Blog Directory CineVerse

Tall tales of bygone crimes in the Windy City

Monday, December 4, 2023

Helmed by Brian De Palma, with a screenplay by David Mamet, The Untouchables quickly became a hit after its theatrical debut in the summer of 1987, drawing inspiration from the real-life endeavors of Elliot Ness and other law enforcement agents who banded together to take down infamous gangster Al Capone during the violent Prohibition era in Chicago. The film, produced by Art Linson, boasts a star-studded cast featuring Kevin Costner in the role of Ness, Robert De Niro as the notorious Capone, and Sean Connery (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith.

This picture skillfully blends historical events (it’s more of a “based on” than an accurate retelling) with compelling storytelling, delivering an engaging narrative that vividly captures the essence of the bootleg era and the battle against organized crime.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Untouchables, conducted last week.

What stands out about this 36-year-old film? It’s a throwback, in many ways—a retro love letter to the gangster and social message pictures of the 1930s and 1940s primarily made by Warner Brothers, especially in how it hones in on very clear good vs. evil themes and the need to bring extreme social villains like Capone to justice. The exaggerated if not implausible action scenes and bravura moments feel very Hollywood, and DePalma’s hyperbolic stylized tendencies make for an extremely entertaining narrative with characters that are easy to root for.

Yet, DePalma has the benefit of employing graphic violence and brutality to help sell the idea to the viewer that Capone must be stopped, at all costs, by any means necessary. Interestingly, this is the rare rated-R film with no nudity or sexual scenes and little profanity. It’s DePalma’s brand of blood, gore, and carnage that pushes this into restricted territory.

The Untouchables looks astounding, benefitting from a high-production-value sheen and Stephen H. Burum's cinematography, marked by iconic scenes and the effective use of visuals to heighten tension. Indeed, The Untouchables is one of the very best retro dramas evoked visually, thanks to careful attention to authentic details like shooting on the streets of Chicago (carefully dressed to look like the Windy City of 1930), fantastic period-authentic costumes and sets, and diegetic music of the time.

The gunfight at Union Station—created by DePalma on the fly when original plans for a showdown via helicopter chase fell through due to budget constraints—is a tour de force of stylized suspense, echoing the visuals and editing of the famous Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Some argue this is DePalma’s finest moment as a director. His choice to use slow motion and extend the tension is an inspired one.

Much of this plot is pure hokum, as many of these characters and situations are fabricated or embellished. Ness didn’t kill Capone enforcer Frank Nitti, the Canadian raid is fictional, as are the gunfights at the courthouse and train station, and the real Wallace (his actual name was Wilson) wasn’t murdered. Still, although it plays loose and fast with historical events, The Untouchables satisfies as a white-knuckle action film and police thriller.

There’s an impressive array of talent attached to this project, including DePalma in the directing chair, Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet handling screenwriting duties, venerable maestro Ennio Morricone scoring the music, and heavyweights like Connery, DeNiro, and Costner in the top roles. Some critics found fault with DeNiro’s extravagant take on Capone, while others commended his approach. Per critic James Berardinelli: “This is a cartoonish interpretation – a villain so black-hearted that it's impossible to root for him. Some critics have seen this as a flaw, but it's actually an asset. Let other movies paint Capone as a complex individual. De Niro's over-the-top portrayal is perfect for this context.”

“Right vs. might,” or the legal way vs. the Chicago way, is the key to appreciating this movie’s thematic center. Ness’ character arc begins with an earnest attempt to capture Capone lawfully and legally but his methods and mindset change as he realizes, like Malone told him, that he’s got to play dirty and outside the law to succeed in a town as corrupt as Chicago. Malone’s advice? “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way.”

The Untouchables also touches on the benefits of rugged individualism and a hardened heart. Much of the film’s emotional conflict concerns if and how Ness will turn to the dark side, and how his inherent virtues and beliefs will be forever compromised or surrendered. Ness and company realize that vigilantism and emotional prejudice are necessary to bring down a ruthless criminal. Ness, a sensitive character attuned to the female sensibilities of women around him like his wife, his daughter, and the grieving mother, learns the hard way that he has to adopt a more macho, insensitive attitude against Capone, with whom he is consistently contrasted in the film.

Brian Eggert with Deep Focus Review wrote: “Capone’s masculinity defines him; he’s surrounded by tough men with guns, while other men in the press admire and laugh at his jokes. Never do we see a woman by his side. By contrast, Ness is surrounded by women: his wife Catherine (Patricia Clarkson) and their young daughter, to whom he gives delicate butterfly kisses. Butterflies symbolize Ness’ femininity. When the press mocks his initial failures, they call him a “poor butterfly” and liken him to the suicidal wife in Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly—a character who waits up for her husband only to be humiliated. Ness is a man bound by his family. He endearingly remarks, “It’s nice to be married,” and smiles at the note his wife included with his lunch reading, “I’m very proud of you.” But Ness is too close to the wholesome family ideology he’s trying to preserve. Capone sees Ness’ weakness and uses his slimy hitman Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) to issue a veiled threat to Ness’ family. Ness knows he must send away his wife and daughter—a pointedly feminine and therefore vulnerable family in these very classicized terms—to focus his energies on Capone.”

Ness’ line, “You tell Capone that I’ll see him in hell,” spoken before he kills Nitti, suggests that Ness has crossed over the threshold into lawless vigilantism and is morally damned for compromising his principles; yet, by the end of the film, he appears satisfied that justice was served and, we can assume, like Malone said, “Well, then, you've done your job. Go home and sleep well tonight.”

Additionally, this is a work that reminds us not to underestimate the underdog. Wallace proves he’s more heroic than the nerdy pencil pusher he appears to be; a lowly beat cop demonstrates that he’s the most savvy at strategizing Capone’s downfall; the short-statured and soft-spoken Stone is the most reliable and resourceful in a showdown; and Ness, despite the odds stacked against him and his inability to trust anyone besides his small team, cleverly outlasts Capone in the end, enjoying the satisfaction of telling Capone to his face: ““Never stop fighting till the fight is done!”

Similar works

  • Gangster pictures of the 1930s, including The Roaring Twenties, Public Enemy, and Scarface
  • Battleship Potemkin
  • Sabotage by Hitchcock
  • Modern retro gangster films like Public Enemies, Gangster Squad, Gangster Land, and Mobsters
  • The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen
  • Serpico
  • The King of New York
  • Once Upon a Time in America and Once Upon a Time in the West by Leone

Other films by Brian DePalma

  • Carrie
  • Dressed to Kill
  • Blow Out
  • Scarface
  • Body Double
  • Mission: Impossible


The Queen comes clean

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Director Lauren Greenfield hit the documentary jackpot when she was filming The Queen of Versailles, her 2012 feature chronicling the lives of uber-rich couple David and Jackie Siegel. That’s because the 2008 financial meltdown happened during production, which seriously threatened the fortunes of Siegel and his timeshare empire, transforming the film seemingly from a puff piece profile of extravagant prosperity to a cautionary tale rumination on the fleeting nature of wealth and privilege. The timing was perfect, as the Siegels were constructing the largest single-family home in the United States, inspired by the Palace of Versailles in France, while the cameras were rolling, until the financial crisis hit and their Xanadu was put on hold. This doc adeptly captures the aftermath of that tumultuous period, providing a distinctive perspective on how economic downturns can impact even the most advantaged individuals. David and Jackie Siegel emerge as fascinating—if not completely unsympathetic—characters, shedding light on the extravagances and vulnerabilities inherent in the lives of the super-rich. The Queen of Versailles also serves as a timely social commentary on opulence, consumerism, and the pursuit of the American Dream, prompting watchers to ponder the ramifications of unbridled ambition and materialism.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group’s discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Unparalleled access to privileged lives makes this movie particularly riveting. It’s easy to question why David and Jackie would allow the cameras to infiltrate into their present and past lives to such an intimate and revealing extent. And some of the unflattering, nakedly candid, and boastful things David says are eyebrow-raising – things he will likely later regret revealing.

It’s difficult to feel sorry for these real-life characters whatsoever, considering their extravagant lifestyles, selfish proclivities, and swaggering attitudes. But Jackie in particular can sometimes evoke our empathy – not necessarily sympathy – because she appears more down-to-earth, humanistic, and centered than her husband.

The filmmakers seem to be relatively objective and fair-handed in the footage they present, avoiding any statement-making about, for example, David’s financial comeuppance. However, a New York Times article brought the director’s editing approaches into question, suggesting that shots were arranged out of order to affect the narrative timeline, which suggests that this film is biased and manipulative. Reviewer Brian Orndorf wrote: “Greenfield keeps the focus on the absurdity of behavior and routine, studying David and Jackie for cracks in their veneer, hoping to expose a pinhole of vulnerability as the empire comes crashing down around them, introducing new realities for the pair and their kids, a spoiled yet observant bunch who will have to sing for their supper when adulthood hits them like a truck.”

Major themes woven into this work include the dark side of the American dream, hubris, bad karma, and schadenfreude. David Siegel is easy to dislike because he comes across as arrogant, boastful, narcissistic, and opportunistic. His fall from financial heights is especially delicious to viewers who find him vulgar and appalling in his ostentatious lifestyle. Indeed, The Queen of Versailles also reminds us that pride goeth before a fall. This story proves, yet again, that overconfident, self-important, and conceited people are likely to fail and suffer indignity and public scorn. The Economist wrote: “The film's great achievement is that it invites both compassion and Schadenfreude. What could have been merely a silly send-up manages to be a meditation on marriage and a metaphor for the fragility of fortunes, big and small.”

Life lesson #2? Never forget your roots. Jackie comes across as a slightly more relatable character we can empathize with, partially because she doesn’t forget where she came from and she demonstrates compassion and generosity for those less fortunate, although she is also spoiled, privileged, and presumptuous. Recall how she mistakenly thinks that the car rental company will provide a chauffeur and that the hired help can handle all of the responsibilities around her home.

The emperor wears no clothes is another clear takeaway. David and Jackie flaunted their wealth and power for years, but face a reckoning after the financial crisis of 2008. Despite having a home that appears lavish and countless enviable possessions, their property is littered with feces and accumulated junk – a symbol of how, despite being rich on paper, this couple has poor values.

Lastly, this is certainly a story of a floundering family tree. David and Jackie should be overjoyed that they have a large family and many children who, at least earlier in the story, presumably won’t have to worry about their financial futures. But they take these kids for granted, let other caregivers primarily raise them, and in the case of David show little to no attention. A man can, despite lacking money, be enriched with the rewarding responsibility of having a family, but David appears to be going broke on both fronts.

Similar works

  • Billionaire Boys Club
  • The Big Short
  • Too Big to Fail
  • Some Kind of Heaven
  • Inside Job
  • Untouchable
  • Reality TV series like The Real Housewives

Other films by Lauren Greenfield

  • Thin
  • Generation Wealth
  • The Kingmaker


Dark political comedy, Italian style

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Directed by Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties is a dark comedy-drama from 1975 depicting the story of Pasqualino, a World War II petty criminal and deserter portrayed by Giancarlo Giannini. Renowned for its black humor and thought-provoking perspective on war, politics, and human nature, the movie follows Pasqualino as he navigates a harsh and tumultuous world and tries to survive despite increasingly harsh circumstances. The film delves into themes of endurance, morality, and the dehumanizing impact of war. Despite its somber thematic content and graphic violence, Wertmüller skillfully infuses laughs and satire into the storyline, resulting in a distinctive fusion of genres.

Seven Beauties garnered critical acclaim for its daring and unconventional approach, securing four Academy Award nominations, notably Best Director for Wertmüller, making this the first film directed by a woman to receive a nomination in that category.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Seven Beauties, conducted last week, click here.

One of the most interesting things about Seven Beauties is that, despite being made by a woman, it’s not regarded as a feminist film. Many of the female characters in the picture are deliberately made to look and act ugly, grotesque, fat, crazy, cruel, and inhuman. Wertmüller makes us follow and root for a repugnant, unsympathetic man who commits murder and rape, acts violently against women, kills his fellow prisoners, and yet survives against the odds.

Seven Beauties has one of the strangest opening sequences of any 1970s film, featuring black-and-white archival war footage mixed with a jazzy tune married to badly sung lyrics that seem to be indicting the gullibility of the Italian people for their part as an Axis power in World War II under the spell of the dictator Mussolini.

Additionally, the movie adopts sudden and strange tonal shifts, trying to balance between serious drama and black comedy and often leaving the viewer unsure as to how they should feel. Wertmüller attempts to wield comedy as a tool to navigate through the tragedy, introducing a layer of complexity to the narrative. Some critics found fault with this approach, while others admired it.

Per reviewer Amelie Lasker: “The film is a masterclass in shifting tone. It manages to mingle humor with the atrocities without trivializing what the Nazis are doing. Instead, Pasqualino trying to dispose of the body of the pimp he murders, is effectively played for laughs, as is a scene in which he feigns madness to get himself moved from prison to the insane asylum. Giannini is fantastic in both the comedic scenes and the intensely emotional scenes…How Wertmüller mixes the humorous with haunting realism makes both seem more intense.”

Seven Beauties is noteworthy, too, because Wertmüller often uses no dialogue to depict major scenes, such as the courtroom sequence; also, the narrative is told in nonlinear fashion, beginning in the middle of Pasqualino’s tale and interspersing lots of flashbacks as it cuts between timelines. Cinema Sight blogger Wesley Lovell wrote: “One of the most interesting things about the film is the structure of the parallel time periods. The present-tense segments are short at the beginning and grow in length until they dominate the latter half of the film. In reverse, the flashbacks monopolize the first half of the film and then diminish in length through the end. And the final scene, designed like the flashbacks, but purportedly taking place in the present, almost seems too idyllic and hopeful, suggesting that perhaps what we’re witnessing is a flashforward of desire and not an embodiment of reality.”

This would have been controversial as one of the first films to attempt a graphically violent representation/recreation of a Nazi concentration camp where Holocaust victims were kept and killed. Seven Beauties also contains one of the most deliberately repulsive and non-titillating sex scenes ever made.

Survival at all costs is the predominant tenet here. The filmmakers continually ask: What are you willing to do and how much morality and self-respect are you willing to forego to survive when you are desperate? Pasqualino, ironically a man consumed with maintaining honor, appearances, and dignity, is prepared to debase himself to the extreme to avoid death and punishment. He learns that, to survive and thrive, you have to be willing to compromise yourself and your values, as evidenced when he returns home at the end to find that his mother, sisters, and the girl he loves have all become prostitutes. Unlike earlier in the film, when he would have rejected these supposedly corrupted women, he accepts their status and insists on marrying the prostitute who loves him.

“Seven Beauties is essentially one long prostitution joke, one which operates on the central thesis that anyone who can survive war must inherently be some kind of monster,” opined Blogger Eli Boonin-Vail. “In a brilliant and sickening twist of fate, Wertmüller chronicles how a man who once assaulted his own sister for becoming a prostitute is forced to pimp himself out.”

The dehumanizing effects of war are front and center, as well. Pasqualino is forced to commit immoral acts while a soldier, deserter, and concentration camp prisoner that erodes any sense of morality, honor, or dignity.

A reading of Seven Beauties is also impossible without exploring gender politics. Pasqualino seems to represent some of the worst aspects of toxic masculinity, including the adoption of macho bravado, misogynistic treatment of women, and being sexually opportunistic and deviant. But we witness his gradual debasement as the power dynamics are shifted away from Pasqualino to other women, including the asylum clinician and the female commandant of the Nazi concentration camp.

Lastly, consider how political crimes are punished worse than more reprehensible acts in the world of Seven Beauties. Pasqualino gets a lighter sentence than another prisoner who is labeled a socialist, and he’s more severely punished (with electroshock therapy) for mocking Mussolini in the sanitarium than he is for raping a patient there. Talk about making a political statement as a filmmaker.

Similar works

  • Amarcord
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Life is Beautiful

Other films by Lina Wertmüller

  • Swept Away
  • The Seduction of Mimi
  • Love and Anarchy


Here's looking at you, "Kid"

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Kid, a 1921 silent comedy-drama film directed, written, produced, scored, and starring Charlie Chaplin, remains one of the artist’s most renowned and timeless creations. The narrative revolves around a vagabond who stumbles upon an abandoned infant, taking on the role of a surrogate parent. Six-year-old Jackie Coogan portrays the child, whose presence becomes an integral part of the tramp's existence, as they grapple with the hardships of poverty, the complexities of social services, and the challenges of life on the streets.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Kid, which occurred last week, click here.

What’s significant about The Kid is that this was Chaplin’s first feature-length film he directed and wrote—a six-reeler that spans over 60 minutes. Chaplin had been increasing his runtimes over the previous few years, but this was a gamble on his part financially and artistically that a 60-plus-minute movie would be commercially successful and embraced by the masses, which it was. (Note that the original 1921 version of the film was slightly edited by Chaplin in 1971 and given a new score he wrote; the director excised some shots and scenes he feared were too maudlin for contemporary viewers.)

The Kid is also noteworthy for its groundbreaking narrative approach, seamlessly blending elements of comedy and melodrama, at a time when the two weren’t commonly mixed. It aptly demonstrates Chaplin's knack for melding slapstick humor with poignant and emotionally resonant moments, earning it a place as one of the earliest instances of a dramedy (comedy-drama) in cinema.

Jackie Coogan's performance garnered deserved critical acclaim, too. His work in The Kid, at the tender age of six, solidified his position as one of the first major child stars in the history of film.

This work also serves as a platform for social commentary, shedding light on the trials and tribulations of the impoverished and the obstacles they confront, including the inadequacies of the welfare system. It emerged as one of the early films to address social issues through a combination of humor and storytelling.

Consider that Chaplin came from a childhood of poverty and abandonment. He had an absent father and a mother who couldn’t provide financially for her children; she was committed to a mental asylum when Chaplin was 14. The boy also was forced to serve in a workhouse twice before age nine. Additionally, Chaplin’s newborn son died of birth defects just days after being born in 1919, and he experienced a troubled marriage and impending divorce from his first wife. All of these factors contributed to the narrative, acting, and sentimental/melodramatic tone of The Kid. “The horror of abandonment, the pathetic vulnerability of an infant in a harsh world, provides the dark backdrop against which that vision stands out. Instead of denying such horrors, Chaplin learned from melodrama that hardship could be confronted and defeated. His way of defeating horror was to transform it—by converting loss into gags,” opined Criterion Collection essayist Tom Gunning.

The thematic thrust of The Kid concerns socioeconomically disadvantaged surrogacy, or the concept of a “stray adopting a stray.” Despite his impoverished position and several attempts to skirt any responsibility, the Tramp ultimately chooses to keep the orphaned and abandoned infant as his own, and he finds a way to make this arrangement work practically and financially. Even though he is not the boy’s biological father nor is he an ideal provider financially, the Tramp develops a stronger bond with young John than most dads would with their sons.

Reinvention and resourcefulness is a further collective idea espoused in this film. The Tramp is forced to get crafty and adaptive with the meager means he has. He recycles or reconfigures several objects and cleverly finds solutions to common parenting problems like the need for diapers and bottles by being quick-witted. Gunning continued: “Chaplin’s poetic response to the world relies on his ingenious redefinition of objects. Many of his gags repurpose things, transforming their uses and meanings through his inventive play with them…We see him efficiently cutting up and folding cloths for the baby’s diapers, acknowledging from the start that care includes the most basic of bodily functions. Instead of a traditional cradle, the baby hangs suspended in an improvised hammock. His nutritive needs are taken care of by a similarly hanging teapot with a nipple forced onto its spout.”

The Kid also reminds us that we are our brothers’ keepers, suggesting that, regardless of our station in life or lack of resources, we have a responsibility to step up and help those less fortunate, the emotional rewards for which can be priceless. Per film essayist Audrey Fox: “It’s a tremendously optimistic view of humanity, that a reclusive and antisocial person who is perhaps least likely to seek to protect the herd would nonetheless make the choice to care for a small, helpless child for no other reason than instinctual compassion. This raw empathy is why “The Kid” remains Chaplin’s most emotionally complex film, and how his simple story of would-be father and son has maintained its relevance for a century.”

Additionally, this movie stresses that maintaining a traditional family dynamic is often in a child’s best interest. Remember that the Tramp is, in reality, a con artist by necessity who trains his child in the business of bilking customers who wouldn’t otherwise need his products and services. Like a Jean Valjean who would steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, the Tramp remains sympathetic to us because of his low socioeconomic underdog status and the fact that he chose to unofficially adopt John when he didn’t have to. But this hardscrabble life likely would have led to a lack of opportunities and higher risks for John growing up. It’s fortunate, then, that he is reunited with his mother by the conclusion of the story and that she allows the Tramp to presumably remain in John’s life, although we don’t know to what extent. John will assumedly be safer, healthier, and better advantaged under her roof while also, hopefully, benefitting from a continued relationship with the Tramp. Fox added: “It’s crucial to the impact of the story that the Tramp’s way to earn a living lies outside the law: it further highlights how removed he is from a traditional community and creates a natural conflict within the narrative. The life he can provide for his child is loving, but is that enough?”

Similar works

  • A Dog’s Life, a short also by Chaplin
  • Paper Moon
  • Sidewalk Stories
  • A Perfect World
  • Little Miss Marker
  • News of the World
  • The Midnight Sky
  • Up
  • The Mandalorian
  •  Leon: The Professional
  • Kramer vs. Kramer

Other feature films by Chaplin

  • The Gold Rush
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight


Cineversary podcast honors 70th birthday of Ozu's Tokyo Story

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

In Cineversary podcast episode #64, host Erik Martin is joined by David Desser, emeritus professor of cinema studies at the University of Illinois and one of the world’s foremost experts on Asian cinema, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujirō Ozu. They discuss why and how this film remains a masterwork, Tokyo Story’s prominent themes, Ozu’s unique style, and much more.
David Desser
To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


Hello darkness, my old friend...

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Whether you regard it as a timeless classic or a fascinating but dated relic of its era, The Graduate continues to intrigue as a unique cinematic work that reflects the boomer generation it targeted as well as the talented collaborators involved, including director Mike Nichols. Adapted from Charles Webb's 1963 novel of the same name by screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, the movie features Dustin Hoffman in the role of Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate grappling with uncertainty about his future and embarking on a complex affair with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, portrayed by Anne Bancroft. The film delves into themes of alienation, intergenerational strife, and the quest for purpose in a post-graduate world.

The Graduate serves as a mirror to the evolving societal norms and values of the 1960s, vividly depicting the generation gap between younger and older characters while challenging the conformity and materialism prevalent in the older generation. Notably, the film's soundtrack, featuring music by Simon & Garfunkel, gained immense popularity and is closely associated with the movie. Songs such as "Mrs. Robinson" and "The Sound of Silence" became chart-toppers and are inseparable from the film's thematic essence. The Graduate's impressive cinematography, narrative techniques, and use of symbolism have left an enduring influence on the craft of filmmaking, and the work garnered numerous Academy Award nominations, including a nod for Best Picture, with Mike Nichols securing the Oscar for Best Director. 

Our CineVerse group revisited this picture last week and engaged in a healthy discourse about its many merits. To listen to a recording of that group discussion, click here.

To read a past CineVerse post about The Graduate, click here.


Punk rock horror

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

In 1985, The Return of the Living Dead, directed by Dan O'Bannon and written by John A. Russo—co-collaborator with George Romero on the original Night of the Living Dead—emerged as a cult classic in the horror-comedy genre.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

What sets this film apart from other zombie fare and makes Return of the Living Dead memorable? Unlike the lumbering, slow-moving zombies popularized by Romero in his zombie movies, this work introduced a few fresh twists: Here, zombies are fast, talkative, and retain their intelligence and personalities, driven by an insatiable craving for brains, which became a hallmark of the film and a reference point in pop culture. These living dead also cannot be killed simply by a gunshot to the head; they need to be dismembered and burned.

Also, this is possibly the first and one of the only instances of a zombie film in which viewers can sympathize with the living dead. The capture and questioning of the half-zombie woman reveal that eating brains helps take away the visceral pain they feel from being dead yet alive.

Additionally, this picture effectively blends horror and gore with dark humor, delivering a unique and engaging experience for its audience. Noted for its witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and absurd scenarios, the comedy it injects sets it apart from more solemn and grave horror films of its time. Reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “George Romero uses zombies to make sweeping social metaphors; Dan O’Bannon takes his approach with a sense of caustic humor that only becomes more hilarious the darker he makes it – everything anybody in the film tries to do about the situation only ends up making it worse.”

Return of the Living Dead boasts a memorable punk rock soundtrack, as well, further contributing to its cult status. Songs by The Cramps, Roky Erickson, The Damned, and 45 Grave stand out, offering music that humorously punctuates the action and frights.

The movie helped influence future zombie films, including Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and it triggered four sequels, which speaks to its pop culture reach. The appearance of the zombies in the film drew inspiration from sources such as the mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico, and the Bog People of Wales, along with artwork from EC Comics.

The existential threat suggested by earlier zombie films takes a darker, ironic turn here. In nearly all zombie-apocalypse movies, mankind becomes outnumbered by zombies who populate exponentially as more people die or are bitten and infected; in Return of the Living Dead, the irony is that the only way to kill the undead completely is to burn them, but the ashes and vapors of the incinerated zombies get recirculated through the environment, ultimately rejuvenating more buried bodies and humans infected by these remnants. Unleashing a nuclear bomb to nullify the threat posed by an outbreak in a small urban area actually widens the crisis.

This work also expands upon zombie mythology by introducing the notion of the military, the government, and a big chemical company being responsible for creating and using a fictional chemical that inadvertently creates zombies and then trying to cover up the evidence—adding a conspiratorial element to the mythos.

While this isn’t a film replete with juicy themes, the main takeaway is clear: Human error can easily lead to inhuman catastrophe. DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “The cynical Army subplot wraps up with the brass making the same dumb mistakes as did Frank and Freddy.”

Similar works

  • George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and subsequent sequels
  • The zombie comedies Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and The Dead Don’t Die
  • The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead TV shows
  • Other reanimated dead films in the immediate years after Return of the Living Dead, including Reanimator, The Video Dead, and Braindead (Dead Alive)
  • Other 1980s horror films that cleverly blended comedy and scares, including Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Fright Night, The Blob remake, and Night of the Creeps


The devil is in the details

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Exorcist, released in late December 1973, came out of the gate like a thunderbolt and immediately established itself as a modern fright classic, becoming the second-highest-grossing film ever at that time and setting a new benchmark for quality in the horror genre—garnering 10 Academy Award nominations and winning two Oscars. Directed by William Friedkin and produced by William Peter Blatty, who penned the 1971 novel of the same name, The Exorcist depicts the possession of a young girl named Regan, portrayed by Linda Blair, and the determined efforts of Father Damien Karras and Father Merrin, played, respectively, by Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow, to expel the demon inhabiting her. Ellen Burstyn also stars as Regan's mother Chris.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Exorcist, conducted last week; to hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode spotlighting The Exorcist, click here.

Why and how does The Exorcist remain one of the all-time great horror movies five decades onward? This film deserves praise for its authenticity, high production values, and quality craftsmanship. The phenomenal special effects aren’t shlocky or budget-constrained: The outstanding makeup work by Dick Smith and the carefully orchestrated practical effects—from Regan’s rotating head and levitated body to the simulated projectile vomiting—look and feel realistic. While his tactics may have been abusive, selfish, and extreme, Friedkin pushed his cast and crew hard to achieve these horrific visuals and lend the film a verisimilitude that places The Exorcist many notches higher than standard horror fare for this era. It also helps that he and Blatty imbue the picture with authentic details, basing the narrative on a true account of exorcism, consulting with religious experts to accurately depict the exorcism rite, placing his actors within a refrigerated bedroom set to produce visible breath vapor, and taking advice from medical experts to make the hospital testing scenes so unnerving yet also faithful to what was involved with an actual angiography at that time. The collaborators deserve kudos for giving The Exorcist an utterly plausible sheen of realism by paying attention to the fine details and making Regan’s physical transformation disturbingly graphic.

Much of what makes The Exorcist so great is that it wasn’t afraid to push the envelope and risk extreme controversy. Audiences had never before seen a demonic possession so convincingly portrayed or a young female character so graphically vulgar or sexually expressive in this context. Add in the blasphemous and profane words Regan utters, the grotesque physical manifestations of the demon inhabiting her body, the brief but completely upsetting subliminal images like flashes of the face of Pazuzu, and the gross-out hospital testing sequences and you’ve got a potently distressing film whose content consistently upset audiences—creating a perfect formula for word-of-mouth buzz and high ticket demand. No one had ever viewed a film like this before, one that reportedly caused viewers to faint, vomit, suffer miscarriages, believe they were possessed, seek medical and psychiatric care, and flee theaters in abject terror. This movie was so alarming it was banned in the UK and other countries and received negative reviews from several prominent critics at the time, although many others gave it positive notices.

The Exorcist isn’t a simplistic exploitation film going for gore, easy jump scares, and cheap shocks. While the supernatural elements are front and center in the second half, it also explores psychological horror elements by examining the personal torments and inner turmoil of Chris, a terrified mother desperate to help her child, and Karras, a priest experiencing a crisis of faith and guilt about his dead mother.

The sound design proved exceptional; consider the many abrupt loud, percussive noises meant to startle us (such as the attic din, the horse cart in Iraq, the unexpected rings of the phone, and the noisy medical equipment) as well as the fantastic amalgamation created to conjure up the demonic voice, which includes haunting words by a gravely-voiced actress mixed with animal noises and electronic sound distortions.

This is a slow-burn film that demands great patience from viewers who are eagerly awaiting the scares; the possession doesn’t kick in until at least 40 minutes have passed, and the famous exorcism sequence arrives in the final 26 minutes. For that matter, several key actions occur offscreen, preventing the viewer from seeing the killing of Burke, the death of Karras’ mother, and Merrin’s demise, for example.

Slant Magazine critic Wes Greene wrote that the film prefers “tone and theme over story: The horror is mostly dictated through its masterful atmosphere and ellipses, which carefully eliminates exposition and character detail to subconsciously put the viewer in a state of unease and preparing us for the overt frights that occur later on.”

The success of The Exorcist also owes much to the outstanding performances, especially by the 12-year-old Linda Blair, who had to endure extreme physical and psychological discomfort to inhabit this role, as well as Ellen Burstyn as her mother and Jason Miller as Karras; all three earned Oscar nominations despite being relatively unknown newcomers. The fine cast further includes Max Von Sydow, who distinguished himself years earlier as a stellar thespian for Ingmar Bergman (often playing faith-challenged characters), Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman, and Mercedes McCambridge as the unholy voice of Pazuzu, the demon possessing Regan.

All of these aforementioned aspects coalesced to make The Exorcist a groundbreaking picture—one that added legitimacy to the horror genre and cleared the path for other prestige horror films to come that benefitted from bigger budgets, acclaimed filmmakers attached to them, and more extensive marketing, including Jaws, The Omen, Carrie, and Alien in the 1970s. It’s no small feat that The Exorcist won two Academy Awards (for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay) after 10 nominations and was the first horror film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, one of only six movies in this genre to earn that distinction—and one of only 19 horror films to have won an Oscar in any category. The Exorcist proved that horror movies could be incredibly frightening, artistically constructed, and well-made and should be taken seriously as an art form and work of entertainment.

The box-office triumph of The Exorcist prompted Warner Brothers to greenlight a sequel—a rarity for the horror genre at this time; in fact, this film spawned three sequels, one prequel, a TV series, and innumerable imitators and copycats in its wake, especially in the immediate years that followed. For proof, consider Abby (1974), Beyond the Door (1974), Seytan (1974), The Antichrist (1974), The House of Exorcism (1975), The Sentinel (1977), The Manitou (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979). More recent examples include The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), The Devil Inside (2012), The Possession (2012), The Conjuring (2012) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), Deliver Us From Evil (2014), The Devil's Doorway (2018), The Cleansing Hour (2019), and The Exorcism of God (2021). The sheer number of films within the possession horror subgenre speaks to the lasting influence and pop culture pervasiveness of the original from 1973. And The Exorcist’s extremely graphic scenes depicting mutilation, vomiting, urination, and bloody self-harm likely inspired future films in the body horror subgenre, too.

This work had an immediate cultural impact, as evidenced by all the press and media coverage it received in the months following its release and the extent to which it was parodied and emulated in pop culture. Additionally, The Exorcist sparked spiritual and existential conversations, including renewed debate about the existence of God and the devil, the endless struggle of good versus evil, and the relevance and value of Christianity and Catholic doctrine.

The Exorcist also proved that you don’t necessarily need a traditional score to musically punctuate a horror film; the choice to add atmospheric music instead, including Mike Oldfield’s song Tubular Bells, was an inspired one, as was Friedkin’s decision to feature the avant-garde music of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, which uses unsettling tones, loud chords, sound clusters, and non-melodic instrumentation to evoke a frightening mood. The Shining took a cue from this latter musical choice, and countless horror films in the decades since The Exorcist have copied this approach to discordant, disquieting musical accompaniment.

Furthermore, the movie illustrated that challenging the norms of what was deemed acceptable in filmmaking could spark significant interest and discussion—prompting the development of inventive marketing approaches for future horror movies—and backlash; several communities, cities, and even countries banned or tried to ban the film.

Friedkin often pushed his actors and crew to extreme lengths to achieve his vision. He slapped one actor to elicit an alarmed reaction just before turning on the camera, for key scenes he fired gunshot blanks in the air to unsettle his thespians, and both Burstyn and Blair were injured during the filming of violent scenes. Friedkin often employs a slow zoom-in or zoom-out on characters or objects in The Exorcist to produce a disconcerting visual effect; this style was copied somewhat in two subsequent classics of 1970s horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien.

The director further deserves applause for allowing himself to be inspired by earlier artists, including painters like Rembrandt, Monet, and Magritte, and filmmakers Sidney Lumet and Alain Resnais (who each had films that also effectively utilized subliminal images) and Hitchcock (he borrows at least two shots from Psycho).

At its heart, this tale is about the timeless conflict of good versus evil and faith versus doubt. What Regan suffers can’t be explained or cured by science or psychology. This film purports that truly evil and demonic forces exist that can be supernaturally embodied within us against our will—even within the form of an innocent young girl. When Karras essentially asks “Why her?” (in the director’s cut, not the original theatrical version), we hear Merrin tell Karras: “I think the point is to make us despair, Damien—to see ourselves as animal, and ugly—to reject our own humanity—to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.”

Deep Focus Review critic Brian Eggert wrote: “The suggestion is that Satan has chosen Regan not because she is vulnerable, but because those around her are vulnerable. The demon’s goal is to drive the family apart and antagonize Karras, while also inciting a re-match of sorts against Merrin, whom Satan has battled before. Regan’s imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, tells her lies about Chris’ friend Dennings to drive them apart; the demon attacks Karras where it hurts, with his mother. The real victim is not Regan, but those who must bear witness helplessly as the demon tears down the girl.”

Filmmaker Mark Judge agrees, writing: “The point of the demonic in The Exorcist is not to levitate bodies, vomit on priests, and telepathically toss furniture around the room…The demon refers to Regan’s mother, a famous actress named Chris, as “Pig,” and to Regan as “Piglet.” Part of this is carried over to the film, where the demon calls Regan “the sow.” This is part of the dehumanization that Fr. Merrin talks about—the way evil attempts to make us despair and consider ourselves animals unworthy of God’s love. This theme is effective in the story because Fr. Karras is having a crisis of faith—he both doubts the existence of God and feels his sins have made him unworthy of love. The demon, as Fr. Merrin notes, ‘knows where to strike’… Amidst the drugs, scandal, rock and roll, and moral collapse of the 1970s, The Exorcist announced that there are some evils that are timeless and don’t change.”

Selflessness and sacrifice are also front and center in The Exorcist. This is more a story about Karras rising to the occasion than a tale about Regan or Chris. Suffering a crisis of spiritual faith and racked with guilt over his mother’s suffering and death, Karras has to summon inner strength and conviction to battle Pazuzu, especially after Merrin dies. The exorcism rite has been thwarted or failed, and he must take matters into his own hands and attempt to pull the demon out of Regan and into himself; Pazuzu helps matters by yanking the St. Joseph medallion off Karras’ neck, which enables the entity to possess the priest. Karras then throws himself from the window to prevent full possession and protect Regan.

Another salient theme is symbiosis and the intersecting of disparate lives. Gradually, the film brings together four key characters who seem drawn together by fate: Merrin, Karras, Chris/Regan, and, to a lesser extent, Kinderman. Bad omens, foreshadowing elements, and premonitions proliferate through the first two acts—such as Merrin’s unsettling experiences in Iraq (and the sudden stopping of a clock that suggests his ticker will eventually expire), a framed photo of Regan clasping her hands in a prayer-like pose, the declining health of Karras’ mother (recall her convalescing in a mental hospital amid patients who look possessed), and the falling St. Joseph medallion in Karras’ dream that later becomes reality. By the final act, all these prime characters coalesce inside Chris’ home and the ultimate battle between good and evil transpires.

Another takeaway? Conservative values matter. The Exorcist suggests that age-old forces of good and evil are at work shaping the world and that science, technology, and secularism are no match for belief in a higher power. It’s no surprise that Friedkin described this as a film “about the mystery of faith.” For Karras to defeat Pazuzu and save Regan, his faith in God and belief in the existence and power of the devil had to be restored. Because Chris is a liberal-minded, divorced single mother working in the Hollywood system who proves powerless against the demonic possession of her daughter, the message, for those who subscribe to this disputed theory, is that feminism lacks agency and children need a traditional family paradigm with a more dedicated mom: That’s why it takes two patriarchal priestly figures to rescue Regan and restore her body, soul, and innocence.

Per film reviewer Richard Scheib, The Exorcist “seems to imply that innocence is a natural state of childhood and that for children to be obscene, use sexual references, masturbate, even to pee on the carpet is something evil (i.e., it is behaviourally alien to them, therefore it must come from The Devil). It is a type of thinking that sits atop the mood of conservative parental thinking of the 1970s – that of parents suddenly unable to understand how come their children were no longer innocent and cherubic and were instead dropping out of society, taking drugs, having sex before marriage and rioting against established authority. The 1960s youth revolt was something so far removed from some traditional parents’ views that children should be good and innocent that the temptation to see The Devil as the cause must have been strong.”

This is a film with some plot ambiguities. Several unanswered questions that arise after watching The Exorcist include:
  • What is Merrin specifically searching for in Iraq before he discovers the Pazuzu relic, how did he never notice the massive Pazuzu statue before, and why does he suddenly depart for America?
  • Who defiles the Virgin Mary statue?
  • Why is Dennings the only person Pazuzu kills before the priests arrive?
  • Did Pazuzu kill Merrin directly, or did Merrin suffer a heart attack?
  • Why does Karras so violently attack Regan’s body in the climactic scene (this is a 12-year-old girl’s body, after all)?
  • How could Regan have lived after twisting her neck 180 degrees? And how did all those gouges, cuts, and scars disappear so quickly?
  • What happens to Dennings’ murder investigation, and how and why is the family cleared from responsibility in the wake of three dead men?
The Exorcist may not be as traumatizing and radical as it was on first release—a time when Americans’ faith in their country, its leaders, and the future was shaken by the Vietnam War, Watergate, the sexual revolution, and a growing sociocultural pessimism—but it’s still got plenty of venom in its sharp fangs. And I expect that it continues to serve as an alarming sensory and psychological experience for so many different types of watchers. If you’re a parent, this tale is your worst nightmare. If you’re a teenager, you put yourself in Regan’s position and perhaps worry if you’re a candidate for possession. Perhaps most vulnerable to its spiritual scares are religious types, who can find affirmation of their faith in a higher power after screening The Exorcist, while secular viewers and lapsed Christians, on the other end of the spectrum, could end up asking themselves, “what if?” and shuddering at the inexplicable. Older fans can find inspiration in the tried-and-tested Merrin yet be horrified by the reality that age eventually catches up with you and, if the devil doesn’t get you, a heart attack might.

The Exorcist’s greatest gift could be that it’s an equal opportunity terrifier—a film with a deserved shock reputation that precedes every rewatch and reminds you that, for the past 50 years, this has been regarded by the masses and the media as the most frightening film of them all. It’s no surprise that Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, Time Out, AMC, Vudu, Study Finds, Meerkat Movies, and other reputable sources, pollsters, and publishers have ranked The Exorcist #1 on their lists of the scariest film ever made. The ability to terrify so many generations after half a century is one helluva superpower.


Cineversary podcast throws 50th and 75th birthday party for The Exorcist and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Alexandre Philippe and Gregory Mank
In Cineversary podcast episode #63, host Erik Martin honors big birthdays of 2 great horror films. First, he’s joined by Alexandre O. Philippe, director of Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, to honor the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin; and then he partners with classic horror historian and author Gregory Mank to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Erik and his guests indulge in some Halloween frights and fun, exploring why these two films remain masterworks, how they’ve stood the test of time, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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