{Review} Shudder’s Cursed Films

How Shudder's Cursed Films Explores the Most Troubled Horror ...

Ever since the success of last year’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Shudder has been pumping out more exclusive horror documentaries. They have one coming out later this year focused on queer horror, and this month, they dropped Cursed Films, a five-part documentary series that explores horror films with alleged “curses” attached to them. Featured films include The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The CrowThe Omen, and The Twilight Zone Movie. Thus far, only the episode on The Exorcist has dropped, but for any horror aficionado, the 20-minute episodes are an entertaining look at some of the challenges that plagued the productions of these famous films, and in turn, led to clever marketing campaigns that increased ticket sales.

The Exorcist is the perfect example of how rumors of a cursed production could serve to cement a film’s legendary status. To be fair, the film’s production was plagued by a few unusual circumstances. Shooting was delayed after an on-set fire. Actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros died when the film was in post-production, and their characters died in the film. The aftermath and reactions to the film were so intense that people thought Linda Blair was actually evil because she played Regan.

Blair is the real star of the first episode, as she opens up about how difficult the filming process was because director William Friedkin pushed his actors and actresses so much that it led to a few on-site injuries. For instance, Blair injured her back when a piece of rigging broke, and Regan’s mother, actress Ellen Burstyn, was injured during a scene where Regan throws her across the room. The blood-curdling scream heard in that shot is a result of injury. Many of the film’s performances are unmatched in horror cinema because some of the pain was real.

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Much of this lore is already well-known, but what’s more intriguing is the impact The Exorcist had, especially when televangelists like Billy Graham stated that there was the power of evil within the film. This led to a brilliant marketing campaign that played up the hype and stories about people fainting and passing out in the theater.  The episode includes a trailer for The Exorcist that was never shown and played with the idea that the film itself was evil. Horror fans should watch the episode just to catch a glimpse of that long lost trailer. It’s a a relatively unknown piece of film history.

Fast forward to today, and the idea of possession is very much still in the public consciousness. Cursed Films credits The Exorcist’s legacy for that, and the end of the episode follows contemporary exorcists as they try to dispel demons from victims who genuinely believe that they’re possessed. Mind you, these people are not trained by the Catholic Church.  Yet, the episode poses the question  whether or not these modern demon-slayers are doing it out of the goodness of their heart or to make a quick buck. You decide.

Cursed Films doesn’t offer any evidence that the films were actually cursed. Rather, the series looks at the lore surrounding some of the genre’s most famous films, while offering some candid interviews with people like Linda Blair who are horror royalty. The behind-the-scenes tidbits and the exploration of a film’s legacy and its impact on popular culture make the series an interesting watch. The short episodes are binge-worthy.

Episodes 2 and 3 release today on Shudder.

{Film Review} Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

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No matter what, 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was always going to face some challenges. First, there is the simple fact that it’s a sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 classic. Sequels generally have mixed critical reviews and lower box office success. By the end of its run, the film grossed$30 million, which is not bad, but a drop off from the original film’s $57 million box office haul. More notable are the risks that the film took. Freddy’s Revenge is essentially a possession story about the demon of the dream world overtaking the shy final boy Jesse (Mark Patton). The film spawned intense backlash over its not-so-subtle gay references and caused Patton to quit acting during the AIDS crisis. In the last few years, as Freddy’s Revenge has gained a following in the LGBT community, Patton has resurfaced to speak about the film, including in the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.  The 90-minute doc is a must see for the way that it places the legacy of Freddy’s Revenge and Patton’s career within the larger framework and historical context of  LGBT history.

Directed by Tyler Jensen and Roman Chimienti, the film begins by following Mark in the present day, as he he makes his rounds on the horror convention circuit, meetings fans and celebrating the newfound viewership of the once-maligned sequel. It’s clear from the outset that Patton has aged and that shaking hands and signing autographs is an exhilarating, yet exhausting experience. Midway through the documentary, it’s revealed that Patton battled several illnesses at once, including HIV and cancer, after he quit acting in the mid-1980s.

Patton notes several times that he wants young LGBT fans to remember their history. The impact that the AIDS crisis had on Patton and the larger community is made more real by his commentary that’s mixed with news footage from the time period. There are chilling clips of patients bone-thin, bound to a hospital bed. At one point Patton comments that he knows what it’s like to see zombies walking down the street and that’s what it was like to be part of that community in the 1980s. Furthermore, Patton’s personal experience is placed in a larger historical context, namely the impact that AIDS had on Hollywood. Actors had to take blood tests before landing a role. The paparazzi outed men and killed their careers. Fear and paranoia swept the film business.

In that sense, Freddy’s Revenge takes on greater historical significance because it came out during the height of the AIDS crisis, and at the time, Patton was not out of the closet. Its gay undertones, including an S & M scene, a gay bay dream sequence, a leather daddy gym teacher, and few more subtle references, like a board game called probe in Jesse’s closet, made publications like The Village Voice refer to it as a gay film upon its release. Even to this day, however, screenwriter David Chaskin and director  Jack Sholder deny that they wanted to make a straight-up gay horror film. Only after conversations with Patton, including in the documentary, and more recent articles about the film have the director and screenwriter changed their tone.

Mark Patton in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

(Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Yet, the documentary also functions as a reminder that it wasn’t all that long ago that being gay and out meant losing your job. Such was the case with Patton, whose agent told him that due to Freddy’s Revenge, he’d always be cast a gay character. Additionally, the initial backlash to the film was so immense that it carried over to the internet age, and the documentary highlights some of the online gay-bashing comments that Patton had to endure.

It took time and many years, but Freddy’s Revenge finally found its audience, and one of the most endearing aspects of the documentary are interviews with young, gay fans talking about how much a character like Jesse matters to them, how they could relate to his character when they were teenagers. Furthermore, the documentary is a reminder that the horror genre has always been about Otherness, and in that regard, Freddy’s Revenge is indeed the gayest horror film ever made. My Scream Queen should cement its legacy as such and finally give Patton his justified due for the amount of work he’s done on behalf of the gay community after walking away from acting and surviving the AIDS crisis. This is an important documentary, not only for the horror community, but perhaps more importantly, for the LGBT community. It’s a reminder just how much representation matters.

William Friedkin’s Second Dance with the Devil

Decades after The Exorcist’s release in 1973, its Oscar-winning director William Friedkin returned to the subject matter for a documentary entitled The Devil and Father Amorth, now streaming on Netflix. Set in Georgetown, where The Exorcist was filmed, and Italy, the documentary features a real-life exorcism performed by Vatican-sanctioned Father Amorth.

Raised Roman Catholic, I was generally unnerved after first watching The Exorcist. I was less terrified by Regan’s (Linda Blair) head-spinning and vomiting scenes and more spooked by the idea that some demonic presence would chose to possess an innocent 13-year-old girl for no apparent reason other than it wanted a showdown with a priest, a battle of good versus evil. The film was an adaptation of the novel by William Peter Blatty, who based the novel and screenplay on accounts of a Georgetown boy who was allegedly possessed in 1949. Blatty believed that something supernatural was at work, and Friedkin’s new documentary contains two old interviews with Blatty that restate his belief in the story.

While Friedkin never comes out in the documentary and fully says that he believes in the possibility of demonic possession, he does acknowledge that it’s possible there is another dimension to this world that we can’t comprehend. Yet, Friedkin never fully analyzes or acknowledges the cultural impact of his 1973 film. There are featurette-like scenes where he returns to the location of filming, including the famous staircase that’s such an important part of the film’s iconic ending, but he doesn’t acknowledge that maybe the belief in demonic possession exists because of films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which were released at the height of the “God Is Dead” moment and got people back to church.

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(William Friedkin and Father Amorth)

Early in the documentary, Friedkin says that there are over 60 million citizens in Italy and about 500,000 have seen an exorcist. Let that statistic sink in for a moment. Roughly half a million Italians have seen an exorcist.

The exorcism that Friedkin films, his first time ever doing so, was performed on 40-something Cristina. It was her ninth exorcism. As Father Amorth tries to banish the demons, Cristina writhes in her seat, held down by family members and friends. She speaks in a gravelly voice not that much different from Regan’s. When I watched this scene, I had two questions: did Friedkin do something with the audio and was Cristina acting like she thinks a possessed person should behave?

In an interview with NPR, Friedkin said of Cristina:

She was an architect, and a very attractive, intelligent, soft-spoken, wonderful woman. And when she came into the room, I wondered: What is she doing here? What’s this woman doing here? She seems to me to be totally together. And then during the exorcism, she completely unraveled. She spoke in a voice that was completely different from her own. She had what I would say was an unnatural amount of strength for a woman of her size and age. And her entire personality had altered.

I was scared, seriously scared. I was two feet away from them … And it was terrifying. Gradually my fear turned into empathy for her. She was in seemingly unnatural and total pain.

The exorcism runs for about 15 minutes, and at times, it is quite dull. For most of it, Cristina squirms in the chair and growls in a trance-like state, while friends and family around her pray. It would have been more interesting if we actually knew more about Cristina and cared about her fate. Yet, the documentary never dives into her story.

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(Cristina and Father Amorth)

The director then shows the footage to neurologists at UCLA and Columbia. They admit that they can’t pinpoint what’s causing her behavior and they don’t debunk the footage. However, one of the specialists at Columbia says that if Cristina and her loved ones generally believe in the supernatural and the possibility of demonic possession, and if that is part of their reality, then an exorcism may be the best medicine for her behavior. I wish that Friedkin asked Cristina if she ever watched The Exorcist because I kept wondering how much popular culture has impacted her belief in the supernatural.

Sadly, Father Amorth, who was in his 90s, passed away not long after Friedkin finished the documentary. He was one of the warmest and funniest aspects of the film. He even had a ritual of literally thumbing his nose at the devil before performing an exorcism. Friedkin tried to reach out to Cristina again but had no luck. Her symptoms, however, did not end after the exorcism. Could there have been other reasons for her distress, financial or personal even? We’ll never know.

Even though The Devil and Father Amorth features footage of a real exorcism, it feels rather hollow. Friedkin is an accomplished filmmaker, and yet his characters in the documentary feel flat. Why didn’t he explore Father Amorth’s theories about evil and exorcisms, for instance? Why no serious interviews with Cristina? The film does raise some thought-provoking questions about belief in the supernatural, but The Exoricist makes a better case for real, raw evil because it contains characters that are fleshed out and well-developed. When a single mother watches her child succumb to the demon, we care what happens to them because we’ve gotten to know them. I can’t stay I know anything about Cristina after watching Friedkin’s documentary. Fans of The Exorcist should still check out the film because it may be the last time that Friedkin returns to the subject matter.