Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Expulsion of the Devil (1973): or, When Fridges ATTACK!

Juan Luis Buñuel's 1973 film, Expulsion of the Devil (Au rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse, literally "At the Meeting of the Joyous Death"), could be called a "slow burn." It moves through its tale of poltergeist activity plaguing a young family in their isolated rural home with absolutely no music (except of the incidental sort, as when a character listens to a radio or a record player in the scene), and spends a good deal of time contentedly watching the family work and play--the father at his commercial drawings, the mother at her magazine articles, and the children exploring the grounds of their new home and interacting with the occasional guest. For the most part, it's a quietly effective, slow-moving film.

However, when the paranormal starts happening--as happen it must, since this is a ghost story, after all--it happens hard, fast and loud, and with a fairly consistent regularity. Windows break, tables come to life and wreck entire rooms, and even household appliances go on the offensive, battering the characters with an amount of ectoplasmic energy seldom seen this side of Amityville II: The Possession.

The set-up is fairly standard for movies of this subgenre. A family takes advantage of an unbelievably good deal on a house they would never be able to afford if priced at market value, whereupon supernatural hijinx ensue. In this case the family is made of up commercial-artist dad Marc, magazine writer mom Françoise, and their two young children, a son and a daughter. While the boy is perhaps six or seven years old, the main focus is on 14-year-old daughter Sophie (teen model Yasmine Dahm), caught as so many characters in these movies often are between her innocent girlhood and her sexual coming of age. Sophie is clearly a Daddy's Girl, listening to music with him while he works and pumping him for info about his forsaken dreams of being a Real Artist.

Harsh, but fair.

While Sophie's relationship with her father is warm and affectionate, her relationship with Mom is a bit less so. Françoise paints the kitchen and trades emasculating barbs with Marc about their comparative incomes, ordering the children out to play so that she can maybe work a little on the writing that bought them the place before starting on a dinner of her specialty, Martyr Souffle.

We spend a fair amount of time getting to know the family and watch them settle into their new abode, and for a while only a mysteriously overturned paint can hints at anything out of the ordinary. Later the young brother's lead soldiers suddenly break themselves into pieces, and Marc finds his drawing table (and latest commission) covered in a layer of mud. Tensions start rising as the parents think--perhaps understandably--Sophie is acting out her displeasure at the move.

The first real supernatural manifestation occurs a night or two later, when her brother has a nightmare and Marc, hoping to get a little housewarming done IYKWIM, instructs the tot to sleep in his sister's room. Sophie is very displeased. "I don't like to hear him breathe!" she gripes, but her father obviously values her preferences less than his own carnal needs. Furious, Sophie waits until her brother is snoozing and then heads upstairs and flings the door of her parents' bedroom open, interrupting them just before Marc can bag his baguette and proving what a drag it is to have no privacy. She storms down the hall with her father hitching his pants up in blueballed indignation, when suddenly rocks begin crashing through the windows of the upstairs hall, in an extended rain of stones and broken glass. A shot of Sophie standing haughtily in silhouette while her father ducks and covers hints that there may be something other than vandalism afoot.

"Couldn't you wait 2 minutes? I had almost achieved 'Le Shocker'!"

After having the windows repaired by some local workmen, Marc and Françoise drink wine outside while awaiting the arrival of a friend of Marc's from the city, who is coming out to spend the weekend. While lounging they discuss sending Sophie to a boarding school next year, which Françoise says will "give them more time together." Still thinking with Little Pierre, Marc readily agrees. Meanwhile in the living room Sophie admires her reflection in a full-length mirror, startled (as we are) by the fact that her mirror image doesn't quite match her movements, and wears a slight, unsettling smile that is NOT on Sophie's own lips. Suddenly a table from the patio begins to quake, and then flies through the front door like a cannonball, smacking into walls, wrecking furniture, breaking windows, and making it halfway up the stairs before finally falling inert! Marc and Françoise have little time to reflect on the episode before Marc's friend arrives bearing much-needed wine.

Yasmine Dahm is perfectly cast as the girl coming into her young womanhood, just learning the power of her looks and sexuality. Flirting with Marc's friend and subtly badgering her folks, Sophie goes from naive childish charm to overt sexual limits-testing in a real and believable way. Shortly after she's sent upstairs to bed all hell breaks loose again, as the kitchen comes to life and attacks the boorish guest: pots and pans flying, tables tipping over, and finally the refrigerator itself flying out ot pummel his face with the door! The friend leaps out a window to escape the rampaging appliances, cutting himself badly and finally inspiring Marc and Françoise to seek help.

Cold spot, or just Frigid Air?

In this case help comes in the form of another friend from Paris, this one a TV producer who runs an Unsolved Mysteries-type show for which the family's "haunting" is perfect. He assembles a crew and heads out to the now-empty house to see if they can capture a ghost on film. Of particular note is the sound technician played by a young and bearded Gérard Depardieu!

We get more leisurely character work as the crew settles in, sets up their lighting, and chooses bedrooms. Nothing supernatural occurs, so they all just smoke, cook, and play cards. They're soon surprised by the arrival of Sophie, who has snuck out of the hotel where her family is staying and hitchhiked back to the house because of her interest in TV. The producer friend admonishes her and calls Marc to come get her, while a few of the TV crew ogle her and she basks in the attention. Even the producer notices her short skirt and long legs, though he quickly shakes off his Lolita fixation--for the moment.

Not bad for a start.

With Sophie back in the house, things start happening quickly. Gérard is forced by invisible powers to submerge his hand in boiling water, and thereafter becomes quite skittish and panicked about the evil spirits in the house. A priest and his troupe of girl scouts show up on the doorstep, having camped at the previously abandoned house the last few years. The TV crew allows them to stay, and during an after dinner play the girls put on, a child's toy ball comes rolling down the stairs, Changeling style!

Things go into overdrive when Marc arrives, too late to go back into town for the evening, and thanks to the now cramped quarters must share a room with his daughter. The priest mentions something about historical poltergeist cases that were all strangely focused to pubescent girls, putting the last puzzle piece in place. After another creepy un-matched mirror sequence in which Sophie's double looks ever more malevolent, Sophie provokes her dad to argument and then appears in the producer's bedroom and attempts to seduce him--but is it Sophie, or her supernatural double? The answer comes fast and loud, leading to a truck overturned by some sentient trees, Gérard freaking out and kidnapping some girls couts (who take a surprising revenge), and Sophie utilizing her strange powers for chaos and destruction.

The French version of Reading Rainbow was somewhat different.

As I said way up in my intro paragraph, much of Expulsion of the Devil proceeds at a comparatively slow pace. The lack of music gives the whole movie a quiet, leisurely feel that makes the explosive supernatural episodes that much more shocking. The connection between Sophie's coming of age and the violent "haunting" scenes is never made explicit--certainly not pounded into your head like a sledgehammer as it would be in an American remake--but for me the subtlety was appreciated and effective. (A scene where the TV crew "sees" the priest in bed with a couple of his charges, only to burst in and find him innocently reading the Good Book, is creepy and underscores the movie's sexual theme, specifically Sophie's mischevious perversity.) The movie boasts only one real showstopping OOGA-BOOGA scare, but the pervasive unease leading up to the creepy unexplained happenings nonetheless kept me on the edge of my seat.

Director Juan Luis Buñuel does a good job with the material, building character and layering on the clues until the final bang-up flee-the-house scene. He comes by his filmmaking savvy honestly, as his father, Luis Buñuel, is widely considered one of the greatest directors in cinema history (and famously worked with Salvador Dali on the seminal surrealist silent short Un Chien Andalou (1929).

On the bright side, at least Pierre had stopped bedwetting.

Some viewers might find the proceedings rather dull when there aren't housewares flying hither and yon, but I found the acting, the character development, the sexual subtext all very engaging. It's also interesting to speculate whether the film influnced 1982's Poltergeist, which seems to consciously echo it at times. In any event, it's an interesting, somewhat restrained horror flick that I think holds up well. 2.5 thumbs.

"Send me to my room. I dare you."


Anonymous said...

'Cold spot, or just Frigid Air?' Oh you cards!

This sounds great. Adding to Netflix, ASAP!

The Duke of DVD said...

This sounds really fantastic, Vicar. I especially like that the lack of music adds that much more to the supernatural stuffs. More movies need to do that. Either no music, or the bowel-loosening bass that David Lynch employs to great effect...

Then again, I would consider it high-art if a farting orangutan was the harbinger of evil in a movie.

buy movies dvd said...

This movie seems to have lots of Drama and the overall role played by each person in this movie is really great.

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