Thursday, November 03, 2005

Exorcising the Horror with Purple Rinse

Channel 4 has had a great horror season over the past few weeks. Documentaries purporting to be the ‘real story’ behind famous horror films, some classic horrors like’ Misery’ (to be aired tonight) and some lesser-known or less successful horror movies. Particularly good was the documentary on the life of Ed Gein, the killer who inspired ‘Psycho’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Last night I saw ‘The Exorcist III’, a predictable example of the Catholic priest versus demonic possession genre, written and directed by William Peter Blatty who based it on his novel, ‘Legion’. His most famous book, of course, is ‘The Exorcist’.

In 1973 at the start of one of the school holidays, my uncle and aunt picked my brother and I up from boarding school in Barberton. Crossing the border into Mozambique at Komatipoort was usually a quick process without much incident beyond the usual formalities of form-filling and getting one’s passport stamped. The customs officials chose to search the car that time. My aunt, brother and I stayed in the customs building while my uncle went out to the car with a customs official. They returned about 20 minutes later. The customs official went behind the desk and my uncle walked over to us. I could see that he was angry.

‘They found a banned book,’ he said, glaring at me.

I was dumbfounded. Running through the books in my head, I couldn’t think of one that was banned. 'What? Which one?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know, but we're going to have to pay a fine.’

MASHI remembered my copy of ‘Mash’ the hilarious book of the TV series and film. There was no TV in South Africa in those days but I had seen episodes of the TV series on home cinema. The cover has the picture of a woman's legs and arse from behind who transforms into a peace sign. ‘Could it be that?’ I wondered. It didn’t seem likely as the billboards featured the same picture. Perhaps the contents of the book were deemed offensive by the South African censors?

We were called over to sign an admission of guilt and pay a fine of R10, not a paltry amount in those days. The offending book was ‘The Exorcist’.

I was completely amazed by this. I had borrowed the book from my grandmother the previous holiday and taken it to school with me. The book was very much in the news as the film had just come out and had been banned in South Africa but I was completely unaware of the book having been banned. After I'd read it, I'd lent it to a lot of my friends at school. We had all been gripped and spooked by it.

At that point I apologised to the customs official saying that I’d been unaware of it being banned and explained how I'd brought it in from Mozambique at the beginning of the term. I also suggested that since I was taking the book OUT of South Africa rather than IN, it seemed strange to fine us for it. That merely annoyed him (and my uncle) so we paid the fine and headed for Ressano Garcia on the Mozambique side.

The ExorcistAfter that and having read all the stories surrounding the film and how audiences had reacted to it, I was obsessed with seeing it. While it was banned in South Africa that was impossible. I eventually saw it half way through my first year at varsity, 4 years later. B, a friend of mine (his mother owned the cottage at Smitswinkel), and I hitched to Zimbabwe (Rhodesia as it was called then) for our mid-year holiday. In Salisbury (now Harare), I spent some time with my uncle, aunt and cousin. The Exorcist was showing at one of the cinemas there. I convinced my cousin that we had to see it and off we went to the afternoon matinee.

It’s not the sort of film to see on a bright sunny afternoon, in a largely empty cinema where most of the fellow cinema-goers were purple-rinse pensioners. ‘The Exorcist’ needs darkness and, maybe, a smaller venue packed with people all under the same spell of scary anticipation about what they are about to see. Nevertheless, we both expected to be scared shitless and grossed out by the gore.

Tense with anticipation, we watched the film unfold. The film was working its scary magic on us and it may have scared us shitless if it were not for the purple-rinse ladies. At a very early stage of the film, at a point meant to be full of foreboding, they started to cackle - cackle with laughter. It annoyed us and we tried to give them meaningful glances in the dark. Later on, their cackles developed into a rich, infectious laugh and we started to giggle. By the time we saw Linda Blair masturbating with crucifixes, levitating, spewing bile across the room, rotating her head by 360 degrees, we were laughing along with the purple rinses.

So much for a film many have called the scariest film of all time (*)!

(*) In a recent viewers poll on Channel 4, viewers voted ‘The Exorcist’ into second place behind ‘The Shining’ as the best horror of all time.

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