With the countdown to Halloween underway, we shall have horror, and lots of it.
An American Haunting (2005)
This film is supposedly based on true events, the story of the Bell Witch, a case of possession which allegedly took place in rural America in the early eighteen hundreds. It opens in the present day with a woman finding a stash of ancient documents that tell the story, and ends with a twist that has implications for her own daughter, a rather neat if obvious framing device. Back in ye olde times, Donald Sutherland as Bell patriarch John has just been found guilty of trying to steal land from a woman with a reputation for witchcraft (oops!). She curses him and his family, and subsequently daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd Wood) becomes the focus for a series of attacks from a vicious entity. Cue the usual panoply of supernatural effects, including bedsheets being pulled back, visions of a young child with a rotting face, Betsy being dragged by her hair and lifted into the air, all of which is enough to convince the doubters, but nobody has a solution and as the situation deteriorates John himself becomes ill in his attempts to save his daughter. The alleged witch denies culpability, telling John that he has cursed himself. And so we plough on to the final revelation, and a twist that gives a psychological explanation for all that has occurred, though given the phenomena portrayed it might as well have been a supernatural cause. It was all rather obvious to my mind, the kind of thing horror fans will have seen plenty of times before, though I did like the underplayed end twist come reveal, and thought the cast were excellent, especially the leads (Sutherland, Hurd Wood, and Sissy Spacek as the mother). It didn’t scare me, but it didn’t insult my intelligence either, and the portraits of both a family in crisis, and a society on the cusp between superstition and rationalism were done well. I’m happy to have watched it.
The Rite (2011)
What they needed back in ye olde times was a hot shit exorcist, and this film has one in the person of Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas. It also is based on a true story, the spiritual journey of young priest Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who pretends to a faith he doesn’t possess so that the Catholic Church will pay his student loan, after which he will resign from the priesthood. God and the director have other plans for him though. Michael is sent to Rome to train as an exorcist, and there he encounters crusty old Father Lucas, witnessing his work and having all his doubts overturned, to the point that when the older priest is himself possessed Michael has the strength and belief sufficient to exorcise him. The moral here is, of course, rather obvious, that if we allow the existence of demons etc., then that of God also follows (strictly speaking that needn’t be the case, but it’s a well-established trope of the horror genre). Hopkins, as ever, is excellent in the role of Father Lucas, kind hearted but also with a barbed tongue and slightly intolerant of time wasters (think Hannibal crossed with Cadfael), and beyond that a man who is his own worst critic, who cannot in good conscience deal with the idea that he may have failed somebody who came to him for help. Lucas’ trauma, both emotional and intellectual, after a young woman in his care dies is strongly put over and affective. Similarly the details of the exorcism ceremony are well realised on the screen, with understated effects, but enough of the paranormal to show that what’s happening to the victim isn’t simply a variation on mental illness. At the end, well the tension isn’t quite enough to hold the viewer spellbound, and how you regard the film may in large part depend on your own attitude to faith (for me, it was an advert and rationalisation of a religion I don’t believe in, which somewhat undermined the impact of the narrative). I doubt that I will watch it again, or keep the DVD in my collection for long.
Drag Me To Hell (2009)
No ‘based on a true story’ nonsense to this old fashioned fright fest from director Sam Raimi. Instead we get an immensely enjoyable horror film that knows all the tropes of the genre by heart and gives us a master class in how to play them. The plot is simple. Bank apparatchik Christine (Alison Lohman) refuses a loan to an old gypsy woman who will lose her house and gets roundly cursed in return. A demon has been unleashed that, after the requisite days and nights of paranormal pursuit, will literally drag Christine down to hell. Sceptical at first, Christine sees enough to convince her that this is real and explores her options, trying to make peace with Mrs. Ganush (who is dead) and seeking help from a seer, all to no avail. She does eventually get out from under, but with a nasty sting in the tail. Superficially, well actually more than superficially, the baseline story is derived from M. R. James classic story ‘The Casting of the Runes’, but Raimi dresses it up with an E. C. Comics vibe and a welter of splatter effects, so that bodies get torn apart with audible squelches and vile, noxious fluids are expelled at every opportunity. Memorable scenes, with more than a touch of black humour on occasion, include Christine’s first family dinner with the potential in-laws, an attempted ritual of cleansing that involves a goat being sacrificed (only the goat isn’t cooperating much), and a visit to the graveyard where an insane Christine digs up Mrs. G’s corpse. And underlying it all is a subtext about greedy bankers getting their comeuppance that we can all relate to (Christine is normally a nice banker, but refuses Mrs. Ganush’s loan because she wants to show her boss she can make tough decisions and win promotion). It’s a film that, beneath all the surface razzamatazz, seems to be focused on having fun, but not at the expense of the viewers’ expectations. In a way it’s horror fiction as comfort food, a thrill ride but not disturbing because we can’t really take it seriously. I loved it.