The Exorcist

Friday, October 19th, 2007 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

1973 (*****)

Nominated for ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor) and awarded two (Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay), The Exorcist cannot reasonably be excluded from any “Masterpiece Series.” This was a truly revolutionary horror movie, the first legitimate ‘blockbuster” of the genre as well as the first to receive the kind of critical renown and multiple honors that are generally reserved for more “legitimate” mainstream dramas. In December of 1973, everyone saw The Exorcist (forming lines around the block and famously fainting or collapsing from the intensity of the experience), and everyone (from effete cocktail party attendees to suburban newspaper editorialists to political figures) had something to say about what it was and what it meant.

It can be difficult to understand, today, what an explosive context 1970s American cinema was, or to envision the cultural impact that movies like The Godfather, Star Wars and The Exorcist had in their day. The Star Wars phenomenon is something we all remember, of course, but it’s important to bear in mind that Lucas’ triumph was entirely of a piece with the other movies I’ve mentioned; this was the decade that the modern blockbuster was essentially invented, and the juxtaposition of post-’Sixties countercultural influences, incredible technical advances in filmmaking, a brand new sensibility among young film-school prodigies like Scorsese and Coppola (not to mention a maturing “media” climate that allowed for unprecedented sophistication in the cross-marketing and translation of bestselling books into A-list movie properties) all made for an explosive revolution in mainstream filmmaking that we’re still experiencing the repercussions of thirty years later.

Like The Godfather, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was a notoriously popular and controversial hack bestseller that was understood to have little literary merit but to contain provocative, risqué ideas that grabbed readers’ imaginations in an unusually deep way that went beyond their mere prurient or sensationalistic interest. Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, was a terrible hack, but, as Pauline Kael notably pointed out, “there was a Promethian spark in his trash,” and Paramount Pictures’ decision to entrust the inevitable big-budget adaptation of his crime saga to 31-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, an untested USC Film School graduate (on the thinking that he was both cheap and Italian, which would forestall the inevitable attacks from the Italo-American community) was the equivalent of striking gold in the California hills in the 1870s. The Godfather succeeds overwhelmingly because Coppola understood how to meld pulp-fiction storytelling with both the history of crime films—the beloved Jimmy Cagney archetypes from the past—and with the most cutting edge, post-French-New-Wave high standards of photography, production and (especially) the current breakthrough trends in naturalistic acting. The result was practically a miracle of filmmaking: the most popular movie ever made to date as well as one of the most honored and critically revered. The Exorcist, released a year later, is almost exactly the same kind of thing: a schlock #1 bestseller transformed into high art while losing none of its lowbrow pulp value, thanks to groundbreaking technical achievements and a director’s keen sensibility (in this case, a deep understanding of the horror form).

Director William Friedkin had performed a similar trick with The French Connection (1969), a gritty police procedural “buddy cop” movie that somehow managed to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Gene Hackman). The importance of Friedkin’s technique in the explosive success of The Exorcist is difficult to overestimate. In the years since I last watched the movie (and the previous viewing was of a primitive VHS pan-and-scan edition with mono sound) I’ve become much more familiar with The French Connection and I can now see tremendous similarities between the two movies: the razor-sharp photography; the clean, documentary style; the ferociously effective tension and pacing, the masterful (Oscar-winning) control of sound, and, especially, the superlative acting. Friedkin understands that an elevated-pulp movie must seem real—must explore the question of what it would be like if these events actually happened in our familiar world—and furthermore grasps that the performances are the key to this. Ellen Burstyn (whom modern audiences probably know best from Requiem for a Dream) delivers the breakout performance here, as the decadent Hollywood actress whose daughter is possessed by a demon—her acting is probably the most important element in the movie’s success—and Max Von Sydow (whom audiences appropriately associated with more than ten collaborations with fellow-Swede Ingmar Bergman, occasionally portraying direct confrontations with the Devil), Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Jason Miller and aging character actor Lee J. Cobb all contribute to the movie’s unusual emotional depth and power.

Like The French Connection, The Exorcist opens with an inexplicable overseas prologue, this time (intriguingly) in Northern Iraq: aging Catholic priest Lankaster Merrin (Von Sydow) finds an ancient talisman at an archeological dig and hints obliquely at its theological implications. There are no Spielberg-style pyrotechnics: instead, the only “effect” is a monastery’s wall clock which abruptly stops running with its pendulum in mid-swing. This is the first of many subtle, suggestive touches that make the first hour of the movie so engrossing and suspenseful, as the story moves to swank Georgetown, VA, where wealthy and famous Hollywood star Chris MacNeil (Burstyn), who is either divorced or separated, has relocated for purposes of shooting a high-profile film (apparently a drama about “student unrest” in which MacNeil’s character yells into a bullhorn at campus protestors about the importance of “working within the system”).

MacNeil’s precocious and loveable pre-teen daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is beginning to show signs of the mysterious affliction that will soon grow to overwhelming and horrifying dimensions, but Friedkin maintains a taut, low-key approach during these early scenes. In strict contrast to The Omen (or, really, nearly every “haunted kid” movie), nothing happens for nearly an hour, yet the viewer does not mind in the least, as the super-realistic texture of the movie both introduces the main characters and their decadent Washington lifestyle and provides increasingly unnerving hints of the horrors to come. Regan admits to playing with a toy Ouija board she’s found in the basement, which she blithely explains that she has been using (by herself) to communicate with “Captain Howdy,” an imaginary friend who seems to know a great deal more than he should. The planchette’s sudden twitching movements as it glides beneath Regan’s fingers are as unsettling as the aforementioned stopped clock, as are Regan’s increasingly foul mouth, feverishness and tendancy towards erratic behavior: when she descends the stairs in her nightgown during a formal cocktail party, tells an Apollo astronaut guest that he’s “going to die up there” while urinating on the carpet, Chris begins to realize that something is seriously wrong with her daughter and begins to take action to help her.

Meanwhile, intercut New-York-based sequences have introduced Damien Karras (Miller), a Harvard- and Johns-Hopkins-trained psychiatrist-turned-priest whose faltering faith is increasingly challenged by his destitute circumstances and by his dying Italian mother’s suffering. These languidly-paced scenes are moving and engrossing, abandoning all “horror movie” mechanisms, except one: After removing his mother from the asylum where she’s been placed by social workers (since there’s no money for proper medical treatment), Karras has a dream in which his mother calls to him from a subway entrance:

But, for just a few frames, we see this:

Remember that the ’Seventies marked a burgeoning fascination with “subliminal images” (which were shown to increase the effectiveness of advertising and were subsequently banned) and Friedkin’s masterful control of the technique (along with the Oscar-winning sound editing and effects) make as much of a difference in the movie’s power as corresponding digital innovations do today. But the growing unease such techniques provoke never outweighs the humanism and soulfulness of the character-based drama, as the story returns to Chris MacNeil and her increasingly desperate (and expensive) dealings with the medical community in order to find out why her daughter “seems to have a split personality” and is showing signs of what doctors identify as a “cerebral lesion” (that somehow does not appear on any CAT scans or X-rays).

Ellyn Burstyn’s performance in these scenes tears the movie screen off the wall. Her screams of fear and impotent rage at the increasingly baffled medical specialists (including a renowned hypnotist who succeeds, in a spellbinding scene, in briefly making contact with the other identity that Regan still calls “Captain Howdy”) are pitched at a level of realism and pathos that’s unmatched in any horror movie I’ve ever seen. As the doctors inexorably and reluctantly gravitate towards suggesting that MacNeil consider turning to the church for help, and the movie begins accelerating towards its final, terrifying and searing twenty minutes (in which the fates of Father Merrin, Father Karras, and Chris and Regan MacNeil will be drawn together), Burstyn’s simultaneous terror, grief and unquenchable parental love (while Regan famously masturbates with a crucifix, screeching for Jesus to fuck her, while telekinetically slamming the furniture against the walls and her mother’s face) are nearly unbearable in their intensity and horror.

The exorcism (for which the bedroom set was reconstructed within an industrial freezer to provide realistic fogging breath around the shivering actors) is the climax not just of this harrowing story but of the thematic elements that elevate the movie into the realm of genuine social commentary (as was not overlooked at the time). Father Karras’ confrontation with a demonic incarnation of his dead mother (“You’re not my mother!” he rages) and Father Merrin’s weakened yet majestic re-discovery of his core faith reinforce the latent effects of what’s come before; the Godless and confused world these characters inhabit and the reservoirs of courage and hope they exhibit in the face of overwhelming terror and despair. The Exorcist is a brutal experience, to be sure, but its core values are anything but nihilistic.

“What is this movie about?” Stephen King asked, positing answers involving the turbulent times it’s set in (and, particularly, society’s growing fear of the unsettling power of its own rebellious youth) and the meaning of faith in an uncertain world, but I think the answers are simpler. “Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?” Roger Ebert worried in his December 1973 review. But (as the decades since the 1970s film renaissance have shown) everyone needs movies of this intensity, regardless of their subject matter or their specific attributes. “You get from this movie what you bring to it,” Friedkin has said; it’s a Rorschach blot that was made for its era but is just as intriguing and effective today. The power of film as a narrative art that functions on a sensory, sensual level is (as we all know) particularly evident in good horror movies—and The Exorcist is among the very best.