Revelations in a Cinema and a Poorly Positioned Sofa (Part One)

Reading through the recent Mark Kermode biopic I encounter his description of his first viewing of the exorcist, his favourite film. He describes a transcendent religious experience in which the primal fear and atmosphere of the film elevated his consciousness from chump sitting in chair to a formless being concerned only with its own enlightenment! …yeah, I didn’t get that first time round. In fact once I began to truly reflect on this passage I came to wonder if I had ever experienced that about any film I’ve seen at a cinema. Is my cinema broken? Are the North London theatres that Mr Kermode used to frequent, slipping acid into the popcorn?

The circumstances of my viewing of the exorcist could not have been worse. The only aspect I got right was the hype. Kermode describes the hysteria surrounding the film in the early seventies. The BBC documentaries, the fainting in the aisles, the court cases, the questions in parliament, the protests, the minimalist trailer which portrayed almost nothing of the film, perhaps because the audience just couldn’t handle any of it, and I actually had all of that in the far more intimidating form of my Mother. My parents were always quite liberal when it came to what I watched. My father would occasionally express disapproval and my mother would often avoid my room for fear of what might be on-screen, but very little was denied of me. I think my upbringing can best be described by the following conversation:

“When can I watch The Evil Dead?”

“When you’re eighteen”

“But that’s ten years away!”

“…oh all right”

This was the attitude. The understanding was that if I was old enough to ask for it, I’d probably be alright dealing with. But not the exorcist! The exorcist was the one film I was never allowed to see! This would naturally build up an unhealthy amount of hype in my adolescent mind as it can be clearly proven that denying anyone any kind of experience only builds their insatiable lust for it. Case and point:

“Mum, can I watch Poltergeist?”



“Yeah, why not?”

“Well isn’t it the one you don’t want me to watch?”

“I’ve never heard of it, Paul”


“Are you thinking of the exorcist?”

“Oh yeah.”


“No, it’s poltergeist.”

“Ok. You can watch that.”

“…what else is on?”

Several years later I discovered that poltergeist was an extremely effective haunted house movie, the influence of which can still be felt to this day. But there was no drive, no passion bringing me to see this film. I wanted to see the exorcist. I wanted to see the scariest movie ever made! And I did. I forget my age. It was before Channel 4s top 100 scariest moments in 2003 which we’ll come to later, so I was at least younger than fifteen. It was during the day, I watched it in three different rooms as it progressed (back then the one VCR would play out on channel six in every room of the house and I was often in control of it, so daytime programming would be “Blue Peter, the news, CITV, Countdown, Neighbours, Friday the 13th part V) and I don’t think I was paying much attention. I started in the back room, which is a dining room with uncomfortable seats, poorly placed to watch the old TV in the corner. Here I watched the slow building atmospheric opening scenes which succeeded only in boring me. Around the time Reagan is being examined with state of the art seventies psychological technology which measured sanity by piercing a throbbing jugular, I had moved to the front room which featured the most severe glare from the midday sun you could imagine. Finally the scene with Reagan masturbating with the crucifix and using the smoke-stained voice of Mercedes McCambridge for the first time had me flee to my parents’ bedroom where I watched the rest on their tiny ten inch television. I recall only being unimpressed with the rest of the movie.

This feeling of disappointment and frustration stayed with me for quite some time and when Channel 4’s aforementioned list of scariest moments ever came around I begged for the exorcist not to win. The idea of this movie I was unable to understand wining over my all-time favourites was just too much to bear. Fortunately for me, the shining won, but unfortunately for me, it’s clear I was missing something. It was many years before I discovered the exorcist to be the horror masterpiece it was. It was sometime around 2007, because it was then that I thought enough of it to loan it to an eight year old friend who came to me seeking the best horror I had to offer. Thinking about it I never saw the DVD nor indeed the eight year old friend again….then I bought the special edition, so it didn’t matter so much. Somewhere around this time I must have realised how much was going on in this film; the relentless atmosphere, the chilling quiet and startling noise, the sinister implications of the premise, the overtly horrific destruction of this young girl. So it has to be asked, why did I look at this wonderful piece of horror cinema as an impressionable adolescent and see nothing to like about it? Why did I wait until the DVD was reduced to clear to get a copy of it, when I already had VHS copies of every Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and even Sleep Away Camp years earlier! Was I just a gore fiend? If so, why wasn’t I wowed by the impressively gory and impressively executed effects in The Exorcist?

So what the hell was moving me at this age? Well here lies the problem. I have no memory of any experience in a cinema like Kermode’s. The first horror film I went to see was Jan De Bont’s severely flawed remake of “the haunting” and I spent most of the film extremely tense about my family’s reaction to the noisy Brummie teenagers sat nearby. The second was 28 weeks later, (that’s right “weeks”, I missed out on the classic) which was marred by worrying about my then girlfriend’s reaction to the stupid screaming teenage girls behind us. Of course I subsequently learned that she hated horror movies and only ever saw them to humour me, so I’m sure the teenagers where the least of her problems. Is this the key? Was I too affected by the disruptive tendencies of my fellow audience members to ever actually enjoy any of these films?

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Aladdin, of which the only enduring memory is the scene where Aladdin is in the desert with a huge tower rolling towards him, and he cunningly positions himself in just the right position for the window of the tower to roll over him. This was of course originally a Buster Keaton routine, so at least I had some taste in my infancy. Did it change my life and affect my adult self? I hope not because thinking about it, the tower was probably CG. My childhood was largely filled with popcorn action flicks like batman forever and Godzilla, and overly sentimental Disney movies like the Lion King and Toy Story. So where’s my big emotional breakthrough? The film that got me hooked and made me a cinema lover forever?

Well at the tender age of twelve we went to go see A.I, the Kubrick intended, Spielberg re-imagining of Pinocchio. This is the earliest example I can think of where I cried at a movie. Or at least forced back tears so that my sister wouldn’t see. But ultimately, this was Spielberg, and Spielberg was the master of forcing tears out of the audience with some highly clichéd plot tactics that tend to invoke strong initial reactions without really changing lives. The mother dies, the father goes away…to space, the best friend moves away… to space and all the little CG dinosaurs got eaten by the big puppet dinosaur. Boo hoo! None of this represents the real emotional sucker punch that Kermode endured in the Exorcist. Perhaps Robopocalypse will for future generations, who knows. The absolute earliest that I remember being completely floored in the cinema, was The Return of the King. I was adolescent, I broke into tears at just about all fifteen of the movie’s endings, and it made the grievous injury my grandmother had suffered to her hip in my absence a lot harder to concentrate on when I got home. So it ticks all the right boxes.

So it’s Return of the King that will have to occupy this special place in my heart. Only it doesn’t. It doesn’t because it had already happened to me before, several months earlier and in a much more discernible way. But it didn’t happen in a cinema…

P for part 2 soon!


About Nerds Get Bored
We're Nerds, and man, do we get bored. Our Twitter: @nerdsgetbored

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