Okay, let’s get the title out of the way first. The Exorcism of Karen Walker was originally titled ‘Aura’, but changed no doubt to appeal to viewers of DVDs like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Molly Hartley, and Anna Ecklund… and so on. Aura is a better title but it doesn’t scream possessed girls, dubious clairvoyants and things lurking in the cellar. Fair enough, business is business.
This is the first production from the Hereford Horror arm of Hereford Films, and British independent producer Jonathan Sothcott sets out his market stall: namely no-nonsense, low budget fright fare, in this instance The Exorcist remade as an episode of the 1980s TV series The Hammer House of Horror.
A young couple, Mitch and Diane, move into a house that belonged to Mitch’s dead uncle. He finds, in the basement, an antique Kirlian camera, used to capture people’s auras on film; along with an envelope of snaps that his uncle took of Mitch and his sister Karen when they were kids.
Mitch is alarmed at the peculiar aura on the old photograph of Karen, and decides – despite his mother’s admonishment, and his pregnant wife’s reservations – to take Karen out of the institution where she has been languishing for decades, and bring her back to the house. He wants to get the bottom of what her aura means, and if it led to her mental breakdown all those years ago. Needless to say, in doing so, all hell breaks loose.
What sets the film apart from the usual DTV horror fare is that the central characters are likeable – Shane Taylor (Band of Brothers) is nicely understated as Mitch, and Janine Nerissa is genuinely affecting as his put upon wife. Hell, you even root for poor possessed Karen, played by Denise Moreno, blank and listless for the most part, but nonetheless a rather unsettling, gooseflesh inducing presence.
Director Steve Lawson (who wrote the script based on an idea of Sothcott’s) has come on leaps and bounds since his previous horror effort, the lamentable Hellriser (not to be confused with Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, which we’ll come to in about one sentence). There, with a tiny budget, his grasp exceeded his reach – this time around, he uses the financial limitations to his advantage, so that central location, not dissimilar to the suburban home in 1987’s Hellraiser, becomes a gloomy, foreboding presence, within which the characters are given plenty of time to see their comfortable existence crumble.
Something else the film has in common with Hellraiser is its attempt to pass itself off as American. It didn’t work in Hellraiser, and it doesn’t work here. As well as cod-yank accents (which the great Rula Lenska, appearing as a psychic, manages effortlessly), Mitch inexplicably drives what appears to be the cherry red Grand Torino from Starsky and Hutch, extremely innocuous parked on the driveway of a leafy British street. Again, business is business, and if it means the film gets a wider audience, so be it.
But, Hereford Horror take note, there are film fans who love a bit of grim and grotty British horror, right down to surly locals supping from pint pots in a local pub, while pagan rituals are enacted in the church halls. And don’t forget, the first ‘Exorcism of’ film was 1972’s The Exorcism of Hugh, better known as Neither the Sand Nor the Sea, based on a book by former ITV newsreader Gordon Honeycombe, starring Chelsea-born Michael Petrovitch, and filmed in Borehamwood. They don’t come more British than that!
The Exorcism of Karen Walker is a bit too talky, and could have done with a few more scares – that said, it does provide a proper hide behind the sofa moment, which involves a sofa, rather in the way The Grudge set it’s scariest ‘hide under the covers’ shock… under the covers of a duvet. And the twist ending is a delicious little surprise, no doubt setting us up for a follow-up.
It’s not the greatest horror film ever made – hell, it’s not even the greatest ‘Exorcism of’ film ever made – but as a sign of things to come from Hereford Horror, it’ll do very nicely indeed, thank you very much.