Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #10 - Captain Howdy

A confession: while The Exorcist is an excellent film and I've always admired it, it's never been one of my favorite horror movies. There's no denying that the adaptation of William Peter Blatty's book is brilliantly crafted, but I've always found it to be cold, calculated and difficult to fully embrace. I've always felt that Stephen King's misguided assessment of Stanley Kubrick ("I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people") is actually true of William Friedkin, whose directorial style is bluntly manipulative and betrays little feeling for his characters. His direction is plot-driven in the worst way, barely stopping to allow the brilliant, empathetic performances by Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller to breathe and never really engaging with the questions of the nature of faith that it raises. Hearing the stories of how Friedkin tortured his actors - firing shotguns to startle them, verbally berating them and, at one point, slapping the real-life priest who played Father Karras' friend to get a convincingly shaky reaction shot - just make him sound like an asshole with confused priorities. None of this means The Exorcist isn't a great film, but I roll my eyes when I see it at the top of "all-time best horror movie" list instead of movies that are just as well-made but are much deeper and richer in feeling.

That said, The Exorcist is still a pretty damn impressive of what Pauline Kael called a "boo movie" - its scares are perfectly timed, and I admire how little Regan MacNeil's deterioration from a cute 11-year-old to a foul-mouthed, demon-possessed monster happens at a gradual, almost imperceptible rate. By the time she's peeing on the rug, the film's horror has crept up on us; we're as startled as her mother Chris and her party guests at the girl's personality shift. Regan's possession by an unknown demon she calls "Captain Howdy" leads to the still-startling scenes of the young girl letting out torrents of profanity and having the most blasphemous Judy Blume moment ever with a crucifix. Dick Smith's incredible makeup work, the head-spinning effects and the projectile pea soup all add to the film's effectiveness, but it's the demon's vulgar sexuality as portrayed by an adolescent girl that is responsible for its enormous, enduring popularity. This isn't a new observation, but it's true that Captain Howdy's possession of Regan is the worst-case scenario of every parent's fear of what happens when their special little girl grows up.

Blair must have been a young woman of incredible maturity, and not just for making it through what was by all accounts an ordeal of a film shoot. The believability of the story depends entirely on the performances, especially Blair's, and she is totally convincing as the possessed young girl (Eileen Dietz as Regan's stand-in in some of the more explicit shots and Mercedes McCambridge as the demon's voice deserve credit too). Blair didn't fare as well in John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic, which is fascinating in the way that complete trainwrecks tend to be. Blatty's own The Exorcist III, despite studio interference, is very effective, with the emotional resonance the original lacks. It also has its own memorable monster - Brad Dourif as the resurrected Gemini Killer - and one of the best jump scares of all time. The troubled story of Paul Schrader's troubled prequel and Renny Harlin's pseudo-remake has been well-documented, and while Schrader's isn't totally without interest, neither one is very memorable. None have touched the original in terms of cultural impact - though I'm nitpicking one of the best-loved horror movies, there's no denying that it was the right scary story for its time, or that Captain Howdy still has the ability to shake us.

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