Haunted by the Exorcist
Film critic and horror fan Mark Kermode told Andrew Calcutt why, as it nears its twenty-fifth birthday, The Exorcist still means a lot to him - and to those who have banned the video for 12 years
'The Exorcist' came out when I was 11 years old. I remember being absolutely transfixed by the trailer. Here was something that was new and different, that seemed shocking and dangerous, unlike the traditional Hammer horrors we were used to.
There were reports from America of people seeing the film and freaking out, fainting and vomiting. I was terrified of it and equally desperate to see it. It has always had that dual effect. It does scare me - I've never seen it and found it funny. On the other hand, it is an incredibly sweet and uplifting story about clearly defined right and wrong - which I do not believe in, but I find something nostalgically charming about it.
It is a film which is on the one hand absolutely repulsive and on the other hand deeply attractive; and it is the tension between the two which makes it so appealing.
I also think that the director William Friedkin was very insightful when he said it is a film that gives to you what you bring to it. His experience was that people would go to the movie and if they wanted to see horrible nastiness that is what they would see; if they wanted to see some spiritual dimension that is what they would see; if they wanted a political allegory about Nixon, Watergate and Vietnam in the early seventies, that is what they would see. One person wrote a famous essay saying it was about the homosexual bond between two priests who had to destroy the female in order to consummate their love - the point is that whatever you take to that film, it gives back to you. It is a lasting piece of cinema because, as very few movies can do, it reflects whatever you bring to it.
There is a genuine tension between the shocking and the enrapturing, between the vision of Friedkin who wants to make a riveting film and William Peter Blatty [author of the original novel and screenplay] who wants to make a straightforward Catholic tale. It is also like a good psychotherapy session. You go to The Exorcist and whatever has been welling up inside you comes out. So I think it is an infinitely interesting film and I am very depressed when people try to nail it down to one specific reading. It is like a great piece of poetry or a great pop song.
The Exorcist came out on video in the early eighties. Produced by Warners, it was a high quality, big-selling tape available in all the stores. It was not like Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust or any of those, it was never considered a video nasty. In 1984 the Video Recordings Act came into effect, which required that all tapes in circulation were withdrawn, certificated and then put out again. The Exorcist came off the shelves in 1986, and it should have been back again in six months. But it did not re-appear.
I started making inquiries to the BBFC [British Board of Film Classification]. I was told it had not been submitted for video classification. A year later: "the certification has not been activated, there is a backlog of other stuff to get through first." Another year: "it is a difficult title, we are dealing with it in a sensitive way." We got to 1989, Warners went to the BBFC and said can we have a certificate and the BBFC said no. But the BBFC were very sly. They never said they had banned it. They said the time is not right, there is satanic abuse going on - ludicrous excuses. Nine years later, the movie still does not have video certification. The BBFC has banned The Exorcist for 12 years, but they never liked to say so. They say it is not yet classified. The fact is that the viewers are not scared of The Exorcist, but the BBFC is.
The BBFC want us to wait until The Exorcist does not mean anything any more before they release it on video. The irony is that the longer they ban it, the more it continues to have meaning. I know teenagers who, if they had seen the film would say "well, it's all right - a couple of good bits, but not great", who think to this day that it would be the most terrifying experience they could have, precisely because they have not had it. The BBFC ban is self-perpetuating. If you say we are going to ban this movie until it no longer freaks people out, you are going to be waiting until doomsday. You ban something and you give it cache. I think James Ferman [BBFC director] has to take the bull by the horns and just pass it.
The problem they have is, when you ban something for 12 years, how do you step down? The only honest thing would be to just admit they were over-cautious. They are probably waiting for some major event, and I wonder if the twenty-fifth anniversary is the moment at which it will happen. But it is an important point: you do not sit on a certification for 12 years, you ban a movie for 12 years. And that will go down in the BBFC's records as one of the greatest political mistakes they ever made.'
Mark Kermode's documentary The Fear of God on the making of The Exorcist and its lost scenes will be shown on BBC TV shortly. In August, a revised and extended version of his book BFI Modern Classics: The Exorcist will be published
In Europe sex exhibitions are commonplace, and all tastes are catered for. If you want hardcore, there are whole festivals devoted to it. But in Britain an exhibition cannot be about 'sex'; it has to be 'erotic', ie it has to pretend to be worthy and improving. British censorship laws also mean that we are exposed to a strange practice called 'simulated sex' in which genitals never touch, and penises, when seen at all, are safely shrivelled. These laws were also a factor in the travesty known as the 1970s British 'sex comedy' (no sex, no comedy, lots of Arthur Mullard and dolly birds with nylon knickers).
Today we have something even less funny than sex comedies: a grimly cheerful 'alternative' eroticism. This means lots of tasteful bondage imagery, kinky PVC, rubber skirts, gay style, Aids ribbons and safe sex. One of the most depressing sights in early nineties Soho was when the Pussy Posse would turn up dressed in 'outrageous' gear and rush around demonstrating how to put a condom on (using an inanimate object, of course). Somewhow they managed to make sex look oddly sexless. In the late nineties it is as if the Pussy Posse has taken over the world.
Anything goes except what most people get off on: heterosexual intercourse without dressing up like a plastic-skinned black pudding. Not that I am out to spoil anybody's fun. If certain costumes tickle your fancy, fine. But what about those of us who enjoy a good old-fashioned bunk-up. Who's looking out for us?
Not the organisers of Erotica, the exhibition which opens at Olympia at the end of April, who insist that 'eroticism is an exploration in the mind'. Last time around, in November, Olympia was full of erotic candles, erotic wooden sculp- tures, erotic tattooing, erotic aromatherapy, erotic body piercing and erotic fashion. The punters, mainly young men in casual gear holding bottles of beer, remained unaroused by all this. An aerial view of the hall would have shown them converging, as though part of some pre-ordained plan, towards one tiny stall which was showing genuine pornography of the straightforward man-and-woman-on-a-bed variety.
In the circumstances it seemed thoroughly subversive. But it was a terrible crush, and in the end it got a bit strong even for me - the smell of beer fumes, that is. As I was leaving a group of lads passed a peroxide-haired art student-type dressed up like a dog's dinner in PVC. 'She'd be all right if she had tits', one of them said, more in sorrow than in anger.
Erotica is at Olympia from 30 April to 3 May
Signs of the times
'It's very mentally...er...mental'
The philosopher formerly known as David Beckham, explaining - and demonstrating - how mentally exhausting football can be. All that shopping with Victoria, perhaps
'People forget that Eric Cantona is a philosopher and pigeonhole him as just a soccer star'
Eric's film co-writer 'Saltz'
'Roy Hodgson is adamant that we should rest as much as possible and encourages us not to rush around shopping or going out too much'
England goalkeeper Tim Flowers, who is a keen gardener
Exploring Parenthood, a counselling service, has set up a hotline for children frightened by the Gulf crisis; whether they will take reverse-charge calls from Baghdad is not known. ChildLine is similarly prepared
'I was walking down Fifth Avenue, chatting to a friend. Someone walking behind us said, "Oh my God, did you hear that? Kate Moss can actually talk". That's like, weird'
Kate, like, Moss
'The old guys were playing hell that there was too much fettucine and penne and not enough steak-and-kidney pie and stew. There are so many women in the place, the menu had got like a Kensington wine bar. They think three lettuce leaves and a spoonful of tuna is a good lunch. We don't'
Joe Ashton MP of the House of Commons catering committee. John Prescott is doing his bit by serving thick white sandwiches with margarine, ham and processed cheese to a delegation of ecological experts
However, Clare Short has insisted that the commons canteen serve only humanely produced Tiki Caffe. (The Bangladesh Observer recently referred to Short's visit as 'a significant millstone between our two countries')
'British governments have always taken a keen interest in revolutionary and radical movements'
Press release from the Public Records Office for its exhibition 'The Voice of the Multitude: Unrest and Radicalism in England 1790-1918'
Among the fulsome tributes to Enoch Powell were some stranger reminiscences. One person remembers explaining to Powell that JR was a soap opera character, then having to tell him what soap operas were. Another remembers Powell coming to his parents' house. He came into the young boy's bedroom, picked up a potty from under the bed and sniffed it. When asked why, he said 'It is my job. I am the Minister of Health'
In a documentary about the making of Amistad, Stephen Spielberg's film about slavery, the narrator says: 'The manacles were applied to the actors playing slaves only by African-American crew members'
'If it's going to be a ceremonial office, I'm not interested. I've already got plenty of gold chains'
Peter Stringfellow, addressing the Oxford Union on his candidacy to be Mayor of London
In the run up to the thirtieth anniversary of Enoch Powell's infamous 'rivers of blood' speech on 21 April, I have been thinking about my parents and their experience of Britain as immigrants from India in the sixties. Turning to our family albums, I came across this photo of my mother and her three children (I am on the right), clustered around my father's first car. How relaxed and carefree she looks, and how healthy and content we children are. I expect my dad took the picture with his first camera, and had he been in the picture himself I bet he would have looked proud: the son of a school inspector under British rule in India, who had made a good life for himself and his family in Britain.
As a teacher in London, my father's salary of £80 a month enabled them to buy a car, a camera, a house - and also a plentiful supply of unadulterated good food, which would have been impossible in India at that time. But a better standard of living was not the only reason for coming to Britain. My mother stresses that her motivation was to gain freedom and independence from the extended family. In India, even if they had enough money to rent their own place the social ties and traditions would have been too strong for newly-weds to break away. A separate home of their own was the biggest luxury of all.
Look at the air of ease and confidence which the photo exudes. My mother looks like she belongs. Indeed both she and my father felt at home in Swinging London. They went out and about without a second thought, even touring Europe with me (I was three) in tow. It struck me that in later photographs they rarely look as relaxed as this. Was it just that they were younger then?
When I asked them, they said they truly felt welcome in Britain then. The authorities were eager to recruit my father: there was no questioning the validity of either his qualifications or experience as a teacher in India. Arriving in Britain in 1963, they were excited. Isolated instances of petty racism could not spoil it for them. When they bought their first house in an all-white, respectable suburb the previous owners warned that the neighbours were against 'coloureds' moving in. But after my mother gave birth to my younger brother, one of these neighbours stopped her washing nappies by hand and insisted that they must be washed in the neighbour's new washing machine. They still exchange Christmas cards 30 years later.
Yet London no longer represents freedom and independence to my parents. Today they feel excluded and unwelcome. Why? 'We didn't know then what we know now', replied my mother, 'which is that we are second class citizens'. I asked them when this dawned on them, half-expecting that Powell's speech might have changed their minds for them. They said the furore over Powell was not in the forefront of their thinking, even when it was happening. The realisation that British society was excluding them did not come until later.
My father told me a story about how, in the mid-seventies, he was wondering whether to take up a teaching post in Africa and he asked a friend of his, who happened to be a Labour councillor, for advice. The councillor told my father, who by then had been made head of department at his school, that if he left Britain then he would never get such a good job again. Too true. Dad did go to Africa, and when he came back to Britain all he was offered was supply teaching. In the intervening years the anti-immigrant culture was cemented into British society from the top down, without any need of Powell, and my parents have felt blocked out ever since.
My parents' experiences seem at odds with all the talk of Britain being a multicultural country nowadays. In spite of the plethora of anti-racist organisations they feel less confident about their position in British society now than they did in April 1968.
Alka Sehgal is an Essex girl
Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder
Absinthe. Even the name is delicious. It sounds dangerous and exotic, conjuring up images of the beautiful and the damned. Absinthe was the drink of choice for the great artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They painted it, wrote poetry about it, but mostly they drank enormous quantities of it. Toulouse Lautrec drank his from a hollowed-out walking stick. Alfred Jarry, author of the Ubu plays, painted himself green in homage to it. Oscar Wilde wrote that 'a glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world'.
Absinthe was invented in Switzerland by the Henriod sisters and first manufactured in France by Henri Louis Pernod. After two disastrous grape harvests it became more popular - and cheaper than wine. By 1914, revenue from absinthe had risen to one per cent of the entire national budget. But opposition was also growing, led by embittered wine-makers, opportunistic politicians and a sensationalist press. The left criticised absinthe because it robbed the working class of dignity, the right associated it with amoral artists whose work they found offensive.
'Scientific' research carried out on animals and lunatics identified absinthe as a cause of hallucinations and criminal behaviour. When in 1905 a Swiss farmer shot dead his entire family after an absinthe binge, prohibition loomed. Absinthe was banned in Belgium (1905), Switzerland (1910), Holland (1910), and France (1914), where the demand for a sober fighting force finally tipped the balance. While all Europe was plunged into madness and savagery, it was outlawed as an uncivilised drink which could send you mad.
Absinthe is a spirit (70 per cent proof) distilled from wormwood and flavoured with anise, lemon balm, hyssop and fennel. The ingredients are soaked in ethanol alcohol and water. It has an unearthly bright green colour that holds the light, and can be drunk neat or more usually with water and sugar. The water is poured over the sugar and then stirred into the absinthe which then becomes cloudy. Better still, the sugar on the spoon can be dipped into absinthe, set on fire, and then slowly dripped into the glass.
Many drinkers report hallucinogenic effects and a heightened awareness of colours (the intense colours of Van Gogh's paintings have been attributed to his consumption of absinthe, as has the cutting off of his ear; but this is to ignore his schizophrenia and the history of mental illness in his family). If absinthe does contain a psychocative ingredient it is thujone, derived from wormwood, which has a similar molecular structure to cannabis. However, it is present in such small doses that it may not be an active agent. The reported hallucinogenic effects probably result from the high level of alcohol.
Nearly 10 years ago a Czech distiller, Radomil Hill, started producing absinthe once more. I first tasted it in Prague in 1993 (thanks to my friends there, I have had a fairly regular supply ever since). The first sip takes your head off: you can feel it burning its way down to your stomach. After the initial shock wears off, it becomes a very pleasant experience. For me at least, absinthe creates a calming mood. I read a report in The Face (March 1998) about 'mild mannered Canadians' getting into fist fights after drinking it, but this has probably more to do with them knocking into people with their rucksacks. After drinking absinthe I have strange dreams: vivid, surreal and usually pornographic; and I tend to agree that it might contain something extra.
As far as I can tell, absinthe was never banned in Britain. When production stopped in France, supplies simply ran out. It is available in Barcelona if you know where to look, and I have heard that people make their own in a few other places. An original bottle of pre-war Pernod recently went for several thousand pounds at auction, and there is definitely a resurgence of interest in this delightful drink. Fin de siecle madness, boredom with the same old techo-drugs, or just people fed up with being forced to stay healthy - whatever it is, I'm all for it.
John Moore's band Black Box Recorder release their first single 'Child Psychology' (Chrysalis) on 13 April
Pablo Picasso, The Absinth Drinker, 1901
The dark stuff
Easter is a reminder that real chocolate is one of the most sensuous pleaures in life. I am not talking here about corner-shop confectionery, which has more to do with sugar, milk and margarine than the cocoa bean (though I do like Kit-Kats). As for the creme egg, I have to agree with Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who described it as 'the blandest and most disgusting thing of all'. The hens which lay them must be kept in terrible conditions.
The first sign of good chocolate is that it has not been produced in Britain. Belgium, France and Switzerland are the world powers in this field. Cadbury's were recently forced to withdraw their Swiss Chalet bar when it was held that the adjective 'Swiss' implied a quality which the product did not match. Look also for a high cocoa solid content (above 60 per cent in the case of dark chocolate). Vegetable fat should not appear in the list of ingredients. Best quality chocolate will look glossy and snap crisply when you break it. As it melts, it will coat your tongue with a rich, dark, bitter-sweet intensity, leaving you craving for more.
Warm baked chocolate puddings (serves four)
150g best quality plain chocolate (Lindt Excellence or Valrhona), plus four small pieces
15g unsalted butter, plus extra for ramekins
3 medium eggs, separated
3 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp brandy or dark rum
Extra caster sugar for dredging
Butter four ramekins and dredge with caster sugar to prevent the puddings from sticking. In a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water, gently melt the chocolate with the butter. Allow to cool slightly. Mix the egg yolks, brandy or rum and the sugar, and stir into the melted chocolate.
Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add a spoon of the egg white to the remaining chocolate mixture to loosen, and then carefully fold the chocolate into the remaining egg white, retaining as much volume as possible. Spoon into the ramekins, cover with cling film and refrigerate for two hours. Remove from the fridge, take off the cling film, and place on a baking tray. Insert a small piece of chocolate into the centre of each pudding and then bake for 10 minutes in a preheated over at 200°C. Allow to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out. Serve with crème fraîche.
Crisp on the outside and with a molten centre, this is chocolate at its most wicked.
© Neil Haidar is a chef
Only a game
Four years ago in this magazine, I wrote a review of CLR James's Beyond a Boundary in which I predicted the imminent decline of West Indian cricket while it was still on top. Today you cannot move for articles analysing the fall from grace. But when the pundits point to the influence of American satellite TV and the lionisation of basketball star Michael Jordan they are picking up on surface manifestations of the malaise. To reach the heart of the matter, you need to go back to James.
CLR James was a black revolutionary and cricket lover who pointed out that the game of cricket was one of the greatest gifts of the oppressor to the oppressed - the other being the language of Shakespeare. But the great merit of cricket over Shakespeare is that alongside aesthetic pleasure there is also the possibility of humiliating the opposition. In a colonial context, this humiliation took on a particularly acute significance.
While British influence over the West Indies remained paramount, and while cricket was still regarded as the epitome of the British way of life, the triumph of West Indian cricketers over the MCC represented the triumph of the freed slave over the colonial administrator. The Windies got their own back not merely through crushing the England team but by transforming the way in which this most English of games was played.
It is very much to the point that the era of West Indian domination was ushered in by the appointment of the first ever black captain, Frank Worrell, in 1960. James himself had been in the forefront of the campaign which overturned the convention that a black team had to be led by a white man. But just as cricket is no longer central to the idea of Britishness, so the idea of beating the British at cricket is no longer central to the self-image of Jamaicans, Bajans and others.
Cricket is now only another game, which must compete with the accessibility of bask-etball and the brilliance of stars like Michael Jordan, not to mention the sudden rise of Jamaica's footballing 'Reggae boyz', en route to this summer's World Cup finals. The downward shift in West Indian cricket is not just cyclical: it is akin to the ending of the days when the captain of the MCC could whistle down the nearest Northern mineshaft and a new fast bowler would emerge full of raw power and energy.
At the same time it is easy to exaggerate the decline of West Indian cricket. Even in the early days of their supremacy, the Windies suffered at the hands of Australian fast bowlers Lillee and Thompson. While not pre-eminent today, the West Indian team will remain competitive. Already the most gifted batsman alive (with the possible exception of India's Tendulkar), Lara will become a more astute captain. The absence of national purpose will make for a new ordinariness about cricket, which in turn will make for more tight finishes as in this year's England tour. No doubt this will prompt many more Brits to head off on expensive package tours dreaming of ice cold drinks and hot women. Ironically, it may be the beetroot British tourist and his pounds sterling who will ensure that cricket does not die in the Caribbean.
Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998