Overlook Film Festival 2023: Catholic Guilt and Satanic Panic (Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism, Late Night with the Devil, Evil Dead Rise)
The air became almost oppressively heavy with humidity on my second proper morning of Overlook. Walking to a relatively cheap brunch outpost called Toast, my boyfriend and I became drenched in sweat from the weight of cotton pants and button-up shirts after a 10-minute walk in 9 AM sunlight. The news of a 20-minute wait for a table didn’t bother us: it meant we had exactly enough time to head back to the hotel and change into full-blown summer garments before being seated. The sudden immersion into a solstice-temperate climate didn’t trouble me (or my skin, which cleared considerably from lack of exposure to NYC smog).
Speedy service and delectably assembled entrees (which entailed open-face toast offerings) meant we were right on time for our first film of the day, the world-premiering Australian film Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism. We were lucky to be the last two pass holders ushered into the theater; there was considerable audience bustle, despite director Nick Kozakis warning viewers that this wouldn’t be a “traditional” exorcism flick. “People won’t go flying around the room,” he laughed during his pre-screening intro. Kozakis also disclosed that during the team’s dogged effort to make the film, he and several others took physically demanding warehouse jobs to continue funding the project.
There’s definitely a scrappy quality to Godless, but knowledge of its creators’ sheer gumption makes the film all the more impressive. The misty, rolling hills of Western Victoria couldn’t have been more fitting for the film (DP Carl Allison’s camerawork is sleek but never blandly polished). As beautiful as these images are in their own right, actress Georgia Eyers is the film’s greatest strength. Eyers plays Lara, a woman experiencing a clear mental health crisis who’s been prescribed antipsychotics by her well-intentioned psychiatrist Dr. Walsh (Eliza Matengu). When the meds make Lara lethargic and emotionally distant, her husband Ron (Dan Ewing) decides that Lara’s condition would significantly improve through divine intervention. After the Vatican hesitates to send an official exorcist, Ron’s parish leader asks zealot Daniel (Tim Pocock) to pay a visit. Lara is strapped to a chair, deprived of vital nutrients and withstands abuse for several days until the Catholic ritual finally comes to a bloody end.
It’s interesting to see a horror film, call out dangerous religious rites instead of sensationalizing them—and even more so for one that’s “based on true events” (a case from 1994) to present tangible facts in lieu of obscuring them to create a more compelling narrative. Godless investigates the patriarchal culture that leads to these rogue exorcisms, and the film’s end credits even cite several other people—mostly women and children, both in Australia and abroad—that have experienced similar fates. The film doesn’t waste any time grandstanding or imparting its own viewpoint on the audience—watching a woman brutalized in the name of God doesn’t really necessitate the input of an external moral compass.
I do wish that the film went a bit further into its survey of religious violence, particularly examining the colonial influence of Christianity in Australia. As a commonwealth country, it’s intriguing to see depictions of fanatic Catholic sects, something I wasn’t aware had a significant stronghold in the country. (Indeed, Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination in Australia. I immediately realized why this made sense: as a former British penal colony, a large population of Irish-Catholic political criminals were some of the country’s first colonial inhabitants.) Godless provided me with the opportunity to expand my research on a niche interest of mine—Catholic responses to the occult—into a corner of the world I hadn’t previously investigated myself. It’s also a lot more watchable than The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a film with a similar narrative that doesn’t deserve half of the acclaim it’s garnered over the years.
An Australian production with a American period setting, Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s Late Night with the Devil transports viewers back to Halloween night, 1977, during a live talk show broadcast gone horribly awry. Eternally struggling to match Carson ratings-wise, host Jack Delroy’s (David Dastmalchian) Night Owls is still considered a must-watch ritual for many Americans. Though he’s rumored to be part of a cultish exclusively male group called The Grove (i.e. Bohemian Grove), Jack has never truly ascended to the upper echelons of pop culture stardom. He hopes that feeding the country’s era-appropriate fascination with the paranormal will boost his ratings, resulting in a jam-packed slate that includes psychic medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi) and an ex-magician turned vocal skeptic dubbed Carmichael the Conjurer (Ian Bliss). The crown jewel of the evening, however, is parapsychologist Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon). Her latest book, Conversations with the Devil, studies a young girl named Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), allegedly the sole survivor of a Satanic sect that regularly engaged in human sacrifice, culminating in their mass suicide. Against June’s better judgment, she’s brought Lilly, who’s purportedly possessed by an entity she labels Mr. Wriggles, to join her on Night Owls—a decision that will unleash evil on studio and home-dwelling audiences alike.
The baked-in ’70s look is really well done, with credit due to production designer Otello Stolfo and costume designer Stephanie Hooke. Cinematographer Matthew Temple has fun with toggling between imitating four-tube color TV cameras during “live” portions of the show and a black and white studio camera for “behind-the-scenes” shots, which also works well to illustrate the different personalities each character channels on and off screen. My one gripe is that any film labeled as “found footage” should really adhere to being just that: a continuous stream watched by the viewer, without clean narrative cuts, and especially no discernible editing finesse. Either show us the live broadcast a la Ghostwatch (a clear influence on this film that never once got a shoutout from the directors during a post-screening Q&A, much to my disbelief) or ditch the “found footage” label altogether.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that one of my most anticipated films of Overlook was Evil Dead Rise, helmed by Irish director Lee Cronin nearly a decade after Fede Álvarez’s Evil Dead proved that Sam Raimi’s original franchise could be gloriously (and gorily) updated for a modern horror audience. I’m not shy in asserting my enthusiasm because the film was bad (quite the opposite), but because I hate to admit that an expanding franchise—especially in a genre that attracts low-budget, ambitious emerging filmmakers—could get me so giddy with excitement.
The obvious importance of pregnancy, motherhood and child rearing to the plot immediately piqued my interest, and I was not disappointed by the film’s brutal and demonically playful dissection of these themes. (The ghoulishly-uttered term “titty-sucking parasites” to reference a flock of children made the entire theater squeal in shock and delight.) The visceral goofiness of the film’s bloodiest bits were also fantastic: eyeball choking hazards, cheese grater torture and even a blood-filled elevator homage to The Shining manage to retain a freshness that doesn’t feel like mere fan service. Of course, franchise staples like the necronomicon and chainsaws are pivotal to the storyline, but Cronin’s Irish background also turns this installment into something that doesn’t just feel like a half-baked riff.
When guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan, definitely “not a fucking groupie”) finally finishes a long stint on the road, she immediately pays a visit to her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), currently going through a hard time with her three kids after their father ran out on the family. When an earthquake hits and damages their decrepit Los Angeles apartment building, the kids discover an old bank vault under their parking garage that contains many strange artifacts (as well as a shitton of dangling rosaries and giant crucifixes). Eldest Danny (Morgan Davies, who had just finished spinning a sick bedroom DJ set that ended with a live LCD Soundsystem song) obtains the necronomicon as well as a few antique 45s. After playing the clearly cursed records, his mother becomes possessed by an age-old demonic entity. She savagely slaughters a slew of apartment residents, who also reanimate to kill Beth and the rest of the children.
Aside from the inventive bodily viscera, creative capsule setting (thank God we finally got out of that accursed cabin) and gonzo performances (from a majority Australian cast, go figure), there’s something distinctly Catholic about this otherwise sacrilegious film. An unborn fetus is miraculously spared, clearly “too innocent” to meet a bloody end (I can only imagine how insane a demonic abortion would be to witness, though I’m not sure Cronin would be allowed to work in his native Ireland ever again). The most sin-free, cherubic characters emerge without so much as a scratch (lots of emotional trauma notwithstanding), which feels a bit weak-willed for a franchise that’s never shown much sympathy for its central characters. To be fair, practically everyone in Evil Dead Rise is truly “dead by dawn,” save for a few stragglers whose eventual comeuppance is cleverly bookended (and fuels a wicked title sequence).
We ended our evening by attending the closing night Halloween Party, with local Louisiana sludge metal band Thou providing the live music entertainment. As a former screamo-blasting kid, I dug their set immensely, even if they are partly composed of three guitarists who seem to play the same riffs simultaneously. The audience turnout wasn’t staggering, which seemed to piss the band off considerably. When someone cheered as they began playing of one of their more popular songs, frontman Bryan Funck scoffed, “Alright, let’s not get too excited now.” I went up to the merch table, manned by Funck himself, after the show to buy a t-shirt and 45. After handing him $40 for $25 worth of Thou merch, he admitted that he didn’t have the requisite change to split two $20s. “Just take them both for $20,” he said. “Whenever you listen to the record you’ll always feel a little bit guilty.” Whenever Thou makes their way to New York, trust that I’ll have $5 (and plenty of cash) to make up for Funck’s generosity. Until then, I hope the band has since seen improved audience turnout (and lightened moods all around).
After the show let out, we remembered that during his Godless intro, Kozakis mentioned that the fast food/daiquiri chain Voodoo Chicken virtually never closed (a fact that he blamed on his lingering hangover that morning). We made our way down Canal Street to the location closest to our hotel, waited well over a half hour for chicken strips, a biscuit and fries, but were nonetheless beyond satisfied with the decision. We still had plenty of time to try some authentic New Orleans fare, but on that night, it felt great to revel in the trashier pleasures the city had to offer.