The Evolution of the Exorcism Movie

08/31/2010 5:00 PM |

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  • Now we’re getting somewhere…

For 35 years, exorcism movies didn’t change. William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, and William Friedkin’s film adaptation two years later, established the subgenre’s signature motifs. As Benjamin Strong notes in his L Magazine review of The Last Exorcism, there are “celibate priests…Catholics, absentee parents, and distracting subplots set in Africa and the Middle East.”

Slasher-movie victims deal with symbolic manifestations of evil; John Carpenter’s white-masked killer is called “The Boogeyman” as often as “Michael Myers”. But the victims in exorcism movies battle literal soldiers of Satan, hell-demons who punish PYTs for their spiritual purity. You could read them as metaphors if you tried hard enough—is the demon’s name “Puberticus”?—but neither The Exorcist nor its sequel encourages you to do so. John Boorman’s follow-up, in fact, is explicit in its insistence that Ancient, Unadulterated Evil is real, whether modern peoples believe in it or not.

But then, in 2006, Hans-Christian Schmid, working from a script by Bernd Lange, directed Requiem, an exorcism movie unlike all others.

Well, all others except the previous year’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Both movies were loosely based on the case of Anneliese Michel, a twentysomething German Catholic who received the rites of exorcism in the 70s for ten months before her death. The American iteration, by accounts, is in line with the Blatty-Friedkin conventions—according to Wikipedia, the movie centers on a non-believer who comes to believe in “spiritual warfare and Christianity”.

Requiem, however, never indulges such quasi-mythology. It never settles definitively whether it’s heroine is truly possessed or not. With a naturalistic, quasi-documentary style, Schmid leans toward positing “demonic possession” as a pernicious combination of epilepsy and psychosis, not helped by the girl’s Catholic guilt or the ordinary pressures of being a young woman on the cusp of sexualization. Evil isn’t literal in Requiem—it’s psychological.

It’s not spiritual—it’s medical.

Requiem was a real game-changer, one that the first mainstream American exorcism movie since could not ignore. Also shot on a handheld camera (though as an outright, Blair Witch-style pseudodocumentary), The Last Exorcism follows a charismatic Southern pastor—who isn’t even Catholic!!—on his journey to expose the exorcism myth. The preacher, Cotton (Patrick Fabian), performs exorcisms for a fat cash payout, but maintains that what he does is alleviate psychological problems for people within the terms of their religious beliefs. Of course, he then meets a family with problems unlike any he’s ever faced before.

The tension that drives The Last Exorcism isn’t about which characters will survive and which won’t: it’s how long director Daniel Stamm will maintain the ambiguity of whether Nell (an endearing Ashley Bell) is possessed by an actual demon, or whether she’s suffering from a psychological breakdown resulting from the pressures of an overbearing father and a fundamentalist upbringing—whether, that is, her problem is a self-inflected punishment born of guilt and shame from the impossible demands of perfection that evangelical Christianity requires.

The Last Exorcism is full of metacinematic flourishes—like the movie director, the exorcist-charlatan is a master showman proficient with SFX; and Nell, at one point, will claim the first-person camera to beat to death a cat, recalling Quarantine. And it also doubles as a portrait of The American Deep South, where poverty begets superstition, and family & religion conspire to inspire violence and abuse. But the movie is most remarkable for how long Stamm, working from a script by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, maintains the central ambiguity of whether the “demons” are literal or not. He almost makes it to the end.

But alas, the confounding finale, played out in blurry nighttime video, disappoints; the ending, which feels tacked on, moves the movie much closer to Rosemary’s Baby than any of its exorcism forebears. It’s a bummer that Stamm or Lionsgate folded under the pressure to revert to the Blatty ways of demons and devils (while safely pitching the homeschooling heartlanders as the heroes!) But at least they went farther than any other American filmmaker yet in moving the exorcism movie away from proselytizing for Catholicism and toward a more complex vision of human suffering. Perhaps the next exorcism movie won’t conclude so cravenly.