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Posts Tagged ‘Max von Sydow’

I’ve been saying for years that there is some irony in the fact that one of the film genres most likely to acknowledge the existence of God as a key plot point is also the one least likely to be watched or enjoyed by your actual people of faith. I speak, of course, of the horror movie (although I suppose the biblical epic is also wont to upset believers of a certain stripe). On the other hand – and join me now as I generalise egregiously – the issue may be that what for most people just seems to be good camp fun – entertainment about ghoulies and ghosties, imps and demons – may appear to those who believe in the supernatural as dangerously frivolous and in desperately poor taste. Well, it’s a working hypothesis, although I am reminded of a story Sir Christopher Lee used to tell, about a priest who revealed he had no problem with any of the films Lee made: ‘The cross always wins.’ (Clearly he never saw The Wicker Man.)

When it comes to religiously themed horror, The Omen probably takes the prize for textual fidelity (if not actual quality), loosely based as it is on the Book of Revelation, but probably coming a close second is William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist. We should not forget the huge importance of The Exorcist in showing that a well-made horror film from a major studio could be a massive hit: films like The Omen were all following in its profitable wake, in addition to aping its style to a greater or lesser degree.

This is apparent almost from the start of The Exorcist, the opening sequence of which is set in Iraq: linking a story set in the contemporary west to the ancient landscapes and civilisations of the Middle East adds immeasurably to the scope and atmosphere of the narrative. In Iraq we find Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an elderly priest working at an archaeological dig. He uncovers some unsettling fragments and seems troubled by a towering statue he comes across; the sequence is loaded with significance but the audience is left to interpret its exact meaning for themselves; von Sydow does not appear again until the climax of the film, even though he is playing the title role.

The scene changes to Georgetown, a pleasant suburb of Washington DC; here we find actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) involved in making a movie. For the duration of the shoot she is renting a house with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Also living in the area is Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Catholic priest with special responsibilities as a psychiatrist to his colleagues. Karras is struggling to care for his elderly mother and experiencing a profound crisis of faith.

Karras’ mother eventually dies, leaving him guilt-ridden and in despair. Meanwhile, small events accumulate that lead Chris to suspect not all is well: strange noises from empty rooms, the pointer of a Ouija board flicking out of her hands after Regan confesses to having played with it, Regan complaining of her bed shaking in the night. A local church statue is obscenely desecrated. Regan’s behaviour grows more and more extreme, with medical experts unable to identify what is causing it – until one of them reluctantly suggests that, as Regan seems to believe she is the victim of possession by some kind of foreign intelligence, going through with the pro forma of an exorcism might cause her to cease her strange behaviour…

I first saw The Exorcist on the big screen, when it was given a 25th anniversary re-release. And, I must confess, I wasn’t especially impressed by it, certainly as a horror movie. ‘You probably have to be a Catholic to really find The Exorcist scary’ was a line which was in circulation around the time; it’s certainly one of those movies which makes a virtue over its lingering depiction of some aspects of the Catholic faith. Watching it again, however – well, I still wouldn’t say I was scared by it. Repulsed by some bits, yes, baffled by others, but overall my feeling was really of disquiet and unease – which I suppose in many ways is a harder effect to achieve than simple fright.

Much of this may be due to some of the curious directorial and editing techniques employed by Friedkin – sequences of long, carefully choreographed shots are interspersed with sections of staccato editing, the scenes almost seeming to end prematurely as they pile up on one another. There also almost feels like there is something incorrect, if not actually bad, about the structure of the film – the actual exorcist himself feels almost like a secondary character, despite von Sydow’s prominence and presence, while the abrupt switch to a couple of minor figures as viewpoint characters for the conclusion of the film is also rather jarring. But perhaps it is these very choices – unexpected, unusual – which give the film its unsettling atmosphere.

It’s this atmosphere which stops the end of the film, in particular, from sliding too far into the realm of camp spectacle (a possibility which is always there). For me the most genuinely creepy moments of the film come earlier, when the clearly troubled Regan is subjected to the full scrutiny of modern medical science – and the doctors are baffled. (Apparently many viewers find the scene in which Regan is given a angiography, causing blood to spurt out of a tube in her neck, more distressing than any of the stuff with the spinning heads or fake vomit.) The film’s great innovation is to place supernatural horror into a realistic modern setting, and slowly build the way in which it manifests – the climax is just a little bit too close to gothic drag to really work.

The effectiveness of the end of the film is thus limited, if you ask me, but it’s helped a lot by very strong performances from Max von Sydow (the popular image of the actor as a severe elder figure of impeccable integrity no doubt originated here – von Sydow was under heavy make-up and only in his mid forties at the time the film was made) and Jason Miller (Miller is quite a long way down the cast list but in many ways it’s his subtly intense performance that carries the film). It would be silly not to mention to remarkable combined performance of Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge as the possessed girl and her unwelcome guest.

The Exorcist comes from that brief period in American history between the end of the sixties and the twin traumas of the Watergate scandal and the withdrawal from Vietnam (events which coloured or influenced pretty much every major film for the rest of the decade – even George Lucas’ stellar conflict movie was arguably such a massive hit because it completely rejected the cynical mundane world in favour of idealised escapism). It takes that faint sense of implicit disquiet you find in films from this time and uses the lens of the supernatural to magnify it into something with the potential to be profoundly disturbing: the realisation that the whole world has lost its soul and is completely unequipped to deal with a sudden eruption of spiritual evil. It offers no easy answers; the ambiguity and obliqueness of the film is part of what makes it so effective. A highly intelligent and well-made film, and – whatever its eccentricities – still one of the classiest American horror movies.

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Michael J Bassett’s Solomon Kane is pretty much a no-frills genre movie from 2009, that on the face of it resembles Van Helsing up to a point, only less comic-booky and garish. Its main point of interest for the discerning partaker of fantasy and horror is that it is supposedly based on a character created by Robert E Howard back in the 1920s. As the guy who also wrote the original Conan the Barbarian stories, Howard can justifiably stake a claim as an important figure in the development of 20th century genre fiction, but most of his non-Conan writing has fallen into obscurity, and the track record when it comes to movies based on his work is hardly stellar, either. How does this movie stand up?

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Things get underway somewhere exotic and vaguely Arabian in the early 17th century as titular adventurer Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) lays siege to a dubious foreign citadel, assisted by his gang of scurvy dogs and some very dubious CGI. Kane is, we are repeatedly shown, a right sod, cruel, vicious, and completely indifferent to the sight of his crew being set upon by demons. He is less sanguine, however, when confronted by an emissary of Satan who announces that his life of naughty deeds means that his soul is bound for Hell.

Kane is not pleased to hear this and, using the title card for cover, runs off back to a monastery in England to seek redemption. One year later he is still doing this, but the abbot receives either a vision from God or a note from the director telling him he has to turf Solomon out (it will be a fairly boring movie otherwise) so he can search for a way to save his soul elsewhere. Wandering the land, he is taken in by a family of travelling pilgrims led by Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige, but dark forces are also abroad. When the party come under attack and the innocent young daughter of the clan (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is dragged off by satanic cultists, it looks like Solomon Kane may have the opportunity to indulge his predilection for ass-kicking while still staying on the side of the angels…

Well, look: you know the sort of film this is, it’s the sort that comes out round about March or October, in the gap between awards season movies and summer blockbusters. It has a moderate budget, a moderately-sized star, and – one would presume – moderate ambitions as far as the box office is concerned. It’s pitching to a very specific genre audience, with the Howard connection being a bonus more than anything else. The bar here has not been set especially high, so you would expect the film-makers to be able to make a decent job of doing, you know, an acceptable movie.

Solomon Kane has got a lot going for it, particularly in terms of its cast: James Purefoy is a capable leading man, and any film including Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige has the basis of a solid supporting cast. (Jason Flemyng and Max von Sydow also appear, but only for about five minutes each.) The film is also strong on a bleak and doomy atmosphere.

And yet… I don’t know, perhaps I’m just getting too old for this sort of film, but I found getting through Solomon Kane to be nearly as much of an ordeal as anything undergone by the characters in the film. People gallop around on horseback in big hats, there’s a fight, there’s a doom-laden pronouncement from a supporting player, Purefoy glowers and broods a lot…

I suppose part of the problem is that on one level Solomon Kane is aware of the genre conventions and is working hard to meet them: so there are various garish CGI beasties, not to mention a reasonably competent three-act structure and a decent character arc for Purefoy. On the other hand, Bassett appears to be attempting to make something rather more subdued and atmospheric than the standard genre stomper, and the two don’t really fit together perfectly. If the film was slightly more cartoony and tongue-in-cheek (it has no appreciable sense of humour), or toned down the horror-action elements and tried to work more as a genuine drama, it might be rather more palatable. As it is, it just comes across as humourless and silly. There is no sense of historical or geographical realism, no sense of what 17th century England was actually like (though this doesn’t stop the west-country accents deployed by most of the cast from seeming rather snigger-worthy).

Actually, make that humourless, silly, and very predictable. You are never in any doubt as to what’s going to happen at any point in Solomon Kane, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but the real killer for the film is that you don’t really care either way. This is a competently filmed and acted movie, for the most part, but the script has none of the colour, energy, or innovation it desperately needs to make this film at all memorable or distinctive.

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