Killtoberfest 2 – #9: The Exorcist / Dark Water (2002)

In All, Movies by Kyu

Today’s Killtoberfest 2 theme: mothers and daughters. As a man with no children, this is a subject I feel eminently unqualified to discuss, but fuck it, I’m not a demon or a ghost either and I’m gonna talk about those, too. Onward I go, with one classic film and a new-to-me unexpected masterpiece.

First up, the classic: The Exorcist (1973).

The power of the Master Builder compels you!

I watched the extended cut for this, aka “The Version You’ve Never Seen” (except that, by my count, I think I’ve seen it more times than the original cut). To be honest, I can see now how this cut mostly just adds stuff that’s either pointless or actively harmful to the movie’s pacing. This is particularly true of the very end, where it adds a little conversation between the detective and a priest and none of it is important in any way, and all it did was remind me how pointless and stupid the detective character is overall. (Lee J. Cobb, of 12 Angry Men and On the Waterfront, gives a good performance that’s totally wrong for the movie.)

Do I really need to back up and give the overview? This seminal film about a girl who should never have played with a Ouija board is blah blah blah, whatever. You’ve all seen it, or are aware of its cultural status. I’m not sure I really have anything new to say about it that hasn’t been said. But I did notice a few things that were new to me.

In keeping with the double feature theme, I was struck by how effective Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn are together. The movie features a couple of scenes early on where the two of them interact essentially just so we understand how sweet Reagan is and how much her mother loves her, and in the hands of any other performers it would saccharine as hell. That it works at all is a testament to their talent and chemistry together, and it’s a good thing, too, because the rest of the movie depends on those scenes. The true source of horror in the film is that a formerly sweet, loving, pretty girl is reduced to a snarling, cursing, grotesque thing. The movie also works to mirror that remarkable transformation with the bedroom itself, gradually making it darker, less colorful, and emptier over the course of the story.

Elsewhere, the movie uses architectural space to symbolize internal conflict–anytime you see stairs in the film, it’s a metaphor for faith. You can descend them into hell (as Karras’ mother does, during his dream, or as with the deadly stairs outside Reagan’s window), or make the arduous climb to the top, there to pit your faith against the enemies of belief (as with the stairs leading up to Reagan’s bedroom). By the time the exorcism begins at the top of those stairs, the movie has prepared us almost with a boxing movie structure leading up to the big bout, and the fight becomes about Good and Evil rather than two men trying to save one small girl. The long sequence in Reagan’s bedroom is phenomenal, pure cinema, symbols clashing with one another like armies in the night. It’s a towering achievement, but I can’t help but feel that the movie expends too much energy in unhelpful directions on its way to that powerful climax.

The Exorcist is a wonderful movie, but it’s chief flaw is that of perspective. Whose movie is it? I could make a decent argument for it being the mother’s, Father Merrin’s, Father Karras’, the demon’s… The movie shifts its point of view throughout, starting with a mostly pointless prologue with Merrin, establishing Reagan and her mother, cutting back to Karras, Reagan, Karras, the demon, bringing Merrin back in towards the end… Not to mention the almost unnecessary weirdness surrounding the murder, and the detective who, again, is almost entirely pointless as a character. The result of all this is a movie that feels like it keeps undercutting its own momentum, when it should really be as straight and streamlined as possible, with every moment efficiently pointing towards that climactic battle. It meanders too much, to too little benefit. Still, it speaks highly of the filmmakers involved that what is there that’s good remains some of the best horror material ever filmed. 30 years of constant references and parody, not being religious, not sharing that weird terror of a younger generation run amok–none of that has managed to rob the movie entirely of its power to shock and unnerve.

Next we have the other best film I’ve seen so far this month (along with Triangle), the creepy, horrifying, moving Dark Water (2002).

When I was in school, my parents both worked, and it was usually up to me to walk (or ride my bike) home from school in the afternoon, let myself in with my key, and amuse myself for a couple of hours while I waited for them to get home. This system worked well enough, but things got tricky in the event that I actually needed a ride home. Two times stand out to me. Once, during the summer, I spent a couple of weeks at a day camp quite a ways from home. I remember it raining; I remember standing under a pavillion, watching the rain, waiting for my father to come and pick me up. Everyone else was gone, except for one staff member who was waiting with me. Dad wasn’t answering his phone. He got there eventually and took me home, but it was a long and lonely wait. The second time, school let it out but it was pouring rain, one of the heaviest downpours I’ve ever seen. If I was to wait for a ride, it would be at least a couple of hours. Frustrated, I got on my bike and tried to power through it. I was instantly soaked. I couldn’t see out through my glasses. I only made it a couple of blocks before giving up and knocking on a stranger’s door to ask if I could use their phone. I ended up waiting in their doorway for my parents to show up, embarrassed and annoyed. When you’re a kid, there are just some things you can’t handle alone.

All of this is to say that I understand perfectly the feeling that Dark Water is tapping into: that deep-seated need for a child to have someone to care for them. There’s a lot of water in this movie: it rains, it drips from the ceiling and puddles in the elevator of the main character’s apartment building, it pours inexplicably and dampens everything that it touches. Why? Not just because it’s creepy, or cinematic, or relevant to the story; but because here, just as it did in my childhood, water symbolizes the distance between parent and child. It’s “dark” water because the fear and loneliness of that separation has been festering for a long time, growing brackish and filthy and cold.

What makes Dark Water great is that it combines a economical mastery of horror and the ghost story with a deeply felt story about a mother and daughter’s connection under fire. The mother is going through a bitter divorce with a husband who fights her tooth and nail for custody of the child; he goes so far as to impugn her mental competency, using her natural reactions to discovering a haunting in her new home as evidence of her instability and inability to care for her daughter. Meanwhile, the daughter sees her mother spending time working and investigating the haunting instead of taking care of her. The girl is only five years old, and that’s far too young to have one of those lonely waits, looking out at the rain and all the other mothers coming to pick up their children, umbrellas in hand. Far too young to feel abandoned. The fracturing relationship between mother and daughter is mirrored throughout the film, from the ghost story itself to the mother’s own childhood, and the implication is of a tragic cycle repeating itself over generations.

I can’t stress enough how good this movie actually is. It progresses neatly from being eerie to one of the scariest, most effective climaxes I’ve seen in a horror film. I wasn’t just engaged, I was physically reacting, gasping with a hand over my mouth, saying, “No, no, no.” There’s a shot toward the end that has an incredible impact, combining terror, revulsion, and multiple levels of heartbreaking tragedy all at once. In concept, effect, and flawless execution, Dark Water is a great movie. I like Japanese horror quite a bit, but this is far and away the best of them that I’ve seen. Director Hideo Nakata has explored similar ideas in films such as Ringu and The Complex (2013); he seems perennially interested in the way that modern living spaces and technology has caused us to become isolated from one another. His films use ghosts and spirits as symbols of the unresolved emotional tensions of broken families, suggesting that these issues demand to be dealt with, that isolationism comes at a very high cost. Whether you’re a kid or not, there are some things you just can’t handle alone.

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