Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism had its world première at the Overlook Film Festival 2023
Nick Kozakis’ Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism opens with text stating that it is “inspired by true events”, yet ends with a disclaimer that its characters are entirely fictitious. It is a familiar paradox in films about exorcism, which tend to play upon issues of faith, credulity and suspension of disbelief, in a space where myth and fiction reign godlike. To repurpose a quote from Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), as he describes the demon at the centre of William Friedkin’s influential The Exorcist (1973), these films “mix lies with the truth”, and that confusion often allows insidious untruth, always seductive for a thrill-seeking audience, to triumph.
Ground zero of this principle is the real-life case of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman whose epileptic psychosis was mistaken by her family for possession, and who, after being subjected to 67 arduous Catholic exorcisms over ten months between 1975 and 1976, had her knees broken by endless genuflections, and died from pneumonia, exhaustion, malnourishment and dehydration as a direct result of this ritual process. Michel’s parents and the priests involved were convicted of negligent homicide (although spared jail sentences), and German bishops subsequently conceded that Michel was never actually possessed. Her tragic story, and the ensuing court case, was reimagined as Scott Derrickon’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which pretends to examine its events with a forensic fairness, but in fact massively favours fire-and-brimstone fantasy, giving the devil all the best tunes. A much more sober and balanced version of the story can be found in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006).
In Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism too, a vulnerable young woman falls victim to faith itself. Scripted by Alexander Angliss-Wilson, Kozakis’ film expressly steers clear of exorcisms – like Michel’s – that were sanctioned by the Vatican, instead building its narrative around a freelance operation performed by, and within, a fringe sect of Christianity. Whether the particulars of its story are true or otherwise, the names of real people from around the world who met similar fates in similar circumstances are listed at the end to illustrate precisely how it was ‘inspired’ by the actuality of ‘unsanctioned exorcisms’. At its heart is Lara Levonde (Georgia Eyers), a young woman trying, after a tragic accident and the loss of her infant son Eliot, to rebuild her life with new husband Ron (Dan Ewing) in rural Eastfield, Australia, 1994. A toxic blend of hypermania, paranoid schizophrenia and intense guilt, all long since diagnosed, leads Lara to peculiar behaviours and hallucinations.
While Ron is a loving husband, he is also domineering, religiously devout and deeply suspicious of modern science and psychiatry. Believing Lara’s problems to be spiritual rather than medical, Ron insists that she stop taking the prescribed pills that have been slowly improving her condition, and seek help instead from the local charismatic church. Its pastor, Barbara (Rosie Traynor), who is herself familiar with the ravages of loss, directs Ron in turn to Daniel James King (Tim Pocock), a local unauthorised exorcist with a tendency, in the name of the Lord, to beat the ‘afflicted’ so hard that they soil themselves and make his knuckles bleed. Soon Lara must face not only her own illness, hallucinations and trauma, but also Daniel and the well-meaning flock of true believers that he has gathered to help him deliver her from the devils with which she is supposedly ‘infested’.
There is an ambiguity to the first word in the title of Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism. On the one hand, it might describe a person whose body has been overtaken by demons and abandoned by all that is sacred, but on the other, it serves as an emblem for what distinguishes this film from most other exorcism-based horror. For much as the ten books of Lucan’s first-century AD De Bello Civili innovated by dispensing with the divine machinery that normally characterised hexameter epics, Kozakis’ feature reduces both its demons and even God to rationalised avatars of convenient mythology and personal delusion. Without ever questioning the strength of this community’s faith, the film shows that faith itself can be a pathology no less real – or all-consuming – than Lara’s psychosis.
The film does have its demons – whether the personal ones that Lara sees and hears in her anguished mental lapses, or the biblical ones that Daniel claims have taken up residence in her person. Yet the ‘real’ demons here are of a more metaphorical variety: for much as the hulking Ron bullies and browbeats the openly sceptical, openly reluctant Lara into going off her meds, Daniel dragoons all around him, whether via silver-tongued charm or brute threat, into complicity with his sadistic, torturous acts. Daniel is a preening, performative charlatan whose mirror-gazing narcissism and manipulative sermonising mark him as the film’s most diabolical figure, a self-serving, spirit-breaking deceiver to the end.
Here the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While everyone – whether the medical establishment represented by Lara’s doubly disbelieving psychiatrist Dr Marisa Walsh (Eliza Matengu), the law as embodied by police detective (and lapsed Catholic) Peter Chambers (John Wood), or the church and its margins as maintained by Ron, Barbara and Daniel – hopes in one way or another to save Lara, all these conflicting perspectives offer incompatible notions of salvation. This leaves Lara a mere ‘vessel’ to the colliding ideologies and clashing voices of others who vie to imprint their own narrative on her sufferings (whose real cure is obvious from the start).
As such, Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism is an unusually responsible example of exorcism horror. It certainly delivers all the stock scenes of this subgenre (the rituals, the battle of wills, the blaspheming resistance to holy postures, the demonic incursions); but at the same time it is trying not so much to frighten us into the pulpit as to open our minds to reason. While always respectful of organised religion, it is critical of its more wayward chapters, dramatising both the grey area that can exist between blind faith and dumb gullibility, and the damage that belief itself can wreak upon those in need of real help. Best of all, its coda gets you to want to believe in a miracle that you also know cannot come true (except in pure fantasy), thus uncomfortably allying the viewer to the fanatical congregation within the film, before letting a more difficult, harrowing reality sink in with both audiences. It is a sophisticated tragedy in which conviction gone awry demands a saint-like – yet secular – sacrifice of the innocent, and in which evil, if it exists at all, resides only in man.
strap: Nick Kozakis’ tragedy of faith subjects a mentally ill heroine to her community’s blind belief
© Anton Bitel