Mark of the Devil: Kermode at Halloween
The lights were off, the jack o’lantern was carved and lit, the bag of Haribo Horror Mix was open and Night Of The Demon was flickering on the telly. A perfect Halloween? It would have been if all this was happening on 31 October. But, alas, it was 30 October, and I was celebrating All Hallows’ Eve a day early for the second year running.
In 2009, I caught the bus into town to see Steve Earle play my local concert hall. This year I venture further afield, to the centre of London and, eventually, down into the bowels of the Barbican, where film critic and fellow horror fan Mark Kermode is giving a talk to promote the second edition of his cinema-centric memoirs, It’s Only A Movie.
As it’s Halloween he’s promised, via Twitter, to tell the “Linda Blair / Alice Cooper story”. And, after a brief introductory film in which he explains the science behind Avatar’s 3D using some cuddly smurfs and a fishing rod, he tells it, complete with impressions of his nervous younger self meeting Blair for the first time. It’s hard to imagine the motormouthed critic as a stumbling, fumbling journalist learning the ropes of his profession, but the self-deprecation is no surprise. As regular viewers/readers of the Kermode Uncut blog will know, his candid sense of humour often punctuates his reviews and opinion pieces.
I’ve long been an admirer of Kermode’s style of film journalism, where opinions are strong but expressed in an intelligent, well-argued, sometimes cheeky manner. His style of critique reminds me of my favourite online forums - the ones populated by passionate film lovers who can get a bit bolshy when prodded in certain areas, but for the most part present their ideas in a way that makes you listen to what they’re saying, whether or not you agree with them. It’s interesting, though, that as open to debate as Kermode seems (his willingness to respond to his audience on his blog is another of his endearing traits), he claims not to do moderation.
“In my opinion,” he says, “people do not talk about films moderately. There’s something about cinema that kind of bypasses the cerebral cortex and goes straight into your emotional hard-drive. And, actually, when people come out of the cinema, they don’t go, ‘What did you think of that? Well, I thought on the one hand this, and on the other hand that. If you like this, you’ll like that.’ They don’t, right? They come out of the cinema going, ‘That was the worst film I ever saw!’… That’s how people talk about things, in intense ways, because films are profoundly emotional. And to pretend otherwise seems to me to be a nonsense.”
The topics tonight chain effortlessly together, with anecdotes about Kermode’s early forays in journalism and broadcasting leading to the mission statement quoted above, which funnels into the idea that the best practice for a film critic is not to have any friends in the industry - or, if they can manage it, not to have any friends full stop.
Eventually, and fittingly for both Halloween and this website, the subject of horror movies swings into view. “People always say to horror fans, ‘Oh, are you a horror fan because something terrifying happened to you as a kid?’”, says Kermode. "I swear, I’ve never met a horror fan who became a fan of horror movies because something scary happened as a kid. It’s just, if you like horror movies, you like horror movies. You like being scared. You like being scared in safety - maybe that’s something to do with it - but you like the act of being scared.
“And one of the best things, about the best horror movies, is when they scare you so much that you think that you might be physically in danger. One of the reasons that I love The Exorcist so much is it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that has genuinely made me feel frightened for my bodily functions. And there are occasions when you’re in a cinema with people who freak out at movies, and it’s great…”
He recalls visiting a cinema in his youth and seeing nuns outside sprinkling the queue for The Exorcist with holy water and handing out leaflets advising people on what to do if they became possessed by the Devil while watching the film. “Afterwards, people were freaking out”, he says. “Of course they were freaking out - nuns were sprinkling holy water on them on the way in! William Castle couldn’t have come up with this.” Later, during a screening of The Exorcist at the Barnet Odeon, a friend of the critic’s fainted: "As he passed out, he went rigid. I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll go and take him out and resuscitate him - it’s not a big deal.’
"But I picked him up by the shoulders and pulled him up, and it was one of those raked cinemas. And as he went up, his feet went ‘boom, boom, boom’ [on the floor]. Everyone in the cinema went, ‘Oh my God, it’s just killed someone! He’s dead - look, he’s dead!’ And they really enjoyed the film - it really gave it the edge." Kermode says that he also saw someone pass out during a screening of Irreversible at the Edinburgh Film Festival: “At the beginning of it, the film opens and somebody gets their head stoved in with a fire extinguisher. The guy in front of me goes ‘boom’. Carry him out? Brilliant. Absolutely loved it.”
He returns to the subject of horror during the evening’s Q&A section, fielding a question from an audience member about a possible remake of The Exorcist: if it was going to be done, who should direct it?
“Well, the funny thing is,” he replies, "Friedkin’s been asked about it, and he’s been quite magnanimous about it. He’s said, ‘Well, of course it’ll happen, and I’m very interested to see how they do it.’ The problem is, you get a film, Requiem, with Sandra Huller, which is a brilliant film based on the real-life case of Anneliese Michel, a German girl in the 1970s who came to believe that she was possessed by the Devil and endured a lengthy series of exorcisms, at the end of which she died. It’s a really harrowing story, and the way it’s directed is quite brilliant. It really leaves everything open to interpretation…
"Friedkin interviewed Blatty recently, and Friedkin said to Blatty, ‘You know, I wouldn’t make that film now the way I made it back then. If I was doing it now, I’d leave it much more to the imagination; I’d leave things unanswered.’ Because if you read the book, the book is much more ambiguous, much more ambivalent. So, honestly, in a way, Requiem is the remake of The Exorcist. It’s a story that is totally open to interpretation and has a very tragic ending. Beyond that, I don’t see any point in remaking it, but of course the irony of it is that Blatty and Friedkin have both talked about remaking it themselves.
"Blatty wrote a screenplay for a TV mini-series that would run over eight episodes, which put all the theology back into the story… and obviously he took out the more shocking elements because it was television. This was back in 1998, with the 25th anniversary reissue happening. And for a while, Nic Roeg was attached to it. That, I thought, was an interesting idea.
"However, the last I heard of that… and they’ve talked about it again recently, and I promise you I’m not making this up. I spoke to somebody; I said ‘What’s happening with The Exorcist TV mini-series?’ He said, ‘It’s all gone very badly wrong.’ I said, ‘Really? What’s happening?’ And he said, ‘Well, let’s just say there have been some casting issues with it.’ Nic Roeg wasn’t attached at this point; the script had been taken off by some TV company. And in the role of Detective Kinderman, the famous Jewish detective played in the original by Lee J Cobb, they had cast Whoopi Goldberg. And that was the point at which Blatty went, ‘I don’t think this is going to work, actually. Shall we just walk away?’
“But there is a script for it, and it’s an interesting script, so it’s not impossible. Beyond that, I don’t want it to happen. I’m sure that Michael Bay will get his hands on it and make it with more chainsaws and more gore, and all the ideas taken out.”
Of course, no Kermode appearance would be complete without some anti-3D spiel, and tonight’s is a rousing example of the form. It starts out as a statement of solidarity with Christopher Nolan, director-to-be of the defiantly 2D Batman sequel The Dark Knight Rises, and finishes as a rallying speech that wouldn’t seem out of place at a political convention. When he stops talking, the brief silence hits him and he’s back to self-deprecation: “Sorry, that got more aggressive than I thought it would.”
Whether or not you agree with him on any given subject, the guy’s passion for film is infectious. His appreciation for horror cinema makes him one of us (which other contributor to Sight & Sound magazine would pose for the cover of his book holding a huge chainsaw?); his high profile a definite plus when it comes to discussion of the genre in the mainstream. For Mark Kermode, it’s clearly much more than only a movie.
His outlook is neatly summed up by a cartoon he saw recently in The Independent. “I think it was about me,” he says, laughing, "because there was a character in it, a complete knob with a quiff called Marcus Carmody - you get the picture.
“In the first panel, he’s a kid, and somebody says to him, ‘Ooh, Marcus, do want to come out to play football?’ And he says, ‘No, I can’t. Betty Blue’s on television.’ In the next one, he’s a student and he’s asked, ‘Ooh, Marcus, do you want to go out for a drink?’ ‘No, I can’t, there’s a Visconti season on television.’ And the last panel is the guy saying, ‘Why does anyone need real life when you have cinema?’ And it’s meant to be funny. I don’t think it’s funny at all. I agree with that. What’s the problem?”
It’s Only A Movie: Reel Life Adventures Of A Film Obsessive by Mark Kermode is out now. The book tour continues through November. See the official site for full details.