There’s no denying that William Friedkin’s 1973 movie The Exorcist is one of the top horror films of all time. The disturbing tale of a sweet 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon from hell has scared the crap out of people for almost half a century, and it still packs a fearsome punch. It will be hitting the big screen of the Rio Theatre in all its nightmare-making glory this Friday and Saturday (October 30 and 31).
Unlike many fright flicks that rely heavily on gore and jump scares, the main attraction of The Exorcist has always been its powerful acting. Sure, the green pea soup in the eye and the bloody crucifix in the you-know-what caught people’s attention, but it was the stellar performances of cast members like Ellen Burstyn, Lee J. Cobb, and little newcomer Linda Blair that made the supernatural nastiness originating with William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel so shockingly believable.
The guy playing the exorcist, Max von Sydow, wasn’t bad either.
When he was doing publicity in 1993 for the Vancouver-shot adaptation of Stephen King’s Needful Things—in which he switched teams, so to speak, portraying the devil instead of a Satan-battling priest—von Sydow commented on The Exorcist and its legacy.
“I think that is a very, very well-made film,” he told me for a write-up in Fangoria magazine. “It has become some kind of a horror classic, and I think it really deserves it. And it almost started a trend; it has been imitated many, many times since then. I haven’t seen all these films, but I doubt that they have been able to really make as good a film as that. It dealt with a very unexpected subject, with an evil child, which is a terrifying idea.”
Frightening as The Exorcist was, von Sydow was surprised when he first heard the much-publicized news about weak-hearted filmgoers running from the theatre in panic and tossing their cookies when the movie’s nastier bits were flashed on the screen.
“The film became something else,” he related. “It became some kind of a mental test where people went to see this film to find out whether they could take it without fainting or throwing up or whatever. Or without having nightmares for two weeks.”
The screenings at the Rio of the 2010 director’s cut of The Exorcist will be preceded on Friday and followed on Saturday by a couple of other horror classics that had scaredy-cats freaking out in the 1970s. The first night will see Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s career-making 1974 novel Carrie bringing the high-school horrors of bullying and alienation—not to mention fiery supernatural revenge—to the fore. And—because what’s Halloween night without a good old-fashioned slasher flick—All Hallows’ Eve will see stab-happy Michael Myers roaming the streets of Haddonfield, Illinois, in John Carpenter’s 1978 blockbuster, Halloween. Masks are encouraged; kitchen knives not so much.
If the all-American horror on display at the Rio isn’t your thing, then across town at the Cinematheque they’ll be doling out J-horror fixes. Friday night kicks off with Japanese extremist Takashi Miike’s 1999 Audition, about a widower who holds an “audition” for a new life partner but winds up on the wrong end of a wire saw. That’s followed by cult director Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s out-there 1989 cyberpunk item Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Described by the British Film Institute’s Lou Thomas as “completely bonkers”, Tetsuo is a low-budget mind messer apparently inspired by the body horror of David Cronenberg and the grotesque surrealism of early David Lynch. It’s about a “metal fetishist” in Tokyo who gets hit by a car and... Oh, forget it. That movie is too weird for words. It has to be seen to be believed.
On Halloween night at the Cinematheque, the fun starts on a ghostly note with director Hideo Nakata’s 2002 film Dark Water, about a divorced single mom who moves into a rundown housing complex with her six-year-old daughter before they fall prey to unsettling supernatural happenings. Dark Water was remade in 2005, with Jennifer Connelly as the beleaguered mom.
The spooky thrills continue with another Nakata effort, Ringu, which is credited for kick-starting the J-horror craze in 1989. It’s about a cursed videotape that, when watched, brings certain death to the viewer a week later. It was also remade, with Naomi Watts starring, in 2002.
Topping off the night is one Japanese horror film that wasn’t remade for the American market, and it’s easy to see why. According to the description on the Cinematheque website, director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 movie House is “a campfire ghost story told at the peak of a peyote trip...[that] involves seven giggly schoolgirls who turn up at an aunt’s countryside home and, one by one, meet goofily gruesome deaths by some peeved-off supernatural weirdness.”
Doesn’t sound like something your typical Hollywood producer would kill to greenlight.
And for those who just can’t get out of the house for in-person Halloween viewing, may we recommend one choice item from each of three streaming services?
Those with Netflix would be wise to home in on 2018’s Hereditary, a satanic flick in which the devil’s wrath seems tame compared to the suffering that damaged family members can inflict on one another.
If you’ve got Shudder, check out ’80s horror honcho Stuart Gordon’s 2007 film Stuck, inspired by the sad but true story of a homeless man who got hit by a car and was left in the windshield to die.
And Amazon Prime subscribers should try 2011’s The Cabin in the Woods, in which a gaggle of attractive young victims-to-be head out for some weekend fun in what looks like your typical Friday the 13th–style slaughterfest but which turns out to be so much more. It could be the best horror flick ever made in Vancouver.