Remembering Repossessed, The Largely Forgotten Exorcist Spoof That's Way Better Than It Should Be

There has long been a grave misunderstanding of the spoof movie, a genre that takes one movie or cinematic trend and recreates it while mocking it mercilessly. It's easy to write off comedy staples like "Airplane!" and "Spaceballs" as delivery systems for silly non-stop gags, and sure enough, they absolutely are. But at its best, the spoof genre is much more insidious.

Most great spoof movies don't just mock something popular, they mock something serious. "Top Gun" is a self-serious motion picture, one that's seemingly unaware or at least uncritical of its own artificiality and jingoism. Fans of "Top Gun" may laugh at the film's funnier moments but the film itself is not to be laughed at. That's why a film like "Hot Shots!" is such a delight. The jokes are absurd and rapid-fire, but they're all aimed at taking a movie that set itself on a pedestal down a bit and reminding us all not to fall for false idols, in real life or at the cinema.

Many of the best spoof movies are now considered classics, but the less popular installments in the genre tend to get overlooked, and sometimes that's a real pity. An example of this is Bob Logan's 1990 comedy "Repossessed" which isn't just a very funny, albeit somewhat dated motion picture. Looking back, it's a refreshing send-up of both the exorcism genre and religion in the mass media, starring the original demon herself, Linda Blair, who seems to be exorcising some demons of her own.

Punnin' with the devil

"Repossessed" stars Linda Blair, who played Regan MacNeil in William Friedkin's "The Exorcist." She doesn't technically play Regan in the spoof but she does play a woman named Nancy who was possessed as a child and now fears she's been possessed again, or "repossessed." Regan + Nancy = Nancy Reagan. On one hand, that's one of the many topical jokes in "Repossessed" that risks going over the heads of contemporary audiences, but either way, the movie is making it clear that she's the same character with a different name.

After vomiting pea soup all over her family ("Smooth or chunky?" her doctor asks), she realizes that she's got all the signs of another demonic possession. This time the devil flew into her soul while she was watching a popular TV program, "The Ernest and Fanny Miracle Hour," a not-at-all veiled mockery of the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker televangelism movement. When she turns to a naive young priest, Father Brophy (Anthony Starke), for an exorcism, the Vatican agrees to let those televangelists — Ernest and Fanny Ray, played by Ned Beatty and Lana Schwab — perform the rites on live television, giving the devil exactly the kind of worldwide exposure they want.

In the end, it's up to Father Mayii (Leslie Nielsen), who says "You may" every time another character says his name, to come out of retirement and defeat the devil once again. This time he uses the power of rock 'n' roll, which doesn't make a lot of sense but does give spoof superstar Nielsen an opportunity to recreate music video moments from Elton John and Robert Palmer, which clearly the world needed, and needed badly.

Confession(al)s of a humorous mind

When "Repossessed" is funny it is extremely funny, and sometimes the jokes are enjoyably random. There's a scene where two characters back into a driveway, ignoring a sign that warns about "severe tire damage." Dozens of tires then rain on their car from the sky. Later, during an establishing shot of the exterior of a building, a nun pops her head out the window to say the protagonist is a few windows to the right, and the camera adjusts accordingly.

But not all the jokes land, especially in the second half, and as with many old comedies with a high gag ratio, there are some really gag-worthy moments that play worse today than ever. The film doesn't rely on them, thank goodness, but you'll find some crappy gay panic jokes and racist caricatures in "Repossessed." It's not a film without flaws.

And yet, it's also not a film without intelligence. The story of "Repossessed" isn't the spoof movie standard, typically a loose remake of the original source material. By framing the film as a sequel, writer/director Bob Logan gave himself an opportunity to update the religious critiques from "The Exorcist," and highlight what a parody the modern religious zeitgeist had already become. If William Friedkin's film was fascinated by how an increasingly secular society would confront the genuinely spiritual, "Repossessed" considers how a newly supercharged but hypocritical religious movement would respond to genuine spirituality. There's a nugget of truth in the way so-called religious leaders in "Repossessed" are confused by the existence of evil because it never occurred to them that there was actual comeuppance for their hypocrisy.

That the devil infects the audience through televangelism shows and seeks to boost their ratings to corrupt more souls, isn't itself a subtle commentary. "Repossessed" doesn't just spoof "The Exorcist," it also reframes the film's original argument ... then spoofs that too for good measure.

The Blair wit project

The other reason why "Repossessed" feels special is that Linda Blair completely throws herself into this part. Tom Cruise didn't star in "Hot Shots!" and Neve Campbell didn't star in "Scary Movie," but Linda Blair jumped back into the role that had come to define her career, not so much for better and often much, much worse. In the process she not only cathartically exorcises that personal demon and sets it (and the film stock) on fire, but she also proves that she's a gifted comedian, in a film that by all accounts should have been a comeback.

Acting opposite Leslie Nielsen, whose deadpan comic persona revitalized his own career after the blockbuster success of "Airplane!" and the "Naked Gun" franchise, Blair demonstrates flawless comic timing through "Repossessed," even when the jokes are beneath her. The glee with which she rips through the role that once made her a household name, a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination when she was only 15 (she lost to Tatum O'Neal, who was only 10), is admirable. Her career didn't get a (much deserved) boost after "Repossessed," but looking back, it's clear that Blair completely understood the assignment.

The makers of "Repossessed" showed up to work to lampoon "The Exorcist," and mercilessly, and take a few shots at the religious themes that William Friedkin's original couldn't have seen coming, but which were also on everyone's mind in 1990. So although some of the jokes are dated, most are funny — Oliver North running his church confession by his attorney is mercilessly sharp — and the movie still works on multiple levels. 

Sure, "Repossessed" may not be one of the great spoof films, but that doesn't mean it isn't pretty great.