Friday, January 14, 2011

The power of repetition compels you

My recent trip to New York included a lot less time in transit, so I covered a lot fewer movies on my obligatory list. In fact, only one: The Exorcist.

Amongst horror movies, I can think of a few I have found entertaining, but only two that even approached being scary. I don't count the moment's jolt when a sudden, unexpected loud noise surprises you as fear; that's just being startled. A scary movie should have you tense and something akin to frightened while it's happening, or later, or both. The two movies to get me that way: Alien and The Omen. Many people mistake the former for science fiction (it's that too, but it's primarily horror), but everyone categorizes the latter as horror. And The Exorcist is usually the film most likely to be ranked alongside it in terms of scariness.

Well, I don't see it. The movie felt boring and flat to me. There was a lot of shock value and a lot of really horrible things being said, but the only sign of a real threat was one off-camera death. Generally speaking, I never got any sense that the demon had any goal, or any idea what it could or couldn't do, so I didn't feel like there was any real threat being made. It just seemed like it wanted to be really awful and horrible, but not really to do anything.

It was suggested to me that maybe it's scary only to people who believe in that sort of thing. But The Omen ultimately derives its sense of ominous danger from belief in the same general stuff, and I didn't feel any more need to believe in the Bible to find it scary than I need to believe in warp drive to enjoy Star Trek. If the movie really does have its impact only on people who believe in demonic possession, I think I'll make a new horror movie about someone who has to help a friend recover from a disk crash, and the friend didn't make backups.

Otherwise, it just felt like it dragged on and on, with minor moments of things that were shockingly awful, but not really scary, to sustain us between long periods of nothing particular happening. I actually found the most interesting parts to be watching the younger priest go through his backstory -- which is not to say that that was interesting, but it was more so than watching the mother get more and more worn.

I get the sense that the people who made the film (or the book) found medical procedures terrifying, too, because the treatment of medicine was at once very strikingly true -- I was very impressed with how the doctors were depicted -- and depicted in a stark way that made me think they expected the audience to be cringing at the diagnostic procedures. I bet some people were. But again, that's not enough to make a good horror movie.

When the movie started I found myself wondering if I had the wrong film for a bit, since I had never heard anything about there being an archaeological expedition involved. Wait, is he going to open some clay jar that the demon was trapped in? Surely it's not that sort of movie. Then an hour goes by without the slightest reference to the whole opening scene. When we finally do get one, there seems to have been no reason to actually have seen it. It, like the mother's acting career, seem like an attempt to round out the characters that falls flat and ends up feeling like stretching the movie out.

The ending felt about as anticlimactic to me as the film had felt flat. So the older priest just got scared into a heart attack, is that it? And then the younger priest got the demon to go into him -- why would the demon do that? -- and then committed suicide -- why does that make the demon "lose"? I know that the point of the movie isn't to make a complete system of rules for how possession works: leaving it vague is supposed to help make it scary, the same way not seeing the xenomorph much helped make Alien scary. But this is more than just being ambiguous: it reaches over the line into meaningless. The threat and resolution just feel arbitrary and muddled. It's not like the xenomorph being only partially seen; it's more like if the xenomorph was so ambiguous we weren't even sure if it wanted to kill anyone, and then at some point it got persuaded to leave the ship because it didn't like the song about the lucky star.

We see the police lieutenant a few times, but nothing much ever comes of his inquiries. I suppose they're mostly there to help provide a reason for exposition. But then we see him at the end, and it seems this forces the question the filmmakers might prefer to avoid: how the heck does everyone brush off all these deaths without the law at least taking an interest? There was already one suspected murder, and now two more deaths -- admittedly one by natural causes -- in the same place, and one of them almost as suspicious as the first one even if you don't consider the whole "the same cause from the same place in the company of the same person" part. But the lieutenant just wants to go to the movies.

Once again I wonder if I'm missing something, or if it's just a matter of taste, that there are things in the movie that are frightening to a lot of people but not to me. And as always, if so, I wonder what it is.

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