“Satan, in spite of himself – somehow serves to work out the will of God.” – William Peter Blatty
What was it about religion that scared us?
Perhaps it was our closeness to it: the fact it was, and still is all around us in Irish culture, and so we grow up fearing both God and The Devil equally. Granted, the day the Church dominated our consciousness to any great extent is well and truly over. Both religion in general and Catholicism specifically have become a choice that some may choose to follow, and not a prerequisite. However, this is a reminder that for a long time in the 20th century, a lot of movies were censored for fear they would go against or disrupt the teachings of the Catholic Church. For example Monty Python’s epic The Life Of Brian was banned for several years, and the 1942 Walt Disney classic Fantasia received a ban upon release for promoting witchcraft and heresy (yes it did).
That brings us to another influence which religion had; that was on the world of cinema. This influence created some of the most unnerving motion pictures of the Horror genre and also challenged the censors here in Ireland. Religious movies are still the perfect method of delivering scares, creating controversy and telling the good versus evil story, take The Conjuring series as an example. Over the years the genre of horror has found itself flooded with subgenres; the slasher movie (Halloween), sci-fi (Alien), the found footage (Paranormal Activity), the gothic (Dracula) and the gore movie’s (Evil Dead). But those based in a religious ethos differ slightly in that they are a lot more in touch with that reality we grew up with – the church – and they sometimes give the best results.
There is something that is hard to comprehend though, especially now we’re looking back at a time when the Church held a lot more sway. Many of these religious-based horror outings can actually be faith affirming. They can act in the way of propaganda for the Christian faith, intensifying the public’s belief in good and evil equally – putting the fear of God into people. Whatever the intent, following here are three of the most infamous Horror movies of the last century, examining the religious effect it had on the genre, and how well it was executed.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
A groundbreaking movie for the horror genre. It swung away from the ‘Hammer Horror’ style and focused far more on the personal and relatable. Rosemary’s Baby focuses on a young couple; Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), and his wife, Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who move into a neo-renaissance apartment building. All seems serene, though the neighbors are slightly overbearing and we soon realize not is all as it seems. These neighbors turn out to be a scheming coven of witches who drug Rosemary. While drugged she is raped by Satan himself and so falls pregnant with the antichrist. We follow as Rosemary figures out what has happened, and that the drugged state she was in was not a hallucinogenic dream. There is no way out and the ending is the inevitable evil triumphing.
Rosemary’s Baby was based on Ira Levin’s book of the same name, and directed by the controversial figure Roman Polanski. He is a man who some have come to say fell foul of the Devil’s wrath when, a year after the film’s release, Polanski’s pregnant girlfriend Sharon Tate was slaughtered at the hands of the Manson family.
That tragedy aside, the censors in Ireland banned Rosemary’s Baby twice, first on release and again towards the end of the seventies. Yes, that dream sequence and rape is strong but could have been cut: after all The Graduate had to suffer 11 cuts before it was deemed acceptable for Irish audiences. On a final note: the upcoming psychological thriller Apartment 7A by Natalie Erika James is due to be a prequel to Rosemary’s Baby. Should be interesting!
The Exorcist (1973)
It’s almost fifty-years old and still packs a terrifying punch. Based on the book by William Peter Blatty, and directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection), The Exorcist tells the story of a young girl Regan (Linda Blair) who slowly becomes possessed by the Devil (or nasty demon). We follow as her panic-stricken mother reaches out for help to Priest/Psychologist Damien Karras (Jason Miller). With the help of veteran exorcist Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), the pair spend a twisted night trying to save the girl’s soul from the abyss. By today’s standards it is a well-worn plot, but this is the original, and the horror genre overall owes it a debt.
Of the three films here, The Exorcist sticks out on many levels. Firstly, it was banned for a very long time, in fact it was 1998, 25 years after its initial release that it received full distribution in Ireland. Secondly, the budget, as other movies here, received a quarter of what The Exorcist cost – at the time $12 million ($80 million today). That studio backing allowed the director’s vision to be fully executed, and made The Exorcist a lot more visual – spinning heads, levitating, a set built in a fridge and lots of pea soup. Lastly. of the three here, The Exorcist is the only film where good actually triumphs over evil through self sacrifice and faith – the very basis of the Church’s teachings, so why ban it?
The Omen (1976)
This final film is one that is wedged in so many people’s minds, similar to the ‘666’ number it introduced to pop culture. The Omen tells the story of an American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his heavily pregnant wife Kathy (Lee Remick). After going into labor, Kathy unexpectedly and unbeknownst to her, loses the baby. A deal struck between Robert Thorn and the hospital chaplain to instead adopt a newborn boy and keep it a secret from wife Kathy. Of course the young boy is Damien: originally born from a jackal, he is the antichrist walking the earth.
Apparently made on the cheap and purely to reap financial rewards on the back of the success of The Exorcist, one would find that hard to believe given the near-perfect delivery of The Omen. But the team of director Richard Donner and producer Harvey Bernhard (The Lost Boys) twisted biblical passages to create every Catholic’s nightmare – that the stories in the Bible were true. Furthermore, there was no happy resolution at the end of The Omen: the dark eyed Damien was alive, the Devil’s plan in action, and everyone who fought against it was dead – evil won. But, this film was never touched by the censors in Ireland, and it was released in full.