Posts tagged ‘horror’

April 6, 2011

Primitivism, Modernity and The Exorcist Soundtrack

by Craig Martin

Warner Bros. 2000 re-release of The Exorcist (Friedkin 1973), dubbed The Version You’ve Never Seen (1), adds an extra ten minutes to the original running time of 122 minutes, reinserting previously excised footage. The most significant sequences reinserted include the bittersweet denouement in which Lieutenant Kinderman strikes up a friendship with Father Dyer (a relationship explored extensively by director William Peter Blatty in his 1990 sequel The Exorcist III based on his 1983 book, Legion), early medical examinations that show Regan growing increasingly distant and hostile, and the infamous “spider walk” scene that Friedkin had earlier insisted served only to detract from the shock revelation of Burke Denning’s death. (2)

The re-release also introduces composite shots of the demon Pazuzu flashing briefly onscreen just prior to the spider walk sequence – once over Chris’s right shoulder as she pauses in the kitchen while the lights flicker on and off, and moments later inside Regan’s bedroom against the door, just before Chris opens it to find her daughter uncovered and the windows wide open. But reinserted footage and computer composites are not the only additions to The Version You’ve Never Seen. A complaint levelled against the narrative coherence of the 1973 film concerns the opening Iraqi sequence and its relevance to Regan’s possession in Georgetown, USA. It is really only the brief appearance of Pazuzu in Regan’s bedroom during the exorcism ritual that has provided the narrative joiner. The re-release of The Exorcist attempts to close the gap between Iraq and Washington D.C. through sound. Augmentations to the soundtrack draws us back time and again to the archeological dig, the marketplace, the foundry, the statue of Pazuzu, and, in the final moments of the film, as Father Dyer and Lieutenant Kinderman walk away, the muslim call to prayer that opens the film’s Iraqi-based sequence at the start of the film. In this brief discussion of The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, I want to explore the ways that sound is used in the film to reinforce clearer links between the events that unfold in Iraq during the film’s prologue, and the subsequent possession and exorcism that takes place in Georgetown.

Sound design in The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973) can be roughly divided into two groups: primitive, or pre-industrial agrarian in which emphasis is upon the extensive use of manual labour, and modern (not modernist) industrial capitalism where mechanised labour is foregrounded. Throughout the lengthy opening sequence of the film, the soundscape in Iraq can be described as primitive. In using the term primitive, I refer to diegetic sounds that are derived from either low-tech sources, such as pickaxes and hammers, or from natural sources, such as human or animal voices. In referring to the voice as primitive, in the context of this essay the human voice can be divided into both ancient and modern categorisations. The human voices heard in the opening sequence at the Ninevah excavation site in Iraq are exclusively arabic, a language that, in it’s modern canonic incarnation dates back to the seventh century CE, although earlier incarnations and linguistic roots date back to the second millennium BCE (3). Although primitivism is not the correct term to describe the human voice in the section of the film set in Iraq—a more appropriate term might be “ancient”—I employ it here to distinguish the use of Arabic in the opening sequence in Iraq from the modern colloquial American language used through most of the rest of the film (with the exception of the Modern Greek used by Mrs. Karras and Pazuzu, who also speaks in French and Latin).  Modernity, it can be argued, is almost altogether absent from this earlier section of the soundtrack. From the solitary call to prayer through to the disturbing crescendo that accompanies Father Merrin’s discovery of the unearthed statue of Pazuzu, the soundtrack consists of almost entirely of primitive and primal elements. The pendulum clock and Merrin’s briefly heard jeep are the only two sonic exceptions belonging to the modern world. Both of these are connected to Merrin and one of these, the clock, is quickly – and ominously – silenced.

At the other end is the modern. The moment we cross-fade to Georgetown, the sounds of modernity dominate: trains, cars, motorbikes, jet engines, radios, megaphones, telephones, a fish tank filter, a steam iron, doorbells, light switches, police sirens, medical machinery and the specialist rational language of medical science. These sounds of modernity dominate the film. That is, until Regan’s (Blair) possession eventually overwhelms, engulfs, destabilises and silences the rational, technical, mechanical, medical, jargonistic, automated sounds of the modern age. The sounds of modernity are rendered mute and impotent by the primitive. Muteness is emphasised in Tim Semmerling’s analysis of the film, in which he observes how its protagonists “lose control over language and succumb to the point that they are rendered speechless.” (4)

The Iraqi sequence begins with the busy sounds of multiple pickaxes, shovels, barrows, footsteps and the din of voices at the archeological dig in Nineveh. Later we hear the cacophany of the marketplace, the rise and fall of voices in the crowd, the unending sound of drums, and from a foundry, the synchopated high-pitched clanging of metal on metal as three labourers stand at an anvil, skillfully hammering away in a fast rhythmic sequence of carefully timed repetitive triplets. Later still we hear a horse and buggy clopping and rattling on stone paving, distant at first, then arriving with a sonic boom as Merrin narrowly avoids being struck by the galloping animal. Returning to the dig, Merrin confronts the Pazuzu idol and layer upon layer of sounds are combined, creating an alarming and overwhelming crescendo intended to denote the lurking presence of a powerful supernatural force. The source of these sounds are in keeping with the sequence’s primitivity insomuch as their origins are likewise drawn from the natural world, rather than the world of machinery. Jay Beck describes how musician Ron Nagle developed his sound effects for the sequence “by agitating several bees trapped in a jar, getting his dogs into a fight, and recording his girlfriend’s stomach while she drank water.” (5)

Ron Nagle’s soundtrack adds layer upon layer

As the unearthly crescendo diminishes with the cross-fade from Iraq to Georgetown, the first noise heard is the whirring scream of airplane engines. The frame shows an extreme long shot of the McNeil house across the other side of the Potomac river. As the shot slowly closes in on the house, the jets fade and the rumble of cars crossing the Potomac bridge is clearly heard. The soundscape has substituted the primitive for the modern. Eventually this will reverse so that the only thing that can be heard on the soundtrack is Regan’s horrific moaning and howling filling the Georgetown house. Technology is powerless against this demonic auditory force: distressed by the incessant wailing, Sharon seeks comfort from her radio which she uses to try to drown out the omnipresent voice, but it proves to be utterly ineffective.

The moment the medical establishment bows its head in defeat takes place not when they suggest Chris (Burstyn) take her daughter to a priest, but much earlier when Dr Klein is examining Regan’s initial cranial x-rays. The critical moment occurs as the doctor is analysing the film against an automated x-ray screen. The screens are attached to a motor that whirs loudly as it raises and lowers them. At one point, an x-ray screen moves down and out of the frame, leaving the cinema screen empty. In this moment, the audience has nothing to look at but whiteness. The blank screen seems representative of the failure of sight – the most privileged of senses – and conflates sightlessness with the inability of rationalism and medical science to provide any explanation for Regan’s condition. In this image, the doctors quite literally draw a blank. Indeed, as the next x-ray rises in close up on screen, Klein declares, “I don’t see a thing.” But the bare white screen also implies that cinema itself – that most modern of Western mechanistic marvels – has also been rendered powerless, sightless, broken, inept. Struck as blind in both eyes as the one-eyed man slaving over an anvil in his Iraqi foundry.

The medical segment of the film ends with the doctors suggesting to Chris that she take her daughter to see a priest. Chris’ reply sums up the failure of modern medicine to help her daughter, and formally introduces the theme of primitivity intruding on the modern age: “You’re telling me to take my daughter to see a witch doctor, is that it?” This theme of the primitive invading the modern is also reinforced during Chris’ initial meeting with Father Karras, who recommends a modern solution for Regan and explains to Chris the Church’s censorious policy on exorcism. Karras refers to exorcism as an historical embarrassment for the Church and answers Chris’ question, “How do you go about getting an exorcism?” with the reply, “You’d need to get in a time machine and go back to the middle ages,” emphasising the primitive nature of the practise.

Throughout The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, Friedkin regularly returns us to Iraq and its primitive soundscape. When Father Merrin, having returned to America, is walking up a forest path and is presented with a note by a younger priest, as he reads the note summoning him to Georgetown, the triplets of syncopated foundry hammering can be faintly heard on the soundtrack. This hammering sound operates as a reminder of Merrin’s time in Iran, as well as a prescient indicator of the hard work ahead of him. When Merrin walks by the foundry in Iraq, the worker with one blind eye stops hammering, wipes his forehead with his kufi and looks directly at the passing priest. Behind the worker, partially concealed by shadows, we see – although more importantly, we hear – his two colleagues still hammering away on the anvil, perhaps establishing a relationship between the primitive work to be performed by the priests and the manual labour of the foundry workers.

During the exorcism, when we are locked in the room with the priests and Regan, the soundtrack completely reverts to a primitivity that echoes the earlier Iraqi soundscape: the muslim call to prayer becomes the Catholic ritual of exorcism; the multiple voices emanating from Regan recall the cacophany of arabic voices in the marketplace (and perhaps the rebellious rioting students drowning out the megaphone during the filming of “Crash Course”, the movie Chris and Bert are shooting in Washington); the thumping of the bed evokes the various rhythmic sounds of tools digging, tapping and hammering at the Nineveh excavation site. And as Pazuzu appears at Regan’s bedside, elements from Nagle’s sound design – most prominently the agitated bees trapped in a jar – can one again be heard.

The droning of bees can once again be heard as Pazuzu appears in Regan’s bedroom

The modern is altogether displaced or removed, just as Regan’s bedroom is stripped of all bourgeois commodities. It is as though Father Karras’ assertion that in order to perform an exorcism, one would need a time machine to return to the 16th century, has been literalised. Indeed, when Karras first meets Regan, we find that her bedroom has been transformed. Previously the room was full of modern comforts and furnishings: fish tank, plants, a record player, a bookcase, and so on. As Karras opens the door, we see the room has been stripped bare and no longer contains any of its modern trappings. It is now just a bed and side table. In stepping into the room, Karras is in fact returning to a time that physically and ideologically predates industrialism.

The modern, it is supposed, can only return once the demon has been expelled and the exorcism concluded. However, following Regan’s deliverance, we never again see the inside of the Georgetown house. We are thus denied a satisfying return to normality. Instead, Chris decides to flee the house. Thus in the film’s denouement the sound of modernity finally reasserts itself as Chris and Regan are noisily driven away in a black Mercedes. Father Dyer then walks to the top of the stairs where Karras met his death, and we can hear the faint sound of traffic as cars busily cross the Potomac bridge in the middle distance. Moments later, Lieutenant Kinderman invites Father Dyer to the movies and modernity, it seems, reasserts its dominance, albeit uneasily and unconvincingly as the final sound we hear before the closing credits is the muslim call to prayer.

Works cited

1. The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, Dir. William Friedkin 2001, DVD, Warner Home Video.

2. In the documentary, The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist, Friedkin explains that he cut the spider walk sequence from the film because he felt that the shock of Burke Denning’s death was overshadowed by the alarming spectacle of Regan scampering downstairs backwards, upside down, back arched, on her hands and feet.

3. For information on the history and development of Arabic, see Verstregh, Kees. The Arabic Language. Second Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

4. Semmerling, Tim Jon. “Evil” Arabs in American Popular Film: Orientalist Fear. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. p.40. Semmerling’s study argues that an East/West ideological struggle is visible in contemporary American cinema. He describes The Exorcist as an “orientalist-imagined struggle between an Eastern bogeyman and the Western hero, with the American cowboy figure failing” (p.31). Semmerling calls Merrin the fallen hero of the film and likens him to the cowboy of the classical Western. While the Western hero is typically accustomed to being the master of they survey, Semmerling observes that in The Exorcist, an “Arab boy stands above Merrin and stares down upon him when Merrin is first introduced to the audience. Merrin must look up, squinting under the boy’s gaze” (p.38).

5. Beck, Jay. “William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and the Proprietary Nature of Sound” Sound on Screen 6.1 (2010): 4-10.



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September 14, 2008

Bricked Vermeer: Subversive Frames and Fulci’s “Sette Note in Nero” (1977)

Note: The post that was once here has now been refereed and can be found as the essay “Subversive Frames: Vermeer and Lucio Fulci’s Sette note in nero” at Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media (Issue 17, 2010).

September 5, 2008

Life in the Old Girl Yet: ‘Carrie’ (1976) and the Unbearable Lightness of De Palma Bashing

by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Crudely boiled down to the barest of narrative and thematic bones, horror more often than not is predicated upon a world of villains – Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees – and, in turn, the heroes who fight them to restore order. Even when delineations are not that clear cut, it still often exhibits (and may be  defined through) a perverse delight in manipulating and challenging the binaries of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ for its own macabre, sometimes even subversive, purposes. For its critical history alone, it is on these terms that director Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie is of some note. Neatly fitting into this binary system, responses to Carrie can be divided into two schools. The film’s brazen technical excesses and references to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some critics to be the films greatest virtues, while for others these same elements are Carrie‘s downfall and reveal De Palma as naught more than an artless hack. Even more violently opposed are the many critics that have taken part in the most heated debate concerning the film (and “De Palma studies” in general): is he a misogynist? The debate has reached the point of such repetition that over 30 years after its release, the question itself is problematic if only by virtue of its overwhelming dominance of critical treatment of the film. But not all criticism has entered into the invitingly Manichean world that horror frequently encourages. Despite the bulk of material to the contrary, there still appears to be critical life for Carrie outside of the traditional hackneyed debates.


To suggest that De Palma’s technical style – in Carrie at least – is anything less than overt would not only be untrue, it misses De Palma’s painstaking (although perhaps zeitgeist-drunk) formal construction of the film. Critics have employed startlingly polarised language in response to these stylistic issues, Richard Combs embarking upon the clearest mode of attack when he accuses De Palma of “leading his audience on with the gushy lyricism of a shampoo commercial before kicking them in the pants with the knife-wielding hysterics of the crudest Hammer horror” (1977: 4). Serafina Kent Bathrick is equally hostile, employing terms such as “fatuous”, “overstuffed” and “flashy”, describing the prom scene sequence as “the ultimate-moment of self-congratulation”. Eye-of-the-beholder critical evaluations come to the fore, however, when this same sequence is described by David Rosen as “De Palma’s stylistic high point” (38: 1977), and that the film’s excessive style is, as a whole, “lush” (37). Those who defend the films excesses do so by crediting the very significance of that excess: “Carrie…experiences everything with excessive intensity, and the film takes its purply style from her feelings”, says David Pirie (22: 1977), while for Kenneth MacKinnon, the issues are one of authorship; “De Palma’s announcement of his hand in the organisation and execution of the film may be resented by the spectator wishing to stay lodged in the security normally available to the viewer of dominant cinema” (132: 1990).

Then there’s the old “Hitchcock Knock-off” chestnut. Pirie describes Carrie‘s shower scene as “an odd and fruitful progression from De Palma’s acknowledged mentor” (22), while Rosen notes a shared thematic concern between the two directors, suggesting De Palma “quite effectively exploits [shared themes]…satirizing them with a menacing Hitchcockian touch” (37). Robin Wood and Keith Ulhich dismiss accusations of plagiarism as ultimately irrelevant, Wood suggesting a high-brow hypocrisy active within this claims core: “When De Palma works his variations of Psycho (1960), this is imitation or plagiarism, whereas when Bob Fosse or Woody Allen imitates Fellini or Bergman this is somehow, mysteriously, evidence of his originality” (125: 2003). Ulhich is more diplomatic; “I like to view [it]…as a conversation between two filmmakers – one who has been absorbed into history and memory, and another who uses certain of the elder filmmaker’s techniques and themes as a prism through which he filters his own sensibilities”. On the flip side, we find Bathrick’s attack encased in a continuing tone of dismissive indirectness; “Carrie is a senior at Bates (ugh) High” (Bathrick), the style of Carrie’s house is “another clunky comment on Norman Bates’…more massive mausoleum”. Shelley Stamp Lindsay gives her concerns about the connection between the two directors a somewhat more serious tone, suggesting that De Palma’s attempts to mimic Hitchcock fundamentally fail on an ideological level. Again referencing Carrie‘s shower scene; “Violence and sexuality are further confused in this sequence through overt parallels to Psycho‘s shower scene … whereas the violence in Psycho is split between victim and attacker, between Marion and Norman Bates, here no such division exists” (282: 1996).

It is these ideological concerns that dominate discussion about Carrie. Bathrick’s attack on the film is not alone in its fundamental claims that De Palma “has developed his own brand of sexism”. She claims, “there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”, and that ultimately, “like all the women in the film…[Carrie] is punished for being a woman”. Lindsay shares a similarly negative view of the film in terms of its gender politics; “In charting Carrie’s path to mature womanhood, the film presents female sexuality as monstrous and constructs femininity as a subject position impossible to occupy” (281). Barbara Creed focused on this notion in The Monstrous-Feminine, approaching Carrie as, you guessed it, an example of the monstrous-feminine; “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster” (77: 1993) (with no Ginger Snaps around to take the now gratingly orthodox critical “flogging a menstrual horror horse”, many critics of this era had to make do with Carrie to fit the bill). Michelle Citron’s comparison of Carrie to The Marathon Man (1976) is also based on the connection between Carrie’s introduction to biological womanhood with her supernatural abilities; “To be a man is to become moral and courageous, to rise up victorious out of the evil of the world. To be a woman is to become that evil: uncontrolled and destructive” (1977). Michael Bliss shares this belief that Carrie’s telekinesis that “first manifests itself along with ‘the curse’ suggests that the power itself is a curse, a view supported by the film’s subsequent events” (53: 1983). For these two events – the onset of her first period and the awakening of her supernatural powers – to be fundamentally linked to De Palma’s misogyny is, again, dependent upon the critics subjective intent. De Palma himself defends the depiction of Carries’ “out of control” body simply: “I wanted to use it as an extension of her emotions”.

Misogyny arguments are primarily based on the assumption that because it is Carrie’s supernatural abilities that ultimately are a destructive force, it is this relationship between the onset of menstruation and those telekinetic powers that indicate that her womanhood is also a destructive force. But as Bruce Babington radically points out, the film never indicates that her telekinesis – and by association, her womanhood (gained through menstruation) – is a negative force as such in its own right. In fact, this is where the power of the film lies: our fundamental positioning as spectators with Carrie. The simplistic reading of her classmates violent attack in the opening shower scene where “period=abject/bad/ evil” are challenged by Babbington. The attack, he claims, stems from a larger social awkwardness at their own femaleness “their own self-hatred, of their own unconscious, culturally-developed fear of the female in themselves” (11). Their attack on Carrie is an attack on their own discomfort with their own response to their socially taboo menstruation. But to suggest that by virtue of exposing the other girls’ socially-conditioned and aggressive discomfort with their own menstruation, De Palma is himself responsible for creating the patriarchal attitudes that are responsible for such a phenomenon seems quite a leap, but one that is made by many of his detractors. This is the similar kind of rhetoric that surrounds much writing on rape-revenge film: does even the depiction of rape as a violent itself count as a symbolic act of violence , or is there a way that, by showing the horror of rape, some kind of message or lesson can be imparted? Does this act of “showing” in effect neutralise intent?

A further complication in the misogyny debate is from Carol J. Clover, who uses the film as an example of her notion of cross-gender identification in the horror genre. “With its prom queens, menstrual periods, tampons, worries about clothes and makeup, Carrie would seem on the face of it the most feminine of stories” (3: 1993). But, she argues, this is clearly not the case: ‘If Carrie, whose story begins and ends with menstrual imagery and seems in general so painfully girlish… and if her target audience is any high school boy who has been pantsed or had his glasses messed with, then we are truly in a universe in which the sex of a character is no object” (20).

What is unendingly fascinating is the very insistence of so many critics to take such extreme, polarised positions within the misogyny and style debates themselves. This raises significant questions about the critical landscape upon which De Palma criticism takes place. It could be argued that critics have followed habit when attempting to read Carrie on the plane of polarised heroes and villains that the horror genre so frequently evokes, but in the process ironically reducing critical debates on Carrie to one that mirrors the very same divisions: De Palma is a villain/ De Palma is a hero. What is more curious is the often-blatant disregard for evidence provided by the film itself to support or deny these claims. As Babbington points out, “in order to sustain the views that Carrie is misogynistic and incoherent, it is necessary to cut off discussion that might be embarrassing” (16). Babbington offers the example of the minor but significant character Frieda – her position is vital, but he is the only critic I have found who even mentions her. And for Bliss to comment on what he describes as “the polarized world of Carrie, in which a Manichean struggle continually exists between good and evil” (15), he relies upon a deeply concerning dismissal of the many debates concerning the moral classification of characters such as Sue and Miss Collins.

There are alternate ways of reading Carrie: these either/or readings are not the only positions possible. William Paul’s examination of the film in his brilliant book Laughing, Screaming takes the dominant binaries of the horror film into account in his reading to dramatically enlightening effect, taking the daring step towards a moral reading of the film and stepping away from the done-and-re-done debates of mysoginy and Hitchcockism. He’s worth quoting at length:

Horror films generally operate in a Manichean universe to the extent that the monstrous and the human inscribe a world of polar opposites. Carrie seems to take over the Manichaeism of the horror film, but it ultimately challenges it as well… Carrie offers a radical shift by invoking this familiar opposition in order to collapse it. The human and the monstrous are not polar states in this film precisely because the human is the monstrous (366) … Carrie earns a sympathy that seems to confuse our willingness to designate her as monstrous. Yet since the film does finally insist on her monstrousness, it invokes a scheme of opposing monsters only to collapse it as much as it collapses its other oppositions. (367: 1994)

Paul’s book – amongst other things – is the closest to attempt what Vivian Sobchack invites in a footnote to her seminal essay, “Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange” (1987), noting that critical attention needs to be given to connections between horror films like Carrie and “the contemporary teen revenge comedy” such as Revenge Of The Nerds (1984). Sobchack’s article also refuses to participate in the traditionally dominant either/or debates around Carrie, locating the film as a significant example in her analysis of the “problem child” figure in horror and other genres. And curiously, despite being referenced by both Creed and Lindsay in their positions on Carrie as fundamentally misogynistic, Sobchack has little interest in gender in regards to De Palma’s work, and instead weighs Carrie up against the far more problematic male protagonist in De Palma’s following film The Fury (1978).

Other interesting readings of Carrie do exist even if they hold less immediate appeal than the ready-made positions provided by traditional De Palma debates concerning style (Hitchcock!) and gender (pig!). Pauline Kael reads the film as “a satiric homage to exploitation film” (211: 1981), while MacKinnon views it as “a satire on fundamentalism” (136). Rosen agrees (39) also widening his critical scope to include in its thematic concerns “some very real and recognisable horrors of contemporary American life, chiefly and centrally the trauma of female adolescence when subjected to the… terrors of the anxiously conformist ambience of high school” (37). Dmetri Kakmi‘s analysis of the film is noteworthy if only for its refreshing absence of any reference to Hitchcock at all, replacing it instead with comparisons to everything from William Blake to Jean-August Dominique Ingres to Hieronymus Bosch. While these arguments may be debated in their own right, their very value stems from their refusal to enter into the more pedestrian misogyny/Hitchcock debates. And there are still areas as yet untouched – while virtually all critics comment in one way or another is to the sympathetic character of Carrie, not enough attention has been given to the powerful and specific role of pathos in the film.

Few other directors so immediately polarise opinion like Brian De Palma, and a history of the critical treatment of Carrie suggests that this film is no exception. But regardless of your take on the film – even if just on an initial subjective, gut level – it seems only fitting that this film, so intent on collapsing the binary framework of heroes/villains and good/evil, has even critics themselves caught up in the inviting honeytrap of the Manichean in horror.