Gender Bashing: The Exorcist Series and the Male Body in Possession Horror - Dread Central
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Gender Bashing: The Exorcist Series and the Male Body in Possession Horror

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It’s weird being both a woman and a horror fan. While the genre boasts the inclusion of strong women in prominent roles, the usage and treatment of women in horror films has also been, at times, dismissive and regressive. The possession film is one such example.

Not to be confused with the science fiction-horror film which often has a foreign presence occupying a male body (see: The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien), the possession film is overwhelmingly concerned with the male psyche, with the female body undergoing various trials and tribulations to facilitate the arc of that male psyche. Carol J. Clover’s monumental 1993 book on gender in horror cinema, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws”, dedicates an entire chapter toward this concept, and provided the basis for my appreciation of “The Exorcist” TV series for its unorthodox use of gender. In The Exorcist, young Regan MacNeil becomes possessed by Pazuzu, but the story is about Father Karras and his potential loss of faith. Witchboard. Beyond Evil. The Possession. The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The formula has become an occult film standard, with some notable exceptions.

Rosemary’s Baby sees its protagonist, Rosemary Woodhouse, as both physical and psychological focus of the story, with her sellout husband Guy in a secondary role to her struggles. The Amityville Horror’s central protagonist, George Lutz, becomes host to an evil entity and the spotlight remains on him and his attempts to deal with the problem at hand, while his wife is a bewildered bystander for most of the film’s 119-minute runtime. John Carpenter’s Christine has outcast nerd Arnie Cunningham taking on the usually feminine role of possession victim, only this time he’s under the control of a female (the ‘59 Plymouth Fury bearing the film’s title is referred to as a “she” as most vessels are), and is himself gendered feminine by his introverted nature (of note: his schoolmates give him the emasculating name of “Cuntingham”), becoming more aggressively masculine as the film goes on. In much of horror (especially slashers and body horror), aggression is coded as masculine, while emotional impressionability is coded as feminine. Recently, the Insidious films have put a man in a position of spiritual vulnerability towards evil. But for the most part, the female form-as-possessive-object is the norm for occult films.

The first season of “The Exorcist” is a continuation of the tradition. The victim is the youngest of the Rance household, Casey Rance (Hannah Kasulka). Though her sister Katherine suffers heavy loss with the death of a loved one and subsequent judgment from the local community, it is Casey who becomes occupied by the same “Captain Howdy” that fans of the ‘73 film are already familiar with. Normally bright-eyed and loving, Casey becomes increasingly aggressive and distant (which the horror genre codes as masculine traits) as time and possession progress. Meanwhile, both her family and her exorcists, Fathers Marcus and Tomas (Ben Daniels and Alfonso Herrera, respectively), take the opportunity to have their personal revelations and confess their sins and hug it out. Though the season has several amazing twists and turns, we know this basic plot structure. We’ve seen this structure in occult films time and again; woman corporally suffers, man spiritually redeems himself.

The second season of “The Exorcist” leaves the well-trodden path of female possession to follow widower and foster parent Andrew “Andy” Kim, played with quiet intensity by John Cho. Andy is the strong, silent type, but provides a loving home to his five at-risk foster kids. As with all occult films, the body to be possessed has to be vulnerable to that dark force. Like a vampire, the demonic entity has to be invited in, in so many words. Season two is a tale of emotionally vulnerable men: Andy’s processing of death, Father Marcus’ wavering faith as it relates to his sexual orientation and his place in God’s plan, and Father Tomas’ inability to reconcile his lets-save-everybody naivete with the scorched-earth realities and collateral damage of demonic possession. Occult stories have normally gendered emotional openness as feminine, and secular pragmatism as masculine. Think of Mr. Freeling in Poltergeist. Micah in Paranormal Activity. Robert Thorn in The Omen. In these films and more, the women are the first to point out that something otherworldly is at play while the men shake their heads and search for secular scientific explanations until it’s far too late. Andy occupies both of these roles, as both the possessed vessel, and by his refusal to acknowledge the spiritual takeover or seek help for it until it’s far too late. It’s here that Andy shares a common kinship with George Lutz of The Amityville Horror. But does that closed-off introversion effectively gender Andy as feminine, as it does to the young men of Witchboard, Christine, and A Haunting in Connecticut? Not necessarily.

Another creative gem in season two of “The Exorcist” is the intimacies and affections shared by men, as a normal way of interacting. Without spoiling anything in particular, scenes of male confession and opening up are consistently interlaced throughout multiple subplots, among multiple characters. There is still plenty of secular pragmatism, but much of the dismissal of the supernatural is done by a woman. Rose has seen plenty of trials and tribulations in her time as a social worker, and when she first encounters Fathers Marcus and Tomas (and their attempts to save the soul of a girl displaying the symptoms of demonic possession), her response is to intervene and put a stop to it. It takes her awhile (a handful of episodes, in TV time) to warm up to the idea of possession and exorcism, putting her in the role that men often occupy in occult horror. Conversely, Andy is the one full of sentiment, affection, and hand-wringing worry— a feminine role, traditionally. But unlike occult stories of decades past, that in itself does not render him into a portal for the supernatural. Here, Andy’s grief for the loss of his wife and his stress over the responsibilities of fostering troubled youths are not what invites the demonic entity in. Andy’s ultimate downfall (and what allows the evil in) is his refusal to seek help—what normally amounts to the man’s role in occult horror. The writers of “The Exorcist” have complicated the formula, in a good way.

Often the possession victim’s torment is only significant to the extent that it affects the arc of those around them. In both the 1971 Exorcist book and the 1973 film adaptation, author William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin put Regan through hell as a means to an end— Father Karras’ end. Just as the title suggests, the story isn’t about her. It’s about the exorcist. And while both seasons of “The Exorcist” follow the two priests performing exorcisms, season two puts Andy’s strife with the death of his wife, moving on and showing intimacy with Rose, and with raising kids on his own on an equally important footing with the internal battles of Fathers Marcus and Tomas. Not only is he colonized and subjected to the scarring, the vomiting, the hallucinating, and the hysteria that is normally reserved for the fairer sex in this sort of cinema, Andy’s own heart and soul is showcased in a struggle to come to terms with his own feelings toward loved ones (both dead and alive), and with expressing them. This plot line takes up a fair amount of screen time, carving out a space in every episode alongside the priests’ spiritual warfare. In a subgenre overrun by stories exploiting women’s anatomy for the male psyche, Andy’s deeper, more prominent arc is a welcome change to the structural standard.

Season two of “The Exorcist” is singular in its recalibration of usual standard of gendered possession in film and television. In utilizing Andy’s body and making his psyche just as much of a focal point as those of the two priests who attempt to save his soul, Jeremy Slater, Jason Ensler, and the cadre of writers and guest directors have effectively bucked the usual genre customs. Hopefully, the show will serve as a creative trendsetter in the exploration of how we gender emotional openness in possession horror.


Anya Stanley is a California-based writer, columnist, and staunch Halloween 6 apologist. Her horror film analyses have appeared on Birth Movies Death, Blumhouse, Daily Grindhouse, and wherever they’ll let her talk about scary movies. See more of her work on anyawrites.com, and follow her shenanigans on Twitter @BookishPlinko.


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What’s Next? 5 Horror Trends We Expect Within 5 Years

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Recently I penned an article based on the last Decade of Horror. In said post, I delved into the top three films of each year spanning 2010 – 2017 and attempted to decipher what the trends were throughout our decade thus far.

To say the least, the article was insightful to write up. Witnessing trends ebb and flow and analyzing what floats to the surface time and time again was a fascinating project to take on.

With that knowledge now in my big, bald noggin, I thought it would be interesting to dive a bit into what I believe will be the “Next Big Thing” in horror. We’ve seen found footage. We’ve seen 3-D. We’ve seen it all, right? Not so much.

So here are five trends I expect to see in horror over the next five years.

Enjoy!

***


Black & White & Red All Over

The resurgence of black & white films. This is the one I can all but guarantee is on the horizon and it is going to hit in a big, bad way in the very near future. Black and white creates atmosphere in spades, and it doesn’t cost any extra money.

With films like The Eyes of My Mother and A Girl Walks Home at Night bringing the “old-fashioned” technique back to the forefront of independent cinema – and the recent killer episode of “Black Mirror: Metalhead” directed by David Slade – I believe, like cinema tends to do, there will be a step back towards a more classic era of filmmaking. And black and white horror films will be at the head of that new reverse-renaissance. Mark my words.

Netflix of Horror

A horror streaming giant will rise. Bank on it. While Shudder appears to be the frontrunner, they have yet to become a household name. Unfortunately, I think this is due to too many obscure titles. I love Shudder don’t get me wrong – and I’ve kept my subscription going for several years (as I’m sure you have) – but that said, they seem to be too concerned with horror street cred than pulling in the mainstream crowd.

That’s, of course, not a bad thing, but throw some bullshit teen horror on there and get your subscription numbers up, and Shudder will become the top spot for horror (of all kinds) on these here internets… or continue to be cool and fade away. Make your choice. Again, nothing but love, Shudder. I’d just like to see you become the Netflix of Horror you deserve to be. Someone’s going to take the title soon. I only hope it’s you.

Drone Footage

This is just what it sounds like: movies shot almost exclusively with drones. More and more low-budget filmmakers are employing drones to stunning effect, and it is only a matter of time before someone says “F*ck it” and shoots a flick completely with a drone.

And I’m not talking about found footage here by the way. I’m talking about a movie that breaks down the walls of what we call typical coverage in a film – horror or not. But considering horror is always at the forefront of innovation in the world of cinema, I think drone movies will begin in the horror genre. No more steady-cams, no more cranes, tripods, helicopters, or dolly tracks. Imagine sweeping camera moves of not only landscapes but intimated conversations as well.

Imagine we’re close on someone’s eyes, then we pull out into an over-the-shoulder, then we begin to steady-cam around them as they kiss (or kill, whatever) and then we pull back higher and higher into a glorious wide of the sun setting behind the trees. Shots like this weren’t possible (on a low budget) before drones. Get creative. Forget the rules of coverage (other than the 180 rule) and push cinema to new heights.

That said, I concede that such dialogue scenes will need to be dubbed and shadows/reflections caused by the camera will need to be monitored closely, but these are already the issues any filmmaker takes on when making a flick. One day we will get epic drone films, and they are going to be low-budget stunning on the level of mega-budget movies ala Dunkirk. I cannot wait.

Fan Films

Sooner or later all of us fans are going to get sick and tired of waiting for someone at the major studios to get off the butts and make another entry in the TCM, Friday the 13th, NOES series. With technology what it is nowadays people are going to just start making them themselves. They’ll be putting real time and effort into these films as calling cards, and they might even break the studio system this way.

Hell, we’ve already seen the start with such quality flick as the Friday the 13th fan film Never Hike Alone. And I see no reason that the films couldn’t end up being ballsier and better than anything a studio could put out.

But they can’t make money. True. But again they will function as calling cards for future filmmakers. And have you ever seen how expensive film school is? Yikes. Better to slap a hockey mask and a GoPro to your dumbass friend Brian and have him chase your little sister around the backyard. Just work your way up from there.

One-Month Movies

One-Month Movies. Or Flash Flicks. Or something like that. It’s an appealing gimmick to be sure. Filmmakers will begin making movies for all intents and purposes as fast as they possibly can. Pure creativity without overthinking the final product.

Scary prospect. But a thrilling one as well. I know I’d be up for watching what filmmakers like Adam Wingard, Mike Flanagan, and hell maybe even John Carpenter could come up within one month’s time. It’s like DIY king Robert Rodriguez once said (and I’m paraphrasing here) digital filmmaking is like a painting; you can just begin and let the mood and inspiration take over.

These “One-Month Movies” will be exciting and fresh… or utter disasters. Either way, they will be worth watching. But these films will need a platform for their releases. And once the Netflix of Horror I described above comes to grandiose fruition, then we will be seeing these films more and more. At least I hope.

***

And those are the 5 horror trends I expect to see over the next 5 years. Do you agree? Is there something you think I’ve left out? Let us know below!

Until then give the video below a quick watch. It’s simple and amateur but the (no doubt kids) behind the video have the right idea. Drones plus black & white footage, plus the score to The Shining creates killer atmosphere. Just wish the framing was a bit better. All the same, there are moments in the video that will sell these ideas to you instantly.

Enjoy?

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Brennan Went to Film School: Unlocking the Hidden Meaning in Insidious: The Last Key

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“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS DETAILED SPOILERS FOR INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

Blumhouse had quite a year last year, didn’t they? In addition to having three number one hits on their hands, the racial satire Get Out is their first horror entry to get awards traction thanks to its deeper themes. Now that everyone is starting to take the company and its work a little more seriously, it’s time to bring out the big guns and dive right into some deeper analysis into a much more unlikely subject: Insidious: The Last Key. The fourth entry in their tentpole haunted house franchise might not seem like it at first glance, but it’s the Get Out of the Me Too era, telling a story of women’s struggles while predicting the downfall of powerful, abusive men that started to occur during its production process with eerie accuracy.

No, seriously. Let’s start by taking a look at the villain. Unusually for this franchise, the baddies are both paranormal and human: halfway through the film it is revealed that the haunting victim who has called Lin Shaye’s Elise and her crew is also a sadistic killer who has chained up a woman in his basement. This is also revealed to be the very same thing Elise’s father did many decades before. The film implies that both men are being influenced by the key-wielding demon that inhabits the house.

Key imagery is very important to the film as a whole (I mean come on, it’s literally in the freakin’ title) and its themes of Elise arriving to her childhood home to unlock the secrets of her past. But there’s more than one meaning to that imagery, and understanding those meanings is the key to unlocking the subtext of the film, if you’ll allow me a really obvious pun.


The demon KeyFace might be influencing the men, but they’re still receptive to the idea. That’s because he’s awakening something that was already inside them. KeyFace represents the pure male id; the unconscious, animalistic desires and drives that lay buried in the psyche. He’s not forcing them to behave in this way, he’s just unlocking their darker impulses.

It’s no coincidence that the demon’s lair is the bomb shelter basement. The house has now become a road map of her father’s mind, with his strongest emotions (and the literal place where he keeps his abused women secreted away) hidden in a sublevel that isn’t visible from the surface. This is the very same basement where he locked up Elise while punishing her for insisting that her visions were real. He wanted her to keep her psychic gifts locked away, probably so she wouldn’t discover his own submerged secrets.

Elise encounters a variety of keys during her journey that allow her to penetrate deeper and deeper into The Further, the house, her past, and the hideous truth about the men in her life. These keys unlock doors, suitcases, chains, and cages, but the most important unlocks the truth… and turns the attention of the evil upon her and her two nieces.

The probing of these women ignites the fury of KeyFace and he takes her niece Melissa into the basement (another buried sublevel that must be unlocked), inserting a key into her neck and rendering her mute, then stealing her soul with a second key plunged into her heart. He is only vanquished when Elise and her other niece Imogen team together and use a family heirloom – a whistle – to summon Elise’s mother’s spirit.

On the surface, this seems like an inspiring story of three generations of women helping each other to face a great evil. This is certainly true, but now we have the key to understanding exactly what’s happening here. When a young woman discovers the abuse being perpetrated in her house, the figure of pure, wicked male desire literally steals her voice, silencing her. In order to restore that voice, another woman who knows the truth must very literally become a whistleblower.

…Did I just blow your mind?

At its heart, Insidious: The Last Key presents a world where women must rely on other women to provide them a voice and their very survival in a world dominated by powerful men and their ugly, dirty secrets. Secrets that they will do anything to keep locked away. There may be slightly more ghosts in Insidious than in real life, but that’s a frighteningly close parallel with the ugliness currently being revealed in Hollywood – as well as the world at large. It probably won’t tear up the Golden Globes next year, but this film is just the next important stepping-stone after Get Out in Blumhouse’s use of the genre to dig deep into the real life horrors plaguing our society.


Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!


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Why Brad Anderson’s Session 9 Scared the Hell Out of Me

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“Hello, Gordon.”

Invariably, working for sites such as Dread Central, I am always asked the question, “What is the scariest movie you have ever seen?” And, well, truth be told, movies don’t tend to scare me that often. Sure, there are my go-to flicks time and time again such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Lake Mungo. But sure enough, every time I spout out that list to a fellow horror fan, they always follow up with, “Well, what is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen that ISN’T found footage?” Fair enough question.

Now, while I’m not going to go into what I consider to be the scariest non-found footage horror movies (we’ll get into all of that at some later date), I do want to point out a movie in particular here today. The way it goes is that when I tell people my list of scariest non-found footage films, they always nod in agreement. Until, that is, I get to a film called Session 9. It is at that point that whomever I am talking to cocks their head to the side and says, “I’ve never heard of that one.” Which is a shame, and it happens far too often. So today I want to, yet again, give anyone and everyone who’s willing to listen the recommend.

Let’s begin with a quick rundown of the film. Session 9 was written and directed by Brad Anderson, who is a name you might recognize as the creative force behind such films as The Vanishing on 7th Street, Transsiberian, and the “Christian Bale is as skinny as a skeleton” mindfuck The Machinist.

But as good as those film may (or may not) be, without a doubt Anderson’s masterpiece is Session 9. Written specifically to be filmed inside the Danvers State Mental Hospital, the film stars David Caruso (don’t let that stop you), Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas, and a few other gents as a group of asbestos removal guys who are possibly haunted within the walls of the institute while on a job.

If that rundown isn’t the best, here is the film’s official synopsis: “A tale of terror when a group of asbestos removal workers starts work in an abandoned insane asylum. The complex of buildings looms up out of the woods like a dormant beast. Grand, imposing…abandoned, deteriorating. The residents of Danvers, Massachusetts, steer well clear of the place. But Danvers State Mental Hospital closed down for 15 years is about to receive five new visitors…”

Brrr… freaky enough, right? Well, trust me; the actual film is leaps and bounds better than even that creeper synopsis lets on. And best of all, with all horror and terror aside, the film is a tight flick about a group of men and how they interact as a team. While that may not sound too appealing, the actors – yes, even David Caruso – make for a lovable group of grumps that I enjoyed spending 90 minutes with.

Let’s talk about the horror for a second. You have to wait until the end, but once it hits (full force), it is well worth the wait. The first two thirds of the film is creepy but mostly about the men and the job. Horror looms in the background at all times, sure, but it isn’t until the final act that the shit really hits the fan. And boy, does it. The final act is as bloody as any slasher you could ever hope for and even features a fun, very cool cameo by Mr. Larry Fessenden himself. But it is the final, give or take, 30 seconds of the film that still haunts me to this day.

You see, the film is constantly playing a game of “Is it ghosts? Is it all in your head? Or is there a human element to the horror?” And that game comes to nightmarish reality in the film’s final moments. I specifically remember having fun with the film until its last frames. That was when I needed to turn the lights on. But that still didn’t help. The horrors that Session 9 presents in its final moments are horrors where there is nowhere to run, no way to prevent it from finding you in the darkness, and no way to save yourself, or your loved ones, if it finds you.

“I live in the weak and the wounded.”

Being that I am prone to being one of those dudes that lets shit bottle up inside until I explode (sad but true), this film is fucking terrifying to me. I get it. I fear it. And I hope you will too. As kids, we need cautionary tales, and let’s not forget that we as adults do too sometimes. Session 9 is a warning for grown-ups. You almost deserve it for yourself and your loved ones to see this film and allow it to sink in. Just don’t expect to sleep for a few nights…

In the end, why did Session 9 scare the hell out me so bad? Was it that voice that haunts my dreams to this day, or was it what the voice says? I’m still not sure. But trust me when I say that Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is one of the absolute scariest films I have ever seen. If you haven’t given the film its day in court yet, remedy that ASAP and thank me (or hate me) later.

You can buy Session 9 on Blu-ray HERE. And while you’re at it, make sure to check out Villmark Asylum (a similar film to Session 9) now on VOD.

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