In 1977 – nearly 3 1/2 years after the release of The Exorcist (1973) and just a few months before its impossibly awful sequel – came Audrey Rose. Based on Frank De Felitta’s pulpy best-seller (“The novel of reincarnation”), it had a great cast and did reasonably well at the box office.
And it’s a rip-off. A film made very obviously to remind you of something else. But you can love a rip-off, and Audrey Rose is one of them.
A LITTLE PLOT MUSIC
Audrey Rose tells the story of Bill (John Beck) and Janice Templeton (Marsha Mason) and their 11-year-old daughter, Ivy (Susan Swift). Their idyllic life is shattered by Elliott Hoover (Anthony Hopkins), a man who believes Ivy possesses the spirit of his own daughter, Audrey Rose. But who does Ivy really belong to? It takes a touch of courtroom drama and regression hypnosis to answer. 
At its worst, Audrey Rose is derivative. At its
best, it’s mostly the same. Not only is that okay, it says a
whole heck of a lot about horror, why we love it, and why we keep coming back
THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
What makes for a great rip-off? In the case of Audrey Rose, thematic similarities, the right casting with some of the best actors you can find, some good old-fashioned script theft – and a pathos that’s uniquely its own.
Audrey Rose’s central alignment with The Exorcist is the supernatural. Writer Frank De Felitta and director Robert Wise place their faith in the efforts of a lazy public: Is reincarnation the same as possession? Eh, close enough. So what’s the cure? Both films depict mothers who abandon modern medicine (Drs. Kaplan and Klein) in favor of “witch doctors” (gurus and priests). In Audrey Rose, the pendulum swings back – driven by a father’s choice. Ivy’s hypnosis to prove the existence of Audrey Rose costs her: her life. Regan’s simply costs her therapist his balls.
As a bonus, both films also check all the right boxes of feminine horror.
You’re a young girl coming of age and that can only mean one thing: The shit’s about to hit the fan. You haven’t been feeling like yourself lately, and your relationship with your mother is about to change. Oh – and by the way – you are about to have the worst birthday ever, and your bedroom is ground zero.
With the heavy lifting done, Audrey Rose ices the cake – straight up drafting The Exorcist script and some of its most memorable lines:
THE EXORCIST: “My bed was shaking. I can’t get to sleep.”
AUDREY ROSE: “Mom, I don’t feel well.”
THE EXORCIST: “Mother what’s wrong with me? It’s just nerves, like the doctor said.”
AUDREY ROSE: “So I am a freak – the girls are right! No, it does not mean you are a freak.”
THE EXORCIST: “Did you see her or not! She’s acting like she’s fucking out of her mind psychotic…!”
AUDREY ROSE: “My daughter is not possessed!”
It’s the stuff trailers are made of.
Throw in some other cues (framed black and white headshots of Ivy and Regan), gargoyle gutters puking rain (Pazuzu, is that you?), and creepy tales of the Dybbuk and the deal is sealed. But reincarnation is not possession, and it’s here that Audrey Rose distinguishes itself from The Exorcist in some beautiful ways – as an individual film and as a type.
WHAT AUDREY DOES WELL
If you’re going to make yourself a rip-off, cast Anthony Hopkins and Marsha Mason. Hopkins would follow Audrey Rose with Magic (1978), another unsung horror classic. The power and vulnerability of these performances makes you wonder how he survived the ’70s without collapsing from emotional exhaustion. Mason too is phenomenal – distraught, weary and hysterical. A loving and anguished mother whose character may lack the edge of Chris O’Neill, but not the power. Together, their wide-open portrayals act as mirrors, then gateways – reflecting and inviting an emotional experience.
There are nice turns too from John Beck and a host of other 70s character actors: John Hillman (pre-Magnum, P.I.) and Robert Walden who delivers one of the film’s jump scares (“Audrey Rose LIVES! She LIVES!”) as he defends Hopkins from kidnapping charges.
Finally, there’s Ivy. Susan Swift is no Linda Blair. But she’s empathetic, has a sweet screen presence, and does a particularly nice job with her character’s regression scenes. Her freakouts don’t come close to Regan’s head-spinning glory. But this is the after-school special version. And that’s okay.
Audrey Rose has some standout images as well, including the freeze frames on Hopkins’ face as the story arcs in its major directions – from faux-possession tale to courtroom drama to East-West showdown. It also offers one of the greatest visuals in horror. In the film’s opening fatal crash, we see Audrey – swirling yet frozen in the back seat amid the turbulent whip of her long black hair as the car tumbles end over end. It’s hard not to think of Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) and how Butterfly meets her end.
THIS IS NOT THE END
But it’s in the exploration of reincarnation that Audrey Rose carves unique space – in narrative and storytelling. Hopkins’ grieving father is moving as he tells of losing his daughter and finding her in Ivy. He meets her first in grief and later in peace as Ivy seeks his comfort. Between them there is love.
Audrey’s reincarnation – and perhaps all of ours – is a “rebirth in new bodies or forms of life.” 
We keep coming back until we get it right. Kind of like we do with horror, watching the same films – or their sequels – over and over and over again. Why? Because familiarity is a feeling.
In her essay On Nostalgia, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson  writes about the human need to retread the past, to lock yourself in a room and feed yourself memories: Make me feel the way I did before.
Movies that trigger emotions in a singular way trigger repeated viewings. It’s our way of telling the universe: Roll the tape. I know how I want to feel tonight. Other genres inspire this (Westerns, rom-coms, etc.) but horror does it best. And each time, we bring a different version of our form to the experience.
Stephen King says that horror shines because it’s “assaultive” – even though that feeling doesn’t last.” 
The shelf life of horror films is limited in terms of the emotional response of the viewer. The first time…you’re absolutely riveted. The second time you’re scared. The third time, the film has lost something essential that it had the first time. Now, people continue to go back…but what they’re experiencing isn’t horror at that point. It’s the memory of the horror.
And still we come back. The Exorcist is one of the finest films ever made, horror or otherwise. Because it is, lesser versions can exist and be worthy in their own right. And there’s something else. Even the most hardcore horror fan wants something kinder and gentler from time to time. Audrey Rose does that. It pivots from possession to reincarnation, wraps it in wax paper, and puts it safe in your hand like a candy apple or a fried pie at the state fair. Tons of people did not, could not and still cannot bring themselves to watch The Exorcist, a class of movie King calls “demon-coasters.” 
Even I can’t watch The Exorcist every night, but Audrey Rose I probably can. Audrey makes it easy for me to keep me coming back.
 Decades later, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) —no relation — would pull off both – terrifying demonic possession and powerful courtroom drama.
 Merriam-Webster: www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reincarnation
 Passages North, Issue 37. www.passagesnorth.com/on-nostalgia/  A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau, performance by Stephen King. Turner Classic Movies (TCM), 2011.
 A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau, performance by Stephen King. Turner Classic Movies (TCM), 2011.