11. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
Directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty based upon his own novel, which itself was based on an actual possession case about a boy in Maryland in the 1940’s, The Exorcist is often rightly considered one of the scariest movies of all time. It was even re-released in 2000 as “The Version You’ve Never Seen” and managed to once again be a box office hit. What is it about this film as opposed to countless other Exorcism rip-offs (and its own sequels) that continues to cast its spell?
Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn plays film actress and single mother Chris MacNeil, temporarily living in Georgetown to film a movie she is starring in. The movie within the movie, while unimportant to the thrust of the film’s story, does however clue us in to some of the deep undercurrents of dread working below the story of her young daughter Regan’s (an eleven-year old Linda Blair) possession.
Seen acting in her movie, Chris’ character is a strong, fiercely independent woman, fighting her way through a mob demonstration to the podium where she grabs the megaphone from the male speaker to deliver her own stirring words of inspiration to the crowd. And cut. Her work day over, she strides back, alone, to her townhouse to the strains of Steve Boeddeker’s haunting (and chart topping theme) “Tubular Bells”. She is the epitome of the independent woman of the times.
Why is this scene even in the movie? We know she’s a film actress, isn’t that enough? How does this move the story forward? But Friedkin and Blatty have something else working up their sleeves and beneath their horror, as “The Exorcist” is as much a film about the undercurrents, support and backlash of female empowerment, a surging movement in 1973 (the year of Roe v Wade’s passing) that was taking hold in America and within its households.
For instance, in one scene, Chris yells angrily at her never seen ex-husband on the phone for not taking Regan for the weekend. Regan overhears this in her bedroom, and from that moment forward, the shaking bed and screaming begins.
Earlier in the film, before the mayhem begins, Regan teases her Mom that the director of her movie, Burke Dennings, likes her and that maybe she likes him.
Later, Chris throws a sensational gathering at her townhouse filled with illustrious guests such as a Senator, an Astronaut, a Bishop and Burke Dennings. Chris is having fun, flirting with them, living her life to the fullest when Regan comes downstairs in a trance, and after telling the Astronaut that he’s going to “die up there” proceeds to urinate on the carpet. Later in the film, it is Burke Dennings, the object of her mother’s affection and Regan’s curiosity who winds up being the first murder in the film with even Chris suspecting Regan as having committed the crime. Demon possession or a child’s sinking into the mysteries of mental illness and depressive rebellion?
Now this is not to suggest that Regan does not become literally possessed by the devil, after all a child’s “acting out” repertoire does not usually include turning her head around three hundred and sixty degrees and projectile vomiting pea soup. We are in the realm of horror as allegory here.
The 1970’s contained one the first generation of Mothers en masse who had to choose whether to be the so-called “stay at home Mom” (a derisive term at the time) or join their friends in their rightful pursuit for equality. Many joined the movement yet retained an insidious degree of guilt that they were neglecting their children, a price many feminists had decided they were willing to pay so that their daughters could flourish upon the roads they had paved for them.
Friedkin and Blatty prey upon this underlying fear and guilt of the era expertly. After all, a demon possession, frightening as that prospect is, is quite a stretch from our reality. But there is no fear more grounded than that of a parent losing one’s child to the absolute horrors of mental illness that they may have inadvertently caused by their own neglect.
Perhaps the subtext of “The Exorcist” can best be summed up by the words of Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman: “The Exorcist spoke at the time to a larger, if unconscious, collective fear…the real birth of girl power.”
12. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 masterpiece has been called a haunted house movie in space or “Jaws in Space.” Both of these are crude genre shorthand summations for what screenwriter Dan ‘O Bannon and Scott were really examining about our society with their taunt sci-fi horror.
Scott’s second film is in a sense a fitting one after years creating commercials for the corporate world, for the real antagonist of “Alien” isn’t so much the creature itself, but the soulless, faceless entity referred to as: The Company.
A team of deep space mineral miners, running what is essentially a giant oilrig through space, are returning from their successful mission en route back to earth, when they discover the ship’s operating system, referred to affectionately and ominously as “Mother,” has taken them into the orbit of an unknown planet due to a distress call. Captain Dallas (a gritty, terrific Tom Skerritt) and Science Officer Ash (a terrifyingly calm Ian Holm) remind them of their contract: if they don’t respond to possible distress calls, they forfeit their entire pay. They have no choice. This sets the stage for allowing an Alien being on board their craft and the mayhem of surviving its ever-evolving transformations.
But without the help of The Company’s “Mother” computer as well as the proverbial Company Man in the (later revealed) android Ash, the Alien would not have been found, would not have been let aboard the ship and would not have been protected at every stage of its development.
When Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (in her brilliant debut) is forced to take over as acting Captain, she finds that this has been The Company’s true mission all along as told to her by Mother: Alien Priority One, All Crew Expendable. Had Ripley taken special note of the graphic emblem The Company had placed upon all the doors of Nostromo, she might have been struck by their unmistakable resemblance to the insignia for Purina Dog Chow. In Ridley Scott’s sick production design joke he expresses his film’s message most succinctly: Corporations see humans as grist for their mill. In simpler terms: They’re Alien food.
In essence, “Alien” is a film whose social-political subtext would fit in quite well with today’s 99% movement. O’Bannon’s script takes this reality of 1979, that Corporations have the same rights as Personhood (a reality in America since the 14th Amendment of 1848) to its logical future: Not only is The Company a Person, this “Person” desires an offspring. One of its own kind; powerful, relentless, with acid for blood, a giant phallus for a head, and one who couldn’t give two shits about the individual life of human beings. “Alien” is in fact the first child of a Corporation.
13. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
“Jaws” has story telling forces at work beneath its simple premise that reach as far back to Melville (Moby Dick) Henrik Ibsen (An Enemy of the People) and Hemmingway (The Old Man and the Sea) and as nearby as the perfect Hitchcock thriller. A thoroughly satisfying piece of mainstream entertainment, “Jaws” perfectly suits Hitch’s somewhat facetious definition of what film truly should be at the end of the day: a delicious piece of cake. It also fits as the perfect example of unseen horror (thanks to the now legendary mechanical problems of the film’s star attraction) that, in this case, literally swims beneath the surface story of the film.
We all know the story: a fictional New England island resort reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard (where “Jaws” was filmed) is thrown into chaos when a shark begins pulling summer swimmers down into the ocean’s depths. It’s the currents beneath that are a veritable Rorschach test to the unconscious.
“Jaws” was released during the very real horror and humiliation America was going through at the tail end of the Vietnam War along with the subsequent horrors brought forth nightly on television sets featuring the slaughtered children of America sacrificed due to adult denial and hubris. The same can be said for the first few deaths in “Jaws” who are also children. And it is only when the Mayor’s child is almost killed that action is taken. April of 1975 was when the last American helicopter fled Saigon, bringing a humiliating end to the War. The United States had their proverbial tail between their legs at the time of the release of “Jaws.”
Therefore, it can be no mere coincidence that at this time in the United States comes a film about a decent officer in charge of a place he feels he doesn’t belong, then takes for granted the power and skill of an unseen enemy as do his superiors, until it pulls him further and further away from his home “land” and deeper and deeper into a conflict he can’t possibly win, as the powers that be ignore their impending doom until, as Hooper says “it comes up and bites you in the ass!” Spielberg’s genius is his ability to set up the sub textual horror we collectively were facing as a nation – then rewrite the ending of this terrible time in allegorical fashion and send us home with a rousing, satisfying resolution filled with hope (unlike the post-Vietnam/Watergate pessimism of the time.)
Many have been lost; the teenaged girl, the boy, the lifeguard, Ben Gardner, Quint and even his shark killing boat, The Orca. But it is a happy ending. Even so, Brody and Hooper must kick paddle like little children back to their land, humbled, but unlike Vietnam, victorious.
14. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
“I wanted to really give the Palme d’Or to Tobe Hooper, because he should’ve gotten it 40 years ago. I want him to know that he has made one of the greatest art achievements, not films, but art achievements in the modern century.”
– Nicolas Winding Refn
This is what Director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”) had to say as he introduced Tobe Hooper for the 40th Anniversary screening of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight this past May. A masterpiece of external and internal horror story telling, one so brilliant and scary (arguably, the scariest film ever) that it begs the question: was its subtext intentional or accidental brilliance?
A seemingly straight forward horror story (now imitated innumerable times) of kids out for a ride in the country that wind up getting butchered to death and eaten by a family of Ed Gein-like hillbillies, it could be very easy to write this film off as well executed (no pun intended) exploitation, and ignore it. One would be wrong to do so (certainly Steven Spielberg didn’t when he selected Hooper to direct one of his first movies as Producer, the horror story, “Poltergeist” previously mentioned here.)
Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s screenplay for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” serve up an allegorical feast (disgusting pun perhaps intended) of fury and terror beneath their mundane story in the waning days of Vietnam, their subtext a righteous scream from hell about the forgotten rural Have-Nots of the United States. It was this class of American who were more often than not the ones served up for infantry slaughter in Vietnam.
Here, it’s as if they have rematerialized in the form of a cannibalistic Texas Family to enact this class’ vengeance upon the higher economic branches of society, in this case represented by the twenty-year olds in the van whose parents could afford college and keep them blissfully unaware of the true Vietnam horror. And their revenge is carried out in a way we dare not conjure in our worst nightmares. Perhaps only John Boorman’s “Deliverance” rivals this film’s sub textual Vietnam class backlash.
Was this subtext consciously woven into the straight ahead horror tale by Hooper and Henkel, or did it bubble in the unconscious mind of screenwriter and director Tobe Hooper as a result of just being a brilliantly creative man of his times trying to make a thrilling horror film. This question could honestly be posed of each movie mentioned here. But it’s a ‘Chicken and Egg’ question that will never yield a satisfactory answer, nor does it need to. All artists are products of their time and admittedly most of the films and filmmakers mentioned in this article were if not children than artists of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s, when to examine our national mores and values through film was considered important, and for lack of a better term, cool.
In this context, it is interesting to view the 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” written as well by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper (as well as Scott Kosar) but produced by the king of surface action, Michael Bay. The remake, while expertly crafted remains just that, surface, as the filmmakers of our day are not adept at weaving in social-political concerns beneath their tales of dread, nor is it considered “cool” or profitable to do so.
15. Night Of The Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying… Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.
– Roger Ebert
The casting of black actor (and University Professor) Duane Jones as the calm headed hero in a film made in 1968 was, to say the least, audacious. “Night of The Living Dead,” about a cross section of Americans holing up in a country house to fight for their lives against hordes of the living dead took place in the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the year of Civil Rights advocate and presidential front runner Robert Kennedy’s assassination, three years after the Watts riots, and smack dab in the middle of the most important and tumultuous time in the American Civil Rights Movement.
And yet time and time again, Romero has claimed Jones got the part because he was the best actor he knew in Pittsburgh, where they shot the feature on a shoestring budget. But this only makes the casting that much more bold for its honesty, for its integrity. In a sense, Romero is saying: “Here is a man, a good if flawed man who is our hero, our everyman. Yes, the pigment of his skin happens to be black, who gives a shit? There are flesh-eating ghouls out there and you want to talk about race? Get over it.”
Upon subsequent viewings, “Night of the Living Dead” reveals itself to be absolute perfection in horror as a pure visceral thrill ride which has its horror amplified to “11” by the all too real social-political horrors of 1968 America: racism, class inequality, and the death of a free, loving society. But its messages are covert, truly engaged as pure allegory as 1968 America was already bubbling over with chaos one didn’t have to work too hard to bring subtext to the audience, in fact one needed to work against that happening.
Had there ever been a film where a black man appears as a blonde white woman’s knight in shining armor? Romero’s statement is this: why should this be a statement?! Ben even slaps Barbara, knocking her out when her hysteria reaches feverous proportions. Again, it is this films lack of overt politics that makes its statement so potent. We are all the same here, trying to maintain our humanity against a rising tide of psychotic violence in our world.
Later, more classes of America are revealed, as hiding in the basement is a Middle Class family along with a free-spirited 60’s couple, and the horror begins to turn inward as their survival strategies and inability to work together as a cohesive group (ie: the United States of 1968) eventually lead to their demise. Again, the character of Ben emerges as a leader in this group, but he is not without his missteps. His plan to get gas literally goes up in flames. His insistence not to hole up in the basement actually proves wrong headed. He is not the noble “magic Negro” of liberal fantasies as was popularly featured in Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” of 1967. Ben is merely a decent man trying to survive.
Come daybreak, when Ben, the lone survivor, is shot between the eyes by the hicks we’d been watching on the news, the film suddenly becomes a tableau of disturbing newspaper photos beneath the end credits scroll before returning at the tail end to motion picture as the dead corpse of Ben is thrown in with the other ghouls into a giant bonfire of the dead, this incendiary image an allegory for the self-incinerating United States of 1968.
Author Bio: Jeremy Sklar is a writer-director-producer for Satori!films where he splits his time between New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Sklar co-directed, produced and wrote the action-comedy feature “Freerunner” starring Sean Faris and Seymour Cassel as well as created the web horror series “Hollywoodn’t.” Recently Sklar served as writer and segment producer of Executive Producer Chris Rock’s FX show “Totally Biased.” He is currently in pre-production for his next feature “Air Disturbance.” He can be reached via his website at www.jeremysklar.com.