“Ad Astra” Film Review

A thought-provoking science-fiction exploration of the depths of self and space. Fox Searchlight’s Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones is a visually stunning tour de force that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Not since Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey have I experienced such a pure science-fiction motion picture. The plot is so simple, yet the characters highly complex. And the questions posited by the film provide an opportunity to not only engage your senses but also your mind. On the surface, it’s a search and rescue; but beneath that premise, the conflict is built around the idea of man vs himself and father-son relationships. What happens to our minds and relationships when we devote ourselves so intensely to our academic or vocational pursuits that life is flying past us? More specifically, this film’s thesis can be summed up in one impactful, memorable quote from the movie, “he could only ever see what wasn’t there and missed what was right in front of his face.” Perhaps I do not have it quoted precisely correct, but that line spoke volumes to me. Because I will admit to you that I often become so consumed by my studies, social media presence, and what I do not yet have that I sometimes neglect to value what I have right in front of me. In many ways, this film serves as a mirror to not only me, but to all those who allow work or other ancillary elements of our lives to consume our every thought instead of appreciating the relationships we have and the needs/wants that have been met. Powerful stuff. Not only does this film deliver an outstanding original story, but the cinematography, score, editing, and production design are stellar. It’s a testament to the ability motion pictures have to evoke us emotionally and physiologically. We may spend most of the movie with one character, but it never feels boring (maybe a little slow in places, but definitely not boring). Certainly one to watch while it is in theaters for the full cinematic experience.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos. (IMDb)

While I compare this movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey, their respective plots are different, so it does not feel like a movie that secretly seeks to remake the science-fiction classic. The strength of Ad Astra lies in the exemplary screenwriting. We have a clearly defined central character, an external goal, and the subplot driven by the need that supports the motivation to achieve the goal. Every scene meticulously peals back layers that reveal to us the depths of Pitt’s character of Roy and consistently point us to his journey to locate his father on Neptune. Although Roy is not an extremely dynamic character, and there may not be a hero’s journey, we do witness a positive growth arc. In a manner of speaking, he experiences an existential redemption that corrects the course of his psychological trajectory. If you’re seeking a contemporary film that boasts an excellent opportunity for a character study, then the two principle characters in Ad Astra will be brilliant subjects. Jones’ character of Clifford McBride may not have nearly the screen time that his son has; however, his presence is felt throughout the film. We see the father in the son, and by extension we can extrapolate that Roy was on the path to become his father. Not unlike the path that Scrooge was on before his encounter with Marley and the three ghosts. Only when faced with the reality of what his future looks like, and the effects on friends and family thereof, does Roy see the need to change. Man is often his worst enemy, an enemy that we are eternally cursed to battle in perpetuity.

Not only does this film deliver outstanding writing, but it equally delivers mesmerizing visuals that earn the film high marks in technical achievement. Never do the effects detract away from the narrative, but they are incredibly impressive. Everything feels real. Like this is a story that could believably take place in say 2100 (maybe it could have been called 2100: A Space Odyssey). When speaking on science-fiction movies with my screenwriting students, I mention that many sci-fi screenwriters spend so much time on the technology and world building that the characters suffer. Needless to say, I will be able to use this movie as a prime example of how to write a character-driven science-fiction motion picture. The technology that is used in the film feels just a few decades ahead of what we presently have, so we can connect with the people and the technology that is used much better than in more fantasy-like science-fiction movies. The cinematography shines brightly in the dark of space. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this film was shot in space because of just how real the movement of the characters was and the technique through which each and every scene was lit and shot. So smooth are the movements of the camera and the editing that brings the story together that, as the audience, you forget that you aren’t a fly on the wall of this spectacular film.

Preparing for my own review, I often like to peruse what others have said. So I sometimes read reviews or listen to podcasts to get a feel for other opinions that are out there in order to expose myself to a wide variety of opinions as a way of collecting evidence to support my own opinion on a film. And upon doing that for this review, it didn’t take long before I came across a few options that fixated on the lack of screen time for Roy’s estranged wife  played by Liv Tyler. Furthermore, opinions along these lines suggested that there needed to be a more significant female presence in the film. I disagree with these opinions because this is a film about a father-son relationship and the idea of a man battling his own internal demons, so to speak. Liv Tyler plays an important role in representing that which Roy lost as a result of his self-centered career-driven behaviors. However, she also serves as a totem for him because it is the thought of a life without her entirely that brings Roy back to earth. She is an important character in this story despite not having much to say. Her presence is a powerful reminder to Pitt that he does not want to wind up like his father. Even if Tyler was not in the movie, at the end of the day, this IS a movie about the relationship between a father and son. While mother-daughter, mother-son, or father-daughter movies are much more common, there is a need in our cinematic library for father-son movies to explore those relationships.

Do yourself a father and go see Ad Astra in theaters! Experience it in Dolby Cinema or IMAX if you can because the visual spectacle elements of this film deserve that crystal clear, larger than life treatment. At little more than two hours, the film’s pacing is pretty good for most of the story; that being said, there are a few places that my attention did drift. But it wasn’t for long, and was always hooked again. Perhaps this movie could have been shortened to 1:45-50 instead of the just over 2hr run time. I am already thinking of seeing this film again, because I know there are elements that I may have missed the first time through.

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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” movie review

If you loved Blanchette in her award winning role in Blue Jasmine, then you will love her in Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Once again, Blanchette takes on the demanding role of someone struggling with an inner turmoil brought on by losing one’s identity. By no means is Bernadette the same character as Jasmine, but there are many similarities; however, these similarities are expressed in vastly different ways, which makes the story relatable and thought-provoking. Whereas this film has not been critically received nearly as well as Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, after watching it for myself, I absolutely loved it. Is it as strong a picture as Blue Jasmine? No. But it is still a film that I feel creative and academic persons will connect with because often the most creative or intelligent people can experience bouts of identity crisis, mania, and depression when he or she is not in the process of creating something for the world to see. Whether that world is as small as your hometown, your network on social media, or the global stage, there is a catharsis that is experienced when crafting something new. Take away that creative outlet and you may as well remove an arm or leg. Furthermore, destroy that which one has poured his or her soul into, then you metaphorically kill that creative person. The creation is an extension of the soul of the creator. I imagine that my fellow creatives and academics will also be able to identify with Bernadette much in the same manner as did I. Linklater’s film is an existential exploration of the creative genius when the very foundation of that genius is rocked off its foundation. There are many metaphorical visualizations of this concept in the film, including the catalyst that launches Bernadette into her acute downward spiral–the removal of that which was holding everything together. Perhaps the story execution lacked the precision that this plot truly required to be exemplary, but there is a strong message therein coupled with Blanchette’s excellent performance that makes Where’d You Go Bernadette? a thought-provoking movie to watch.

Former architect Bernadette Fox seems to have it all — a beautiful home in Seattle, a successful and loving husband, and a brilliant teenage daughter who’s about to attend boarding school. When Bernadette suddenly disappears without a trace, her concerned family sets off on an exciting adventure to solve the mystery of where she might have gone.

If you’re searching for a human movie, then you you have found the right one. The experience of watching this movie sticks with you long after the credits role. Not being familiar with the book, I cannot comment on the similarities and differences; fortunately, this allows me to evaluate this as a movie without influence from knowledge of the book. While most of the characters are mostly flat, the character of Bernadette is complex, vulnerable, and quite human. Despite being an architectural genius of on the level of Frank Lloyd Wright–something that most of us cannot identify with–we identify with her because of the struggle to manage personal and professional life when we’ve lost our way. The title Where’d You Go, Bernadette? works in two ways. (1) during the second and third acts of the movie, Bernadette’s family is literally searching for her and (2) after learning the news that her masterpiece house was bought simply to be destroyed, she ceased to be herself and became a new, even more eccentric and reclusive person. Essentially she took on a new identity, which posits the question, “where did she go?” The movie is a journey for Bernadette to find herself, and of course for her family to find her. Further evidence of the successful visualization of internal conflict, is when Bernadette removes the blackberry bushes in full knowledge that they will make way for a landslide, even though her neighbor wants the bushes gone. Just as the blackberry bushes were the only thing keeping the hillside together, the 20-Mile House was the primary component that kept Bernadette together. When it was destroyed, so was she.

Where this movie fails is in the adaptation from novel to screen. And I am not talking about commitment to details and such. Novels are internally driven whereas movies are visually driven. Sometimes there are novels that explore inner turmoil to such a degree that it makes visualizing it for the screen difficult to achieve. Without having read the novel, I cannot comment fully on why most of the characters are flat and the much of the dialogue is vapid, but my educated guess is that the novel explores the psychology of each character to a greater extent than a movie allows for. Where this movie excels is the performance delivered by Blanchette as the title character Bernadette. Whether quiet or a raving lunatic, she maintains a powerful screen presence that draws the audience in to the heart of the story. There is an unapologetic authenticity in Blanchette’s performance that feels fresh and powerful. It’s a command performance that should not be overlooked. Through her character of Bernadette, we witness just how complex depression, mania, and anxiety are. And not just how complex they are for the individual burdened with them, but for those around the individual.

I’m not naive to the movie’s shortcomings, but there is so much that I find was delivered with excellence that it helps to make up for the mostly weak screenwriting. I believe that the character of Bernadette offers us a fascinating character to explore as she offers great opportunities for relatability. Perhaps we aren’t genius architects, but many of us know what it’s like to see our creations destroyed or being prohibited by internal or external forces from creating.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. 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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“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” horror movie review

Everyone loves a good ghost story, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has several ones that remind me of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? on steroids! Don’t let the August release date fool you, this is a surpassingly frightening horror movie! It takes the very practice of passing along scary stories generation to generation, and explores the far reaching effects that the power of story has in a manner that it as insightful as it is visually terrifying. Directed by Andre Ovredal with a superlative screenwriting and story team including Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark relies upon a more classical approach to a horror movie by building upon old fashioned ghost stories. You know, the kind that you sit around the camp fire or on the floor of your childhood sleepover and tell one another. These are stories that have been shared and passed down so prolifically that they feel alive. Ghost stories are such a part of our childhood and teenage years, and this film explores the idea of these stories coming to life. A terrifying prospect. Despite the one-dimensional characters, this movie keeps the audience engaged because of the incredibly fun plot and nightmarish visuals. And no, the end of the movie is not tied up with a nice little bow. Traditional narratives follow: order–>disorder–>order again, but horror often takes on an order–>disorder–>order–>disorder path. While there are elements in this movie that may predispose you to thinking that it’s an anthology like Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it is one linear narrative. Scary Stories is  thoughtful horror movie that is a throwback to the tales of old, when hauntingly spooky was more important than grisly gore.

Pennsylvania 1968 on Halloween, and change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley, where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion, on the edge of town, that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories she passed along to children whom would talk to her through the wall of her foreboding mansion. In addition to passing down the stories orally, she wrote them down in book that truly immerses the reader into the terrifying plot. When a group of teenagers accidentally stumbles onto Sarah’s book of scary stories to tell in the dark, they realize that these stories are become all too real, and they find themselves strapped in the pages of these stories that transcend time and reality.

On one hand, this movie may appear overly generic to the casual observer, given the chief elements that make up the story. You have a group of misfit teens in small town middle America, lots of period nostalgia (that is thankfully not even more of the already proliferated 80s), a cursed object that torments its readers, and a haunted house. Everything that a writer needs to create a forgettable horror movie that goes directly to streaming services is here. But that is where you would be wrong to presume it is just another generic haunted house movie. The premise may not be exuding originality but the expression of the premise is. Combine the original expression of a plot template with the stunning visuals that we’ve come to expect from the del Toro brand, and you have one fantastic horror movie. Clearly exhibited in each and every scene, there are many signs that this movie was built by writers and a director who cares about the story and the audience experience. The degree to which this haunted house movie works for audiences may one day be seen in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. So many visual elements in this movie lend it to a haunted house (definitely more than the upcoming Us haunted house). Even if you did not grow up reading the Scary Stories books, you probably read Goosebumps or watch the TV version of the former or Are You Afraid of the Dark? and that is all you need to know or be familiar with. Go in with a love of good old-fashioned ghost stories, and you will have a fun time.

This is the second gateway horror movie that we have seen in the last couple years. Last year, we had The House with a Clock in its Walls, which worked as a gateway horror movie (albeit less so than this one). Ever since the TV shows referenced earlier went off the air, there has been a need for PG and PG-13 horror for younger audiences that also appeals to adults. Most of the horror movies over the last couple of decades have large been aimed at older teens and adults. The trick is to write a story that is appropriate enough for general 12-17 viewers, but still contain the macabre elements that 18+ viewers want to see. And that doesn’t mean gore, it means a thoughtful approach to crafting a fun horror movie that genuinely frightens you. Spooky atmospheres, ghostly apparitions, and tormented characters have been a staple of the American horror film from the days of Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. But in recent years, haunting production design and memorable monsters have taken backseat to schlock fests. This movie seeks to bring back the old fashioned haunted house ghost movie to foster an appetite in young audiences for the fantastic world of horror.

The central character and our character of opposition are two opposite sides of the same coin. Driving their decisions is a love of storytelling and family issues. Of course the familial issues differ greatly, but they complement one another nicely. When developing central and opposition characters, it’s important for the screenwriter to remember that often both characters need to share some common traits, and even common goals, but the difference is in how that desire to achieve the goal is expressed through action. There appears to be ab attempts by the movie to provide opportunities for the characters and plot to comment on the society and politics, but it’s never fully developed. Underscoring many of the scenes in the film is the 1968 presidential election and the controversial Vietnam War. I feel that the socio=political elements were not used as effectively as they could have been, so it would have been better just to leave them out as those moments don’t add anything to the overall story.

The power of story. It was Cecil B. DeMille who stated that the “greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” and Scary Stories takes its cue from the timeless words from a  Hollywood great. Films were always about breaking ground in visual technical marvel, the almost oxymoronic photorealistic animation, or grisly violence; they were about telling stories. Not unlike the ones that got orally passed down. And these stories helped to shape generations of current and future storytellers. When you tell a story enough, it begins to have a life of its own, there is a place for some evil to be contained as we creatively explore the human condition, sexuality, gender roles, faith, psychology, and sociology through the American horror film. We already have a movie about what happens when the stories die (see my article on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), so this one takes the approach of what happens when you steel someone’s storybook but pairs that with the healing power of storytelling. To get into how and why would reveal too much about the showdown of the movie, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. At the end of the movie, you are left with wondering about the stories that you have passed down, and power to terrify or to heal that comes along with them. You may even find yourself wanting to get a group of friends together to tell ghost stories.

If you love a good ghost story, then you definitely want to catch this while in theatres to truly appreciate and experience the nightmarish visuals of the monsters and the beauty of the production design. Get into the Halloween spirit a little early with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as you enjoy a throwback to a more classical approach to the American horror film.

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 and teaches high school TV/Film production. 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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Sinister Summer: Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare”

Before “meta horror” became commonplace, to the point that the once innovative concept has become all too cliche, Wes Craven wrote and directed his triumphant return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (although, he did co-write Dream Warriors). Made, not only for horror fans but also for general horror audiences, New Nightmare is a horror film within a horror film that successfully dances the line between reality and fantasy. One can easily liken that to the very character of Freddy Krueger who exists in our dreams but can inflect real pain. A fascinating parallel! Craven’s revolutionary approach to one of the most iconic franchises in horror history begs the question asked of horror filmmakers whether the effects of the diegesis on screen cross over into the real world, affecting the actions and thoughts of people who love to watch horror films. Beyond the meta nature of the plot of New Nightmare, there is also a self-reflexive element to the plot because the story, lore, and movies of Freddy loops back on itself by confronting the creators of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes, Robert “Bob” Shaye, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and even future horror star Lin Shaye (Robert Shaye’s sister) are all playing themselves, and even referencing the Nightmare movies in the same way we do. Heather even references all the movies in the franchise, not just the one’s she’s in.

While other franchises force a reboot or revival in order to bring back an iconic horror icon–by way of just chalking the return up to being a superhuman, resurrected, or supernatural with little to no reasoning–New Nightmare provides evidence (albeit supernatural) for why more Freddy films need to be made. Therefore, Freddy will appear in one more movie (two more, if you count this one). One more, because we do not count the 2010 remake (it does not exist). While few will dispute that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best, it is quite possible that this self-reflexive entry is the second best. During graduate school, when studying horror films, I used Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure and Freud’s uncanny often when exploring the subtext and themes of horror. Both of these theoretical approaches to reading and understanding horror films are clearly visible in this brilliant story. We get pleasure out of and attracted to that which should repulse us. Therefore, we do not want Freddy to be dead. In many ways, we need Freddy to live, and New Nightmare brings Freddy back for an encore in the present story and Freddy vs Jason. Of course, we’ve had the first appearance of Robert Englund as Freddy in last year’s Halloween episode of The Goldbergs and there is massive social media support for Englund to play Freddy one last time.

It had been ten years since Freddy made his debut in cinemas worldwide! The once near-bankrupt New Line Cinema rose up from the ashes to become a powerhouse of films and distribution. While the first three Nightmare on Elm Street movies are solidly horror, the franchise took a different route than Halloween or Friday the 13th by relying upon comedy to the point that the franchise became a parody of itself. The worst offender being Freddy’s Dead. We watch them because we love Englund as the iconic horror villain, but the movie’s plot and other characters were complete garbage. Fun garbage, but garbage nevertheless. With the downward trajectory of the franchise heading to “direct to TV or DVD” territory, why make another Freddy movie? Simply stated, Bob Shaye said “because the public wants it.” This line is from a Shaye cameo in New Nightmare, referencing the Nightmare movie that is being produced within the film we are watching, but is also very much why New Nightmare was made. Although I have no empirical data to back up this statement, I imagine that Freddy has more fans than Jason or Michael. From his self-deprecating humor, memorable one-liners, and creative kills (despite a low body count), he has found his way into our cinemas, homes, and dreams.

New Nightmare represents a return to true horror for the franchise. Not that Freddy doesn’t have some funny lines, but the focus of the film is on the horror of Freddy manifesting in the real world. Under the direction and writing of the brilliant Wes Craven, the Nightmare franchise was about to get a heaping helping of genuine horror infused back into the series. The strength of this movie is in the script and direction that was about to take horror to new frontiers by pioneering the largely untapped sub-genre of meta-horror. Whereas Craven’s Scream is the definitive meta-horror, he used New Nightmare as the training ground. Therefore, we can consider New Nightmare as the proto-meta-horror film. Upon a close reading of New Nightmare, the groundwork can be witnessed that would support what would become Scream. In addition to exploring a new sub-genre, this film delivers the horrifying, murderous, Freddy that we were first introduced to in 1984 instead of the sinister clown that he became in Freddy’s Dead. Once again, he becomes the centerpiece, only this time his claws are sharper and he’s been given a more sinister makeover. None of this could come together if Englund wasn’t reprising his iconic role. But instead of more blood, Freddy and Craven deliver quality scares, kills, and drama versus shallow kill after kill gore fests.

The central question in this film is: where does the line between fantasy and reality lie? Moreover, is it a dark, bold line or it is one that is blurred or delineated? The first movie was inspired by the series of real articles in the Los Angeles Times that chronicled people who claimed to have been nearly scared to death in their nightmares, but then they actually died. This film takes the idea of a dream-like killer to the next level by using the past Freddy movies as a springboard, as a source of energy for the idea of Freddy to cross over into our reality. What’s crazy is that we have witnessed this IN real life. Here’s a great example: in Se7en, the film never actually shows Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the famous box; however, countless people report to have seen her head in the box. It is an idea that is so largely collectively shared that it becomes part of our reality. So, Craven is taking that same idea and applying it to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The fascination I have with this particular installment in the franchise is just how brilliantly Craven dances that line between fantasy and reality; he does it in such a way that it comments on our fascination with horror movies. Much like Craven’s line I referenced earlier is both about the movie within the movie and about us (the audience), Heather Langenkamp questions “don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them? A question for (1) Craven and (2) Shaye in the film and (3) by extension, a question to us (the audience). Deep, right?

The concept of Freddy crossing over from the screen to our world is a fascinating approach to take in this film that laid the groundwork for Craven to forever change the landscape of the American horror film just two years later in Scream. Craven’s masterful grasp of horror storytelling is highlighted in his speeches within the film. Furthermore, his years as a humanities professor certainly provided a critical lens through which he analyzed what makes horror special. There are few other writers/directors who understand the genre as well as Craven did. I absolutely love the idea Craven posits in the film that when a horror story dies that an evil force is released upon the world because it needs to live somewhere. And if not in its story, in our world. A terrifying prospect. Furthermore, once can extrapolate from Craven’s monologues in the film that we need horror films to contain as much of the evil in the world as possible. These films keep nightmares from consuming us in real life. He urges us to keep these stories alive because they are how we work through so many of life’s perils, traumas, and conflicts that tap into our most primal fears.

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

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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.

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