Everything You Didn’t Know You Needed To Know About The Possessed (1977)
First of all: spoilers for all the things about The Possessed that anyone should actually care about spoiling. Normally I think spoiler warnings are kind of bogus, but introducing people to The Possessed blind is one of the few things that brings joy to my cold Reedie heart, so I figured I’d let you know that watching this movie blind is an unparalleled experience I am sorry to rob you of.
Now, we’ll get to Harrison Ford being on fire in Eliot, I promise. But first we need to lay some groundwork. Bear with me here.
What is The Possessed?
The Possessed is a made-for-TV horror movie released in 1977, and it’s not very good. As you may suspect based on the title it is a shameless rip-off of The Exorcist, a much better movie that came out five years prior. Generously, the narrative follows a faithless priest trying to repent for his sins by fighting off dark forces that are starting mysterious fires at an all-girls school in Salem, Oregon. It was directed by Jerry Thorpe, who never did anything really worth mentioning, and starred prolific tv-actor James Farentino and Golden Globe-winning actress Joan Hackett (According to an interview in The Oregonian, Hackett refused her role as the school’s headmistress “six times in a row” before finally giving in and just taking the damn part on the seventh offer for the sake of her career).
Harrison Ford, whose presence in this film I used to shamelessly clickbait you earlier, plays a minor (but VERY memorable) role as seemingly the only male teacher at the school. The Possessed was released only weeks prior to Star Wars, just in time for no one reviewing or promoting the film at the time to know or care who he was.
The Possessed was received negatively upon its release. A scathing review in the San Francisco Examiner remarked “The action took place in a private girls’ school which looked like a finishing school for $500 hookers. … the script was near incomprehensible, as though the actors were party to a secret too horrible to share with the viewer.” Variety criticized its mediocre special effects and vaporous narrative, writing, “What could possibly be more suitable for a non-controversial primetime drama than a floating, totally abstract evil? In seeking out and exorcizing the evil, formerly-dead Farentino knowingly says ‘I don’t know’ when pressed for any details.” The Possessed was (“unfortunately,” according to the Statesman Journal) filmed as the pilot for a potential tv-series adaptation. You will be unsurprised to learn that such a show never materialized.
And so The Possessed was lost and forgotten, disappearing from the hearts and minds of all who had seen it. But there is something worth remembering about the possessed, something that makes it fascinating to me specifically and maybe no one else: it was filmed at Reed.
Our Finishing School For $500 Hookers
In one of the first shots of the movie, we see the words “Helen Page School” imposed over a dark, barely recognizable view of the port of ODB. Soon, we see the second floor hallway of Eliot packed with a bunch of women riding around bikes in lazy circles, for some reason. The first time I watched The Possessed, during a scene that takes place inside ODB, one of my friends screamed in horror, “That’s where I brush my teeth!” The dawning realization that they really just filmed this at Reed provides a strange sense of euphoria that carries you, unnaturally buoyant, through the rest of the film. You get to see the pool, same as it’s ever been; a room in Anna Mann transformed into a high school infirmary, complete with dedicated burn unit; and the Amphitheater, with a naked, un-shrub-ified Canyon looming in the background. The film serves as an intriguing time capsule, a glimpse into the Reed of 1977 — different, but in many ways exactly the same. To the Reedie, it is impossible to forget that you are watching fiction when at every turn, you recognize a place you’ve stepped countless times. Especially when the film itself is slow, ponderous, and vague.
The Possessed filmed at Reed over seventeen days during Paideia of 1977, and according to a January 1977 Quest article discussing the matter, it was a complete shitshow. “The Campus was overrun with trucks, equipment, and personnel. Considerable damage was done to the lawns.” Furthermore, the shoot was poorly organized and went over-schedule, causing “unneeded chaos and displacement.” Despite a stipulation in Warner Bros’s contract with Reed that the filming would not block important pathways or interrupt regular school activities, it did just that. In fact, “On at least one instance the film crews entered a student’s dorm without permission and took considerable license with his belongings.” All this chaos and mismanagement created a heightened animosity between the student body and the shooting crew, to the extent that “the director literally bought off students getting in the way.”
The Quest blamed both Reed for failing to supervise the film crew properly, and the film crew itself for… well, sucking. Then-Reed President Paul Bragdon was apologetic about the fiasco — according to the article, the primary reason Reed was letting movies shoot on campus in the first place was due to pressure from the Oregon Governor’s office. Another film set to shoot on campus later that semester (1977’s First Love) had to hold a public meeting in the Student Union and send out a “Plea” to Reed’s community to trust that they were not quite as incompetent as those unfortunate individuals working on The Possessed.
Following the film’s release and failure, a review in the Statesman Journal remarked “It’s easy to see why Reed College insisted as part of its deal (no dirty hands to those fellows) that the school be left out of any publicity.”
The Possessed Is Terrible And Everyone Should Watch It
To be clear, I thoroughly enjoy watching The Possessed. It steps often enough into so-bad-it’s-good territory that one cannot help but be charmed by it, especially given its setting. Line readings are goofy and plot points are either nonexistent or nonsensical, and it’s always fun to point and laugh. When one of the characters expresses genuine concerns about the recent spate of spontaneous combustions to a cop, the cop replies, “You’re talkin’ crazy lady!” James Farentino’s priest character appears quite literally out of nowhere some twenty minutes in, never exhibits a single character trait, and then disappears at the end under equally miraculous circumstances. “Calling this movie ‘horror’ is a bit like calling carrot cake ‘healthy.’ I mean, I guess there are some elements there but when they’re all thrown together it’s a bit hard to tell,” said Taylor Bailey in a post on Reed’s now-defuct ResLife blog page, before declaring the movie, “a classic.”
Up until the last fifteen minutes or so of the film — where the movie reveals with very little buildup who “the possessed” was all along — the villain, as far as one can tell, is Evil Fire that just keeps showing up and burning people, which gets very silly very quick. These fires appear out of nowhere whenever the filmmakers realize the movie is getting boring (which is often), and all of them were filmed on location in Reed. One starts in the Chapel. Another inferno consumed the wall of an ODB dorm room. In the climax of The Possessed, James Farentino faces the apparently-possessed-now headmistress in the sports center pool; after she spits nails at him and vomits mysterious clear-red fluid on his face, he banishes the demon by hugging her. But in the process he too, is engulfed in Spontaneous Evil Flames; he drops into our lovely pool but instead of being doused, the entire pool lights up in a glorious inferno. You heard it here first folks: they set our fucking pool on fire.
Let me tell you, there are very few joys greater than watching the pool be consumed in a colossal burst of flame. But as the title of this article implies, there is one spontaneous combustion that stands in its notoriety head and shoulders above the rest: Harrison Ford’s.
Harrison Ford Is, Predictably, The Best Part Of The Movie
Harrison Ford plays a biology teacher who is introduced when he appears out of nowhere to easily put out one of the mysterious evil fires, after a whole entire chapel-full of women spent two minutes doing nothing but screaming and crying about it. In his next scene we see that his decor sensibilities seem to mostly consist of improper animal husbandry, as his classroom is full of exotic and wild animals in tiny, inhumane cages. Despite this, Harrison Ford (being Harrison Ford) is able to come off as mostly charming and not as creepy as he should, given the material he’s working with.
Quickly, one comes to understand that in The Possessed, Harrison Ford’s “Paul Winjam” (I had to look up his character’s name) walked so that Indiana Jones could run. In both instances Harrison Ford plays a suave, intelligent, glasses-wearing professor — but more saliently, both characters have a concerning propensity for dating their underage students. In fact, Ford’s character is leagues creepier than even his slimiest mainstream characters; he’s dating the school’s headmistress, and cheating on her with her niece who is a senior at the school. “Let’s go in the back room,” says Harrison Ford’s underage girlfriend in their one scene together, “And I’ll teach you about the chicken and the egg. Which comes first.” Wow, holy shit Harrison! What the fuck! This, to be clear, is the worst part of the movie — but luckily it immediately transforms into the best part of the movie, because IT HAPPENS.
Harrison Ford Gets Set On Fire And His Terrible Worm Of A Character Fucking Dies
There’s only one shot of Harrison Ford actually on fire. The others can be boiled down to movie magic, tricks of shot composition and stunt doubles. But there is one shot, one magical, glorious shot, of Harrison Ford standing in a classroom in Eliot Hall, with the right sleeve of his jacket undeniably in flames.
As far as I’ve been able to discern with extensive frame by frame analysis and a lot of wandering around Eliot Hall, Harrison Ford’s Flaming Hot Zoo must have been located in what is now Eliot 210, the College Relations/VP office. The actual classroom in question no longer exists, having been renovated into administrative offices in the ‘90s. The only hangup with this theory is that the entrance to this room seems to be a door to the left of the entrance of now-210, which is a little weird because such a door no longer exists nor have I been able to find evidence of one in any blueprints. (Whenever I try to explain this to people I sound like I’m going insane). But you believe me, right? You believe me. You have to believe me.
The Quest reached out to Harrison Ford’s publicist, hoping to interview him about his work on The Possessed, but for some reason no one’s gotten back to us yet.
Please For The Love Of God Watch This Movie So Someone Else Can Understand How It Makes Me Feel
The Possessed is not a cult film. No one cares about this movie anymore. No one remembers it. The only records of anyone discussing this film that remain are old newspaper clippings; the IMDB and Wikipedia pages are empty and barren. But in my heart this is the only cult film that matters. Because The Possessed is goofy, terrible, fascinating, and completely enthralling at every turn. Reed has a problem with failing to remember its history, and is this not history that deserves remembering?
So this Halloween, if you’re looking for a horror movie to watch, why not try The Possessed? Sure, it’s not scary, or even that good, but you’ll get to see the pool light on fire, and you’ll get to see ODB on fire, and you’ll also get to see Harrison Ford on fire for good measure. And even more importantly: next time you visit the College Affairs/VP Office, take a moment to recognize that you are standing on hallowed ground.
The Possessed is available on DVD at the IMC, and is definitely, absolutely not accessible for free online on YouTube, because pirating movies is illegal and wrong. The Possessed is best experienced with friends and while inebriated.