Hollywood Hex
book review by David Ng
 

Tinseltown is a nightmare factory, or so you’ll come to believe after reading Hollywood Hex, a new book that documents how movies can sometimes assume a life of their own and mercilessly devour those closest to them. Author Mikita Brottman assembles a list of eclectic films starting with Rosemary’s Baby and ending with The Crow. But the focal points of fascination seem to lie in two of the most disturbing films of the 1970’s: Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Here are two movies whose topical violence is surpassed by the seemingly supernatural forces that haunted their production and release. Hollywood Hex examines how the accidents, coincidences, and "strange goings-on" are a signal of larger, more inexplicable forces at play.

The case of Macbeth is truly frightening. Less than a year after his eight-months pregnant wife was knifed to death by the Charles Manson cult, Polanski commenced filming Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. While the filming proceeded smoothly for the most part, eerie parallels between the screenplay and the Manson murders first raised eyebrows among the crew and, later, among critics. We learn how Polanski’s wife, Sharon, was hanged before being stabbed to death, and how that image (a body thrashing at the end of a rope) became a dominant visual motif in the movie. The famous "out damn’d spots" scene in which Lady Macbeth tries to expunge the blood on her hands also takes on double-meaning when we read that Manson’s followers tried to wash their own blood-stained hands at a near-by garden hose minutes after murdering Polanski’s wife. There are countless other parallels: the notion of a fetus being "untimely ripped from his mother’s womb"; the description of small children being massacred (which Polanski visualizes with copious blood); and ultimately, Shakespeare’s description of Scotland as a lacerated woman and "each day a gash / Is added to her wounds."

The Macbeth section of Hollywood Hex is the longest and by far the most detailed, analytic, and complete. Deliberately intercutting descriptions of the Manson murders with details from the Macbeth shoot (often out of sequence), the author creates a feeling of inseparability. Polanski’s macabre vision of Macbeth owes its existence to Charles Manson. One is the product of the other. Or perhaps – and this is the heart of the argument – they are both products of each other. They both come from some strange well of supernaturalism. And, as the chapter’s structure suggests, their ultra-violent images intertwine until we can’t tell them apart. When actor Terence Baylor as MacDuff must describe the death of his wife and child, Polanski instructs him, "You’ll do it this way. I know."

Like Macbeth, the troubles associated with The Exorcist begin during pre-production. But unlike Polanski’s movie, the demonic forces generated by this simple film can still be felt. Hollywood Hex documents violent audience reaction when The Exorcist first opened: fainting, vomiting, and hysteria were common. One man was fine while watching the movie only to require hospitalization one month later due to insomnia, nervousness, and "the suspicion that his 5-year-old daughter is possessed." On The Exorcist set, accidents befall the cast and crew, resulting in a total of nine deaths. Director William Friedkin requested that the Catholic Church to exorcise the set. His request was denied.

Hollywood Hex’s success at chronicling The Exorcist and Macbeth lies not in exploiting the subject material but in maintaining distance. The shroud of mystery remains undisturbed. The book never offers up its own explanation or hypothesis or theory. In fact, there’s precious little commentary. Just facts. And by presenting mostly facts, it builds its case quietly, almost stealthily, until we can infer the conclusion subliminally or, perhaps, supernaturally. How easy it would have been to sensationalize this material, to cheapen it with tabloidish conjectures, to dilute it with pop psychology, or to kill it with over-analysis.

While it often describes the views of others, Hollywood Hex doesn’t allow any one perspective to dominate its academic impartiality. We must connect the various pieces together to arrive at any semblance of a thesis. The analysis of actor Vic Morrow’s death on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie exemplifies the book’s subtle documentary style. We learn how he was decapitated when a helicopter crashed during a stunt scene, sending a lethal engine blade flying into the air. We learn how the courts held no one liable for his death. And we learn that Landis went on to commercial success with later movies. The essay is, superficially, a straight retelling of the events. By restraining from commentary, Hollywood Hex preserves the violent mystique. We can infer that Morrow’s death was random indeed and, perhaps most violent of all, that his death could be so easily reduced to a set of voyeuristic descriptions. It is a mature book that trusts its readers to extrapolate so freely.

Hollywood Hex never short changes a movie because it was a bomb or a turkey. Poltergeist III, for instance, is scrutinized with the same level of intelligence as The Exorcist. The death of its young star, Heather O’Rourke, is the final manifestation of a curse that seized the life of two other actors of the series. This ill-conceived and ill-fated movie takes on tragic overtones. Its actors become the pawns of diabolic forces. To be so close to the Devil and his machinations is titillating for us. Death associated with the movies "does not generate moral reflection.... [I]nstead, it fills us with the galvanizing adrenaline rush of exquisite curiosity."

Hollywood Hex is actually a collection of previously published essays, and if the book has a weakness, it is that its disjointedness betrays its origins. The shorter essays (on Rosemary’s Baby, the Poltergeist series, The Believers, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and The Crow), while always fascinating, seldom reach the subtle genius of the two centerpieces. Nor do the first or final chapters that bookend this anthology. The first chapter is a humorously macabre laundry list of freak Hollywood deaths. It includes a description of how starlet Lupe Velez tried to overdose on Seconal but got an upset stomach instead, slid on her vomit, hit her head, and died. The final chapter addresses copy cat crimes inspired by movies such as Natural Born Killers and Child’s Play and is particularly relevant so soon after the Columbine shootings. Though entertaining, the blunt realism of these chapters is at odds with the ellipsis of the central essays. While Hollywood Hex doesn’t sustain a consistent tone, it always succeeds at conjuring the forces of evil and unleashing them on victims who can’t make themselves look away.

 


Hollywood Hex: Death and Destiny in the Dream Factory. An Illustrated History of Cursed Movies by Mikita Brottman is now available in a trade paperback edition from Creation Books. 256 pages. Suggested list price: $19.95. For more information, check out the Creation Books Web site.