Sinister Summer: “The Exorcist” Retrospective Review

Pea soup anyone? Not only one of the most profitable horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains timeless. Celebrating its 45th anniversary last year, this truly is the definitive possession horror film. Thematically, it takes the concept of the external “monster” and moves it into the mind and body (of a little girl). In many ways, Linda Blair’s Regan takes the psycho-social horror of Psycho and combines it with a classic monster and adds in a Rosemary’s Baby spin. This trifecta of excellence works together in order to provide the plot and characters of The Exorcist with substance. Much like Psycho was the first modern horror film and proto-slasher, The Exorcist is widely regarded as the first modern possession film. There are elements of possession in Rosemary’s Baby, but I don’t technically consider it a possession film. This film also takes the idea of the “home invasion” to the next level by having the innocent Regan’s body invaded. There are many past horror films that were once viewed as terrifying, but over the course of time, do not evoke the same degree of fear in contemporary times; however, this is a film that remains nightmare-inducing for many who are brave enough to watch it. Furthermore, adjusted for inflation, it remains among the top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

For more than 40 years, this was highest grossing horror film of all time (until 2017’s IT), this is the one that started the possession film sub genre of horror. A visiting actress (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C., notices dramatic and dangerous changes in the behavior and physical make-up of her 12-year-old daughter 9Linda Blair). Meanwhile, a young priest (Jason Miller) at nearby Georgetown University begins to doubt his faith while dealing with his mother’s terminal sickness. When the little girl begins to spiral violently out of control, lashing out at her mother and everyone in the Georgetown manner, and even levitating, her worried mother seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. The young priest, however, thinks the girl may be possessed by a demon. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert (Max von Sydow) to help with the difficult job.

While many films prior to The Exorcist depicted the occult, few (if any) have endured like this icon of horror has. Perhaps what frightens us most about this film is the fact of how close to home it hits. The MacNeil family could be our own or our neighbors. By default, the very setting and atmosphere of the film is relatable and realistic. There is a high degree of vulnerability on display. Not only can our homes be invaded, but our bodies can too. Whereas some may only see the effects of the demonic possession and focus on them (the vomiting, masochistic behaviors, or focussed vulgar profanity), these are all incidental. The point of The Exorcist is to provide social commentary on dehumanization and how evil forces and behaviors can affect us in such a way that we feel like animals unworthy of God’s love. But no matter how dark times get, redemption is possible. Whereas demonic possessions are not a daily part of our lives, by extension, this can be explored as a metaphor for the dehumanization witnessed today such as sexual assault, physical/emotional abuse, and other ways in which people are devalued.

There are few films that I would say this about–The Exorcist is a perfect film. Other examples are AlienPsycho, Sunset Boulevard, and The Shining. Compared to the schlock-fest horror movies that we often get today (until more recently with films such as Hereditary, Midsommar, and Us), this is a beautiful, bold work of cinema that pushed the envelop then, and even pushes the boundaries by today’s standards. There is a sense of prestige about this film; and not just a classy for the sake of pretense–there is a sense of purpose in this motion picture. Do all horror films need to mean something deep or provocative? Certainly not. Some have the purpose to simply entertain, frighten us, or even make us laugh. But The Exorcist is a special horror film in that there is immense depth to the story that takes us to incredibly dark places–to the point of no return if you will. Then in a brilliant fashion, turns it into a story of sacrifice and redemption. Not only was this one of the most frightening movies of all time when it was release din 1973–commonplace as possession movies may seem now–this was groundbreaking back then, it was also nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture! This was the first time that a horror film had ever been nominated for this most prestigious award. Furthermore, there are few other films that come with such an infamous status inspiring legends, curses, and more. Much like with Poltergeist, this film has also spawned macabre rumors. Everything about this film: direction, screenwriting, cinematography, cast, set design, score, and the editing work flawlessly to combine to become one of the greatest films ever made.

In screenwriting, there are two types of plots: action-driven and character-driven. That isn’t to suggest that an action movies don’t have great characters (Die Hard certainly has great characters) nor does a character movie lack gripping action (Nightcrawler has great action sequences), but the principle focus is on one or the other. Look to see wherefrom the conflict is derived. In a character-driven film, the conflict is derived primarily from characters, whereas in an action-driven movie, the conflict is primarily derived from the action. The characters of The Exorcist are utterly fascinating and relatable. We might remember Regan the most from the movie, but the other lead and supporting characters are also incredibly interesting. Part of the reason why this film resonates with us so, and is the material of nightmares, is because of how realistic it is, despite the supernatural element; this realism is brought to life by the incomparable performances. There is so much more to this movie besides the spinning head, spiderwalk (in the director’s cut), and the famous pea soup scene. Those scenes, and others, contribute to the overall experience of the film, but it’s the character-driven conflict and relationships that keep us coming back. Not only do we come back to the film over and over for the character, but we were able to experience memorable scenes and action sequences for ourselves at Halloween Horror Nights 26 at Universal Orlando.

Before we talk about the most famous character from the film Regan, let’s analyze the other two leads and chief supporting character: Regan’s mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the young priest Damian Karras (Jason Miller), and the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). Both Burstyn and Miller were nominated for Academy Awards for their respective performances.

Chris MacNeil is first and foremost a mother, but her acting career is also important to her. But when her daughter needs her, she is willing to put her career to the side to go to great lengths to help her. Beyond her role as a mother, she represents a person whom does not have faith in God. She is also faced with the life crisis of growing frustrated with her divorce and career as a mainstream actress. Father Karras is a highly educated man of faith, but his faith is strained because of his mom’s illness and death, causing a crisis. He is struggling with what many of us struggle with: if God is love, then why do bad things happen to good people? Furthermore, he represents the qualities of self-sacrifice and redemption, as well as personifies the empathy of psychiatry and a pragmatic priesthood. By extension, Father Karras can also be read as someone whom exemplifies that “science” and “faith” are not independent of nor negate one another. Lastly, Father Merrin is not only the very silhouetted image that is engrained in your mind when you think of this movie, but he is the inverse of Father Karras in that–whereas Karras is a pragmatic priest, Father Merrin is a zealous priest. Because Merrin was unable to defeat the demon Pazuzu (the one that possesses Regan), he is faced with his own redemption story. He is also going through the life crisis of failing health.

All three adults are each faced with their own respective crises that are explored through the possession of this little girl whom is also facing her own biological life crisis of puberty. Without knowing much about any of these characters during the first act of the film, we know that each one is vulnerable and doubts their own abilities and the direction they are going in life.

Central to The Exorcist is Regan (played by Linda Blair). Regan is both our central character and our character of opposition. Technically the character of opposition is Pazuzu, but the demon is manifested in Regan. Much like with her adult counterparts, Regan is also facing a crisis. She is experiencing what every young person goes through (to a greater physiological extent, girls)–puberty. As we know, at that stage in life, the human body undergoes what can be equated to psychological and physiological trauma. This trauma is manifested in the behaviors that we witness on screen from Regan’s explicit language and masochistic sexual assault. Regan can also be read as a home that has been invaded by an external monster, but this monster has not only defiled a home but has gone further, and more intimate to defile an innocent girl. Essentially, we’ve taken the idea of the external monster and placed it in the mind and body to exponentially increase the level of trauma and terror. Through another lens, we can witness the conflict that exists between parents and adolescents in which parents may view their kid(s) as a monster that has taken over the previously agreeable, obedient child, and how both parties must work through the conflict in order to emerge healthier and closer.

From page to screen, the cinematic excellent continues. The Exorcist is full of nightmare-inducing special effects that stick with you for the rest of your life. Not only does the very image of the transformation terrify the eyes of the audience, the minds of the audience are also confronted with the frightening realization of what the demon is doing to Regan’s body. From swearing at the central characters every chance it gets to displaying severe traumatizing masochistic behavior, the brutality is intense as you have sympathy for this young girl that you established a connection with from the beginning of the movie. One of the elements that I find particularly interesting, given the extent to which special effects are used, is just how real the movie feels. The supernatural elements of the story could have very easily pushed the film into the unbelievable category (like many others), but William Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece stays grounded in reality. Looking to the characters themselves, the performances are so genuine that you feel that you are going through the very same crises that are on display. For those whom believe possession is real, it hits scarily close to home; and for those whom are skeptical, it is an equally terrifying possibility.

The showdown and realization of the film are just as deep as the first and second acts by playing around with the externalization of that which was internalized and the physical and mental journeys of the characters. Not only is duality and possession shown through the context of demon possession, but the film also comments that internalized physical and psychological trauma can be a powerful force that ostensibly takes control on ones body. And that is another reason why it still terrifies audiences to this day.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

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Sinister Summer: “The Birds” Retrospective Review

“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.

To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.

When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.

At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.

There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.

When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).

Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.

The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“The Dark Crystal” Throwback Thursday Review

With the highly anticipated The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance releasing on August 30th, I want to revisit the cult classic that is still equal parts beautiful and terrifying to this day. A couple of years ago, Fathom Events brought The Dark Crystal to the big screen, so I was able to watch this outstanding motion picture on the big screen for the first time ever. Despite the very macabre nature of many parts of the movie, my parents showed this movie to my sister and I at a young age. From the very first time we watched it, my sister and I became fans. As kids–back when kids played outside, in the woods, and in abandoned buildings using their imaginations to role play–we created characters that were ostensibly taken from the world of the movie, and spent hours imagining we were in Thra. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the spectacular production design and puppetry. I can only speculate the degree to which kid-me appreciated the artistic elements of the now iconic motion picture, but I imagine that it completely captured my imagination, otherwise I would not have rewatched it as many times as I did. As an adult, I am shocked that my parents allowed me to watch it at such a young age because there are moments that terrify first-time adult audiences today. Sometime last year, I introduced this movie to my penpal, and he was blown away by how dark this fantasy movie was. Of course, this movie came out at a time that fantasies were dark (case and point, The Neverending Story). On the surface, this may be a common premise of good triumphing over evil despite adversity, but there is so much more that makes this the timeless classic that it is. Jim Henson was an incredible genius who truly knew how to combine form with function to create a fantastical masterpiece.

What stands out more than the plot itself (which is pretty straight forward), is the fantastical practical effects that give the film incredible depth–levels of dimension that CGI-heavy movies with they had but won’t ever achieve. Why? Simply because you cannot replicate the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera lens. The atmosphere that the setting and characters combine to make is a level of movie magic that only the genius of Jim Henson could have created. Frank Oz stated that children should not be sheltered from darkness because it is just as much a part of their lives as joy and laughter. There are some truly terrifying and sad moments in this movie. And it looks as if this sentiment is going to be channeled into the new series. The story does not shy away from topics such as torture, death, gender roles, independence, and courage. Whereas the plot itself is simple, the characters are highly complex. Moreover, each of the Skeksis represents one of the seven deadly sins, and each Mystic is the good counterpart. The gelflings represents the “human” or emotional component in the narrative, so they serve as the conduit through which we experience the plot. Aughra is our logical character whom provides the diegetic exposition to understand the gravity of the encroaching Great Conjunction. There is a beautiful poetry in how the characters all complement one another and their respective surroundings.

Although all Jim Henson movies feature muppets (Henson’s patented puppets) and other movies have puppetry, The Dark Crystal stands alone as the only film of his that is entirely puppets! Yes, you could argue that the few longshots are human actors, but that is splitting hairs. For all intents and purposes, only puppets appear in this movie. And these puppets were the most advanced to ever hit the screen, and still the most advanced puppets to have ever been witnessed on the silver screen. Fewer than 20yrs after The Dark Crystal virtually all puppetry would be replaced with CGI to save money and time. Sacrificing experiential art for technical marvel. These advanced puppets inspired the ones that have made appearances in Disney and Universal parks over the years. Some of the puppets had to be operated by multiple people, yet when you watch them on screen, you forget that they are a puppet because they truly exist within the fantastical world. I love how the design of each and every kind of puppet is an extension of the world in which they live. So much dimension in each and every creature. There are lines, shadows, textures, and more that CGI could never replicate. These are three-dimensional creatures that exist within a four-dimensional world that exemplify the absolutely peak of a combination of technical design, costuming, and articulated performance that the camera natively captures without need for post-production to create a significant effect after the fact. Very seldom do we get to witness such an attention to detail in the design of a character (we will get to the set soon). These puppet characters do not feel or look artificial, the manner in which the light reflects off them and they interact with the world around them gives them an outstanding ability to make us forget that there is someone pulling the strings. We emotionally connect with these characters in such a way that can so often only be done with human or animal actors.

The production design of the set is an outstanding, dazzling artistic achievement by standards then and now. You’ll be hard pressed to find another set that is created with such a high degree of tangible detail. No amount or quality of CGI can even hold a candle to the wildlife, plant life, and landscape of Thra. I absolutely love how the homes of each of the groups of characters (Skeksis, Mystics, Podlings, Gelflings, and everyone’s favorite Aughra), are designed to be an extension of the inhabitants themselves. Because there is nothing generic about any of the settings, the degree to which the lands feel real is astonishing. One of the reasons for that is because it IS real! Blue/green screen technology was still in its infancy so there was thankfully no real desire to integrate it into the set for most of the movie. However, the final scene of the movie does feature some green screen work that does not hold up today. Without a screen able to fill in the gaps for most of the movie, the artisans and craftsmen had the daunting task of bringing this world of fantasy in the age of wonder to life. And their tireless efforts pay off in spades. Diversity runs strong all through the story both visually and figuratively. No two landscapes or settings look alike, just as no two characters (even the podlings) look identical. Every line, corner, and texture radiates art. More than simply a backdrop for the scenes of the plot, the settings are essentially characters themselves. The way the characters interact with their surroundings holds the audience in an incredible suspension of disbelief as to the believability of the world that is on screen.

Although it was not a blockbuster in the US, as it was up against E.T. that same year, it was the highest grossing box office hit in France and Japan. Not being an initial box office success has not stopped the film from aging well and remaining an impressive work of art even by today’s audiences. Perhaps it is best known for being a cult classic, but that cult following has remained strong through the years. So much so that we have the Netflix prequel series with an all-star cast debuting in August. It’s refreshing to see that a prequel (or sequel) strives to embody the soul of the original in order to inspire a new generation of fans and future visual storytellers. We fell in love with the original because of the puppetry and production design, the unique characters, and fantastical elements that make it an exemplary motion picture.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“Office Killer” Throwback Thursday movie review

Ever see one of those indie horror-comedies that was panned by the critics when it came out a couple decades ago just to realize that if it was released today that it would be the talk of the horror community? Well, that is 1997’s Office Killer starring Carol Kane (When a Stranger Calls), Molly Ringwald, and directed by famed photographer Cindy Sherman. Kane delivers an outstandingly bananas performance that is a combination of Norman Bates and Patrick Bateman. Sherman certainly displays her adoration for the cinematography of Hitchcock’s films in many of the scenes in how the shots are framed and blocked. You’re hard-pressed to find many reviews of this horror-comedy even on LetterBoxd. It’s baffling to me why this movie hasn’t received more attention from the horror community on Twitter, blogs, and podcasts. Perhaps it’s because it is no incredibly obscure that you have a hard time even finding it on DVD, let alone streaming. A friend of mine had to order his copy of the movie from Spain. That is how difficult it is to find this movie. Even the few reviews I found were not flattering–except a couple that write about what I witness in this movie. The title works in two ways (1) it’s a description of how even in the 90s there was a fear that computers would kill the traditional office environment and (2) the literal description of a slasher in the office. Furthermore, there are plenty of moments and kills that serve as a freudian commentary on the American workplace. So I suppose it’s up to me to direct attention to this horror gem!

From the beginning, I had a feeling that I was in store for a highly artistic indie darling of a movie as soon as I saw the fantastically creative opening credits accompanied by a creepy score. Following the opening credits, there was a very Hitchcock shot that intrigued me and tipped its hat to Sherman channeling her award-winning photography into the moving images on the screen. Typically, horror movies don’t have narration but we begin with a narration. Not knowing anything about this movie, I was completely unsure of what to expect. Even the first kill didn’t tell me that I was about to watch a slasher. But as I learned more about Dorine (Kane), the more I was sucked into her world and completely intrigued by her choices and lack of social awareness. Playing opposite Kane is the indelible Molly Ringwald as the bitchy, judgy coworker Kim. Her performance is great! Not great in that it’s a phenomenal performance, but great in that she showed that she can play a character that is in stark contrast to most of the characters she has played throughout her longstanding career. Most of the performances are caricatures of various people found in a typical office. In fact, I’m curious if The Office ever parodied Office Killer because it seems like a missed opportunity if not. If you are aware of an episode that pays homage to Office Killer, let me know!

Perhaps the strength of this movie is not the acting (albeit, Kane is fantastic), but the strength is in the production design, costuming, plot, and Freudian themes. On the plot. Yes, the plot. You may be scratching your head because most reviews have slammed the plot. But I feel that 1997 critics and even those who come across this film today largely missed the point of the plot. It’s not supposed to be a compelling story with thought provoking imagery and characters, it’s supposed to be a 70/80s horror movie that is darkly funny! It’s just happens to be taking place in the mid 1990s. Perhaps this movie came out too close to the 70s/80s and thus felt old and cheesy. I posit that if this movie came out today, that it would be praised for its embrace of what we love about 70s/80s slasher movies! We don’t watch and rewatch these movies because they have incredible plots. We watch them because they are lots of fun! And Office Killer is incredibly fun to watch. While we may not know precisely why Dorine’s switch flipped and she went full–what I’ll call–Norman Bateman, we are given indicators of her unstable psyche through her flashbacks to her sexually abusive father and complacent mother, and of course the present story of most of her coworkers bullying her. Those three elements, plus the opportunity, work together to set her up to be a total psycho. Her actual kills may not be creative–that is, the method by which she kills–but the creativity comes into play afterwards with the corpses piling up in her house. She talks to them, plays with them, articulates them in such a manner that they become her action figures so to speak. It’s incredibly creepy but in a comedic way.

Now for those Freudian elements. This is what I find most fascinating about the movie; and what should provoke conversations amongst cinephiles and horror enthusiasts. One of the earliest shots in the movie is an extreme closeup (or ECU) of a staff member’s mouth as she is on the phone. Her red lipstick accentuates her mouth and points to the Freudian oral fixation. The scenes that follow depict female office staff members in a variety of different capacities and situations. It appears as though Sherman was painting a portrait of the male gaze over the female body. Moreover, what this movie appears to comment on and depict is Freud’s study on Fetishism. According to Freud’s study, and not to over simplify, fetishism is a fixation on an object or physiological practice of a substitution for intercourse following a sexual desire awakening in the body and mind. In more contemporary terms, the definition of fetish has evolved beyond just sexuality, but is generally still associated with sexual practices. Since likely paternal sexual abuse happened to and her mother turned her head to the allegations, in an effort to deal with the trauma, Dorine substituted what she wanted to do to her parents and others who abuse or bully her by engaging in slasher-style killings.

Each of the kills is a warped poetic justice based upon what Dorine saw as wrong with the victim. A great example of this is the attempted strangling of Kim. Since Kim ran her mouth constantly, Dorine sought to silence her voice. This same idea can be applied to the other kills too, and even in how the corpses are treated in Dorine’s basement. There is a playful nature in Dorine’s approach to the kills and even more so with her interactions with them afterwards. The depths of her psychosis are revealed one layer at a time. Even when you think that Dorine is about to get caught, she gets away with it; she alludes her would-be captors by searching the want ads and heading for another job in an office–perhaps your office! With each kill, Dorine integrated an element of that victim into her own life. She goes from mousy, frumpy to stylish and seductive. Her office underwent a transition and so did she. Dorine killed her former self to become the self that she wants to be. There is so much to enjoy about this horror comedy, and it baffles me that more horror fans and cinephiles have not talked about this movie. If you can somehow get ahold of a copy, then I highly recommend it if you enjoy slasher movies with a tough of style and laughter.

 

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Dark City” (1998) Throwback Thursday Film Review

The “thinking man’s Matrix.” That is how fellow critic and senior producer of One Movie Punch Joseph Dobzynski describes this underrated neo-noir science-fiction film that predates The Matrix. For the weekly film screening with my cinephile friend Leon in Germany, he selected Dark City. Truly visionary and incredibly rewatchable! I don’t know about you, but I had never even heard of it before. Perhaps that’s because I was so young when it came out. But I am glad that we watched it. It’s now among my favorite neo-noir films.  Never before have I seen a film take the stylistic techniques of film noir and extended them into the realm of fantasy, delivering a motion picture that is highly artistic and cerebral. Perhaps the film was ahead of its time, and that’s why it does not receive the fanfare that The Matrix gets. Between the two, objectively this one is more thought-provoking and artistic. Directed by Alex Proyas, this Fincher meets Scott neo-noir successfully fuses a classical film noir/detective mystery approach with futuristic fantastical allegory. One of the elements of early horror and film-noir that I feel gets lost today is the extension of the plot into the setting itself to the degree that the setting becomes a defacto character. Just as a human is more than the sum of his or her parts, so a setting can be more than the sum of its physical dimensions and time. I would have loved to have experienced watching this one on the big screen to get the full surrealist effect of being completely immersed in this volatile world. Hey Fathom Events, put this one on your list!

John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub in an unfamiliar hotel just to find out that he is wanted for a bizarre string of murders in a cult or serial killer fashion. One problem, he has no memory of committing the murders, nor much of a memory of anything save a place called Shell Beach. Thinking that he may have completely lost his mind, Murdoch begins to connect the pieces together in order to solve the twisted riddle of his identity. After a bizarre run-in with someone claiming to be his wife and a persistent detective, Murdoch continues to unravel the mystery surrounding the entire unnamed city. Never could he have imagined that his investigation would lead him to uncovering the presence of ominous group of aliens that have taken over the city. The truth that he uncovers will blow your mind.

Next to horror, film-noir is my favorite genre. And yes, we could all too easily debate film-noir‘s status as a genre as it only existed for a moment in cinematic history; and anything more modern is considered neo-noir, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept film-noir as a genre. There is a beauty to this film that does not exist in The Matrix. And that beauty runs incredibly fluidly from page to screen as is made evident from the brilliantly crafted setting, characters and conflict. There is a Metropolis-like quality to the setting and characters in Dark City. Even before Inception blew our minds with its ability to completely immerse us in the world of reality manipulated by the boundless imagination, Dark City transformed the landscape of this city in perpetual darkness. Some of the cinematic characteristics of film noir are found in the lowkey lighting, architecture inspired from German expressionism, and often a character playing the role of a detective. Whereas detective/mystery is a separate genre, there are several films with overlap between noir and detective. If you pay close attention to the production design, you will notice that the buildings grow more elongated and twisted the closer Murdoch gets to solving the mystery; furthermore, the buildings grow more slanted as Murdoch reaches the edges of the city. On a meta level, the setting is an extension of the mind of Murdoch and reflects his memories or lack thereof, more precisely the unreliability of memories. Just as his [Murodoch’s] memory is unreliable, so is the cityscape in which he resides. Characters and settings change and display broken collective memories, even when remembering how to get to Shell Beach. The design of the setting demonstrates Proyas’ attention to the stylized visual components of building this hybrid noir/sci-fi.

Whereas the neo-noir characters and world, in which they live, are very much a product of a reimagination of the film-noir genre, the conflict and plot (after the very much noir first act) are a deconstruction of the noir genre through a science-fiction plot. One of the dangers the many science-fiction screenwriters encounter is that he or she spends way too much time on constructing the science-fiction world and technology and quickly writes characters for the world. The error: starting with the world instead of with the characters or plot. Proyas demonstrates a strong commitment to his characters and plot, followed by the world. He was able to masterfully craft both because he used the world from one and the plot from another. Think of this combination of noir and sci-fi elements as Walt Disney’s patented multi-plane camera (last used on The Black Cauldron). Instead of elements mixed together, they were layered on top of one another in order to increase the depth of story. The plot remains simple; but the conflict, characters and world built on top of it gives the illusion of a complex plot. The screenplay stays true to a simple plot and complex characters. Through this visionary approach of fusing a film-noir setting to a science-fiction plot, Proyas provides the characters (and by extension, audience) a thought-provoking means of exploring reality in a most cinematic fashion.

There are considerable similarities between Blade Runner and Dark City in terms of the setting, score, and cinematography. And this is to be expected from a director who has demonstrated an admiration of Ridley Scott’s brilliant film. In retrospect, there are prominent earmarks of Muholland Drive by David Lynch as well. The meta nature of this film can be observed in the city itself. As the plot unfolds, we learn that the city is glorified set–not so different from a film set which changes throughout production in order to capture each and every scene. Just as a mood ring supposedly visualizes the emotion of the wearer, the set serves as an extension of the paranoia of its inhabitants. Capturing the madness experienced by the characters, specifically Murdoch, in the setting and cinematography adds to the experience of watching this film by creating an immersive environment as much for us as it is the characters. As this film is a means to deconstruct a film-noir through a science-fiction plot, we have the trademark characters such as a love interest and private eye; but instead of a central character who is experiencing a type of psychosis, the central character of Murdoch is the only character who has complete control of his mind and thus sees the cracks in the world created for him by The Strangers. This inverse of the central character injects this story with innovative ingenuity.

I would be remiss to not analyze the characters of opposition led by Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), with a notable chief of his version of the KGB, Mr. Hand played by the legendary Richard O’Brien (the writer/director of Rocky Horror Picture Show). While Mr. Book is the leader of The Strangers, the alien species whom have kidnapped these citizens of earth to place them in this futuristic experiment to analyze what constitutes the human soul, we spend most of our time with Mr. Hand. To borrow from Game of Thrones, Mr. Hand is the hand of the king. While these aliens resemble humanoid lifeforms, they are in actuality a jellyfish like species that uses human bodies as hosts in order to interact with humans. For all the power that their telekinetic abilities give them, water and sun is their greatest enemy, hence why Shell Beach is nowhere to be found and the city is perpetually in darkness. Just like Murdoch is an inverted noir central character, The Strangers are inverted humans as they have a great fear of water and sunlight, whereas humans require water and sunlight to remain healthy. I cannot help but wonder that Star Trek TNG and Voyager’s The Borg was influential in the development of The Strangers, as they both share the hive-like mind and pale skin. Of course, a chief difference is The Strangers’ ability to adopt some unique traits to blend in with the humans.

In retrospect, this is a much stronger film than The Matrix. Both share a similar premise, but the original expression of the shared premise in Dark City is far more timeless than the more famous of the two. And I am not merely talking about the visual effects, of which they hold up better in Dark City than The Matrix; I am talking about the comprehensive execution of the two films. Had James Cameron’s Titanic not dwarfed Dark City, then it may have been seen as the superior film to The Matrix by wider audiences than the strong cult following it currently has. But why do I feel that Dark City is superior to The Matrix? Simply stated, it comes down to the writing and direction. There are so many more layers to the writing and direction that makes it a cerebral film. I would not characterize The Matrix as a thinking man’s film, but I would Dark City. You can liken the two to Star Wars vs Star Trek (TV series). Star Wars is action-driven whereas Star Trek is largely character-driven. One may even go so far as to call The Matrix high concept and Dark City low concept. On the topic of visual effects, virtually all the effects in The Matrix are CGI; conversely, Dark City contains a beautiful fusion of practical effects (including miniatures) supplemented with digital effects. Dark City feels so much more real, tangible. It’s that authenticity that makes it the stronger of the two and warrants far more rewatches.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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