(Double Feature is a series of “double length” (400-word) posts where I’ll discuss two related pop culture artifacts)
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now have a great deal in common: both are supernatural horror films released in 1973, both now regarded as genuine classics. They’re each impeccably directed and feature rightfully lauded performances from indisputable stars – Burstyn and van Sydow in The Exorcist, Christie and Sutherland in Don’t Look Now. Each film lingers in one’s memory; they’re thoughtful, cerebral, complex and, above all, terrifying.
They’re also the kind of horror films that just don’t get made anymore.
Hollywood realised long ago that the best way to make money with horror films is to pander directly to teenagers. Films are largely populated with attractive teenagers, twenty-somethings, or more often twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers. Long gone are films like The Thing or Alien filled predominantly with surly, unattractive adults. A younger cast generally means less gravitas, but it doesn’t have to – you just need to cast good young actors. And there’s still the occasional horror film with an older cast – The Ring here, or Mama there – but none of these films carry the emotional maturity and depth of The Exorcist or Don’t Look Now.
Let me explain: these two films tap into adult fears. Yes, the last half of The Exorcist is spent in a garishly illuminated bedroom with pea-soup vomit and the climatic, scariest moment of Don’t Look Now is hardly “mature.” But it’s easy to forget that the first two acts of The Exorcist earn their power from a mother’s anxiety regarding her daughter’s well-being. Don’t Look Now is fundamentally about the gradual mending of a relationship ruined by their child’s accidental death. These kind of nuanced themes simply aren’t addressed in modern horror and, in my opinion, that’s a damn shame.
These themes do get touched on, now and again. The aforementioned Mama, the Paranormal Activity films and most J-horror movies trade on the creepiness of children, which has its roots in fear of parenthood; but this is generally deep subtext. Triangle, one of the most intelligent horror films in years, has its own themes of motherhood and adulthood but, again, these aren’t the core of the film.
Still, The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now feel like films from a forgotten era, a time when honest-to-goodness grown-ups would go and watch horror films with maturity and complexity; a complexity that seems to be increasingly eroded by an emphasis on scares over substance.