If I were to inquire among the public what they consider to be one of the scariest films ever made, I would hear countless familiar titles: The Exorcist, Alien, Jaws, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs… each one terrifying in its own manner. But there is one horror film that will linger in the viewer’s mind well after completing it, and it lacks a reputation akin to the films I listed above, which it truly deserves. This movie is 1980’s The Changeling. I discovered it many Octobers ago when I was seeking a list of new scares for Halloween season and came across a list of scariest horror movies compiled by Martin Scorsese, who listed it as among his top eleven terrifying movies. To my luck, I found that it was easily accessible on YouTube in its entirety. And to my surprise, it was the first movie to scare me in years. I had watched countless horror flicks as a teenager and college student, but I was always unfazed, as I was aware they were simply movies. This brought me back into the world of genuinely believing whatever I saw before me, as if it were happening to me.
George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a composer who relocates across the country for an academic career after his wife and daughter are killed in a road accident. Needing a place to live, he is hooked up with a home by the local historic society that once belonged to an influential local family. Upon moving in, Russell is harassed by the poltergeist of a young child, who seeks justice from beyond the grave.
The Changeling can be summarized in one word: creepy. The supernatural root comes from the ghost of a child who perished during the Progressive Era of our nation’s history, which, in my opinion, is the creepiest timespan in our history. Just looking at the black-and-white portraits that depict people not smiling (as early cameras took greater lengths of time to take pictures, try holding a smile for nearly a minute), in addition to the fashion that was in style back then. This goes on top of taking child-friendly themes that tend to border on creepiness to begin with. It is perfect fertility for a ghost story.
Its horror is unique compared the movies I listed in the beginning of this essay, which tap into our fight-or-flight instincts (likely flight for most of us). The fear in those films is driven by survival instincts, whereas this film involves cooperation with a being that we cannot see. Val Lewton pioneered the idea in filmmaking that it is not what we see that scares us, but what what we cannot see, and we are constantly terrified following an occurrence that we experience every day that was caused by something from the great beyond.
There is a sense of mystery, as Russell seeks to uncover the identity of the ghost and why it is haunting him, which leads him on an investigative trail that uncovers a scandal that had been buried for decades, which blends the feel of films akin to All the President’s Men, Spotlight, and Erin Brockovich.
The YouTube link will be included at the bottom of this review, and I implore every reader to watch it when they have a chance during the remaining two weeks of October. You will not be disappointed. Trust me. It even has the approval of Stephen King, and that should be the ultimate authority to persuade you to sit down and have a good scare.
Adam Sandler has done it again. No, he didn’t bring in a stunning performance to follow up Uncut Gems, he brought us another stupid movie that we can love: Hubie Halloween.
Ever since his movie career began in the 90s, Sandler has brought us countless flicks that have ridiculous premises, but lovable characters who deliver humor that can be described as none other than guilty pleasure. From Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and Big Daddy, countless laughs have been produced from first watching these films to quoting them in front of our friends. And like all of Sandler’s films since the 90s, they include tributes to the iconic characters and jokes from those name-making movies. Hubie Halloween proves no different, as we see references to the O’Doyle family, Orderly Hal played by Ben Stiller, and cameos from star after star after star that he has collaborate with in the past.
Hubie Halloween follows its title character, Hubie Dubois, a zealous idiot with a heart of gold, despite being the constant object of ridicule from people he’s known his whole life in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Although he is an idiot, Hubie happens to possess stuntman-like skills and a trusty thermos that can get assist him in any situation, and it might as well have been made by Q in the 007 franchise. When trouble breaks out on Halloween night, Hubie must win the trust of his neighbors in order to solve the mysterious disappearances of townsfolk.
Hubie appears to be along the likes of one of Sandler’s earlier characters, Bobby Boucher from The Waterboy; however, this character does not match the potential when it comes to humor and lovability.It starts off slow, but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as it progresses. But it does dabble in the sentimental, as it also presents cliched, but true, life lessons.
Sandler should not be dismissed as a one-trick pony for this ridiculous movies. We must remember he has delivered repeatedly with Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and most recently Uncut Gems (one viewer was so impressed that he personally called Sandler to share his satisfaction, and that was none other than Daniel Day-Lewis). But why does he continue to produce his name-brand humor when he could be collecting award after award and potentially collaborate with greats like Scorsese? I can only speculate one reason: he likes to do it.
From a critic’s perspective, this movie fails at artistic achievements (though not as bad as Jack and Jill). It’s just another Adam Sandler movie, but that’s good enough for me. This will not be added to any special lists by the American Film Institute, nor will it be included in the Criterion Collection. No, it will remain on Netflix to be seen while scrolling through selections as you and your friends seek a good time.
Ten years ago, as a freshman at Lasell College, I frequented the campus library to check-out movies that I believed were essential watches for an aspiring film-buff like me. Among those movies were the Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). While I was already familiar with Clint Eastwood, this was my introduction to appreciating Sergio Leone. But it was also my introduction to the man I would eventually declare to be the greatest living soundtrack artist: Ennio Morricone.
Immediately after screening these movies, I would download the soundtracks and listen to them on repeat. One that left a major impact on me was “The Ecstasy of Gold”, which played during The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly when Tuco (Eli Wallach) frantically zipped between the never-ending Sad Hill Cemetery in search for the grave belonging to Arch Stanton, which contains $200,000 worth of gold. That summer, Red Dead: Redemption was released for the Xbox 360, and you better believe that these tracks were played as my character ventured on horseback through the remnants of the old west. The next summer, I screened Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, which Morricone also scored, and I had even more tracks to add to my playlists.
I took great delight in knowing the Maestro influenced countless other soundtrack artists, and that his tracks were used by Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. When other film-buff friends would proclaim the greatness of John Williams or Hans Zimmer as the greatest living composers, I would follow by sharing that they needed to look up Morricone’s music before they handed out such accolades.
I just received word this morning that the Maestro has died. Perhaps I can use news as an opportunity to share his genius with those who so love music but never had a chance to appreciate him. If anything, it will also open the doors to the movies he scored and they never got a chance to see. His scores covered everything from mainstream pop culture via Quentin Tarantino to the obscure art house films of Pier Paolo Pasolini (he only agreed to do the music for Pasolini’s infamous Salo because of their friendship). There is no other way to describe this news as a sad day for music and movies, even in the trying times of Coronavirus.
At some point in the fall of 1996, my mother made a suggestion that would forever impact my life: “Why don’t you try watching Star Wars?” My then-next-door neighbor and best friend, Adam, had just started watching the movies and was hooked. She brought me to our local Blockbuster and picked up a copy of A New Hope, and immediately after screening it, I had become what is commonly referred to as a “fanboy”.
I recall sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall (it’s important for me to note that I was five years old at the time) telling him that I wanted the movie for Christmas, raving on and on about Darth Vader. On top of that, my grandfather had died about two years prior, and I told my parents that when I died and went to Heaven, I planned to tell him all about the saga. Sure enough, I was given the VHS tapes and a few action figures, as well as a plastic version of Luke’s green lightsaber from Return of the Jedi. Star Wars was so embedded into our home that when my youngest brother uttered his first words, they were none other than, you guessed it, Star Wars.
Not long after that, the prequel trilogy was released between 1999-2005, and in my youth and lack of expertise on film criticism, I was delighted with each installment, even proclaiming Jar Jar to be one of my favorite characters. There were more action figures, video games, and Halloween costumes along the way.
Then as a freshman in high school, I drifted away from that galaxy of imagination and wonder. I sought to establish myself as respectable in the social scene. A passion for Star Wars, not a simple interest and appreciation but a passion, was social suicide, and it was difficult enough navigating through the world through raging hormones. I kept my eye on baseball and That ‘70s Show, as well as determining which celebrity actress was the hottest.
Things changed within one week for me during my senior year.
I panicked, knowing something bad must have happened with Dad. Eventually Mr. Ceretta called us inside his office, and we prepared to sit down, but he said there would be no need to do so, since this would be a quick talk. He shared that our mom had called the school, informing them that our dad had pneumonia and they were taking him to Yale/New Haven Hospital. Our maternal grandmother would be waiting for us when we got home, and eventually our paternal grandparents would come down from Cape Cod to watch over us for the upcoming week (which happened to be our winter break).
The following week was one that I’m sure my family will never forget. One aspect in particular was how much prepared food friends left for us, which mostly consisted of pasta. We made a few visits to Yale to see our dad, and I was on the edge because feared the elevator I would take could potentially be occupied by a doctor escorting a body to the morgue.
On our ride home from a visit, my brothers insisted on playing NPR’s program Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! whose guest that week was Carrie Fisher, and she recounted many life stories that surrounded playing Princess Leia. When we got home, I flipped through the TV channels and came across SpikeTV playing the ending to The Empire Strikes Back. There was something about that timing that sparked a renewed interest in Star Wars.
I began listening to the soundtracks again. I checked out the original trilogy from my local library and re-watched them. I even brought in the DVD for Revenge of the Sith on my computer and played the final duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan during my religion class. My teacher noticed the sounds and slowly walked over to the corner of the room where I was sitting and saw the movie playing. He simply said: “Why don’t you watch a REAL Star Wars movie?” (I do not think anybody would be surprised if I clarified that he was a big nerd).
When I graduated in mid-May, congratulatory checks came to me through the mail from friends and family. I was such a poor student that I joked the gifts were celebrating that I ACTUALLY managed to graduate (on top of the fact we were in the middle of the Great Recession and finding a job that summer would be impossible). And you can be sure that a good deal of that money went towards Star Wars-themed memorabilia. On one of the first days of my life as a high school graduate, I went out and purchased all of the movies and began to re-watch them in order, averaging out two films a day. I discovered Wookieepedia, the online encyclopedia for Star Wars, and began playing the video games from my childhood, such as Episode I- Racer, Rogue Squadron, Battlefront, and The Force Unleashed (a recently released game for the Xbox 360). And then there came…
The Force FX Lightsabers.
They were collectable lightsabers with a realistic metal hilt, connected to a three-foot-long LED lightbulb. I first discovered them years earlier while searching through a high-end electronics magazine (either Sharper Image or Hammacher Schlemmer) and I was immediately won over. My mom probably saw my request for one as ridiculous and ignored me. Now that I had enough money on my hands, I knew I was in charge of my transactions. I ordered one through my friend who had his own debit card (since I was still sure that my mom would balk at ordering me one even if I paid her back), and when it arrived, I marveled at its beauty. It was Luke’s from the original movie (technically his father, Anakin’s), and I immediately reverted to being eight-year-old, eyes filled with wonder and awe. I managed to buy another, Darth Vader’s, and filmed quick duels with friends.
Later that summer, I ventured off to college. Lasell College, my safety school. I was dreading the day I would move out and viewed it as if I were reporting for my prison sentence. After attending my orientation that summer, I realized I could do better than Lasell, and vowed to work my ass off to get into a better school. My first few weeks were miserable as I dealt with being away from home for the first time, locking myself in my dorm and longing to be in what I considered to be a respectable college.
The bigger challenge was making friends. Both of my roommates were big partiers, one of whom, Bobby, was a high school classmate, and the other, Matt, was a star on the cross-country team. But something happened that proved to be an important spark.
One night, Matt and I began to talk about our Star Wars fandom, and one of his teammates, Miguel, joined us in the room, and we decided to watch the ending to Revenge of the Sith, and before I knew it, I instinctively followed them down to the community bathroom after the movie had ended to brush my teeth with them. They remain some of my closest friends to this day.
Star Wars saved me from my loneliness and brought me out of my self-imposed imprisonment (well, somewhat, as I did not attend parties, but at least I was socializing).
Three years later, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, and announced intentions to produce a sequel trilogy. Episode VII- The Force Awakens was released in 2015, which exhilarated me, tapping into core nostalgia as a way to move forward in the Skywalker saga with excitement. But Episode VIII- The Last Jedi effectively took that adventurous feel and threw it away, attempting to redefine the saga, which came as a major blow on top of losing Carrie Fisher to a heart attack in between those movies. Episode IX- The Rise of Skywalker was released this past year, and I screened it with Matt and Miguel a full decade after we first met and bonded over our love for that galaxy far, far away that was born from the fertile imagination of George Lucas.
Within that stretch of time, I transferred to Quinnipiac University, but also endured many trials and tribulations, mainly through the diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which led to a prolonged college experience. I often think of my twenties as my own Odyssey, as the opening line of the poem invokes the Muses to tell the story about “the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course”. But in that time, Star Wars was always there for me. Mark Hamill will share with pride that strangers will approach him on the street and gush not just about how they loved the movies, but how it was an escape vessel through triumph and tragedy. In particular I will always look back on the year 2009 with sentimentality, despite the self-imposed burden I placed on myself to transfer into a better college.
2009 was my Star Wars renaissance. I returned to that source of imagination and wonder. By creating this epic space opera, George Lucas proved that childhood never had to end.
In December of 1997, James Cameron’s romantic epic Titanic took the world by storm, due to innovative accomplishments in the computer animation department, but above all through its leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. While appearing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Cameron shared that his decision to cast DiCaprio was due to the fact that EVERY woman in the building showed up to watch his audition, and it worked beyond his artistic goals, as the film became the highest grossing movie of all time.
I was seven when I learned about the movie, and I was caught up in the hysteria as much as everybody else. I even developed a crush on Kate Winslet (or maybe I consciously created it out of convenience?) and I was proud to call it my favorite movie (even though I didn’t watch it all in one sitting, all in chunks) and Leo was my favorite actor. But as time went by, I became conscious of masculine criticism of the movie as a “chick flick” and jumped on that bandwagon out of fear of being demeaned. Leo was now a “pretty boy” and I wanted nothing to do with him. In 2003 I watched Catch Me if You Can, and I greatly enjoyed it, but I made sure to make a disclaimer that I was still not a fan of Leo out of fear of being called “gay” (my, what progress has been made since then).
Then came the 2006 release of The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s American re-make of the Hong Kong thriller, Internal Affairs. I had multiple reasons to want to see it, as it was set in Boston, dealt with the Irish mafia (which I thought was an oxymoron, originally) and featured music by the Dropkick Murphys (I’ll always pride myself in knowing who they were before Scorsese placed I’m Shipping Up to Boston in his soundtrack, when the most anticipated song of the album it came from was Sunshine Highway). But Leo was in it. I scowled at the thought of watching a movie with him, wondering why anybody would pick him for a cool movie like this? But I eventually watched it and loved it, and when I reflected on what I had seen and Leo’s involvement, I thought: “Well, he was OKAYYYYY, I guess?”
But I was also starting to understand cinema. I was learning more about Martin Scorsese and the genius that he was. I familiarized myself with his previous accomplishments (some I would not watch until later, but it was good to be aware of them). I learned that he and Robert De Niro worked hand-and-hand for decades and was aware he was one of the greatest living actors. And the more I looked into Scorsese, I gained familiarity with the movies he had made in the last decade, which included Gangs of New York and The Aviator, both of which I avoided because of Leo’s involvement (to be frank, I was too young to see Gangs of New York when it was released, but I’m sure I would have avoided it with that mindset as a young adult). I took notice to what people were pointing out : Scorsese was now working hand-in-hand with Leo as if he were the equivalent of Robert De Niro today.
Maybe, dare I say it, Leo was a good actor? Maybe I should start watching his movies and take him seriously? Perhaps the only reason I hated him was a result of toxic masculinity? (Granted it would take many more years for me to embrace a more progressive view on social issues, but this was a good first start.)
Over the next few years I got around to watching his previous collaborations with Scorsese and was impressed by them, and anxiously awaited the release of Shutter Island in February of 2010 (one of my favorite stories to tell was how I questioned my own identity and consciousness after walking out of that screening). I watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and was blown away by his performance as a mentally handicapped teenager, and was even more excited to see his next project with Marty, The Wolf of Wall Street. I almost went to see that with my mother, unaware of how hardcore the drugs and sex themes were, only to be warned against it by a family friend who had just seen it. I later went to see it by myself and was grateful for the discretion, and was also anxious to return home and watch a cartoon, as I wanted some of my innocence back.
This was quite a journey I had made in my discovered favorite performer. Even now I have been able to shed my “dislike” for Titanic, acknowledging this as the result of a social construct. Even though I knew the movie through pop culture references and having watched all the pivotal scenes, I never watched it all in one sitting until the summer of 2014. With The Wolf of Wall Street fresh in my mind, I watched as Leo and Kate climbed the rising stern of the ill-fated ship, and began to laugh, as I could not shake the exchange between him and Jonah Hill as Donnie, Jordan Belfort’s business partner, urging him to grab the quaaludes as their yacht was sinking as he screamed “I. WILL. NOT. DIE. SOBER!!!!!”
I began writing this post three days ago, and just received news this morning of the passing of the iconic genius performer Max von Sydow, whose performance as Father Lankaster Merrin will rank among many of my all-time favorites. I feel it is appropriate for me to dedicate this post to his memory, and thank him for his performances ranging from his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman to his cameo as Lor san Tekka in Star Wars- Episode VII: The Force Awakens. On his first day of filming with Linda Blair (who played Regan), who was left speechless after hearing her recite her profanity-riddled lines, attesting to his moral character. This is for you, Max.
If someone were to take a poll among cinephiles by asking what is the scariest movie ever made, the most popular answer would be The Exorcist, citing how it pushed boundaries and made people afraid of something that they had been exposed to throughout their lives via religious beliefs but had never considered a potential threat. What other description can we give to a film that required ushers to carry smelling salts on the job to attend to viewers who had fainted during the original screenings in the 1970’s? Or local towns banning the distribution of the film in their local cinemas, and arranging bus trips to the nearest town to where it faced no restrictions?
I discovered this movie when I was almost thirteen-years-old by walking in my parents bedroom while the Today Show was on and they had just started a story about the date (December 26, 2003) being the thirtieth anniversary of its release. I had no idea what it was, but I was horrified by the face of possessed Regan McNeil. Who was she? Better yet, WHAT was she? Was she a creature? I saw an IV tube near her, and I pondered if she was in an accident, or somehow transformed into this horrific thing? My memory is skewed on this, because while I saw her floating above her bed, I thought she was spinning things around while making noises similar to the orcs in The Lord of the Rings (the final installment had just been released, and I was still experiencing the high off of seeing that). I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I didn’t even know the name. I just knew it began with E-X, and I finally had the courage to ask my dad about the film. WHAT WAS IT ALL ABOUT?
“She was possessed by the Devil.”
What? What was this?
“How?” I asked.
“Uh, she played a Ouija board.”
I couldn’t get it off my mind, and was researching it online every chance I got, as well as inquiring with my friends and classmates if they were familiar with it. Many years later, I would be diagnosed with OCD, and suddenly I had an explanation for why I always thinking about this (and countless other subjects throughout life). I finally saw it eight months later but was not scared by it. People I grew up with in Lyme and Old Lyme will likely nod their heads if you ask them about me referencing this movie and will likely conclude it is my favorite in the horror genre. While I do hold it in high regard, I have a shock for them: it’s actually The Shining (see my previous post). Hail Stanley Kubrick (I must also share that Kubrick actually wanted to make the adaptation, and I can only imagine how it would have turned out. Alfred Hitchcock was also considered for the adaptation).
What is it about this movie that is so iconic? One reason can be summed up in a single word: BLASPHEMY. The film captures the Devil and demons for what they are, depicts their horrifying intrusion into our lives, as well as the willingness to depict such appalling suffering in a child. But there is something even more than the jumps and the misery of a suffering child being used for entertainment, and that is the TECHNICAL ACCURACY. Should any non-Catholic person or “seasonal” Catholic inquire about how the Church handles exorcisms and if the movie was accurate, there will not be any downplaying. The rigorous investigations to determine if someone needs a medical doctor over a priest, the necessity for episcopal approval, the prayers, and perhaps even what occurs during the ritual itself. Personally, I am not too sure whether EVERY detail depicted in the movie has ever happened, but being a person of faith, I am not opposed to the possibility. But this is something I never want to encounter. I have said time after time after time: I would rather go my entire life doubting God’s existence (often referred to as the “dark night of the soul”) than to have my faith confirmed by an encounter with the devil.
Years ago I had a conversation with a priest friend (who has since passed away and is hopefully partaking in the eternal ecstasy of Paradise) and the movie came up, and he shared that I would not believe how many people came to him and his fellow priests in early 1974 out of fear that the Devil was manifesting in their lives. I can imagine the conversations ultimately concluding like this:
“… there’s this banging that keeps happening behind my bedroom…”
“I’m gonna have to cut you off here and ask you something… Did you just see The Exorcist?”
“Yeah,” they probably answered in a confused tone. “Why?”
“Go on home.”
Compare that to The Omen, released a few years later. When they make reference to eschatology (end of time theology), I took it for granted for a few years, but when I finally started reading the Book of Revelation, I discovered that these “prophecies” were re-organized into another narrative or were just made up. And an interesting side note is that while we have grown up with the assumption that this book in the Bible is about fire and brimstone and fear, it is actually a book about hope. And that actually brings me to another observation: sometimes technical accuracy does not matter in a movie. I have always thought that what would prove that the movie is good is if you are screening it with Neil deGrasse Tyson, noticing something and saying “Neil, that doesn’t seem possible, don’t you…” and he eagerly shushes you.
I think there is something beyond the supernatural horror that provides scares in this movie, and it is misery in family life. We see the misery of poor Regan McNeil and her mother, Chris, while they are seeking answers for the strange things that have been happening in their home. There are a few scenes that depict the medical tests that are performed on Regan and the pain that she is enduring, and we cannot help but grimace at the sight of it, while Chris watches from a distance and is probably enduring the equivalent form of suffering in a psychological sense, desperate to make everything right for her little girl. This only adds to the stress she already encounters as a famous actress as she deals with the numerous demands of being a public person. And we should also throw in Father Karras, a priest who has lost faith in the God who gave him his vocation (brilliantly depicted in a scene where he celebrates a mass and is barely able to utter the Words of Institution, which transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ). On top of losing his faith, he is guilt-ridden by the death of his mother that he was unable to care for due to his vow of poverty.
That is ultimately makes a good horror movie: characters. Anybody can make a movie that has jump scenes and screams (this is usually boot camp for upcoming actors and filmmakers). But they need to treat it like a regular story, and that includes creating characters whose actions and reactions are believable to the viewer.
I should also point out the personal limits that were pushed by director William Friedkin. Friedkin always wanted genuine reactions from his performers, always going to extreme lengths to get the right scare. Stories include slapping actor Father William O’Malley (who was actually my father’s teacher and grandfather’s classmate) and firing off a gun near Jason Miller (Father Karras) who proceeded to verbally tear into him and explain that actors do not need to take such approaches (save for other method performers). The set for Regan’s bedroom was built inside of a freezer, and she would only be covered in a simple nightgown, which traumatized her to aversion to cold temperatures beyond your average person. The cold climate goes on top of the numerous injuries that she and many other cast-mates endured due to shoddy safety mistakes by the stunt teams. If The Exorcist was to be made today with full knowledge of the events that would transpire, no parent would allow their daughter to be cast as Regan.
Then there are also the spooky occurrences that took place throughout production. One of the sets burned down due to an intrusive bird, including the deaths of several crew, as well as the performers who portrayed Burke Dennings and Father Karras’s mother after they completed their scenes. Evangelist Billy Graham even asserted that there was a demon in the film reel.
Its legacy endures. It seems to be always topping the endless lists of scariest movies ever made. It has been endlessly parodied, references even appear in family-friendly media. It is always a Halloween favorite, and during the weekends of October 2018 it was appeared as after-midnight-showings at the legendary Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, which I was unable to attend but so desperately hope to experience at some point in the future. While I am excited for the arrival of warm weather, I also am anxious for the arrival of fall to get in the spirit of Halloween, and having an excuse to watch a horror movie over any classic of any other genre. And it’s when I contemplate movies like The Exorcist that I am anxious for the appealing weather to pass through as quick as possible. Until then, I can just keep dreaming about being in the midst of Halloween.
Until then, when it comes to Ouija boards, remember to pray your rosary, and recall the words of Nancy Reagan: JUST SAY NO.
We all have that one movie that we know backwards and forwards. For me, there are many, but everybody has at least one. One of those movies I know like the back of my hand is The Shining, a masterpiece of horror by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from Stephen King’s chilling novel. I first watched it when I was fifteen, as part of a SpikeTV horror marathon, and had read the first few chapters of the book as a twelve-year-old. At that time, I was unfamiliar with film criticism, and had came to the conclusion of what I was familiar with at the time: the book is usually better than the movie, especially since King hated Kubrick’s adaptation. What better reason should I have to not be impressed if the original author was not impressed?
Not long after that, a classmate who knew far more about cinema than I did (and probably still does), asked me if I was familiar with Stanley Kubrick, and basically filled me in on how he was a genius, and also shared that he directed The Shining. During my freshman year of college in the fall of 2009, when I knew I wanted to devote myself to cinema, I found a copy of the movie in the school library, and watched it again, and this time I was enthralled by it. I began to familiarize myself with Kubrick and his movies, having already watched Dr. Strangelove that summer and gradually began to like it, as I did not pick up much from it upon first screening. The next semester in the spring of 2010, I returned with a DVD collection of Kubrick films that I received for Christmas, which included The Shining. Even before obtaining my own copy, I repeatedly rented it from the library and watched it in the company of my roommate, Matt (shoutout to Woodland Hall, 302!). Believe it or not, we would actually fall asleep with the movie on.
I eventually reached the point where I am now with this movie: I know it like the back of my hand. A few years ago, I found a screening in a local movie theater and was comfortable enough stepping out to take a phone call because I knew what I would be missing and would not be at all lost when I returned to my seat. When you reach this point, you start to notice the little things you did not pick up on the first few times you watched it. Not only do you notice what prompts the debate on whether or not the family was really encountering ghosts or just experiencing cabin fever (my slam dunk answer to conclude they are seeing ghosts is Danny and Hallorann communicating via their ability to “shine”, how else could you explain why Hallorann travels across the country to save the family?), but I noticed another issue: CONTRADICTIONS. At so many points in the movie, there are contradictions in major details that I just did not pick up on.
The first contradiction I can mention regards the previous caretaker of the Overlook Hotel who massacred his family: Grady. It comes down to his first name. When Stuart Ullman, the general manager, tells Jack the story in the beginning, he refers to him as CHARLES Grady. When Jack meets his ghost later in the bathroom, he refers to himself as DELBERT Grady. Not only that, Ullman told Jack the story for the first time, but Jack coyly tells Grady’s ghost that he saw his picture in the newspaper. Grady casually tells him that he has no recollection of that, but then in the next three minutes admits to Jack that he did indeed massacre his family as he suggests Jack should do the same to Wendy and Danny.
There is something about this conversation. At first Grady is the charming and affable butler who appears oblivious to Jack’s accusation, but instantly turns sinister when Grady asserts that Jack is the caretaker. It is after this moment that Grady reveals his terrifying truths. I could say that this was Grady “grooming” Jack in a way that sexual predators choose their victims in order that he could lure him into evil.
Then there is the amount of time that has passed since the incident in which Jack harmed Danny while he was inebriated. In the beginning of the movie, Wendy recounts that Jack accidentally dislocated Danny’s shoulder while he was drunk, and in his contrition he promises to never drink again, and she shares that it has been five months since he last drank. When he is served a drink of bourbon by the phantom bartender, Lloyd, he toasts to “five miserable months on the wagon”, but we do not know specifically how long they have been at the hotel since the only indication that time has passed is titlecards that simply say “Monday”, “Thursday”, “Tuesday”, etc. This detail has made me think that this was a way for us to think similar to someone in isolation for so long in that they lose track of time and can only vaguely guess what day of the week it is. And during his drunken rant to Lloyd he asserts that the incident in which he harmed Danny was THREE YEARS prior. OR it could be that Jack was breaking his promises of sobriety after he harmed Danny?
Somebody once theorized that Jack had lived a previous life in the hotel, due to two major moments. Jack has “ALWAYS been the caretaker”, and Grady knows this because he himself admits “I’ve always been here”. And at the end, Jack is seen in a photograph from a Fourth of July party held at the Overlook back in 1924. Along with the fact that over breakfast when they arrive, Jack says that he feels as though he has been there before.
But I would think that the Overlook is another form of reality, perhaps an alternate universe, so to speak, where Jack knows all of the ghosts (that was what made everything eerie, being that he casually said hello to Lloyd the bartender, whom he was “always” fond of, and is discussing with the other ghosts how he intends to change his attire for a soiree scheduled for later) and has a different account of the past. Could it be that the Overlook is absorbing him, or turning him into somebody else? But also, why is he not afraid or shocked by any of the ghosts on certain occasions, but suddenly terrified when he when the beautiful woman he has been embracing turns into the rotting old lady?
There are contradictions throughout this film’s runtime. It is very much a possibility that there is no answer to these questions I have raised, and that Kubrick was just messing with us. He may have been creating his own version of “I am the Walrus”, teasing the critics who may have been searching for meaning and depth when there was nothing to more to share. It could very well be a form of nihilism, as a way to use the movie to say “there are no answers to the questions”. In fact, that proposition I just made may very well be what Kubrick was intending for me to do: keep asking questions when there is no need to ask anything. Maybe Kubrick was saying “Just watch the damn movie!” But the genius of Kubrick is that he has us on the line while we are watching, and we go along with everything, and we do not notice until later.
For those of you who can measure your encounters with movies in a timeline, I am about to introduce something to you that will split that timeline in two. Why? Perhaps I take some sick pleasure in exposing you to one of the most controversial movies ever made? Perhaps I want to make you gag as you watch it as what happened when I did (or even watched the trailer)? You might say that this desire of mine is a little… sadistic?
The movie I am speaking of is entitled Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Set during the Fascists’ last stand in World War II Italy, it tells the story of four aristocrats (the Duke, the President, the Judge, and the Bishop), all of whom are libertines (people with an extremely loose concept of morals, or have none at all) who seek to achieve the ultimate sexual pleasure. To accomplish this, they arrange the abduction of nine teenage boys and nine teenage girls and take them to a palace and expose them to one hundred twenty days of physical, mental, and sexual torture. It is basically a movie that is all about rape.
Those of you who have just read the synopsis I have provided are probably revolted by it. Congratulations, that is exactly what the author of the novel this film is based upon, intended when he wrote it. Infamously he warned the readers to “prepare [their] heart[s] and mind[s] for the most impure tale ever written since the world began, for no such book may be found among either the ancients or the moderns.” This comes from The 120 Days of Sodom. I found a copy in a bookstore one day (already aware of its existence), and read through the final few pages out of curiosity. After finishing it, I set the book down and said aloud: “WHY???” This applied to what made me decide to actually read it even though I was aware of its contents, as well as a question as to what would motivate anybody to write something like this?
Now who is this man who had the audacity and complete absence of shame to ever write something as abominable as this (Wow, I sound like a puritan!)? He is referred to as “the Marquis de Sade”, a French aristocrat from the Enlightenment era. Born Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, he gained a reputation for his insatiable lusts, as well as his cruelty, and often spent his life in prisons for, not just the attributes I just mentioned but also, blasphemy. Sade famously wrote “God is the sole idea for why I cannot forgive man.”
I must remind you that in Sade’s case, prison was not as horrific as we would imagine, as his cells were quite spacious and decorated to his desires. He possesses a type of legacy that very few are able to achieve, in that a word was added to dictionaries based on his name: Sadism. Or sadomasochistic, sadistic, etc. Very few people have achieved this in life. Other words that come to mind are Christian, Jeffersonian, Platonism, Marxist… His school of thought was that he was logical to the extreme, one example urging society to disregard the poor and suffering because they held us back (a case of social darwinism). This goes on top of him praising rape, too.
This novel was blended with several other pieces of literature: Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Dante’s Inferno (at some point I’ll do a piece on why I am opposed to people just referring to the first installation of Alighieri’s epic poem), Ezra Pound’s poem The Cantos, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The setting was then transported to the waning days of World War II in Italy, kept the same characters and their social positions but made them fascists. This was all done by the genius Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Despite the film depicting rape for the most part, Pasolini turned it into something more. It was highly philosophical, as it dealt with politics, social darwinism, religion, sexuality, and morals among countless other topics.
Pasolini had just finished his Trilogy of Life, which consisted of his adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, and The Arabian Nights. Salò would serve as the introduction to his planned Trilogy of Death. However, just before the movie was released, Pasolini was brutally murdered (and it remains unsolved to this day). I cannot even imagine what the man was intending to make as the next two installments, as I believe this covers the worst of human cruelty: taking pleasure in causing horrific suffering. An interesting bit of trivia regarding this film’s production was that Ennio Morricone (who is possibly the greatest living soundtrack artist) only agreed to score this because he was friends with Pasolini.
I discovered this movie by accident in the summer of 2015, after screening a video made by WatchMojo.com, who make videos covering a wide variety of culture in the form of Top 10 lists. This particular video I saw was “Top 10 Movies You Can Only Watch Once”, and while Salò did not make the list, it was included as an honorable mention with a brief ten second clip in which one of the characters utters an extremely disturbing line. Shocked by this, and curious, I googled the movie, and experienced every emotion that I have described throughout this post. I could not get it off my mind for months, and I felt the urge to discuss it with people. The rhetoric that I used made me sound similar to a highly sensitive fundamentalist condemning an emerging controversial trend from the pulpit. I joked with people that after learning about Salò, every other movie that existed was now the equivalent to a Disney movie for me. It calloused me to all sorts of horrors in the world, so much so that when I watched HBO’s Chernobyl in 2019 and came across the scene depicting the Soviet military killing all the dogs abandoned by their Pripyat families in order to prevent the spread of radiation poisoning, I did not flinch.
I finally saw the movie three or four years later after I purchased a copy distributed by the Criterion Collection, and I was not as horrified as I anticipated myself to be. I did gag throughout the “mangia la merde” scene (you will be spared from imagining its contents if you cannot read Italian, or any other Romantic language). It was very similar to when I discovered The Exorcist just before I turned thirteen. After being horrified and obsessed for months, I finally saw it and realized the bark was worse than the bite.
This movie struck a nerve with me because of what it depicts: privileged figures getting away with crimes simply because of their social status. That must be the greatest injustice in the world. There is no justice in Salò, as the four main characters go off to live the rest of their lives as they please. Or at least we are left to that assumption, as history tells us that the war will end and countless persons from all across the social spectrum will be held accountable for their crimes against humanity. But for the sake of this film and its thesis, these men will get away with it.
But why am I writing this post and sharing the details of what is likely the most controversial movie of all time? Perhaps it is because the Marquis de Sade has left an impression on me, and I will take joy in exposing you to this nightmare? As I do not drink, I often serve as the babysitter for my intoxicated friends, and the benefit of being sober is that I sometime get to play games with them. On some occasions I show them the trailer and giggle at their reactions.
Many of my readers (which will hopefully include more than just my mom and my brother’s girlfriend) will likely shut their window containing this post and move on, yearning for a more neutral post that will not elicit crazy reactions. But this is the reality of art, sometimes controversial and disturbing themes are needed and they can prove to be masterpieces, as Pasolini has proven here. Those of you who have the stomach to pursue their curiosity after reading this essay: all I can say to you is “Good luck”.
Last summer, the first trailer for a live-action adaptation of the iconic video game character, Sonic the Hedgehog, was released and immediately garnered an appalling reception from the public, all due to the CGI for Sonic’s design. While my aunt had one of the original Sega Genesis (I don’t know how to make this plural) and I would play it every time I visited their house, I was not a passionate fan and was unconcerned when I learned about the negative reception. I simply thought: “Wow, those guys blew it! Just another example of studios taking too big of a bite in an attempt to adapt something nostalgic, I guess?”
But in November, Paramount released an updated version of the trailer, with Sonic’s image changed from an attempted realistic hedgehog-like design to the traditional image that has been marketed since his beginning in 1991, just months after I was born. This version’s reception was in stark contrast to the one introduced in the original trailer, fans loved it. I immediately saw social media posts about us viewers having an obligation to see this film due to the studio’s willingness to respond to the fan’s opinions.
My cynical mother will likely interject that Paramount’s decision to re-animate Sonic was motivated by business, fearing a financial loss if they did not change anything. Perhaps that is true, but it does not mean it was the ONLY reason they made these changes? Perhaps the filmmakers feared the negative reaction forever staining the franchise and letting the viewers down? Perhaps they were pure in heart about the desire to entertain everyone?
Whatever the case was, the point remains that the studios took the viewers seriously and were motivated to fix everything for them. That alone is commendable, and because of this, I urge everyone to consider catching this flick when you get a chance. The perks include seeing Jim Carrey in action as Sonic’s nemesis, Dr. Robotnik, James Marsden as small town sheriff Tom Wachowski (who will aid Sonic in this installment), and Ben Schwartz (whom you may remember as our favorite dim-witted spoiled brat, Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from Parks & Recreation) voicing the iconic video game hero.
So if showing character and appreciation, and being a good sport isn’t enough to get you to see this movie, then perhaps a cast of beloved entertainers will persuade you to hand over the cash to be entertained for 99 minutes? Maybe it will be good, maybe it will be bad? But let’s just be good sports about it and thank the studios for appreciating the opinions of the viewers.
Over a decade ago, when I began to visit the city of Cinema with more ambition, I sought to broaden my horizons and familiarize myself with what are considered “good movies”. As a novice, it made sense to start with the Academy Awards, as they are the highest achievements for those in the entertainment industry.
Being educated in a Catholic school, I had just finished a course that introduced my classmates and me to Catholic philosophy, and to learn to look at things in a critical and objective manner. One of the lessons I vividly remember was the understanding of the word “best”, and how, as an idea, it is not something to toss around freely like a football. If we are to refer to something as “the best”, it must be singular and superior to all others, (while we can have multiple bests in certain circumstances, for the awards it is a singular scenario). And being briefed on Church history, I learned about when the Church would speak “ex cathedra” (definitively) and infallibly, from councils to matters of faith and morals such as the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her bodily Assumption (these are the only two times papal infallibility has been invoked). I assumed that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approached the awards the same way the Church did when regarding certain subjects: with a consensus among their members after debating the subjects. This was the way the American Film Institute created their lists of the greatest films, their heroes and villains, and musical scores.
So maybe there was a reason for declaring A Beautiful Mind and Chicago superior to the first two installments of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and then reward the Best Picture Oscar to its final piece The Return of the King? Maybe there was a reason Dances with Wolves beat GoodFellas? I was aware that Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest film ever made, lost out on the Oscars as a result of the influence of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who, upon discovering that he served as the inspiration for the character Charles Foster Kane, demanded his critics vilify the movie upon its release, and that it was rediscovered as a classic in the post-World War II era. But for everything else, there had to be a reason, right? The members must have assembled to debate the merits of each movie and determined that, while GoodFellas was more enjoyable than Dances with Wolves, the latter had more artistic merits.
I was not aware that the decisions came down to sending out ballots to their members (who were granted admission after making a few memorable movies) who would then submit their ballots via mail, which would be counted, and then presented at the show.
So I began to familiarize myself with the world of cinema, and eventually I learned about the artistic genius of Stanley Kubrick, who placed so many intricate details into his films visually and audibly that would reinforce the story he was telling. His greatest achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was not just a science fiction flick: it was an intellectual look about man’s journey through all of life, ranging from the day he learned the basics of technology to voyaging through what appears to be an eternal cosmos. It poses a question: just as man evolved to our current physical and intellectual capacity, where will we go from here on out, if evolution and life are continuing to this day? Are we alone in this universe? Where do we stand in relation to technology and artificial intelligence?
This movie was not even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It did win Kubrick an award for Best Visual Effects. It did not garner any other awards.
Which movie did it ultimately lose to? Which movie did the Academy pick as the “best” for the year 1968?
Oliver! A musical adaptation of Oliver Twist. Enjoyable, perhaps, but superior to 2001? (if there were a sentence that could perfectly express a dumbfounded look on one’s face, I would type it up as I do not think the world would look to kindly on putting an emoji in an essay).
I am not taking a snarky position that enjoyable mainstream entertainment is inferior art. Disney would not be the empire that it is today (not giving corporate Disney a card blanche for the unethical practices through business or grooming young entertainers) if it originally did not possess quality, and continue to produce quality. 2001 takes a great investment of attention to get through, but when you later recall everything you saw, there is no other description of feeling but humbled.
When I began to watch all these movies for myself and further immerse myself in cinema as an art, I came to understand that the Academy was far different than my Church. Not just in the sense that its members were contrarians with the Catholic positions on sexuality (tell me which other industry would have quarrels like this?), but the Academy did not approach their subjects with the intellectual rigor that produced geniuses such as Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas.
After many years of immersing myself in iconic movies ranging from Disney to the Criterion Collection, and watching the Academy Awards on an annual basis, I came to a conclusion: the Academy Awards are not celebrating the best movies of each year, they are just a party for A-list entertainers.
This might be a bit of a blow to younger me, who sought to win an Academy Award one day, but it is the truth. While many films are rightly honored over the years (The Godfather: Part I & II, Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Schindler’s List, to name a few) there are plenty of other films that do not get the honor they deserve mainly due to politics. One of the greatest examples was awarding Crash the top prize over Brokeback Mountain, controversial in its time as it dealt with a gay relationship with two cowboys.
But as my life has progressed, I have seen the emergence of many stars, and wondered what it would be like when I could look them up on IMDb and see “Nominated for/Won Oscar” on their profile, and if that gave them the status of respectable actor. When I have watched them win in real time, I look back and wonder if this has changed anything? Are they even more worthy of respect now?
And then it comes down to the fact that Oscars are a show. Take for example when the award for anything beyond performance, directing, music, or overall movie, itself, is presented. An A-list entertainer comes forward and reads an introduction to the category of the award they are presenting (such as cinematography or art direction), and the writing sounds contrary to their own artistic trade marks (if this star has any), and the winner comes forward and gives his or her speech, then departs. But this winner never returns to the awards again as a presenter.
The best way I can describe the Oscars are that they are parties for A-list entertainers. The next day we recall the show and gush over what each star is wearing, who appears to be the most glamorous, who are their guests, who made the most memorable speech (good or bad). These are all the things we discuss when the subject is a party, and unfortunately this is a party that a majority of us will never be invited to. I am not bringing in a “working class hero” mentality, but it is part of a conversation we need to have when discussing which movie is the best or has the best quality, and whether or not these awards that are heralded as the ultimate achievement are truly relevant in the debate?
I, unfortunately, have to conclude that: No, they are not worthy of being included in these debates. It is just a sign that you have made it into a community of iconic people and have achieved general mainstream success. The awards can bring these movies into our own debates.
This the difference between art and sports. I am not arguing that art is strictly subjective and nobody is ever right, as I view that to be a cop-out to avoid necessary and honest discussions, but it is easier to be objective in sports, as we deal with numbers. Even in the quest to reign as champion, each team needs to go through a rigorous playoff bracket, which is a fight for survival, and adding another story to the sport. It is easier to present awards based on merit there, but even then we occasionally run into biases.
If we truly want to declare which flick is the best, or which artist achieved the greatest honor, we need to do away with the Oscars and award shows as we know it and come up with a new setup. And above all: we need to make it appealing to the masses. We need to plead our case! I do not have the solution at the moment, but let us begin to brainstorm on how to do away with a system best represented by a statuette that resembles an expensive sex toy.
But who knows? Perhaps I will win an Oscar someday, and reference this blog post and stick my middle finger up to it in the height of emotion as I am embraced by a beautiful actress and applauded by artists that I am admired over the years? Until then, I must stick with this position.