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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Exclusive: Making Effective Low-Budget Slashers w/ Black Creek Writer-Director James Crow

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Today marks the release of writer-director James Crow’s new supernatural slasher flick Black Creek on VOD.

To celebrate the film being out there for your viewing pleasure, we wanted to catch up with the director and talk a bit of shop about just how one puts together a low-budget (effective) slasher film.

So without further ado what follows is our interview with writer-director James Crow (House of Salem). Give it a read and then let us know what you think!

***

Dread Central: The film’s central villain is very interesting. How much of the mythology/backstory is based on real legends?

James Crow: I’ve always been very fascinated and inspired by mythology and have always been very fascinated with Native American culture. I saw a very powerful film called Soldier Blue when I was younger about the Sand Creek Massacre and it has always haunted me. The skinwalker is based upon the Bayok, a shape-shifting creature that was meant to fly through the forests and Great Lakes. It eats the insides of its victims without waking them!

DC: What were some of the major challenges you faced during the shooting this particular film?

JC: Being out in the wilderness is great… in some respects. You’re not disturbed and don’t have things like traffic and planes overhead. You can be quite secluded and it helps with the atmosphere of film – and in some ways, it focuses the cast and crew. But it can be a challenge when you need quick access to things and problems arise. When you’re on a smaller budget and have a smaller crew than normal, it’s a challenge to be that cut-off. You have to be very resourceful!

DC: In addition to directing Black Creek, you also wrote the screenplay. What inspired you to try your hand at a slasher film?

JC: I think there are elements of the slasher genre there, but it has a supernatural element. I wanted to do something different than my last two films, which were far more supernatural. It wasn’t as heavy as some of the other films, and that was quite liberating. It was fun to enjoy doing something in the vein of a more old-school slasher.

DC: How did you pull off all of the SFX contained within the film?

JC: We shot the scenes as best as we could with gritty lighting and atmosphere. My director of photography Scott Fox is a real talent. Then it was all down to the amazing skills of Jeremy. His work on the edit was brilliant and he really brought a lot to the film. The combination of him and Scott – and, of course, Pete Coleman’s score – is wonderful.

DC: What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers?

JC: Keep being ambitious and aiming for new things. Don’t be afraid to go out and make movies. Don’t be constrained by people who tell you it’s impossible to do certain things.

DC: How did you go about casting this film?

JC: A lot of the cast I knew. Producer Craig spent a lot of time going back and forth with casting ideas. Robert Lowe is a fantastic actor I’ve worked with a lot, and Michael is very young but a big talent to watch for. Pierce Stevens always deliverers, and I loved his take on the sheriff. They make a brilliant double act. Chris O’flyng is a very talented guy and actually comes from Wisconsin. I think he gave the role a lovely vulnerability and played the troubled angst of an alternate teen brilliantly. I cast Leah for her wonderful warmth and beauty on camera, and she really delivers the likable girl next door and heroine. Brianna also is a real force and has some great comedic lines. Rachel Vadeer has something magical about her and Kaylee Williams and Michael Copan are really great pros, all of whom we were lucky to get.

DC: What were some of the films that inspired Black Creek?

JC: Obviously The Thing by John Carpenter, but also It Follows was a bit of an influence.

DC: What’s next?

JC: I have a Christmas horror anthology coming out in November – Nightmare on 34th Street – which feature Pierce Stevens, who plays the sheriff in Black Creek as a killer Santa. It also includes some other cast from Black Creek. We’re also in the final stages of another horror I shot with Scott Fox, A Suburban Fairytale, and we start shooting a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style comedy called Last Village on the Right next month.

DC: Are there plans for a Black Creek 2?

JC: I guess that depends on how well one does! I like the idea of a prequel though or spinoff. Hopefully, Craig Patrick and I will do something again soon, even more epic.

DC: What’s your favorite scary movie?

JC: I have too many. But my favorite horror is Suspiria. To me, it’s still totally iconic and out of this world. The soundtrack by Goblin is marvelous, but thankfully I’m doing really well with Pete Coleman on all my movies so far! And Black Creek is another treat, and I look forward to what he’s done on Ahockalypse with Craig. I’m sure it will be amazing, much like his score for Nightmare on 34th Street!

***

Thanks James for stopping by Dread Central and chatting with us about the new film!

Black Creek stars YouTuber Chris O’Flyng as well as Leah Patrick, Michael Copon, Kaylee Williams, Robert Lowe, and Michael Hill. It was directed by James Crow.

The film is now available On Demand HERE.

Synopsis:

Returning to their family’s cabin in the dark, Wisconsin woods to scatter the ashes of their father, a troubled young man and his brash sister are terrorized by signs that an ancient, Native-American spirit, awakened by a ritual murder, has marked them for death.

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Exclusive: Talking Vietnamese Ghost Stories and Gothic Horror with The Housemaid Writer-Director Derek Nguyen

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Her arrival awakes the wrath of spirits.

Writer-director Derek Nguyen’s Vietnamese Gothic romance horror film The Housemaid is hitting select theaters, VOD, and Digital platforms in the U.S. today, February 16.

Dread Central was lucky enough to catch up with Nguyen for some one-on-one time where we talked Gothic horror, Vietnamese ghost stories, and more. It was a great interview, and you can check out the full piece below.

After that make sure to check out the film’s poster to the right and the trailer below, and then let us know how excited you are to see The Housemaid.

Now let’s get to it!

Dread Central: First thing I would like to say is “Wow, what a movie!” I loved The Housemaid and found it to be a gorgeous Gothic horror film. Are you a big fan of the sub-genre?

Derek Nguyen: Thank you for your kind words about The Housemaid! And yes, I love Gothic horror films. But it all started for me when I read Gothic horror novels as a kid. My go-to reading list was Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, Picture of Dorian Gray, and anything from Edgar Allan Poe. One of the highlights of my career was when I received an Edgar Allan Poe nomination for a play I wrote called Monster. Dream come true.

DC: What are some of your favorite Gothic horror films?

DN: I am a big Guillermo del Toro fan. I love his dark sense of humor, his ability to create memorable offbeat characters, and the dark storylines he gravitates to. Other than the classics like Bride of Frankenstein, I really liked Let the Right One In, The Orphanage, and The Witch.

DC: The film is set in 1953 during the First Indochinese War in Vietnam. How important was this particular period to you and the film?

DN: The time period was integral to the story of The Housemaid. It’s set in a very pivotal time in Vietnam’s history, where the French [were] just about to be defeated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. And I wanted to talk about war, Colonialism, and their effects in Vietnam. I was interested in talking about the many years of oppression, particularly by the French rubber plantation landowners. And of course, I wanted to talk about these things while being entertaining!

DC: The film features some horrific acts by French overseers on the Vietnamese workers at the film’s rubber plantation. How much of this is based on real events?

DN: In my research when writing the film, I discovered all these horrific acts by French landowners on Vietnamese workers while on a trip to Vietnam. I had no idea that these things happened and was surprised that they weren’t in the history books. There are museums in Vietnam that tell the shocking tales of the plantation workers in detail. Thousands of Vietnamese men and women toiled at the French rubber plantations under debilitating and inhuman conditions. Dysentery, malaria, malnutrition, and back-breaking labor were rife. Merciless overseers systematically beat and tortured workers—many of them to death. I wanted to tell their stories and didn’t want to shy away from what really happened.

DC: In addition to directing the film, you also penned the screenplay. Can you tell us what your initial inspiration was to tell this particular tale?

DN: The film is inspired by my grandmother, who was once a servant in a grand estate in Vietnam and ended up falling in love with the landowner. As a child, she used to love to tell me ghost stories. One of the things that stuck with me was that she believed that spirits lived in trees. Then I learned about the atrocities that the Vietnamese rubber plantation workers experienced under the French landowners and I thought about how haunted the plantations must be. If you visit the rubber plantations in Vietnam, you’ll notice that the soil is red. Many Vietnamese believe that the soil is red because of all the spilled blood of the Vietnamese workers.

DC: What are some of the films that inspired The Housemaid?

DN: Jane Eyre, The Others, Rebecca, The Shining.

DC: The Housemaid is the third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history; did you ever expect the film to resonate to that degree?

DN: Crazy, right? And it’s been sold to 19 different territories around the world. Unbelievable! You never know how people will react to your work. As a filmmaker, you just have to do your best and make sure that you’re being true to yourself. And hopefully, people like it!

DC: Nhung Kate received a Special Jury Prize for her portrayal of Linh at the 2017 LA Film Festival. What was it like crafting such a profound performance on set?

DN: Nhung Kate is a revelation! She’s bold, gutsy, vulnerable, and mysterious. (And she rides a kickass motorcycle!) It took months for us to find the right “Linh” and I think she embodies the character so perfectly that I can’t imagine I could have found a better actress to play the part. While on set, Kate and I worked a lot on the duality of the character: her internal feelings juxtaposing her sense of duty. In a lot of ways, she’s a character who struggles between her need for love and the burdens of responsibility.

DC: Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher (Precious) is currently penning the script for the American remake of The Housemaid. How do you feel about your film being remade?

DN: I feel great about the American remake because it was my idea! When I was doing research for the original script, I realized that there are so many parallels between Vietnamese plantation workers in Vietnam’s colonial period and African-American slaves in the American South. I pitched the idea to my producer Timothy Linh Bui, and he took it to CJ Entertainment, who financed the original film, and they greenlit the remake. My only condition was that I insisted that the screenwriter and director of the American version be African-American. I feel that there needs to be an authenticity to the experiences and that the new characters would be best served by filmmakers of the same cultural background. I will be executive producing the remake and will be working creatively with the American team.

DC: Awesome! Now, I always like to end with this question: What’s your favorite scary movie?

DN: Psycho. I was one of those strange ten-year-old kids who watched that film over and over and over again. Does that say something about me?

Thank you so much to The Housemaid writer-director Derek Nguyen for stopping by Dread Central and talking with us about the film.

The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and via digital platforms in the U.S. on February 16, 2108.

Synopsis:
A forbidden passion awakens vengeful spirits within a haunted mansion in this bloodcurdling, erotic tour-de-force. Vietnam, 1953: Linh (Nhung Kate), a poor, orphaned young woman, finds employment as a housemaid in a crumbling rubber plantation presided over by the emotionally fragile French officer Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud). Soon, a torrid love affair develops between the two – a taboo romance that rouses the ghost of Laurent’s dead wife, who won’t rest until blood flows. Submerged in moody Gothic atmosphere, this stylish supernatural saga confronts the dark shadows of Vietnam’s colonial past while delivering heart-stopping scares.

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Why Netflix and David Bruckner’s The Ritual Scared the Hell Out Of Me

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***BEWARE OF SPOILERS***
Let me start this off by saying these articles have become kind of a thing with me. I have already posted pieces about how both Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and Brad Anderson’s Session 9 scared the hell out of me, but I’m not a wimp. Let me state that again: I am not a wimp. I swear.

Okay, I am kind of a wimp. I’ll admit it. But here’s the thing, I think too many people watch horror movies with, for lack of a better term, arms crossed daring the film to scare them. They love to finish a flick and say, “That wasn’t scary! I’m so cool.” But I like to be scared. I try to let horror movies scare me. In fact, I do everything in my power to allow them to scare me. I turn off the lights, turn up the sound, and sit close to the screen. But even then some films don’t scare me.

However, sometimes I am rewarded. Case in point: this past Friday an all-new horror film hit Netflix streaming called The Ritual. I was looking forward to checking out the movie considering it was directed by a guy named David Bruckner, who is a name some might recognize for his work in solid horror anthologies such as VHS and Southbound, and others might recognize him as the guy who almost directed the latest (abandoned) Friday the 13th film.

Either way, the man made my list of horror directors to keep an eye on long ago and so when I heard he was at the helm of this creepy looking film, I jumped at the chance to give it a watch. What did I think? Well, the title of this article should give you somewhat of a clue. But just in case you don’t grasp what I’m getting at here: David Bruckner’s The Ritual scared the everliving shit out of me – several times. In fact, I’m still freaked out as I type this the next morning. That’s some good stuff.

Let’s dive a bit deeper and uncover the actual experience of my terror watching the film.

Let’s start at the very beginning. The film opens with our group of buddies hanging out at a bar. I knew that the film was about a group of friends who venture out into the dark woods and befall an ominous evil, but as I popped the film on my TV this weekend I forgot how many friends there were that make it to the woods. Thus I was caught off guard with the opening of the flick in which one of the Wolfpack gets it good in a convenience store robbery gone wrong. This scene was real horror and it took me by surprise. I wasn’t terrified by the film (yet) but this beginning sure got my anxiety levels suitably piqued. Solid beginning.

From there it isn’t long before the film goes full Blair Witch. We get a rainstorm and a wooden house out in the middle of nowhere with strange witchcraft carvings in the trees and uber-creepy totems and statues placed here and there. I find The Blair Witch Project and (to a lesser degree) Adam Wingard’s sequel Blair Witch to be two of the scariest movies ever so I was ready to be terrified at this point. And it didn’t disappoint.

It wasn’t the headless Wicker Man statue that our main men find that scared me. Nope, I’ve seen things like that before in horror flicks. I’m good. It was when the group falls asleep that the first moment of genuine terror began for this guy. To set the scene, the dude who thought the Alien-Worm in Prometheus was cute lies down for the night while rain, lightning, and thunder pound outside. There is a flash of lightning, a crash of thunder. Rinse and repeat, until lightning strikes and…it doesn’t go out.

The bright white light shines into the windows like, well, that one quick scene in Blair Witch. But in this film, the light doesn’t move like a spaceship (or whatever). In this movie, it just stays on, and on, and on. My girlfriend’s little-ass dog is scared of lightning. And now so am I. Thanks, The Ritual.

From there I was a bit on edge but morning quickly followed and all was good I thought. The guys go off hiking and searching for safety when the injured one needs to sit down. Once firmly planted on his buttocks, the rest of the group know it’s going to be a while, so Timothy Spall’s kid decides to run up the hill to the top where it looks like the trees end and salvation begins. No such luck. Once he reaches the top he finds, you guessed it, only more trees. But then something creepy as all balls happens. He sees something on a tree trunk in the distance. It’s a hand… and it is way the holy f*ck up near the top of the tree. Another dead body? We could only be so lucky. Nope, the hand then moves around the side of the tree like the damn Wicked Witch of the West was creeping behind it. Little Spall screams and runs off. Good idea.

And speaking of nightmares hanging out in the woods, not long after that the movie springs what just might be the scariest moment from a recent horror film. To set the scene, the remaining guys are climbing up a steep hill and the camera sits far back and carelessly watches their struggle without lifting a finger. We watch them trudge up this hill for what seems like forever, and just when we think David Bruckner fell asleep at the camera, something moves. Deep in the dark woods, way in the background, something moves. Something f*cking BIG. This shot was genius. Learn your lessons, fellow filmmakers. Watch and rewatch and learn. This is how you scare people. No jump scares, please. Rip this shot off if you must. No one will fault you. It’s terrific.

From there the film became mostly a standard horror film. The guys get lost in the woods, dream sequences happen here and there, and some of the guys end up gutted and hung high up in the trees. Meh. Standard horror offerings if you ask me. But then the final two guys are captured and taken to a farmstead out in the woods. The place is run by older people (and one young blonde, of course) and there is something sinister upstairs. No, the actual ritual didn’t scare me. Big dudes getting pulled off by Jawa-Horse monsters isn’t going to send anyone running home to mama.

It was the damn church of the dead that got me good. Small Spall breaks free of his shackles and heads through the dark house. He hears muffled talking behind a door upstairs and cautiously enters. Inside he finds a congregation of dead bodies in pews facing towards the front of the room where what looks like the body from inside the walls in Deep Red holds court over the dead room. Creepy. For real. But then – ohhellnogetmethefuckoutofhere! – one of the bodies moves. Then another. Then Spall realizes they are all still alive! Nope, nope, nope. He appropriately kills them all with fire. Thank the Lords.

To touch on The Creature for a bit, no I didn’t find it that scary, but let me say that I respected the hell out of it. Most people I know are already saying, “It was scary up until the end with the Horse-Man“, and while I get that the film stops being scary once we know what was lurking in the woods, props must be given to Buckner and crew for their creature’s design. It is a shifting nightmare of horror that (evidently) is wrapped in actual Norse mythology. Got to love it.

In the end, David Bruckner’s The Ritual scared the hell out me on multiple occasions. This film will be a new (possibly mini) classic that friends recommend to friends for years to come. Sure it might not be the new The Witch or It Follows, but The Ritual is a solid horror film for 90% percent of its running time. And that other 10% is audacious, so you’ve got to give it that.

God bless David Bruckner’s The Ritual.

***

What did you think of Netflix’s The Ritual? Let us know below!

WATCH IT (AGAIN) HERE

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