From 'The Exorcist' to 'Westworld,' the '70s mount a comeback

Posted April 17, 2018 6:34 p.m. EDT

— Entertainment from the Nixon era remain impressively durable, which offers interesting considerations to anyone paying attention to the current scenario of a president again facing a special-counsel investigation.

This weekend brings two projects whose roots hearken back not just to that period but specifically 1973: "Westworld," the second season of HBO's reengineered update of Michael Crichton's tale; and "The Devil and Father Amorth," a documentary -- complete with a recorded exorcism -- from "The Exorcist" director William Friedkin.

There are, admittedly, several threads running through this juxtaposition of premieres (the latter receiving a limited theatrical release), and an element of happenstance. After all, everything old is new again in an entertainment industry hungry for brand names, and likely to get even hungrier thanks to the success of ABC's "Roseanne" revival.

Still, there are undercurrents within the apprehensions that informed 1970s fare that might be particularly well suited to the present, and not strictly because of the political parallels. In the upcoming AMC documentary series "James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction," director Christopher Nolan draws a line from the sci-fi movies of the 1970s to the kind we've seen since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

A common theme stems from fascination with technology and concerns about the environment, which gave us '70s movies like "The Omega Man" and "Soylent Green" (both starring Charlton Heston), as well as the multi-film "Planet of the Apes" series that Heston helped launch in 1968. (That franchise, notably, finished its most recent trilogy last summer.)

"Condor," a new series based on "Three Days of the Condor" -- a 1975 movie starring Robert Redford, which tapped into the paranoia of those times -- is also due in June. Yet not all the Nixon-era franchises receiving makeovers are that grim. The "The Six Million Dollar Man," for example, will become a movie next year starring Mark Wahlbeg, albeit upgraded by inflation to "The Six Billion Dollar Man."

As for "The Exorcist," the film's lingering impact speaks to an age-old fascination with supernatural evil, which has given us a TV series under that name on Fox, a live 2015 exorcism on the Destination America network and a host of reality shows where ghost hunters brave reputedly haunted locales, augmented by eerie night-vision photography.

Friedkin, for one, introduces notes of skepticism as he goes to visit with Father Gabriele Amorth, official exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, a 91-year-old veteran of such rituals.

In addition to recording an exorcism, he interviews medical experts who are hard-pressed to fully explain the video they're shown. (As a footnote, it's impressive to see the octogenarian director guiding to this exercise, filming the key event himself with a hand-held camera since no crew was allowed.)

William Peter Blatty's original book was inspired by an actual 1949 case involving a young boy. While Father Amorth is presented as a true believer, the documentary -- whose credibility is somewhat diminished by its horror-movie-like musical score -- leaves room for interpretation as to whether possession is a psychological condition, driven by the subject's beliefs or, as it's described, truly "the random invasion of an external evil force."

Even for skeptics, the fun of such things resides in the fact that, as the doctors allow, there's still a lot that we don't really know. Strictly when it comes to rebooting the '70s for our amusement, though, these twin arrivals from 45 years ago indicate an element of method in the madness.