Thursday, July 10, 2014

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: "Deliver Us From Evil" Movie Review


The exorcism movie, a sub genre of the supernatural thriller, which itself is a sub genre of horror films in general, is a tricky feat to pull off. The main problem is that the best of these motion pictures was the first of it's kind made, The Exorcist, back in 1973. Forty-one years on and no one has been able to top William Friedkin's adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel. This is because, whether you believe that demonic possession is real or not, there are verifiable cases of people who have exhibited the symptoms of possession, and we have an actual rite of exorcism the Church uses to help these afflicted people. We're not dealing with a zombie apocalypse or a vampire coven, both of which no one has ever seen. There is no legend here that a writer or director can play with. We know what this looks like, and The Exorcist covered the topic almost ehaustively, even if it did go over the top in places. Since there isn't any new ground to cover, all a story teller can do is imitate the movie that started it all, or else pump up the gore and sensationalism to try and mask the lack of originality. The new entry into this sub-sub-genre of horror, Deliver Us From Evil, regrettably, does both.

Deliver us From Evil is based on the story of retired NYPD police sergeant Ralph Sarchie, who first encountered the demonic on the job as a police officer in The Bronx. I haven't read the book this movie is supposedly based on, but if it's anything like The Rite from a few years ago, another "based on true events" movie taken from a book, the two renderings of our hero's story are probably very different. The Rite, as a movie, was an improbable story of a faith challenged seminarian becoming an exorcist, where as that film's source material is the real story of a veteran priest going through a preparation program for exorcists in Rome. The truth is less sensational, but more frightening, and enlightening, than the Hollywood embellishment. This is precisely where Deliver Us From Evil breaks down: director Scott Derrickson is so busy trying to scare us in the conventional way horror movies usually do he misses the real terror, and the very angle that would have given a genuinely original spin to this otherwise pedestrian run through.

Sarchie (Eric Bana) is a police officer who's seen too much on the mean streets of the City. When he responds to a call at The Bronx Zoo, where a woman threw her baby into a safety mote outside the lions' den, he figures he's dealing with another crazy person. Back at the precinct house he encounters a mysteriously hip priest, Fr. Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) who assures him that the mother is not insane, but possessed. There's skepticism on Sarchie's part, as one would expect, but when a connection with other bizarre cases he's dealing with emerges, he comes to believe that maybe the priest is right. Eventually Fr. Mendoza helps Sarchie to understand his own gifts, which go beyond simple intuition.

I won't continue describing the goings on, because the plot is so needlessly complicated, tying together threads in a way that seems forced. A prime example of this is including Sarchie's domestic life so prominently in the story.  It seems like it was done so we can get a frightened little girl being tormented by demons in the night, a la Linda Blair (Olivia Munn is waisted, as Sorchie's wife, though she does a good Bronx accent, which is to say she hints at it as opposed to trying to do a caricature). The Exorcist is also referenced by way of an Iraqi prologue that holds the key to understanding all the spooky happenings. But the whole thing is muddled, and what we're left with is an R rated horror movie that's not going to be gory enough for the hard core fans of the genre, and too gory for fans of psychological / supernatural thrillers, like me.

If the movie had stuck to one simple story, focusing in on Sarchie and the spiritual gifts he discovers that he has, this would have been a much clearer, subtler and truly terrifying film. Instead we get possessed people who act more like zombies and vampires, along with the needless gore that follows such a strategy.  To me, this isn't frightening, just nauseating.

The sad thing is that there was potential here for originality. Making the priest second fiddle and focusing in on the layman is not an insignificant twist to the plot. Exorcisms and prayers of liberation are not done normally by a solitary priest; there is usually a team involved. The priest has the power of his ordination working for him, but each member of the team also brings gifts, which for some involve being able to perceive spiritual realities. A key part of the exorcism process is getting the demon's name. Knowing its name gives the exorcist power over it, and it won't give that name over easily. Sometimes it is one of the "seers," for lack of a better term, that is able to get the name, along with other important information that will help the priest exorcist in his work. I compare it to forward observers who help an artillery crew direct its fire. These things are hinted at, but get drowned out by all the blood and guts.

There are other issues I had with the film as well. I think it's good the make our priest flawed and human, as they do here. But in an attempt to make Fr. Mendoza a priest with a past, they go to such an extreme that I'm not sure this guy would have ever been ordained, let alone maintain his faculties to minister publicly. I understand that it's a movie, and things need to be condensed for the sake of pacing, but exorcisms can take weeks, and often months, and here they whiz through it in an afternoon. An exorcism can't be performed without the express permission of the local bishop. Even an officially delegated exorcist needs to get permission each time he performs the rite. To make a snap decision to move from simple prayers of liberation, for which no permission is needed, to an actual ritual exorcism, as is shown here, simply wouldn't be done, at least not by a priest in good standing. Exorcisms are highly controlled events that take place in churches or some sacred space, not in the basement of a police station. It can be stressful, exhausting and, yes, terrifying, but it isn't chaotic if it's done properly. I would go on, but there's just too much wrong with this movie, and not enough time and space to cover it all. The bottom line is, if they had not tired to go to extremes they would have actually had a good movie that sheds light on an important, and misunderstood topic, instead of what we have here, which is just an unholy mess.

This isn't Derrickson's first foray into this genre, having previously directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which I haven't seen, but plan to now). I've heard generally positive things about that film from people who saw it, but his current work gives me no sign that he knows how to handle this sensitive material with delicacy and, dare I say, grace. Forty-one years, and Heaven knows how many attempts; the champion of the supernatural thrillers remains The Exorcist.

As a coda of sorts, I was surprised at how extensively the music of The Doors was used throughout the film, including a reference to the relatively obscure piece Celebration of the Lizard: which only only hard core Doors fans, like myself, would probably pick up on. They use the master recordings, which means someone from the band's organization had to sign off on it. I only point this out, because the message seems to be that the Evil One is a big Doors fan, something I'm not sure that the surviving members of the band would want to promote.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Few Thoughts on The Wisconsin Horror Story

The doctored image that started it all

Being a veteran of summer camps I'm accustomed to the "bonfire villain run a muck." In the case of the old Camp Don Bosco in Newton, NJ it was Farmer O'Leary; a mutant, inbred tiller of the soil who stalked the fields around the camp looking for wayward campers to drag back to his farmhouse to slice up. Total bunk of course, I'm sure invented way back when to scare kids so they wouldn't sneak out of their cabins at night.  Lets just say it worked too well sometimes. I had young kids in my cabin too frightened to get out of bed to go to the bathroom, at times with rather unsavory results. Here in Chicago its Nurse Norah, who supposedly haunts the old wing of the youth center. She was invented in the "new" CDB at Putnam Valley, NY; transplanted here by a former Salesian who will remain nameless. The story was officially banned (as were tales of Farmer O'Leary) because the younger kids were taking it too seriously. Nonetheless, in the case of the mythical Nurse Norah, the effects of this little yarn are felt almost a decade later, with kids still scared to go to the second floor unaccompanied. And this modern myth making isn't consigned to summer camp. When I worked in a Newark parochial school it was the Candy Man, a vaguely demonic figure conjured up by saying his name three times into a mirror, that the pre-teens feared. So, while I was as shocked as anybody last week that two 12 year olds in Wisconsin tried to kill their "friend" to get in good with a fictional bogey man known as Slender Man, who they thought was real, my mind was not completely blown. Even in this Internet savvy age, where the children know what's what in the virtual world more than the adults do, human nature doesn't change.

The fact is that many children of a certain age, let's say between 9 and 13, don't have the ready ability to know when their leg is being pulled. Even teens and adults can confuse fiction with truth at times: how many otherwise rational adults believe in Big Foot or the Moth Man? For that matter, go back to 1938 and Orson Welles' radio play adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Presented as a real time news report, without any disclaimer, thousands listening in the North East, and possibly the country, thought the Earth really was being invaded by Martians, causing a general panic. If adults can be convinced that legend is literal, how much more are children susceptible to this type of confusion?

I went to a few sites, and although the Slender Man character has a definitive origin with a particular author (who holds the copyright, no less), every page I saw presents the myth as fact, with "found" photos or videos, whose takers have been "missing" for decades; a strategy utilized by the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project. If any of these sites does post some sort of disclaimer, I missed it. The site these girls regularly visited did put up a post expressing their concern for the victim, proclaiming the content of their site fictional, while defending said content. I'm not sure if pre-teens were the original target audience for the type of horror contained on the site, but the young ones found it, and while most probably know that the content is fictitious, there will always be those impressionable minds who won't get the conceit. Thus the responsibility on the authors and web masters to make things plain.

I'm not saying that children shouldn't hear spooky ghost stories around a camp fire. I remember when I was in the fourth or fifth grade a classmate bringing in an LP of dramatized ghost stories into school and playing it for us. (If you don't know what an LP is, ask your parents). I knew it was bunk, but I still didn't sleep for a couple of nights afterward. And I don't think that I was any worse for the wear. I'm no psychologist, but there is something in us that likes getting scared, under controlled conditions, once in a while. I will admit, I never understood slasher movies, because they strike me as being disgusting as opposed to suspenseful or frightening, and these are two different realities. So without getting overly analytical about it all, there is a natural attraction to mystery and myth, and even a touch or horror, in our psyche, especially during the "tween" years (this is the age, remember, when girls are supposedly haunted by poltergeists). Handled properly the vast majority of young people navigate this phase unharmed and with a more vividly creative imagination.  

The difference I see in the old campfire stories or the old Hammer horror films I watched on local TV as a kid and these contemporary horror stories, is the level of darkness. In the midst of the ghosts and vampires of old was a degree of campiness that kept things from getting too heavy. On the modern horror sites I perused, and I admit I only visited a couple, there wasn't a hint of humor to leaven the proceeding. Realism seems to be the key, whether its the doctored photos or "found" videos. The line between myth and reality is always a fuzzy one, and you could argue that that's part of the fun. But in these contemporary presentations the line seems to be nonexistent, thus making it even more difficult for young minds to tell the difference. 

There is another aspect, which is the demonic. The site that these girls visited the most put up a disclaimer, as I mentioned, in which they said, among other things, that they were a "literary" site, not a satanic cult. I'll take that at face value, but one doesn't have to willfully be at the service of the the devil, or even believe in him, to help his cause. Under the proper supervision, and with a proper dose of camp, the mysterious and the spooky can help cultivate the young imagination. But unsupervised and presented in a self serious way it can lead to an attraction with darkness, with tragic results. I do believe that these sites are doorways for true evil to enter, so it is for any parents reading this out there to be aware of what your children are reading and watching, and if something strikes you as being too dark, don't be afraid to restrict it. I'm not saying that these girls were possessed, or even that the demonic was directly involved in the incident (though I personally lean in the direction of demonic influence). The responsible adults did Satan's work for him by fashioning the material in a particular way and then leaving the girls on their own to consume it and interpret it as their 12 year old minds were capable. All the Evil One had to do was sit back and reap the rewards.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

More Thoughts on Secualr Saints

Yesterday I wrote about the phenomena of dead celebrities being afforded the type of veneration once reserved for Catholic saints. In some ways it makes sense, considering that in life so many actors, singers, professional athletes, and those famous for being well known increasingly use their fame as a sort of bully pulpit to promote causes and advocate political platforms. Private industry, social action groups and even the government have long understood the power of celebrity, and have sought endorsements and testimonials from the rich and famous. Whether it's Babe Ruth selling Wheaties or Sinatra singing for JFK, there has always been an understanding that the American people are star struck, and whether we want to admit it or not are influenced by a famous name. It's image over reality, of course. But for those in the public eye, more and more surrounded by agents and publicists and a myth making machine that we once called a free press, the image wins out over reality, just about every time. It's no wonder then that when these people die there are a few who's myth was so powerful in life that it carries over into death.

This postmortem myth making machine is a very profitable one. The estates of Elvis, Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe, celebrities all gone for decades, still rake in millions every year from merchandise licensing and residuals. Michael Jackson is the latest entry into this sad category. Billboard reports that his estate earned in the neighborhood of 1 billion dollars in the first four years after his death. His death also sanitized his image. For years after he was acquitted of child molestation charges, I don't remember hearing a Michael Jackson song on the radio or playing over a mall PA system. It was as if the man who was once the biggest entertainer in the world had fallen off the face of the earth. The jury may have decided one way but the court of public opinion had reached a different verdict. But in death it seems like all is forgiven, and even pretty much forgotten, so that the airwaves are again safe for the gloved one, thus allowing the Jackson family to pay off all those creditors along the way. 

We have adopted this alternate "communion of saints" because our values have changed. What once had value no longer does, and the growth of the devotion to Elvis over devotion to The Little Flower is a reflection of this shift. 
In the Church, we venerate saints because in their life we see an example to follow. The Christian life is not easy, and we need encouragement. Saints often had to endure illness, misunderstanding, poverty, persecution, long hours of work for little material benefit, failure and, in some cases martyrdom. Some lived lives of wanton abandon in youth, followed by powerful conversions which led them to live chastely and soberly. They did this because they saw a greater good; the salvation of souls, beginning with their own. They believed that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and followed the call to spread that Good News according to the gifts they were given. While they made great sacrifices out of love in this life, they are now where we want to be; in Heaven, sharing in Christ's glory. Most of us will never reach the heights of these heroic men and women, but at least we know that it is possible, with God's grace. 

Life in Christ should make us concerned with the here and now, but it should also tune us into the transcendent. God is God of the living, not the dead, so that the Saints are still alive and active, though in a different way. We can call on them as we can call on a friend for help. They remind us that we are not alone, and the separation of death is not the end.

As I wrote, our values have changed. We have bought the lie, at least implicitly, that religion is an opiate. But where as Marx thought that faith in a afterlife was a drug blinding us to the social injustices around us, the Cult of Celebrity convinces us that we're fools to wait for a reward that may not be there after death; better to get yours now. We breath the air of scientism that denies a reality beyond the senses. We don't want to wait for Heaven because we're more sure of our doubt than in our faith in Christ. Since this eternal reward is far from assured, we are afraid of making the hard sacrifices because we don't see what we'll get out of it in the short term. 

As an aside, I often hear it said that the problem today is that priests don't preach enough about hell and the devil. In truth, I'm not sure we preach enough about Heaven.

In the secular church we worship the cult of personality because, as I wrote yesterday, we are left with idealized images of, usually, young, pretty people. This helps feed into our deification of youth. While most of these celebrities dealt with some "inner-demon," this struggle is romanticized as the price one pays to be an artist, or as the result of being so unique that no one really understood what it was like to be them. Other wise we admire the life of pleasure and, often times, excess that they crammed into their short lives. 

And where they are, we want to be; on a t-shirt, or a billboard or a commemorative shot glass, selling everything from perfume, motel rooms, to light beer. To have fame in this life, the proverbial fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol spoke of, is a national obsession, but to have it perpetuated for decades is the ultimate validation. We are no longer moved by the Gospel message of carrying the Cross now, in service of God and neighbor, with a promise of eternal happiness to follow. We want the reward on the front end, with the promise of never being forgotten by the public after we die.

I wish that I had some neat wrap up to this theme. This should be the place where I offer solutions and encourage the faithful. But I think that this phenomena is simply a symptom of a wider reality; that, as a culture, we are determined to sow in the flesh. We prefer illusion to reality, the quick drag as opposed to the long pull, as Fulton Sheen would have put it. I think that the good news is that this inclination towards the eternal, that is natural to all of us, is not dead. It may be misdirected, but it's still there. And there are young people who are in tuned to it. When I go to a campus chapel and see college kids stopping in to visit the Blessed Sacrament between classes, or kids in our parish, huddled in a small group, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, it gives me hope in the future.



Monday, June 2, 2014

Secular Saints or Cult of Personality?

John Lennon: Not a Saint

I ran into an article from Canada's National Post about the phenomena of dead celebrities being afforded devotion by fans once reserved for Catholic saints. The piece focuses on a woman doing her PhD dissertation on the topic, using John Lennon, Johnny Cash and Jimi Henderix as examples. My only surprise is that it took so long for someone to figure this out. Elvis was probably the first "dead celebrity saint," with Graceland became a pilgrimage spot rivaling Lourdes almost immediately after his death in 1977. One could make an argument for James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, but I see them as precursors to this cultural trend of raising deceased actors and musicians to the secular altars. The public may have had a lingering fascination with Dean and Monroe, but Elvis was, and still is, thought of in messianic terms by the true believers in The King (of Rock and Roll, that is).
Elvis, was a hero to most...but he sure wasn't a Saint

In my life, I haven't been immune to this reality. I was a wee lad when John Lennon was shot, and remember being terribly effected by it, even though the Beatles broke up when I was a toddler, and Lennon himself had been sort of semi-retired from the music business for five years before his tragic death. I got over that pretty quickly, but soon found myself being swept up in the Jim Morrison revival of the early 80's. Why, I'm not really sure. I know that going into high school I grew to dislike the direction popular music was taking. I didn't like synth-pop, preferring guitar driven rock, but thought heavy metal too harsh and morbidly cartoonish. So I fell back on the old stand by's like the Stones and the Who, bands my older brothers listened to, and discovered the Doors pretty much on my own. I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Morrison biography (that I learned later no one associated with the Doors thinks is accurate). I bought a greatest hits album, had a poster of Morrison on my wall, and set out to discover whatever other vintage "classic" rock I could. My older brothers always taught me to separate the music from the individuals making it, so my hero worship never went too far. Nonetheless I have to plead guilty to at least being a fellow traveler in the Cult of the Lizard King. 
James Douglas Morrison: Oh boy, he wasn't a Saint

I never gave the Dead Rock Star Cult too much thought until a controversial biography of John Lennon came out in 1988. Albert Goldman, in The Lives of John Lennon, basically accused the late Beatle of everything from misogyny, in it's various manifestations, to excessive drug use and homosexuality. The book was roundly condemned as a poorly researched hatchet job on a dead man who couldn't defend himself. I never read the book, but did read the Beatles biography by Bob Spitz, a friend of Goldman's who actually paid for access to the now dead author's notes in preparation for his own book. Spitz also condemns Goldman's book, but laments that the much maligned research was actually full of valuable information that, if used properly, would have given a much fuller picture of John Lennon the man and artist. Instead Goldman cherry picked the most salacious material for publication, leaving the rest for the archives. In the end Albert Goldman couldn't show his face in New York and L.A., and died in 1994 while preparing a bio of Morrison.
Johnny Cash: A man of faith, but I'm not sure even he thought that he was a saint

I set this up because I'm not defending Albert Goldman, but seeing the scorn heaped on him by the press, especially in an interview by Steve Croft, I began to scratch my head. OK, this guy wrote a book to cash in on John Lennon. Is Goldman a noble figure? No, he is not. Does he deserve some of the push back he's getting? Yes; fair is fair. If you're going to go on record accusing someone of something, especially someone who's dead, and really just to make a buck or two, you need to be ready to take the heat. But the vitriol directed at Goldman seemed wildly out of proportion. It's not like he was attacking Muhammad, Buddha or Jesus. He wasn't even questioning the virtue of Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II. He was writing a tell all about a pop star. All I could think of was, big whoop. 

Even by the 80's I was use to all sorts of books or articles accusing Jesus shacking up with Mary Magdalene and Pius XII helping the Nazis, all with less back up than Goldman had for his book on Lennon. If you questioned the appropriateness of these claims, or their veracity, you were accused of being closed minded and dogmatic. Yet depicting Lennon as anything short of a martyred genius was, and still is, considered heresy in the popular culture.  I understood the scorn being heaped on The Lives of John Lennon and its author, but not the religious fervor with which it was being inflicted.

I'm still a Doors fan, and have been known to pop the "White Album" on from time to time, but with that episode I officially withdrew my membership in "The Cult of the Dead Rock Star." But the Cult goes on in the wider culture, encompassing now the likes of Freddy Mercury and Kurt Cobain.

In all this I see a particular manifestation of a trend; that as the Church, her practices and beliefs begin to recede from the public square other institutions, practices and beliefs that mimic the sacred creep in. Therapy now takes the place of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (not that I think therapy, in its place, is bad, quite the opposite)-and in a more nefarious way we have seen the rise of the public, electronic confessional known as the T.V. talk show. We still live in a sexually puritanical society, it's just that the morals have been inverted, like in Huxley's Brave New World. If you don't go along with the new morality you may not have to wear a scarlet letter, but you will be ostracized. Government now controls education, social services and is becoming a bigger and bigger source of both employment and, what use to be called, charity. Some have come to equate government with the national and local community: it has been proclaimed by one of our major parties in the U.S. "the only thing we are all apart of." It is true that in the past we emphasized the institutional Church at the expense of her other aspects, but as a culture we've exchanged an institutional Church for an increasingly institutionalized society.

As a Church we have de-emphasized the cult of the saints, as well as popular devotions in general. But there is a pull in us that needs heroes and does believe that there is spiritual a connection between the living and the dead (part of what we used to call the Communion of Saints). In place of role models who spur us on to live more virtuously we have adopted men and women, that though talented and often genuinely innovative in their chosen art form, lived less than virtuous lives and often their lack of virtue led to untimely deaths.

So why do so many of us latch on to these dead celebrities with such devotion? One reason may be that, because they mostly died young, they are easier to idealize. Marilyn will always be shapely and alluring, John Lennon is forever the peace loving hippie, Morrison is perpetually the intense, barechested poet, and Elvis is, well, the King. The problem of course is that this is all a lie. And even these celebrities themselves struggled with their public images. Marilyn Monroe wanted to be thought of as a serious actress more than as a sex symbol. John Lennon always looked with a bit of a jaundiced eye on fame, and spent the last decade of his life trying to figure out who he really was, striving for inner peace more than world peace. Morrison grew a wild beard, gained weight, some think at least partially on purpose, trying to destroy his sex symbol image. As for Elvis, we would need a long time to examine how exactly fame effected his life. But my guess, in all these people's cases, is that if we really bothered to look closely we would find many unsavory things that would shatter our illusions, along with a few pleasant surprises. But we would find people. Talented and maybe unusually so, but people nonetheless, warts and all.

Also, with their early deaths, with maybe the exception of Johnny Cash who died in his 70's, we only have photos and videos of young, vibrant, pretty, glamorous people. We don't have to see them get old or lose their touch. We don't have any late period John Lennon records that may be fine, but just don't measure up with the ones from the old days. There's no the spectacle of a 71 year old Morrison getting dragged out on stage every night begging for someone to light his fire. Gravity never had a chance to work on Marilyn's curves and we get to ignore Elvis' final, bloated days and enjoy the perpetually svelte hip swinger.

And all this is too bad. Johnny Cash did some of his best recording work late in life. The Stones haven't been relevant in the studio for decades, but are currently doing some of their best live shows ever. Clint Eastwood may not be a matinee idol anymore, but he hit his stride as a director in his 70s and 80s. This worship of dead celebrities is tied into our obsession with youth in general, and further blinds us from seeing that life doesn't end at forty; it actually can get more interesting, and we as people have the capacity of deepening in wisdom and insight. All that is lost when we idealize youth and worship image.

As seems to be the case a lot lately, there is more to say about this. I'll be back soon to comment further on this topic, and it's positive side: the Communion of Saints.