His Parents’ Roles in ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ Helped Joshua John Miller Find His Place as a Cult Filmmaker

Director Joshua John Miller’s “The Exorcism” opens nationwide June 21, but one theater showing it holds a particularly special place in his heart: Quentin Tarantino‘s Vista Theater in Hollywood. Not only will the Vista screen “The Exorcism” in 35mm, but Tarantino has programmed Russ Meyer‘s 1965 cult classic “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” as a midnight show following Miller’s film on June 21 and June 22. “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” stars Miller’s mother, Susan Bernard, who passed away five years ago, and “The Exorcism” is a film inspired by his father, Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in “The Exorcist” and ended up working in lower-budget horror films like “Mommy” and “The Eternal.”

In “The Exorcism,” Russell Crowe plays an actor with a troubled past who sees a shot at redemption in a new role as a priest in a remake of a famous horror film — unnamed in Miller and M.A. Fortin’s script, but clearly “The Exorcist.” Strange accidents plague the shoot, however, and Crowe’s character begins to unravel, the seeming victim of possession himself. The movie cleverly riffs on the stories Miller (and every other horror fan) heard his whole life about “The Exorcist” allegedly being a cursed film, though the greatness of “The Exorcism” is the way that it gets at something deeper; in its penetrating character study of an actor coming apart, it plays like a horror version of John Cassavetes’ “Opening Night,” something Miller says was entirely intentional.

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“People have asked, ‘Were there cursed events on the set of “The Exorcist,” and how was your father adversely affected by this mythology?'” Miller told IndieWire. “And I would say fame was his biggest curse.” The same year that “The Exorcist” was released, Miller won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his play “That Championship Season,” when just a few years earlier he had been selling plasma to help support his family. “That supernova effect created a shadow that was almost impossible to get out from under, and I think that haunted him deeply. After ‘The Exorcist,’ he very much wanted to make a movie of his play, and that was a Herculean effort that never came to pass in the way that he imagined. It was a disaster in terms of how he imagined its success, and I think that haunted him as well.”

Jason Miller’s despair over never being able to live up to his early successes ultimately haunted not only him but his entire family as he succumbed to alcoholism and drug addiction, much like Crowe’s character in “The Exorcism.” “Sometimes it’s hard to have empathy when you’re the child of an addict,” Miller said. “You’re mostly just pissed off. But over the years, you grow up and realize your dad could be both good and bad. The two things can coexist. This was a movie that was an attempt to paint a portrait of somebody who always seemed deeply tortured to me by regrets and this avalanche of bad choices. The mythology of the cursed movie was just the icing on the cake — I was really much more interested in that subterranean psychological warfare that was going on inside of him.”

While “The Exorcism” is a tribute to his father, Miller’s previous screenplay “The Final Girls” was a love letter to his mother, whose role in “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” came as a surprise to Miller when he was a teenager. “The first time I heard about that movie was when a friend came up to me in high school and said, ‘I saw your mom in an X-rated movie,'” Miller said. “I went to the video store and they wouldn’t let me rent it because it was X-rated — technically unrated, but they were calling it X-rated. I went to my mom and said, ‘You’re in a movie that’s X-rated?’ She said, ‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this,’ and I was sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, my mom was a porn star?'”

FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, from left: Sue Bernard, Paul Trinka, Tura Satana, 1965
‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’Everett Collection

Bernard explained to her son that the movie was not pornography but a piece of art celebrating female sexuality. “She said, ‘Russ had a vision and I want you to see it. It’s a beautiful movie,'” Miller said. “I watched it and fell in love with it, and I still love it. As a queer person, I think there’s a reason why queer people love his films. There’s such a revolt against any kind of heteronormative portrayal of sexuality that you feel like, oh, this is a queer-friendly space. The women are so empowered, and there are shades of lesbianism as well. Russ showed that there’s a place for transgressive cinema and that you can work outside the system and create your own empire, no matter how small or big that is. He said, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do and I don’t want to join the system. I’m going to be punk rock and I’m going to go make my movies over here.'”

That example helped Miller find his own place as a transgressive filmmaker and embrace his genre roots as a child actor in films like “Near Dark,” “Class of 1999,” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” “As a kid actor, all I ever wanted was to be on a TV show,” Miller said. “I didn’t really have a conventional family, so somehow being a kid in a family on ABC seemed like the perfect way to have one. But no one would cast me because I guess I seemed like I would just kill everybody. So I got cast in movies as a vampire, as a murderer.” Eventually, Miller realized that the world of horror and B-movies was not something to run from but something to celebrate. “It took time for me to realize, this is where I belong, and these people are my tribe.”

In keeping with that spirit, Miller says that for his next film, he’ll probably go back to something a little lower budget and outside the system than “The Exorcism.” “I think that’s where I belong,” he said. For now, he’s just thrilled to share the Vista with his mom on opening weekend and honor the legacy of B-movies that he inherited from her and his father. “I love watching my mom in that movie and realizing that she came to terms with the fact that she was part of something really cool as opposed to something to be embarrassed by. It’s a bit supernatural that opening night falls on the five-year anniversary of her passing, but she’ll be somewhere in the building on celluloid.”

“The Exorcism” opens on Friday, June 21.

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