Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Exorcism (1972) dir. Don Taylor

from the BBC's Dead of Night

Logline: Two upper-middle class couples retreat to a refurbished country house for the weekend. All seems well until the lights go out and the wine begins to taste like blood: for this house had a previous occupant, and she's not soon to let her and her children be forgotten.

"The Exorcism" was the first short film to be broadcast in the fall of 1972 under the masthead of BBC2's short-lived horror anthology series Dead of Night. Of the seven episodes produced for the series, only three have survived past their initial broadcast, the rest having fallen victim to the BBC's reckless tape scrubbing practices of the era. (These three are now available on home video thanks to the tireless efforts of the BFI.) If "The Exorcism" is in any way indicative of the relative quality of those lost episodes, then their deletion is a tremendous tragedy. Written and directed by Don Taylor (who would go on to direct "During Barty's Party" and "Buddy Boy," the two most peculiar and formally innovative installments of Nigel Kneale's Beasts (1976)), this inaugural entry balances its creeping supernatural unease with damning (if slightly blunt) social criticism of the middle class for their ignorance of the history of England's rural strife and for tastelessly encroaching upon the land and homes that now serve as those poor folks' mausoleums.

It begins with a set-up as familiar to English psychological and supernatural horror as teenagers at a summer camp is to the American slasher: near Christmas, a well-off middle-aged couple, Rachel and Edmund (Anna Cropper and Edward Petherbridge), decides to spend the weekend at their country home far outside of London, inviting another couple, Margaret and Dan (Sylvia Kay and Clive Swift), to join them for the usual entertainment of copious food, wine, and banal conversation. Once they have safely arrived, the drab talk commences, revolving exclusively around Rachel and Edmund's blathering about their attempts at renovating the musty old house while Margaret and Dan offer snide compliments and condolences over having picked up this obvious bargain of a property. (Margaret snaps about her distaste for those couples she knows who live in posh London flats during the week and then insist on "living like cavemen on the weekends" in the rustic country without the amenities and modernization that Rachel and Edmund have at least attempted to install in their new rural getaway.)

As the inane conversations progress, we then hear Edmund and Dan trade off pithy quips about their skewed notion of Marxist theory and their mutual adherence to the notion that they must "concentrate on how to be socialists and rich." Because if you're thrust into a bourgeois society (and happen to land near the top of the social heap), you may as well make the most of your situation, however much you may resent it on philosophical grounds, right? The hypocrisy and bizarre but "rational" cognitive dissonance of this cast of pampered buffoons would be sickening if it weren't so comedic: we learn at dinner that Edmund has installed a spotlight above the dining table that shines directly down onto his carving plate, imbuing the feast with an opulent dramatic flair. The sight inspires Dan to guffaw at the difficulty Edmund should have in calling himself a socialist when in possession of such an extravagant set-up, immediately before uncorking his own expensive, decades-old bottle of Burgundy.

When the house's lights and phone die out for no discernible reason, the slow burn of audience irritation with these couples evolves into a darkly comedic pathos as supernatural happenings begin to spoil their enjoyment of their privileged luxuries: Edmund describes the wine as tasting unmistakably like blood, Dan and Margaret find the turkey to feel like fire in their guts, and Rachel discovers the skeletal corpse of a child soiling her bed's linen before vanishing. Ever the narcissists, the foursome attempt to rationally explain away the paranormal activity as individualized mass hysteria, or a shared distortion of perception affecting each of them in different ways. "We must be a very strong-minded lot," quips Dan after their "mass hallucination" prevents Edmund from being able to shatter a glass window pane with a hammer. The house and its ghost, frustrated with the couples' exceedingly "rational" inability to take a hint, decide to make their displeasure glaringly apparent. Tremors shake the set, causing the recently installed plaster walls to crumble and fall, revealing the cold, ancient brick that lies buried underneath. In this moment, the house physically rejects the structural improvements that Edmund and Rachel have used to conceal and ignore the history contained within. In another sense, the house is also rejecting the abhorrent presence of its new owners, making the exorcism of the film's title an ironic reversal of genre expectations: sometimes the spirits need to exorcise us.

Refusing to have its story erased along with the house, the film's ghost comes forward to address the intruders, taking momentary possession of the psychically sensitive Rachel to tell its sad tale. Through her medium, we learn that this phantasm was a poor widow of a past century who died of starvation in the house along with her children. The fortunes of the once modestly prosperous country town they lived in took a harrowing turn for the worse after the richer citizens packed up and moved their homes and business to the cities, leaving poverty and famine to wreak havoc among those unfortunate souls unable to follow suit (the woman, her soon-to-be late husband, and her children included). After her husband was executed for stealing food to feed his family, the woman ran to the town's squire (who was one of its remaining vestiges of affluence) to plead charity for her starving children. She was yelled at and chased away, but before leaving the property she crept around the squire's house and spied through a window the sight of him and his family partaking of a gluttonous feast, filled with meat, wine, and music (and so resembling that being held by our contemporary characters). What possible excuse, the ghost wails through Rachel, could justify the feast when "on the same planet, in the same village, people are starving"? Though this monologue veers into heavy-handedness-- overlong as it is and with its proclamations of the world's injustices as proof of the absence of God-- it also possesses a curious and affecting poetic power. The characters' upstairs discovery of the ghostly sunken corpses of the dead woman and her starved children locked in a dying embrace, along with their subsequent understanding of their personal karmic ills and the hunger-for-a-hunger retribution they must receive from beyond the grave in recompense, gives credence to the vengeful ghost's despairing words (as spoken through her medium) about the the earth's perpetually divided and violent social foundations: "This world is man's work. I recognize it by the bloodstains."

Yet as often as the script tips its hand, the film itself remains restrained and elusive. Largely without an ambient soundtrack, the setting is engulfed in a sense of emptiness and vacancy, befitting the characters' pronouncement after the supernatural force has taken hold of them that the world outside is nothing but darkness and silence. The only pieces of music played throughout the running time are those that are occasionally played on the modernized parlor's anachronistic clavichord, its antiquated strains of baroque melodies underlining the lingering presence of the home's ancient history despite the new tenants' every effort at "improvement." 

Featuring a small, single-set location, a limited cast of actors, and a preponderance of dialogue over action, the film's visual style (like much of '70s British TV drama) takes its cues from the theatre by using the camera to capture long, largely static takes of the various conversations that transpire, the frame alternating between close-ups and long shots depending upon where an audience member's gaze would naturally be drawn. The few violations of this visual approach are striking for their difference and impart an amusingly cynical import to those unexpected images captured. Chief among these illuminating visual surprises is a cut between the climax of the ghostly action and a slow zoom into the face of the parlor's television set, that (at the time) prime symbol of middle class frivolousness and excess in contrast to lower class poverty and starvation. The implication for the audience watching "The Exorcism" in 1972 on their very own television sets in their comfortable English households was, of course, the complicity and guilt they share with those drab, superficial characters they were just recently snickering at on screen. We all tune in to tune out the rest of the world, the film reminds us privileged few, but those abused, hungry masses of history outside preparing to claw at our doors certainly haven't forgotten about us.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff, will have to keep an eye out for the DVD. Always have a slight moment of cognitive dissonance when I see Clive Swift in anything genre related, due to me mainly associating him with Keeping Up Appearances, which was damn near ubiquitous on TV when I was a kid, but it's always good to see the guy.

    As I said to Brad a while back, I really need to watch more British horror... as a native and a genre fan, it's shocking I've seen as little as I have. And incidentally, I can't wait to get to those MR James BFI DVDs next month :)