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Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Exorcist - A BBC Radio adaptation.

I'll let you into a secret - I don't like compiling 'best of lists'  and like reading them even less. I find them often lazy, cliched and lacking in any sort of innovation or interest. If I was however to sit down and waste a few moments of my precious time and come up with a top 10 or (god forbid) top 20 list of my particular all time favourite classic horror movies, The Exorcist would never be in it. I know I know, I can hear the gasps of disbelief and derision now across the length and breadth of Classichorrorland (it's a lovely place to live, but we only allow a select few in) ..."But it's the greatest horror film ever!!"......"But people ran screaming from the cinema when it was first shown!"......."But what about the spinning head, projectile vomiting and copious amounts of The power of Christ compels you!!?????" Yes, I can hear the chorus of abuse about my blasphemous comments (see what I did there?) about its divine (sic) right to be regarded as the greatest ever horror film. Of course we all know the real header of that list would be a straightforward toss up between The Wicker Man or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, depending on my mood and what day of the week it happened to be. However, that's a debate for another time.

Don't get me wrong, It's not as if I hate The Exorcist - on the contrary I rather like the film, I would even go as far as saying that it would be somewhere in my all time top 30......probably. The plot is clever, the atmosphere is deliciously claustrophobic, the acting (particularly from Lee J. Cobb and Max Von Sydow) is sublime and the pre-CGI camera trickery is still spookily effective. Moreover, the impact of the movie (and the 1971 novel of the same name), not just within the horror genre, but in a much wider effect within popular culture is undeniable. Indeed, back in 2003, the movie was voted into second place of a UK television channels '100 Greatest scary moments'.......and dear god help us with THOSE insufferable TV lists.

And therein possibly lies part of the problem that I have with the movie. The fact it has become SO ingrained in the public consciousness, SO overly quoted and referenced, SO closely associated with a couple of notable visual effects that have now become cliched and ultimately SO revered within and without the horror community. All so much so that I now find it difficult to think about it, or even watch it without being able to dispense with all the '100 best of' nonsense that accompanies it. It's a good movie, maybe even a very good movie - but is it the greatest ever? I simply don't think so.

So when the good old BBC announced that for the very first time they were producing a radio adaptation of the story for airing on Radio 4, I was intrigued. Actually, I would go as far as saying that I was more than a little pleased at the prospect of the visual cliches being stripped away and leaving us with the task of visualising the text for ourselves as we would have done when reading the book. I was bordering on feeling excited when I saw that the adaptation was going to rely heavily on the written source material of the novel rather than the cinematic screenplay. Excellent!
"The Power of........." oh, you know how it goes.
So armed with a glass of wine (or two) and a nice comfy chair (I know it doesn't sound very Rock and Roll BUT it was 11 pm on a school night) I made myself ready for the first of the two-part adaptation. 

From the outset is was obvious that Robert Forrest's adaptation was taking a distantly different approach to the story than the movie version did. I've often felt that the most interesting of all the story's characters is that of the tortured Father Karras, indeed the book gives far more time and texture to his narrative than the film ever did, which instead decided to focus more on the possessed girl as the central figure. As a result of that decision, the folklore surrounding the movie more often then not includes reference to the escapades of Linda Blair's Regan rather than the far more compelling story of a man trying to battle with his own demons and faith. In doing that the movie missed out on the novel's central premise that Karras, and not Regan was the actual target of the demon - she was but a disposable vessel for the demon to torment, attack and ultimately destroy the priest's faith. 

Robert Glenister as Karras and Ian McDiarmid as Merrin - 
apparently queuing for the toilet....
The beauty of this adaptation was by returning to the source material we now experience the vast majority of the plot from Karras's point of view - and this is a master stroke. Through the power and intimacy that radio can bring, and with it Robert Glenisters' masterful performance, we hear every syllable of anguish and self-doubt in the priest's voice. We experience the pain of the guilt he feels, not just for the possible neglect contributing to the death of his mother but also in the very real possibility that he may forever lose what little faith in god that he has left. This exploration of a man battling with not only his own personal demons but the physical demon that inhabits Regan is deeply satisfying because it perfectly captures the sub-text of the story - the battle not just between good and evil but more specifically, it is the battle of wits and will between Karras and the demon.

However, this adaptation of The Exorcist is not just about character study, the core of the story is of course spine-chilling horror - and this is where the true power of radio comes into its own. Because the bedroom scenes of the confrontation between the priests on the one side pitting their wits, faith and sanity against the demon are quite simply some of most effectively chilling experiences (through any entertainment medium) that I've ever experienced. 
She may look like a nice person 
- but she's a bit of a devil

This is due in part to the simply stunning performance from Alexandra Mathie, who playing the demon, conveys perfectly the chilling menace and sadistic taunting of the evil spirit as it plays with the mind of poor Karris. It says something of the scrupulous and meticulous nature of the production as a significant amount of time was apparently spent on working with the actress to learn how to speak backwards. The chill factor of a radio production such as this rests on the effectiveness of its pivotal role and this is achieved in absolute abundance here. As excellent as the rest of the cast are (and they ARE) it is the performance of Mathie that seals the deal. She is simply magnificent.

The genius of what the BBC have achieved here is simple. By putting to one side the cultural phenomenon that is the cinematic version and retiring to the source text, they have used the power that only radio has to further focus attention to the psychological torture by the demon towards Father Karras. The tension is slow to build up as the story gradually unfolds until you wonder what that feeling is that you're experiencing well into the proceedings. You soon realise that there has been a unhurried, chilling and claustrophobic feeling of venomous proportions that has grabbed hold of you by the throat and refuses to let go.

Well that's all good and perfect then? Well no, there a couple of minor quibbles that I experienced in the two hours of listening. Lydia Wilson as Regan gives a thoroughly fine performance as the foul-mouthed possesee of the man down-under. However, at no point are we ever convinced that Regan is actually 12 as Wilson's voice (as good as she is) simply isn't young enough. As a consequence we lose a little of the unease and chills that we should be experiencing at the thought of a young, innocent 12 year old girl spewing forth (sometimes literally) and acting out her range of demonic profanity and depravity as she suffers under the will of the demon.

There are also at some of the 'non-possession' scenes where there are a couple of examples of less than satisfactory sound effects, which came as something of a surprise from a contemporary production by the BBC. However, these are but minor quibbles. The sound effects more than come into their own during the bedroom scenes (as it were), I may never hear the sound of a bed banging and feel the same way in quite the same way again.

I simply cannot recommend this highly enough. It's been half a day since I listened to the extraordinary climax of The Exorcist and I am still coping with the pernicious thoughts and emotions that are still there concealed in my mind ......... and soul.

At the date of writing this the two-part adaptation is still available on on the BBC iPlayer until the end of the week - catch it if you can!


Lydia Wilson and Alexandra Mathie
Author - William Blatty

Father Karras - Robert Glenister

The Demon - Alexandra Mathie

Regan - Lydia Wilson

Chris - Teresa Gallagher

Merrin - Ian McDiarmid

Kinderman - Karl Johnson

Karl Johnson and Bryan Dick
Dyer - Bryan Dick

Karl - Gerard McDermott

Willie - Christine Absalom

College President - Paul Stonehouse

Frank - Ben Onwukwe

Sharon - Hannah Wood

Director/Producer - Gaynor MacFarlane

Adaptor - Robert Forrest

1 comment:

  1. This is simply a great blogpost and an important one worthy of plenty of genuine analysis. Do I agree with everything you write? No. But I genuinely think this is a splendid blogpost.
    So what do I disagree with?
    I think Stuart that 'lists' and 'top tens' are not God Forsaken but necessary why? Because I simply do not know the genre as widely and greatly as you.
    I actually would not put Texas Chainsaw Massacre in my top ten, in fact I really do not like T.C.M. at all. Does "The Exorcist" belong in the top ten of horror? Probably....but listen i definitely believe "The Exorcist" is the best example of both Horror Fiction and Horror Movies you can imagine. As a Christian Horror writer I love to have "The Exorcist" as my flag bearer and an absolutely powerful example of Christian Horror Fiction.
    You mentioned "The Whicker Man" I would simply but both the original and the new edition of "The Whicker Man" as horror flicks that I love. I would not put Texas C. Massacre on the same page. Yes it is true I do love Nicholas Cage and Christopher Lee.
    I value lists because my mind is not like a library as much as yours is a library of our beloved genre. That is just one of the reasons why you are so wonderfully equipped to be a horror and speculative fiction blogger that does splendid stuff on a weekly basis for us spoiled rotten fans to love and adore.
    Another thing I want to say as a devoted reader of your blog is that would I love for example a top ten analysis of vampire films from you or even better still my long and eagerly awaited desire to see as yet not realized The Fifth Dimension analyzing "The Lost Boys" and if I may selfishly add "Fright Night 1" and "Fright Night Two."
    I am writing a dystopia fiction novel at the moment so let me assure you Stuart that the use of lists certainly do come in useful for people like myself that may not be familiar with lets say the subgenres of the genre. I hope my comments make sense.