comparison. Nevertheless, there was plenty of interesting stuff here and a few interesting (if wasted) ideas. Let’s get to it:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3 – Possession & Exorcism

The Pope’s Exorcist – The Pope’s Chief Exorcist takes on the case of a young boy’s possession only to discover a deeper secret that the Vatican has been trying to cover up for centuries. Hijinks ensue.

The Pope's Exorcist and his tiny scooter

I’m a man of simple pleasures, and the only thing I really wanted out of this was Russel Crowe doing a silly accent and riding a tiny scooter, both of which are amply covered here. But they went the extra mile: we get Franco Nero as the pope, which is a plus, and once the movie started to retcon one of the more tragic eras of Catholic history, I was fully onboard.

It’s a reasonably well made movie, with a minimum of CGI nonsense (though what’s there is probably unnecessary) and solid set design. The cinematography flirts with the overly dark approach a lot of modern digital stuff engages in, but doesn’t go overboard with it. (I need to start counting how often I sigh during these modern exercises in muddy cinematography so that I can develop a good measure of this stuff – I think I only sighed once during The Pope’s Exorcist, which is pretty good).

Look, this isn’t a great movie or anything and plenty of components are sub-optimal, but I had a surprising amount of fun with it. For instance, Russel Crowe teams up with another priest throughout the movie, and I guess they’re sorta going for a Catholic buddy-cop dynamic, but they don’t have that oil-and-water tension that crackles in the best examples of this approach. Still, it works out fine. Similarly, the demon in charge of the possession seems to be more powerful and clever than most, and has clearly had success in earlier eras. How will they be able to defeat this formidable foe? I dunno, the same way they defeat other demons I guess. But it’s, you know, fine.

Another funny thing that would normally bother me is the implication that they’ve set up a franchise with the space for 199 sequels, but that just made me chuckle in appreciation. Even with my normal aversion to sequels, I would sign up to watch big ol’ Russel Crowe ride his tiny scooter to combat more exorcisms. Your mileage may vary, but I enjoyed this way more than I thought, and scooters get great gas mileage. ***

Audrey Rose – A strange man has stalked a family for a few weeks before finally revealing that he believes their daughter is the reincarnation of his own daughter, Audrey Rose. Naturally, they’re not very receptive to this idea, but their daughter suffers from terrible night terrors and the strange man is played by Anthony Hopkins, so he’s able to calm the daughter down with ease.

Audrey Rose

There’s a nugget of a great idea here. Certainly a lot to chew on, and the dynamic that’s set up here leads to plenty of dramatic tension. That being said, I feel like the execution is way, way off.

Reincarnation isn’t exactly the same thing as possession, but this movie does seem to take a lot of inspiration from The Exorcist. The biggest problem is that they never really manage to convince the audience that reincarnation might be real and relevant to this situation; they just sorta take it as an obvious given. The Exorcist does many things really well, but two things are especially relevant here: First, they comprehensively exhaust the more mundane medical explanations for what’s going on, and even the psychological ones. Everyone is incredibly skeptical that young Reagan is possessed, including the priests who end up performing the exorcism. Second, Reagan’s symptoms escalate almost to the point of absurdity, such that accepting that she’s possessed by a demon feels reasonable and pragmatic.

Audrey Rose gestures towards this approach, but everything feels rushed and incomplete. They go to the doctor and do one invasive test, and they mention consulting with a psychologist, but never really follow through on that. And the young girl’s night terrors don’t really escalate in any meaningful way. She just sleepwalks and asks for her daddy over and over again (she does get mesmerized by a fire at one point and nearly burns herself, but it’s not enough to be convincing). There’s some neat stuff about timing and other coincidental circumstances that warrant further investigation, but said investigation never really happens. And this isn’t the sort of thing that ends with ambiguity. You’re clearly supposed to think the young girl is obviously the reincarnation of Audrey Rose.

There’s a lot to like here, but by the time the movie ended, I was furious. At what was happening on screen (Why would the mother act this way!? Is that really the ending?!) and at the wasted potential of the story. It’s a great premise and there’s opportunities galore for an interesting exploration of the idea, but they stop short. The only thing that keeps this even minimally watchable is Anthony Hopkins’ performance, which isn’t his best or anything, but at least makes you think you should look into this whole reincarnation thing. There’s a whole courtroom drama aspect of the movie that could be mildly interesting, but which ends up being laughably implausible. I dunno, I’m actually glad I watched it, but I don’t particularly like it. **

Beyond the Door – A woman becomes pregnant with her third child and immediately begins to display signs of demonic possession. When the pregnancy (and associated possession) develops with surprising speed, a mysterious man approaches with… answers?

Beyond the Door

One of the first Exorcist knockoffs to be produced, it also sorta recalls the other seismic horror movie based on a popular novel that was released a few years earleir, Rosemary’s Baby. Those two novels and associated adaptations kicked off the horror boom of the 70s and 80s. Beyond the Door has a reputation as being one of the better ripoffs out there, and there’s certainly a lot going on here.

The film opens with a black screen and a voiceover from the devil himself, informing us that he plays an important role in the story, but that we won’t actually see him, because that’s gone out of fashion in our modern age. It’s the sort of thing a parody might do, but it’s played completely straight and walks the line perfectly. I was immediately onboard with the movie. After this, his voice shows up a couple more times throughout the movie, but never quite recaptures the magic of that first sequence, which is probably a good summary of the movie: it starts off bugnuts crazy and fun, but that novelty wears out quickly and subsequent attempts to up the crazy quotient have diminishing returns. It’s never quite dull, but it does wear you down and the ending, while also quite batshit, just sorta falls flat.

There’s plenty of funny elements here, many stolen shamelessly from The Exorcist. For instance, lots of pea soup. One of the kids is literally drinking out of a can of Campbell’s pea soup with a straw throughout the movie. The other carries around several copies of the same book which she reads over and over again. She swears like a sailor, but isn’t the one who gets possessed. Speaking of which, plenty of exorcist tropes: spinning heads, levitating cakes, gross goo, and of course, a funky jazz score that’s completely inappropriate to the setting. It’s an Italian production from the early seventies, so it’s got some great visual compositions, but it’s also dubbed, even though everyone is speaking English (I have an affinity for this sort of thing due to loving Giallos that do that, but it can be off-putting to some).

I guess there’s some thematic heft here, associating pregnancy with possession isn’t particularly subtle and I’m not sure it’s appropriate, but I guess it makes a certain sorta twisted sense. This is not strictly a good movie, but if you like psychedelic Italian genre sensibilities, you might get a kick out of it. **

These six weeks are just flying by, aren’t they? I’m undecided on next week’s theme, but it will probably be either Nunsploitation or Insidious sequels, tune in next week to find out…

2 thoughts on “Possession & Exorcism – 6WH”

  1. I saw Beyond the Door a while back but all I really remember is the insane ending. As far as Exorcist rip-offs go, I’ll rank it below Abby but above the non-Bava parts of House of Exorcism.

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