The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller

“Mother, what’s wrong with me?” (Regan, The Exorcist)

The Exorcist is not a horror film. At least, that’s what director William Friedkin, writer William Peter Blatty and Linda Blair, who played the possessed little girl in the film, would have you believe. According to them, it’s a drama about the mystery of faith that just happens to have disturbing scenes in it. Personally I’d chuck a stern “bullshit” at that theory, but it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that whatever genre or niche you try to place it in, The Exorcist remains one of the greatest films ever made.

The story’s well-known, but for those who’ve maybe managed to avoid it I’ll fill you in on the basics. Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) gets concerned when her little girl Regan starts showing some odd behaviour. She pees on the carpet, swears at doctors and starts playing with ouija boards. While this may be the normal sort of behaviour you’d expect from an Essex youth, for the well brought-up Regan it’s very uncharacteristic.

"You might want to run this under the tap first, it's been... um, used"

Doctors are unable to figure out what’s wrong with Regan and brain scans come back negative, suggesting she’s not suffering from any sort of mental illness. Meanwhile, Regan’s behaviour gets more and more shocking, culminating in her slapping her mother across the face and ramming her head into her crotch. Remember, not from Essex.

It soon emerges that Regan claims to be possessed by the devil so, at her wit’s end, Chris goes to a local priest and asks him to arrange an exorcism. After a bit of persuasion (mainly involving Regan masturbating with a crucifix and spinning her head 360 degrees), he decides to get in touch with Father Merrin, one of the few Jesuit priests who still perform the rare ritual. Can they drive the devil out of Regan? That would be telling.

Critics felt the latest Derren Brown show had gone a little too far

While its key moments have been parodied time and time again, spoofed by the likes of the Wayans brothers in Scary Movie 2, Leslie Nielsen in Repossessed and even a Danish bacon advert, The Exorcist still has the power to shock. This is mainly due to two things – the believable and realistic special effects and the superb performance by Linda Blair as Regan.

Regan is such a likeable, idyllic little girl at the start of the movie that when she descends into her possessed state and starts saying and doing the most outrageous things it’s all the more shocking. You find yourself siding with her mother as she tries to get help – you care about this once-sweet little girl’s well-being and you want her to overcome this demon who’s possessed her. Had Regan not been so easy to warm to at the start then the audience would have made less of an emotional investment in the movie.

"What do you mean you forgot to buy my fucking Clearasil? It's the one bloody thing I wanted from the shop"

The effects, many of which have only been recently explained, are the work of genius. These days it suffers from the “Beatles effect” – the genre has evolved so much over the years (in this case thanks to CGI) that it can be hard to appreciate the impact it made when it was first released, but at the time it was doing stuff on camera that had never been seen before and without a computer in sight.

The bed shaking was handled by building a bed, cutting a hole in the wall behind it and having a crew of men literally shake the bed from behind the set. The famous levitation scene (where Regan rises from her bed) was done with wires painted grey and white in a dash effect to confuse the eye and make them impossible to see in the film. The spinning head was a robotic dummy, the vomit scene was created with a mouth attachment that fired pea soup… all pieces of technical genius and all remarkably believable.

You could watch The Exorcist ten times and get something new out of it each time you watched it. Legendary critic Mark Kermode famously said he’s watched it over 200 times and it still feels new to him every time. There are so many subtle moments, so many nods to events that will happen later on, so many different ways to consider each scene and so many different interpretations you can give to its open ending that everyone will take away something different from the film. Religious viewers will see the fear in having their faith challenged, parents will see the fear in the helplessness Chris feels as her daughter succumbs.

Whoever you are and whatever your beliefs may be, you really have to see this film. It may terrify you beyond belief (though if you’re a hardened Saw addict it may not), but it’s one of the most important films in cinema and a landmark of the horror genre – whether or not the filmmakers believe it’s a part of it.

A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

Director: Jack Sholder

Starring: Robert Englund, Mark Patton, Kim Myers

JESSE – “Grady, do you ever remember your dreams?”
GRADY – “Only the wet ones.”

At the time, Jack Sholder didn’t know he was making a gay movie. As far as he was aware, he was simply making a sequel to A Nightmare On Elm Street, which had been a huge box office success the previous year. It was only when the film started getting recognition and critical praise from the gay media that he slowly realised he may have unwittingly created the greatest homosexual film of the early ’80s.

Freddy’s Revenge tells the tale of Jesse (Mark Patton), an effeminate young chap who’s new in town and already trying to win over his new high school lady friend Lisa (Kim Myers, looking remarkably like a young Bette Midler). The problem is, Jesse’s family have unwittingly moved into1428 Elm Street, the house where Nancy lived in the previous movie, and in doing so have provided Freddy with new victims to stalk.

"Haven't you heard, Toots? I'm a metaphor for Jesse's gay side. Ain't got no time for adequate pieces of tail like you"

As Jesse sleeps at night, he dreams about Freddy. Rather than killing him though, Freddy wants to take over Jesse’s body so he can come into the real world and kill all the teenagers in Elm Street. Jesse tries to resist, but finds himself unable to control his body. He goes into his little sister’s room wearing a Freddy glove and only just manages to stop himself attacking her. He sprouts a huge demon tongue while he’s getting down and dirty with Lisa but manages to hide it and leave without her seeing. Freddy’s taking over his body and there’s not much he can do about it.

Ah. Right. Well, I'm not touching this one, you can draw your own conclusions

Of course, as far as the cast and crew of the movie were concerned (well, most of them at least – nowadays Mark Patton, himself a gay actor, claims he knew all along what was happening), this was nothing more than a straight sequel (in every sense of the word) to the previous year’s big horror blockbuster. That wasn’t how the gay community saw it, however. In their eyes, Freddy’s Revenge was a film about a young man struggling to accept his own sexuality and trying to fight it. The funny thing is, if you watch the film with the assumption that Freddy is supposed to be Jesse’s gay side, it’s hard to argue with them.

Everything Freddy does to Jesse can be interpreted as an attempt to bring out his gay side. The aforementioned tongue scene is Freddy’s attempt to stop him being intimate with a woman. At one point, Jesse runs to a male friend’s house, climbs through his bedroom window and tells him there’s someone inside of him he’s trying to get out. Every time Jesse kills someone (while under Freddy’s control), he lets out an incredibly high-pitched scream. When Freddy finally completely takes over Jesse’s body, the only way Jesse can be freed is for Lisa to kiss Freddy, essentially killing off his homosexual side.

The pivotal coming out scene, where Freddy literally "comes out" of Jesse while he's in another lad's bedroom

All these are mere foreplay, however, compared to the scene in which a sleeping Jesse, under Freddy’s control, walks to the nearest gay S&M club and finds his gym teacher there wearing a tight leather outfit. The teacher takes Jesse back to the school and makes him run laps in the gym, but afterwards Jesse, as Freddy, ties him up with skipping ropes in the shower, strips him, whips his bare arse with a towel then gives him the old fingerknives in the back (penetrating him from behind, if you will). If the cast and crew genuinely weren’t trying to make a gay movie, you have to wonder what the hell they were thinking here. I’m not just making this up, you know, here’s an entertaining behind-the-scenes video with the film’s cast admitting they had no clue. They’re incredibly honest and stunned at how gay they made the film. It’s a must-watch!

Either way, the homosexual subtext is neither here nor there – Freddy’s Revenge is simply an odd film however you take it (so to speak). Odd, unexplainable things happen throughout the film, each doing their bit to undo the “rules” and mythology laid out by Wes Craven in the wonderful first film. Jesse’s house suddenly becomes incredibly hot for some reason, to the extent that his pet budgie goes mental, attacking Jesse’s sister and then spontaneously combusting into a tiny explosion of flames and feathers.

"Sorry lads, you don't look gay enough. This film has to be fucking blatant. Back to the locker room"

Then there’s the part where Freddy freely comes into the real world, something that was a big no-no in Craven’s original (only Nancy could bring him out of her dream). This leads to a ridiculous scene at a pool party where Freddy confronts 50 or so teens, most of whom are taller than him and could probably kick his arse.

In a series famous for its bizarre moments and bending of reality, for Freddy’s Revenge to somehow feel a bit off is something of an achievement. It’s entertaining enough however you choose to interpret it, but it’s by no means one of the better entries in the Nightmare saga.

Drag Me To Hell (2009)

Director: Sam Raimi

Starring: Alison Lohmann, Justin Long, Lorna Raver

“I’m gonna get me some” (Christine, Drag Me To Hell)

While Sam Raimi is best known these days for being the director of the Spider-Man trilogy, to fans of horror and cult cinema he’ll always be the man behind the legendary Evil Dead films. With this trilogy Raimi took situations that in real life would be blood-curdling beyond belief and presented them in such a darkly comic way that was both horrific and hilarious at the same time. Drag Me To Hell marked Raimi’s return to the genre, and while it could never live up to the Evil Dead films it has a ruddy good go at it.

Peek-a-boo isn't as fun as it used to be

The story begins with Christine (the likeable Alison Lohmann) trying to impress her boss at the bank so she can be promoted to an assistant manager position. Christine is approached by an old gypsy woman who hasn’t been paying her mortgage and needs a little more time to pay it. Though she wants to help the woman, Christine is pressured by her boss into refusing the extension. Enraged, the woman attacks Christine and is dragged away by security. Not to Hell, mind, just out the bank.

Things start to go a little tits-up when Christine, returning to her car, is attacked by the old woman. After a lengthy and ridiculous Raimi-esque battle, the woman tears a button from Christine’s shirt, curses it and gives it back to her, then leaves. From that point on, Christine’s life is filled with visions, hallucinations and attacks from strange beings. It soon emerges that the woman has summoned the Lamia, an ancient demon, who will torment Christine for three days then appear to drag her down to the depths of Hell. Bit harsh, but there you go.

"Well, let's face it, it wouldn't be Glastonbury without bad weather"

The first half of Drag Me To Hell very much concentrates on providing the viewer with jump scares on a regular basis. Jump! as Christine dreams the old woman is lying next to her in bed. Leap! as she’s attacked by the shadow of a demon. Shriek! as a haunted handkerchief floats up towards the screen (seriously). While jump scares are cheap ways to provoke a reaction, Raimi nonetheless times them to perfection here and they’re hard to predict, keeping the audience on edge as shock after shock is delivered.

Eventually though the fun and games have to stop and the small matter of the plot has to be dealt with. The second half of the film, then, is more story-driven and sees Christine trying to figure out how to stop the Lamia from dragging her down to Hell. It’s a little odd because the man giving her advice seems fairly useless (had he suggested in the first place that she do what she does at the end then things would have gone better for her), though she does eventually figure it out on her own.

They suddenly realised they couldn't play Poker without cards

The most memorable moment of the film is its twist ending. Naturally I won’t give the game away but there’s a chance you may be able to figure out what happens anyway if you’re perceptive enough. Something happens in an earlier scene that seems so out of place suspicious viewers may notice it, wonder why the film’s stopped to focused on it, and be able to guess what’s happened as a result. Raimi gambles with it though, and if you didn’t notice it then when the twist comes it’ll all suddenly make sense and seem very clever.

Drag Me To Hell is a Marmite film. Of the people I’ve spoken to about it, around half adored it and half despised it. I personally really enjoyed it but I’m giving it three and a half Trevors out of five because while I feel you should see it, be prepared to be part of the population who didn’t connect with it.

The Langoliers (1995)

Director: Tom Holland

Starring: David Morse, Mark Chapman, Patricia Wettig, Bronson Pinchot

“I hear a really terrible scary sound. And it’s awful. A little like Rice Krispies after you pour in the milk. But I know it’s closer than it was, because something’s coming. Something making that horrible cereal noise.” (Bob, The Langoliers)

As a three-hour made-for-TV film based on a Stephen King book, The Langoliers could either have been compelling viewing or cheesy as hell. Impressively, it manages to be both at the same time. While the story is full of the typical twists and turns you’d expect from a King yarn, the acting is so laughable at times it somehow manages to make things even more entertaining.

On paper, you’d be forgiven for wondering just how The Langoliers manages to last three hours. After all, the plot is the sort of minimalist scenario you might expect as an exercise at an improv class. A group of passengers wake up midway through a flight to Boston to find the rest of the passengers, crew and pilots are missing. With no noticeable damage to the plane and no sign that anyone left, confusion spreads as the group try to figure out what’s happened to everyone. That’s about it.

This guy's a kooky author. He's also patronising to the point that you want to punch his face off

Of course, with the genius storytelling mind of Stephen King behind the wheel twists and turns inevitably ensue, and by the end the film has covered the likes of time travel, telepathy and big CGI balls of fur that eat up the Earth. And it’s a true testament to King’s talents that as mental as all that sounds, it still makes perfect sense when it happens, even when a Maine airport is completely swallowed up whole by a handful of the aforementioned furballs.

These are the Langoliers. They eat things. Just as well, because that's all they seem equipped to do

This being a mid-’90s TV movie, the cheese factor is immensely high. The acting ranges from adequate (David Morse is believable as an off-duty pilot who tries to save the day) to atrocious (pretty much everyone else). Probably the most bizarre example of this is Mark Chapman, who plays the mysterious Nick. Despite actually being a British actor (he’s from London, apparently), he still somehow manages to provide a terrible, fake-sounding English accent. This isn’t helped by his stereotypical English gentleman dialogue, which is so cliched that at times he actually says “jolly good”.

While the plot is engaging and there’s always a desire to find out what’s going to happen to the group, The Langoliers constantly seems like it’s trying its very best to put you off with its embarrassingly poor production. The music is horrible, the CGI effects when the titular Langoliers arrive are laughable, and the final scene is easily one of the worst things ever committed to film. Have a look to see what I mean (don’t worry, it doesn’t spoil what happens):

If you’re looking for a film that takes a great story then buries it in made-for-TV cheese then you’ve got very specific tastes and should probably broaden your search filter. Regardless, The Langoliers will fit your rather niche needs perfectly, and despite its incredible three-hour duration it still manages to whizz by. It’s worth a look, just leave your critic’s hat at the door because it’s certainly not cinema magic. Don’t be fooled by the trailer below, it’s not quite as exciting as it makes it appear.

WHERE CAN I GET IT?
UK would-be Langoliers viewers can get the Region 2 DVD at Amazon.co.uk by clicking here. If you live in the US, you can get the Region 1 DVD from Amazon.com by clicking here or get it in a boxset with The Stand and Golden Years by clicking here.

Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Director: Scott Glosserman

Starring: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund

“Never hang out with a virgin. You got a virgin in your crew, either get somebody in her pants or get the hell away from her.” (Jamie, Behind The Mask)

Behind The Mask is a clever movie. It fools you into thinking it’s only pretty clever, then completely turns things upside down in the final act to show you that, in fact, it’s more than just pretty clever. It’s actually very clever, maybe even ruddy clever.

At first it’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with a crew following Leslie Vernon (the oddly appealing Nathan Baesel), an up-and-coming slasher villain who one day dreams of being as famous as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Leslie takes the crew round his local haunts, introduces them to his parents and shows them his target girl, the one he’s chosen to stalk serial killer-style.

Yes, it's the wee woman from Poltergeist. She's a bit of a legend

Leslie plans to attack this “hero girl” in typical slasher style, by breaking into the house during the party she’s set to throw with her friends and killing them off one by one. He’ll use every trick in the slasher book to get them, from cutting the power off so one of them goes into the basement, to hiding the bodies in a way that they’re found at just the right time.

Every scene had me smiling with its constant nods to previous horror films and its overall attention to horror cliche detail. Leslie shows how many of the typical horror set-pieces are really done – when a girl’s on her own and the door slam shuts behind her, it’s because the killer has already set up the door and pulled it shut with some fishing wire, and so forth.

You can always rely on Robert Englund to put in a good performance

It’s all entertaining until the night of the party, when the camera crew and presenter are forced with a moral dilemma – do they allow Leslie to go ahead with his plan and actually kill all these kids, or do they try to interfere and risk pissing him off? The resulting final act is gripping stuff with a fantastic twist that, while one you’re likely to figure out five minutes before the characters do, is still smartly handled.

Behind The Mask is a surprisingly original movie with a strong cast. A notable mention should go to Robert Englund as he performs his best professor-who-knows-the-killer impression in the style of Donald Pleasance in Halloween, while the rest of the cast is similarly appealing. I strongly recommend this if you fancy something different.