The Exorcist (USA, 1973, William Friedkin)
Don't Try This at Home, Kids
Wherein two atheists explore just how The Exorcist manages to work its hocus pocus on us.
I was surprised at how intelligent this film is. I know that it is classified as a "horror" picture and it is supposed to be scary. But I think this is marketing gloss. It does not partake of the classic, gothic, monster genre that is horror proper. And it does not tap into the psycho, slasher, terror trip either. While the former is high art compared to the latter, both of them build fear on suspense which in turn is conditional on the threat of moving bodies coming into some degree of violent contact. In other words, whatever the sinister premise, the name of the game is some type of bad action. In more sophistocated horror, just as with higher quality erotica, most of this action is not literally shown but consantly suggested at as a potential. This is given stylistic expression with cool shadows and tight shots and creepy music. The Exorcist does rely on these devices in a few scenes, but not very often. This is because The Exorcist is not built upon the rising momentum of a potential threat, the fear of bad action to come. No, the horror in The Exorcist is conceptual. Good vs. evil, good ol' Catholic style. No doubt, there are some disturbing images, yikes! But just like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, it is not the images themsevles but the IDEA behind them that upsets us so.
Given the commodified infamy of the film, I was aware of some of it's most notorious scenes. I was prepared to see her head spin around, to see her vomit alien substances on people and most of all, fuck herself bloody with the cross. It's all still pretty harsh. But obviously my foreknowledge undermined the shock factor. A scene I didn't know about which was cut from the original release is her high speed crab walk down the stairs, which climaxes with her barfing blood. That caught me off guard! In general though, all the profanities she utters, her many nasty voices, the lacerations on her face and such, for me this was really rude but not too upsetting. I think this contributes to my appreciation of the film working as a head trip. The film did not shock me and as I personally am not susceptible to it's metaphysic it did not actually frighten me. But it's extremely disturbing nonetheless.
Why? Not just because it's gross. What makes the film, and probably the book before it, disturbing is the way it methodically overcomes our modern, secular, scientific assumptions - our rational defences - to compel us to accept a medival Christian worldview. I do not mean "accept" at the level of personal belief forever after the credits role. I mean accept in the narrative. Given the information presented to us, we do not have to suspend disbelief in order to accept the story. For Christ's sake - the chick is possessed! There is no doubt whatsoever in our minds. It is a fact. All that remains is to see how the battle between good and evil will play itself out this time. The Exorcist has a happy ending, with a few sacrifices along the way, and certainly, it would have terrified folks even more if it hadn't. But it doesn't matter either way because the power of the thing comes from it's theological perspective in the first place. This perspective is not a premise in the film. It is not simply posited. If it had been, any story constructed on it would have been silly and not scary. On the contrary, it is this Christian point of view - and Dark Ages Christian at that - which The Exorcist earns, forces us to adopt, overpowering all of our secure and certain sensibility that this is all a load of superstition. And this analysis is not just pertinent to the atheist camp. It is even more on target for the contemporary Christian. The Exorcist does not need anyone to have faith or not have faith in God. The Exorcist is all about making us believe in The Devil.
In addition to being intelligent, the film is one hell of a drama. Great cast, solid performances, (whatever happened to Jason Miller, the young Italian priest?) There are some good shots but even more, it is well cut together with respect to pacing. The film is actually slow moving, but it really breaths along the way, the intensity growing all the time. Most effective of all for me, and related to my take about the film fundamentally not relying on action, the basic immobility of the girl in her bed. They address the issue of her incarceration in the dialogue, explaining that the devil could easily break free but where's the evil fun in that? This is not entirely satisfactory but it is not a big stretch given the minimal applications of physical power demonstrated by the devil throughout. The bed bounces, a dresser drawer pops out, knick-knacks fly around in a storm, it's all quite slight, not exactly the ripping open of the earth. This hooks up with the head trip of it all. Because the whole point is that we are encountering evil in a specific location, concretely manifested, literally embodied. This is absolutely essential. The devil could be anywhere but he is not everywhere, watch out Eve, he's in the snake. Well, this time, it's watch out folks, he's in that little girl, over there, in that room and no other. All of the drama of The Exorcist rests on this and the film works because, well, it is our moral duty to go in there, isn't it? As freaky as it is, it makes sense to cut the staircase crab walk from the film. Anytime she is out of that room we are out of danger. (Besides, how the heck did they ever get her back into bed?) The antithesis of this is the moment which for me is truly the most nerve-wracking, when the young priest re-enters the room to find the old priest dead on the floor and - here's the moment - the little girl just sitting there on the edge of the bed... just sitting there. That the point. The Devil is not going away, will not be moved, is here to stay. A far cry from an army of vampires marching on your town or Jamie Lee Curtis running away from a hacksaw bolted to an outboard motor.
Not as subtle as Rosemary's Baby but still very intelligent and let's face it, the ghastly bits are justly famous.
You make a very good point about the film's ability to convince us that there really is no other alternative, that this little angel-faced girl is possessed. This is a film that requires you to take its theology seriously; as you note, you don't need to convert to Catholicism, but you must grant that the film has created a world wherein Satanic possessions can and most certainly do occur. One of the ways that the filmmakers manage this is by eliminating all scientific explanations for Regan's ailment by running poor Regan through a battery of vicious tests. Indeed, I believe that I told you that these tests freaked me out just about as much as any of the hocus pokus in her bedroom. There's something almost cruel about the coldness of the clinicians and their clunkety-clunking diagnostic machinery, and it gives me the creeping willies every time. You can tell the movie has won you to its point of view when, even though Father Karas is a psychiatrist who seeks a medical explanation for what ails Regan, we know that he is, this supposed man of science who has lost his faith, the one who is ignoring the empirical evidence.
But you are certainly correct when you note that this is not a standard horror film. It does not rush to shock and (yes) horrify us, but rather takes its sweet time, giving us a plausible situation, developing interesting characters, establishing the appropriate mood. The filmmakers give us the sorta details--snippets of conversation, quiet moments between family and friends--you generally don't encounter in horror films. In his review Roger Ebert talks about having dissected the film frame by frame with the film's cinematographer Owen Roizman and realizing that the film is "more horrifying because it does not seem to want to be."
As for your observation that the spiderwalk scene is an unnecessary distraction, and in fact a bit detrimental to the film's atmosphere, well, I thought it was an effectively jolting image. But you are probably right in noting that by taking us out of Regan's bedroom, we lose that sense of claustrophia that is so important to the film's mood. Evil doesn't need to crabwalk down the stairs to freak us out; it is more chilling when it just sits and waits.
Now, it turns out that I wrote a review of this latest version of the film. Yes, another review that I forgot I had written. But anyways, early onset dementia aside, I will share it with you now:
"A new millennium - a new Exorcist. Well, if nothing else, the re-release of the nouveau-gothic mannerisms of William Peter Blatty's novel, so effectively adapted to the screen by director William Friedkin, will provide an opportunity for a generation jaded by increasingly gruesome and gratuitous slasher flicks a chance to see how it can be done without sacrificing the crafty build up of suspense and subtle development of character.
Unlike films that rush to the gore, The Exorcist unwinds quietly while Friedkin calmly applies the screws to us. He devotes considerable energy to the development of his characters, especially Father Damien Karras. This role is portrayed perfectly by the sad-eyed, craggy-faced Jason Miller; it is his sense of guilt in his mother's death, combined with his growing crisis of faith that provides the film with its spiritual and emotional depth.
It is testament to Friedkin's considerable talents that the film rises far above its b-movie horror roots creating a template for all future horror films with ambitions to greatness. Owen Roizman's remarkable cinematography, all shadows-and-foggily evocative of the early great German impressionist horror films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is key to creating and maintaining the film's spookiness. Mike Oldfield's riveting Tubular Bells score, which has since become a central part of our musical landscape, heightens the creepiness.
The Exorcist, of course, is most often cited (by fans and critics alike) because of the scenes depicting Regan's possession. While recurring claims that this is the "scariest movie of all time" are highly debatable, there can be little doubt that this remains one of cinema's most shocking and wrenching experiences. The special effects, which are key to creating half a dozen scenes that have entered film lore, retain every bit of their enormous initial impact.
The Y2K edition of The Exorcist boasts several new scenes, some useful, some not. There is some explanatory material added during Regan's medical testing that gives us some helpful information about these procedures. Later, Friedkin grafts in a scene where Regan crabwalks across the ceiling, adding to the film's already lengthy list of jolters. However, the film's "new ending" is certainly also this new edition's biggest mistake. Attempting to parallel an earlier scene between Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Karras, the ending in this director's cut witnesses an exchange between Kinderman and Father Dyer that can best be described as a painful attempt at humour. When Kinderman and Karras joke mid-film, we chuckle nervously, happy to be given a chance to catch our breath in preparation for the rapid and vicious decent into horror that follows. However, this is out of place at the film's end. Not only does it mess with the original conclusion, which strikes just the right note of closure, but it also appears when the audience's emotional energy has been completely spent. Who will have the oomph to raise more than a weak smile?
Despite this stumble at the end, The Exorcist remains a film of considerable potency, one which forever raised the horror genre's bar so high that few since have dared respond to the challenge."
I guess the truth of most films of this ilk is that they tap into that basic dread that there are always going to be things in this world that we cannot explain through science, that there are some matters beyond the reach of empericism and rationality, that we are not yet the gods we set ourselves up to be. The film takes it for granted that Evil is not merely hypothetical, not simply an idea lurking in our hearts, but an entity that can enter into any one of us at any time, and there' s not jack shit we can do about it. The filmmaker's take this stuff seriously, and don't undercut their story with even a hint of post-modern cleverness or scepticism, but, of course, if audiences don't worry much about that sorta stuff, the film's going to struggle to work its mojo on them. That said, I'm hardly a fellow traveller, and the film still gives me the shivers.
Oh, by the way, you ask what happened to Jason Miller (Father Karas), and all I can tell you is that, now in his late 60s, he is still making movies. It's just that they're the sorta movies that neither you nor I would bother to see.
Yes, I remember you telling me about how much the medical testing bothered you. Part of this is blatantly visceral and empathetic. The medical technologies and procedures as applied to our little girl do not strike us as "modern," in the good sense of being the latest and the best that science has to offer. It's all a tad Brazil-like and feels to us the opposite of modern, barbaric. This discredits science as such and paves the way for the theological view, as we have both emphasized. But more at the gut level, it takes us back to barbarism historically, to Medievalism generally. For all the good today's doctors are doing her, they may as well be dropping leeches on that sweet virgin. (Actually, there is some scientific merit to leeches but you get my point.) No wonder The Church has a better handle on what the hell is going on. And no wonder Dan Jardine is so bothered by the medical scenes in The Exorcist. It's not just that our faith in science is being undermined. It's that we are going back in time, as it were, to the pre-scientific era when everyone and everything stood in awe of God... except The Devil.
Sometimes you capture in a phrase or even a word what I have spent at least a paragraph trying to explicate. On this occassion, however, "claustrophobic" is not working for me. We are not trapped in an enclosed space. The door works just fine. We can come and go, and indeed we do as the camera takes us out of the room into the rest of the house, out of the house into the rest of the city, out of Georgetown to New York. So, the fear is not one of entrapment. Quite the opposite, it is ethical responsibility that drives us to such-and-such a spot to slay the dragon. The horror has to do with the nature of the dragon itself. Wowza, this ain't any ol' dragon. In fact, there are no such things as dragons. This is the REAL devil. No longer a potential everywhere, he's here and now in this sui generis individual... who is not going anywhere.
The crabwalk most certainly is an effective scene and I can see why Friedkin restored it. I'm just saying it goes against the logic of the film.
You are dead on about the restored ending scene between the priest and the cop. I couldn't make head or tail of it and it bugged me that the film wanted to give us an even happier ending. Get rid of it like the original did.
I don't understand how an actor can have a lead role in a smash hit and not have a higher profile career afterwards. I thought Jason Miller was very good and he's right in the Stallone/Pacino family for looks, which was all the rage mid 70s.
Having seen Sorcerer in the last year, it was interesting to keep it in mind during The Exorcist. The films are not so far apart as they might seem.