There is no possible way anyone could call themselves a horror fan, if they have never seen THE EXORCIST before. (You know – Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, green pea soup and “DO YOU KNOW WHAT SHE DID…YOUR CUNTING DAUGHTER?”) There are very few movie fans that haven’t had at least a few sleepless nights, thanks to the William Friedkin masterpiece. But writer/director STEPHEN BIRO decided to go where angels – and even a few demons – fear to tread, to attempt to answer the eternal, infernal question: “How could we possibly go THE EXORCIST one better?”
Well, the latest release from his Unearthed Films outfit, THE SONG OF SOLOMON (part of the ongoing AMERICAN GUINEA PIG series) doesn’t have the Hollywood budget or star-power that bolstered the 1973 Warner Brothers (literal) head-turner. But that doesn’t mean that what’s on display won’t leave you with your jaw – and possibly some other body parts – on the floor.
A young possessed girl, Mary (a bravura performance by horror indie scream queen darling JESSICA CAMERON) is host to a demon that has caused her father to kill himself and made their family’s lives a quite literal Hell-On-Earth. An agent of the Vatican, the Ordinary (ANDY WINTON) sends in several priests to attempt an exorcism, beginning with Fathers Lawson (SCOTT GABBEY) and Blake (JIM VAN BEBBER). To say that they fail is the Understatement of the Century. The next attempt falls to a real badass ‘warrior priest’ named Corbin (GENE PALUBICKI), and even he appears to have failed his mission. The last stand finally falls to – you guessed it – another failed and fallen priest, Father Powell, (DAVID MCMAHON), and it’s with his ‘success’, the audience realizes in shock, that this twist here on THE EXORCIST’S scenario was a lot more devastatingly wicked than they realized.
First off, standing applause is needed for the teaming-up of Oddtopsy and Toe Tag Effects, meaning MARCUS KOCH and JERAMI CRUISE. I’ve been fans of their work, both individually and collectively over the years, but here’s the one where it seems they’ve outdone themselves. Getting quality practical gore effects on a modest budget, usually results in a product that proves that the two aspects are very much mutually exclusive – a lot of the time. But they’ve hit it out of the ball park here. Including one gross-out sequence that comes right out of Seventies Italian horror – which for the most part is over the top to begin with – and still manages to top THAT. Those without the strongest of constitutions would be better off skipping that sequence…or maybe the whole film entirely. Biro and crew aren’t playing, boys and ghouls.
Which brings me to the screenplay. Although I was raised Catholic, I can’t say that I’m any kind of expert on the subject, but it does appear that either Biro has actually done his homework, or he just hired some great, non-mainstream actors to pull it off, so that the exorcism rituals look and feel authentic.
And speaking of that, every indie film has its pluses and minuses, and only a truly crappy reviewer would have no intention of trying to maintain a balance. So, yes, it’s time to point out some of the flaws as well here.
There are times that the dialogue lands with a thud, either due to the writing or because the actors just weren’t skilled enough to pull it off. Some of it tends to be redundant, (just in this reviewer’s opinion, for example, a pivotal scene between The Ordinary and Father Powell could have been much shorter.) One scene toward the end that should have been shocking and horrific, actually comes off as black-comical, which I don’t know if Biro intended. But compared to the events that came before it, it needed a couple of actors that could ‘sell’ it as a heinous event, but instead it presents itself as a missed opportunity.
The sound design and the score (performed by several musicians including actors Gabbey and Palubicki) are appropriately unsettling most of the time, and I get the intention here to underplay the usual soundtrack of hellish squeals, screams, grunts and groans that we’ve become used to associating with movies about demonic possession; so much so that now it’s pretty much a cliche. But there were times I had to strain to hear Cameron’s dialogue, which is a shame, because she gets some juicy lines and clapbacks here as the demon-fueled Mary.
On the great side of things, CHRIS HILLEKE’S Cinematography is outstanding, (especially with the scenes that make you want to walk out of the room), and the opening sequence has an aura of dreamy surrealism that contrasts and also complements the gross horror that is to come. And once again, not to ‘diss’ any actors who gave serviceable performances, but every film also has its standouts, and once again, I can’t praise the turns of Cameron and Palubicki highly enough.
Cameron, a radiant, bubbly beauty in real life, would collect several statuettes if they gave away awards for “BEST TROUPER IN A DEMANDING ROLE.” It’s not merely that she was willing to be ‘de-glamorized’ for this role, but when I first heard about it and saw the trailer, I was afraid at first that the hype would kill the picture once the reality set in. Happily, that wasn’t the case, as she’s required to go through some shit that would’ve sent Linda Blair running from the room screaming. Kudos to an amazing actor, whose work apparently requires a lot more attention.
And there’s a reason why Palubicki is featured on the poster with her for the film. From the scene where he’s first introduced, his Father Corbin carries himself with such an aura of barely contained rage and anguish, that you immediately want to know more. He’s clearly not happy about being passed an assignment that’s the equivalent of ten pounds of dogshit in a five-pound bag, lit up with a healthy dose of brimstone. But what happened to him before Mary? What was the event that brought him to where he was when he’s finally approached by the Ordinary? If Biro is ever prepared to give us a glimpse of Corbin’s backstory, sign me up to see that!
And one more caveat. Not that you would be the kind of person to frequent this genre anyway, if you’re easily ‘triggered’ by anything, but there is a scene of sexual violence here that makes Regan McNeil fucking herself with a crucifix seem like “patty-cake, patty-cake”, but it’s a very important scene in context, (and not nearly THE most horrific one). So consider yourself warned.
To sum it up, SONG OF SOLOMON is the kind of ‘shaggy dog’ indie I love to see…it pulls no punches and makes no apologies, warts, blood and all, and you will wholeheartedly embrace or reject it. Me? For its moxie, going toe-to-toe with a Friedkin classic, and for incredible effects and a couple of great performances, SOLOMON gets three-and-a-half out of five stars. (And the hope for a Father Corbin prequel!)