"White guys take acid. White guys take acid and go see the Exorcist." -- Richard Pryor (SNL, season 1, Dec. 1975)I was just 8 years old when Pryor said that on my new favorite show, Saturday Night Live. Even then I "got it" - that white guys, like me, were sick thrill seekers for whom extreme horror (and THE EXORCIST was considered the ne plus ultra extremis for the time) wasn't enough, we had to boost it up with this dangerous mind-melting drug, LSD. Pryor had yet to set himself on fire from freebasing and he was way ahead of the curve as far as openly discussing, live on TV, an array of drug effects without condemnation. He made me want to be that brave. I was too scared to even think about seeing THE EXORCIST, being only eight years old, but I never forgot those words quoted above; I knew I had to get there.
If you think The EXORCIST would be less scary on acid then you don't understand acid quite the way Richard Pryor does, or weren't alive to experience the almost religious national hysteria over The Exorcist itself, which premiered in 1974 but was still in theaters when Pryor did his monologue in October of 1975. I wrote more on the subject in my piece on Mecha Medusa and the Otherless Child in the 2007 issue of the Acidemic Journal of Film & Media.
A good acid trip can change your life forever. You transcend notions of time and history. You notice how how we're all one giant organism of consciousness that transcends everything. You realize that you're in a cosmic prison and only love can set you free, and it does... until around Tuesday, when you wake up back in ego-conscious prison. But for just awhile there's this exaggerated awareness that transcends the mundane minutiae of your setting. Everything is alive, potentially dangerous or delightful and it's impossible to judge the difference. Someone pulls out a pen, and you jump as if it was a sword. Someone pulls out a sword, you jump as if it was a straw. You're free of signifiers and you realize how naming things kills them just a little bit.
Now if it's a bad acid trip, on the other hand, all you see is dying and how humans are like decaying blood bags in a world of pins and sharp corners. Everyone's just waiting to be punctured so they can leak all over your shoes. A horror film seems relatively sobering by contrast; you feel every stab on the screen more vividly than you would if you were really stabbed (if you were tripping). It's cathartic because it distracts you from your own mortality, which thanks to acid is now staring you in the face like a member of the audience in a black robe who wont move his scythe so you can sit down. In that state you probably wouldn't even notice if you yourself were stabbed by some dope addict behind you in the Times Square grindhouse. You'd probably apologize for getting in the way of their knife, never harboring them any grudge.
The best 1970s horror films capture this metaphysical disconnect, the thousand yard stare of those gone beyond (or to Vietnam) and back again; they erase the thin red line between a civilized human social gathering and a bloodbath orgy. In LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1972, above) a schizophrenic young woman and her condescending bald husband (and third wheel) move into a big old Victorian house out on an island off of New England, to "get away from NYC" which overstimulates the emotionally fragile and empathic Jessica (she hears strange voices in her head a lot, and has an eerie interest in making brass rubbings at old graveyards). Following the trend of films like CARNIVAL OF SOULS, KISS ME DEADLY and POINT BLANK there's lots of bizarre clues that our heroine may already be dead and just doesn't know it yet, that this is all some bizarre journey to the underworld.
Made at a time when psychedelic drugs had changed the face of American culture, LET'S SCARE .... DEATH (LSD!) is nothing short of elegant in the way it blurs the line between subjective and the “real" to demonstrate how paranoia can bend the nature of reality itself, exposing even the most realistic objectivity as a delusional farce. As the details compile and rearrange themselves the narrative footing gets slipperier and yet never falters. Polanski set the bar for this in ROSEMARY, by having Mia Farrow's paranoia be utilized to cast doubt on the reality of her situation (she's hallucinating!) at the same time as we know the supernatural is behind it all. Polanski and Jessica prove you can unsplit the difference between the real and the delusional, and that in fact, the difference is--as quantum physics proves--literally all in your head. Terrifying yet intelligent, supernatural yet psychological, poetic yet realistic... and just plain straight-up spooky, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH has it all. Even the enigmatic Dr. Mystery agrees with me from his Zombie Bloodbath blog:
At once a fine example of the 1970s American film; a post-Manson, post-Altamont cultural fear of post-1960s life; a compassionate and empathetic portrayal of mental illness; a fine character study; and a freaky-ass scary movie, Let's Scare Jessica to Death should be more widely seen.
You can really see a lot of tripper paranoia in Jessica, brilliantly played by Zohra Lampert (above). When she sees a barefoot child staring at her in the graveyard she's scared but once other people see the child, she smiles and acts like it's a personal victory; her fear of being thought of as nuts overrides her fear of the supernatural. She doesn't know the right way to react, and we feel her pain, especially if we've ever had the LSD world tour of schizophrenia that is a bad acid trip.
One thing Altamont taught us was that following your lovelight too trustingly can really lead you down some dark dangerous corners. That's what the LSD horror movie is all about, in fact I think it can be broken down into a few key points:
1. A lead character who can't distinguish reality from fantasy, leading to ambiguity (is she really trying to kill me? Or is she coming onto me? Or am I just nuts?)
2. A feeling of helpless dependence on the establishment gradually giving way to rebellion as said patriarchy collapses.
3. The "pod people" feeling, that those around you don't understand or are in on some massive conspiracy. They're all laughing at you, or planning to replace you with one of their own.
4. Fear of children going wild or becoming possessed or endangered or a threat and not knowing how to save them, stop them, or get away from them. (The generational opposite of #2, fear of parents)
5. Feminist subtext!
THE EXORCIST plays to nearly all these phenomena, as we slowly are made to realize the patriarchy has no clue how to tame the wild unconscious of a fatherless girl as she reaches the age of menstruation. Ditto CARRIE (1976), where again a fatherless child (Sissy Spacek) has to deal with menstruation issues and the latent unearthly powers they bring. In EXORCIST, the single mom (Ellen Burstyn) is the hero; in CARRIE, the single mom (Piper Laurie) is the villain, and for my mind, CARRIE is the more painful of the two to watch, just because poor Carrie has nowhere to turn; not even home life can help, as her insane mom is waiting to dispense draconian punishments in the name of keeping Carrie's soul "pure." At least Ellen Burstyn in THE EXORCIST is, like, cool. But at the same time Carrie has her night of vengeance and dies to fight another day. The best poor Regan (Linda Blair) can hope for is a level seven memory wipe.
Aside from devouring moms, devil children, and traumatic menstruation, the feminist heroines had to contend with their disbelieving, condescending husbands. THE STEPFORD WIVES (above, 1975, from the novel by ROSEMARY scribe Ira Levin) finds Katherine Ross trying to avoid being replaced by a passive android after her robotics engineer husband moves them into a closed, flower-strewn upscale community. In THE SENTINEL (1977), fashion model Christina Raines is roped into becoming a zombie nun on behalf of those who would keep the demons in their place. Similarly, fashion photographer Faye Dunaway finds herself seeing through another pair of eyes--the killers!--in EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), as a kind of punishment for her masculine fascination with violence. In short, women in these films find freedom from patriarchal conscription to be hard won and hard kept, and they often wind up even deeper in the shit for trying to be free (i.e. LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, 1977), as if a darker form of slavery awaited those who reached beyond the white picket fence, the slavery of raw nature and pagan sacrifice.
A really cool and relevant TV movie, I think (my parents made me go bed before I could see the ending), that is currently unavailable on DVD, is THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (1978) starring Bette Davis and a very young Michael O'Keefe and Rosanna Arquette. This one is awesome because it's not a patriarchy, but a matriarchy! The women rule things and make, um, adolescent boy sacrifices? to ensure the harvest? You dig? Camille Paglia-style? We wouldn't see another good matriarchy movie for another couple decades with JOHN CARPENTER'S GHOSTS OF MARS (2001) so for god's sake, send the harvest home... to DVD!