"A tremendous depiction of evil," is the way William Peter Blatty, author of the best-selling novel The Exorcist, describes Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a film whose astonishing box-office success — it is now the highest grossing R-rated film ever and has just broken into the domestic all-time top-ten list — has surprised its fans and baffled its critics. Because it is an unprecedented film in so many ways, film critics and cultural pundits, at least those who have not mindlessly dismissed it as a snuff film, have been groping to put The Passion in some sort of comparative context.
On account of the controversy it has aroused, the film has been compared to Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, but the reception of that film matched critical acclaim with box-office indifference, thus making it the inverse image of The Passion. Classic Hollywood religious films, even those that are not afflicted with what Gibson calls "bad hair" and "bad music," provide no benchmark whatsoever. The New Republic's Stanley Kauffman had to go all the way back to Gone with the Wind (1938) to find comparable pre-release buzz about a Hollywood film. But that was not an R-rated religious film with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin.
Released at Christmas in 1973, The Exorcist was an R-rated religious film, containing a little Latin and an opening set in the Middle East. Like The Passion, The Exorcist defied Hollywood box office expectations; having been surpassed in box-office tallies by The Passion, it now ranks fourth among all R-rated films. It, too, shocked viewers with its level of grotesque violence. As the surprisingly perceptive review posted on the horror website ESPLATTER.COM intimates, The Passion derives much of its visual and dramatic power from what it borrows from the horror genre.
There are indeed a number of similarities between The Passion and the most popular and most influential modern horror film. Based on Blatty's book and screenplay and directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist saw an initial, limited release in art-house theaters in major cities. It quickly became apparent, however, that the film was drawing middle- and lower-income audiences, young viewers, and African Americans. Then there were the startling reports of the wrenching emotional and spiritual impact of the film on viewers. Audience members were shocked both at the very credible depiction of evil personified and at the level of explicit, vile acts performed by the demon: the projectile vomiting, the head twisting, and the gravelly voiced-obscenity-laced mocking speech. Viewers left the theater feeling physically ill, seeking psychological help, or spiritual aid, even demanding to have exorcisms performed on them. Equally profound surges of emotion and spiritual unrest have affected those attending The Passion; one woman reportedly suffered cardiac arrest during one of the more violent segments of The Passion and the sound of weeping and moaning is common. The emotional wallop of the film is a remarkable achievement in today's cultural climate, since audiences are now accustomed to much heavier doses of violence than they were in the early 1970s.
Just as with The Exorcist, so too with The Passion, filmmakers set out to jolt viewers into a direct confrontation with evil personified. Although Gibson has repeatedly claimed to be following the literal truth of Gospels, his film involves a number of artistic and dramatic innovations, not least of which is the introduction of an androgynous demon, who appears in the first scene in the Garden of Gethsemane to tempt Christ and stir doubts about his mission. This hooded, feminine-looking figure with a deep, sinister voice floats effortlessly among the Jewish crowd during the sentencing of Jesus, appears just behind the Roman guard overseeing the sadistic scourging of Christ, and then exults at evil's apparent victory at the moment of Christ's death.
But that Satanic character is not the only point of contact between The Passion and the horror genre. There are also the ghoulish phantasms that plague Judas after his betrayal of Jesus; particularly dreadful is Judas's hallucination of children transformed into taunting demons, a scene that illustrates Judas's descent into a nightmarish hell in which he loses all contact with goodness and innocence. There is, above all and throughout The Passion, the horror genre's fascination with blood and its predilection for monstrous excess, intended to jar jaded modern audiences into acknowledging the terrifying reality of evil.
That was precisely Blatty's goal in The Exorcist, a film that juxtaposes, on the one hand, a modern, enlightenment faith in the ability of science to explain and treat human afflictions, even evil, and, on the other, a primitive, religious world in which mysterious and super-human cosmic powers are at odds. Gibson has raised the eyebrows of many, including Diane Sawyer, for suggesting, "There are these realms colliding," a statement that is an affront to our comfortable Enlightenment confidence that we have transcended religion as a comprehensive conception of reality. The Exorcist and in its own way The Passion stand at the very center of the modern tradition of horror, a tradition that arises as a reaction to the excessive claims of the Enlightenment. Against the Enlightenment's faith in progress and scientific explanation, horror reasserts the primacy of primordial guilt and expiation. The horror genre not only insists on the limits to the modern project of mastering nature, but it also suggests that an overweening desire to know and control may give rise to terrors never imagined by modern rationalists.
Now, The Passion does not engage in a direct contest with enlightenment humanism in the way The Exorcist does. Still, the deeply divided opinions of the film may have something to do with a gap between those who, in Jeffersonian fashion, see a set of Enlightenment teachings as the core of what's worth preserving in the Gospel and those who see the bloody sacrifice of the God-man as its core.
Of course, Gibson's film transcends horror in precisely the way Christ transcends his afflictions and his tormenters, through a redemptive act of love and forgiveness. But there is no doubt that much of the visual and thematic power of The Passion derives precisely from what it owes to the horror genre. So deeply intertwined is The Passion with the horror genre that its weakest features, as in the scene of the demon carrying a baby who looks like a shrunken Uncle Fester, can best be described as horror degenerating into camp.
To talk about The Passion's reliance on horror is, in a very important sense, to get things backward, since The Passion supplies, as the astute ESPLATTER reviewer notes, an education in the "iconography" of the horror genre. Moreover, by inscribing horror within a more comprehensive narrative of forgiveness and redemption, The Passion decisively transcends the genre, which has had difficulty overcoming the irrepressibility of evil, symbolized most crudely in the serial killer that just won't go down for the count.
The Passion transcends horror not just through Christ but also through Mary, whose elevated role in the story of Christ's final hours is a Gibson innovation almost universally neglected by critics of the film. In one of the film's final scenes, Mary implicates us in the narrative; as she holds her son's battered and bloody corpse, she stares directly into the camera. Mary faces the horror but sees something more and invites us to do the same. Lines from T. S Eliot's "Four Quartets" are apt:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.