I can imagine The Exorcist and Eden Lake, two of the scariest horror films ever made, would test the fear levels of the most hardened horror fan when watched as a double bill. Let me give it a go!
ITV 4, one of the major television channels here in the UK, decided to test the threshold of the mightiest horror fans on Saturday night with a double bill of The Exorcist and Eden Lake. William Friedkin’s majestic opus about a possessed young girl has had audiences cowering behind seats for several decades while James Watkins’ contemporary tale of caution in this era of happy-slapping and unruly children is a beast only recently unleashed. Both are undoubtedly very disturbing yet for very different reasons.
I decided to set myself the ultimate challenge and took ITV 4 up on its offer. To the “initiated” this was a battle of wits, horror cinema at its most ferocious and unsettling. To the “uninitiated” – such as those confidence-sapping parents across the land who damn their children to a life of squalor for daring to watch too much TV – this was an exercise in sitting very comfortably for several hours eating junk food and drinking beer.
To those few who haven’t seen either film here’s a little background. The Exorcist is set in Georgetown, Washington where a young girl begins to exhibit strange, sometimes destructive, behaviour. Despite the best intentions of her loving mother and a number of leading doctors, the cause of the problem cannot be found. However, a number of religious clues lead the girl’s mother to consider an alternative form of cure. She seeks the help of a local priest who works as a psychiatrist at the nearby hospital, believing it to be her final hope. Although the priest, Father Karras, is struggling to come to terms with his faith in the aftermath of his own mother’s death, he meets the young girl and determines the best course of action is to perform an exorcism.
“I decided to set myself the ultimate challenge and took ITV 4 up on its offer. To the “initiated” this was a battle of wits, horror cinema at its most ferocious and unsettling. To the “uninitiated” – such as those confidence-sapping parents across the land who damn their children to a life of squalor for daring to watch too much TV – this was an exercise in sitting very comfortably for several hours eating junk food and drinking beer.”
James Watkins’ Eden Lake is set somewhere in the English Midlands. It follows a couple in their early thirties as they set off on an idyllic weekend break in the countryside. They decide to enjoy the sun on a riverbank overlooking a lake but a group of loutish teenagers disrupt their quiet solitude. After the gang’s Rottweiler disturbs the couple while they mind their own business, the man politely asks the gang to keep their dog under control and to turn down their music. He is met with abuse and his plea is ignored. Later, the self-imposed leader of the gang steals the couple’s car, phone and wallet. Eventually catching up with the gang in the woods a fight ensues and the dog is accidentally fatally wounded. The couple escape but the teenage yobs, blaming them for the death of the Rottweiler, pursue them. It isn’t long before the man is tied up with barbed wire and tortured.
Both these films leave a lasting impression on the viewer. What interests me is the way their impact differs. The Exorcist is based more on folklore and fantasy, its monster built from the fabric of Catholic faith. Eden Lake is contemporary and authentic, its monsters built on tangible evidence – namely, the disgusting happy-slapping videos (crudely filmed videos, usually recorded on mobile phones, of physical violence often involving bullying or randomly chosen victims) that appear on the internet. However, one film I dearly love, the other I find myself almost hating.
But I’m a horror film fan so I should like both – right? Indeed, each film exhibits plenty of quality from the perspective of script, direction, character, as well as their music and photography. So, while I love one and hate the other, I can’t deny that both films are well-produced pieces of cinema. But the horror films that I love have a sense of fun about them in as much as they allow you to be scared in an environment of safety. Like the feeling of riding a rollercoaster – it wouldn’t be any fun if it wasn’t scary yet those same feelings of dropping at speed or going upside down would fail to generate the same blood pumping glee if they were being experienced on a plane. So using that idea, The Exorcist, which I love, is the rollercoaster, while Eden Lake, which I hate, is the out of control Airbus doing cartwheels at 35,000 feet.
Perhaps there’s an obvious reason behind this. The Exorcist is a piece of fantasy, while Eden Lake appears to draw on realistic fears of contemporary society that we’ve seen tangible evidence of on our television screens. Yet aside from that, there is another reason why The Exorcist is a wholly more enjoyable horror film than Eden Lake. Indeed, James Watkins’ torture film is no fun whatsoever.
If we consider the realistic nature of what causes us to feel unsettled and frightened we could determined it is a case of a folkloric monster versus the real life psychotic. However, the very reason The Exorcist has endured for so many years, and sent cinemagoers fleeing theatres up and down America and the UK on its release in 1973, is because of its authenticity.
“Imagine the feeling of riding a rollercoaster – it wouldn’t be any fun if it wasn’t scary yet those same feelings of dropping at speed or going upside down would fail to generate the same blood-pumping glee if they were being experienced on a plane. So using that idea, The Exorcist, which I love, is the rollercoaster, while Eden Lake, which I hate, is the out of control Airbus doing cartwheels at 35,000 feet.”
Friedkin was the perfect director for the film. He was enjoying the height of his creative power in the early 1970s and significantly didn’t believe a word of William Peter Blatty’s exorcism ritual. What he did believe in was the mother’s struggle to protect her precious daughter and her ultimate inability to save her. He also believed in Father Karras’ story – a man blighted by guilt over his mother’s death. Karras battles the notion that the God he had put so much faith in had let him and his mother down. Now he is faced with a situation that muddies the line between his profession as a psychiatrist and his long held belief system. He must decide whether to rely on his training as a shrink or his faith as a Catholic to save the life of an innocent child. This is all part of what makes the monster so frightening before you consider the film’s more graphically unsettling sequences.
Indeed, while many people remember the young girl stabbing herself with the crucifix or levitating from the bed or watching as her head spins around or, if you’ve scene the extended cut, the spider walk, one of the best visual moments in the film is one of its most subtle. After Father Karras’ initial consultation with the girl he is called back to see her in the middle of the night where he is shown a curious abrasion on the girl’s stomach. Looking closer the thinly raised skin reveals itself to spell – “Help Me”. It is chillingly effective, hinting at the voiceless victim who desperately calls for help but cannot make himself heard. It is like being buried inside your own body with all your faculties at your fingertips but a complete inability to use them.
On the other hand, Eden Lake is equally haunting. However, it lacks the closure of The Exorcist. Neither film has a happy ending in the traditional sense, and both films leave the audience with a sense that, quite rightly, not all is well with the world. However, The Exorcist gives you hope while Eden Lake suggests we’re all doomed. It has the best attributes of a great revenge film without the revenge. Imagine if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ended with the girl being slaughtered at the dinner table and the credits rolling over Leatherface enjoying fried breast of sum-yung-blonde. It would be the equivalent of a painful leg waxing that left more hair at the end than was there at the beginning. Eden Lake is the leg waxing.
Yet, aside from its downbeat ending, Eden Lake’s horror derives from easy to find places. Like Funny Games, another film I despise with similar hostility, these horror movies unsettle by showing us obviously unsettling things. They then keep showing these things to us over and over again until, like the characters themselves, we too are tortured into submission. But show me any footage of people suffering distressful circumstances and I’m undoubtedly going to feel for their pain. I’m not going to like it and it is more than likely going to leave a bad taste in my mouth. That’s what Eden Lake does and it is very effective in creating this feeling. But that’s all it does. Beyond the violence there’s a superficiality about proceedings that wallows on the surface of contemporary societal fears without dipping below the water line.
“Eden Lake has the best attributes of a great revenge film without the revenge. Imagine if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ended with the girl being slaughtered at the dinner table and the credits rolling over Leatherface enjoying fried breast of sum-yung-blonde. It would be the equivalent of a painful leg waxing that left more hair at the end than was there at the beginning. Eden Lake is the leg waxing.”
By 1am when Eden Lake had finished I knew I had been put through the mincer. The Exorcist frightened me to the core, as it always does, while Eden Lake made me not want to ever set foot outside my front door. Unsurprisingly, however, it is Freidkin’s film that leaves the lasting impression. It is unfair to compare two very different horror films from two very different periods but understandably the film which has been lauded by many critics as the best of them all is significantly better.
While both have an ability to frighten their audiences it is The Exorcist which asks the most questions, challenging us to query our own faith, or lack of, and showing us a monster that could potentially live within any of us. Yet, it also gives us hope. Hope that good can prevail over evil, courage that we as a human race have the strength to fight oppression, and peace of mind that sometimes things will be okay – eventually. Ultimately, I have no intention of putting myself through the pain of Eden Lake again, yet I’d watch The Exorcist over and over.
Written by Daniel Stephens