When we think of the great horror performances of the last 100 years, the tendency is immediately to think of the monsters and killers: Anthony Perkins, Bela Lugosi, Max Schreck. This isn’t entirely fair on the other cast members, but it reflects the way that most horror movies aren’t all that interested in the victims. What might be harder, though, than playing a memorable villain is giving a great performance in a horror movie as the one responding to the horror. Lots of teenagers have been chopped up by Freddy, Jason and Michael, and usually the audience is relieved to see them go. But how many have made us really care about their plight?
I would like to submit Ellen Burstyn’s turn in The Exorcist as simply one of the best the genre has ever seen. It’s a magnificent performance; subtle, heartbreaking, and entirely believable. I’m not saying I believe in the story of demonic possession, but I do believe that’s how a mother might react. The entire movie rests on her shoulders; if we can’t believe in her pain and frustration as a mother, then the story would fall to pieces.
Burstyn was not the first choice for the role: among those approached to play the part were actors as diverse as Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft. All fine performers, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role, and I struggle to imagine any could do as good a job. They might be too showy, too over-the-top and emotional. Burstyn’s brilliance lies in how grounded she makes Chris MacNeil, mother of a child possessed by a demon. The journey she takes to reach the point where an exorcism seems a reasonable option is gradual and logical.
Chris is an actress in films who brings up her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair) on her own; her husband, Regan’s father, is absent for unclear reasons. As any Shakespeare scholar will tell you, characters called Regan tend not to have great relationships with their fathers. It becomes clear something is wrong with Regan. Doctors offer various theories, but very little actual help. A malevolent force takes over her body, and Chris sees less and less of her daughter in Regan. Without Burstyn’s performance, all we might see is a child acting out moments of violence and lewdness. Because of Burstyn’s response, what we see is a child’s body being tortured and abused by an intangible being. She means it when she says ‘that thing upstairs is not my daughter.’
The film takes both its characters and the forces of evil seriously. A critic once told me ‘it’s not about faith, it’s about the breakdown of the family unit.’ It’s actually about both, and you can read whatever symbolism you like into Regan’s torment (it could equally be a parable about adolescence). No such analogy is forced, but it’s there if you want to take it that way. That’s not what gives it its power though. Like Jaws, it builds slowly, allowing the audience time to care about the characters. Linda Blair makes Regan a sweet, believable young girl and is able to communicate the slow erosion of Regan’s innocence as the demon takes over. Jason Miller, as Father Karras, is an unusually strong supporting role: though he doesn’t take our attention away from Chris and Regan, the final battle is as much for his soul as Regan’s life. Max Von Sydow’s performance, though he is not onscreen for long, is iconic; he’s an old-school priest, unconcerned with the sort of moral and philosophical struggles that torment Karras. Finally Lee J. Cobb brings a note of lightness as a policeman starstruck by Chris.
Director William Friedkin, who once said ‘I think the whole auteur theory is bullshit,’ surrounded himself with such talents and crafted a timeless horror movie. Notably, the opening credit reads ‘William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.’ Blatty wrote the novel and screenplay, so it’s easy to see why, but not many directors would hand over credit like that. Make-up artist Dick Smith provided the legendary make-up for Regan and many of the special effects; although a few of the head-spinning effects are a little creeky now, for the most part the make-up hasn’t dated. The music, by Jack Nitzsche, along with the sparing use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” is chilling.
The movie was an unprecedented success: adjusting for inflation, it’s still the highest grossing R-rated movie ever made. There were numerous reports of people fainting in cinemas. The hype that is nowadays so often resurrected for moderately successful horror movies was born. For years the film was unavailable on video in the UK; when I was a kid an aura of danger still surrounded it because it had been ‘banned.’ Actually, as is often the case, it wasn’t banned at all – aside from the fact the BBFC does not technically have the authority to place an outright ban on movies, it was actually never submitted because of the idiotic Video Nasties scare of the 1980s. James Ferman, then head of the BBFC, said he would not release it on video because it was too powerful. Salò, he had no problem with. When I finally saw the film on video as a young teenager, after its 1998 release, I was disappointed: I was expecting something terrifying. Watching it now my only explanation is that I was a complete dunderhead; or, more likely, simply too impatient to care much about the emotional turmoil of Karras and Chris. Modern audiences would probably expect projectile vomiting in the opening scene, and most modern filmmakers would give it to them.
Another film Ferman refused to release on tape from the 1970s is the unrelentingly grim The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Directed by Tobe Hooper and released in 1974, it doesn’t get anywhere near the characterisation of The Exorcist, but it is at least as gruelling an experience. It doesn’t have the ‘entertainment’ factor that the earlier movies in this series had; it really is horrible. Unlike the many later slasher movies it’s not trying to be fun. Yes, watching Kevin Bacon get a harpoon through his neck is entertaining. But watching Teri McMinn get hung from a meat hook – despite being the less violent of the two scenes – is seriously unpleasant. That’s partly because of the disturbing force of Gunnar Hansen’s performance as Leatherface, a masked psychopath who would influence so many later, inferior, masked slasher killers. The tagline was ‘Who will survive and what will be left of them?’ and that may well apply to the audience as well as the characters.
The decade had already opened with a disturbing precursor to the slasher genre: Wes Craven’s deeply flawed The Last House on the Left. It’s a mess of a movie, with spectacularly misjudged scenes and music, and yet somehow its flaws almost work in its favour; they make the central passage, involving the humiliation and rape of two girls, all the more upsetting. There’s a nihilism at its centre that is as powerful as anything in “Texas Chain Saw” (which is, without question, a better movie). As these movies suggest, American horror in the ’70s was at least partly defined by a rejuvenated desire to terrorise – as opposed to simply terrify – the audience. James Ferman, who incidentally was also responsible for getting all the nunchucks cut out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, left the BBFC in 1999 and the organisation released The Texas Chain Saw Massacre almost immediately. Last House on the Left, which was made in 1972, was not released uncut on video in the UK until 2008.
The ’70s is probably my favourite decade for movies, particularly American films, and that certainly applies to horror too. There are simply too many to list, but among my favourites are: Don’t Look Now (1973) which has some of the best editing the genre has ever seen; The Wicker Man (1973), again a flawed film that gets under your skin gradually; Black Christmas (1974), the first slasher movie proper and a great entertainment; Carrie and The Omen, both slick, superbly made chillers (both 1974), Jaws (1975), which combines horror with the adventure movie; Shivers (1975), David Cronenberg’s breakthrough, which combines horror with sexuality; Suspiria (1977), the highpoint of Italian horror and one of the most visually striking of all of these films, Dawn of the Dead (1978), probably the best zombie movie of them all; Halloween (1978) the first slasher that was also a box office smash; Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), both going back to the Frankenstein cocktail of horror and sci-fi – and, finally, Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), Werner Herzog’s excellent remake of Murnau’s silent masterpiece. I say ‘finally,’ but actually that’s just skimming the surface; though the genre has graced movie screens for 100 years, the modern horror movie was effectively born in the 1970s.