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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 17: The Exorcist (1973)

exorcistDirector: William Friedkin

Writer: William Peter Blatty, based on his novel

Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, Mercedes McCambridge

Plot: In Washington, DC, we meet Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), whose faith beginning to crumble as his mother lies dying. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress who in town to make a movie. Her marriage is dissolving, but she’s clinging to her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Regan begins to exhibit strange behavior, beginning with disrupting a dinner party by announcing to one of the guests, “You’re going to die up there,” and urinating on the carpet. Later that night, her bed begins thrashing wildly, terrifying girl and mother alike. Although Chris initially seeks out a medical explanation for Regan’s odd behavior, the horrible events persist, increasing to violent outbursts, exclamations of profanity and blasphemy, and even levitation. Meanwhile, the local church has been desecrated, and the director of Chris’s movie dies in an apparent accident, assuming one can “accidentally” turn his head around 180 degrees.

Believing Regan’s symptoms to be psychosomatic, a psychiatrist suggests an exorcism, reasoning that if she believes she is possessed by a demon, she may be cured by making her believe she is freed. Chris turns to Karras, a psychiatrist as well as a priest. When he sees how desperate Chris has grown, he agrees to examine the girl. Karras splashes Regan with Holy Water and records the strange words she howls in pain. He later reveals to Chris that he lied – the water was unblessed, which supports the case that everything is in Regan’s mind. When he later plays the tape backwards, though, he hears Regan speaking clearly, threateningly, menacingly… in English.

When Karras turns to his superiors to request an exorcism, they summon Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow). Merrin and Karras begin the ritual of exorcism. As they pray, the demon inside Regan assaults them, first verbally, then physically by hurling things around the room, cracking the ceiling, and finally striking Karras from behind. Karras leaves the room, returning to find Merrin seemingly dead. He attacks Regan, viciously striking her and commanding the demon to take him instead. It leaps from Regan into Karras, and he hurls himself from the window, falling to his death on the steps below. In an epilogue, Chris and Regan leave town, Regan having no memory of her ordeal, hoping the demons of all kinds stay behind them.

Thoughts: This one was a lock as soon as I decided to try this little project. The Exorcist has turned up on just about every “scariest of all time” list I’ve ever seen, and with good reason. The scenes of Regan’s slow deterioration are expertly staged and performed. Linda Blair begins as a charming, gregarious child, transforming stage by stage into a real monster in innocent form. Blair also is very effective as a physical actress, going through her terrible convulsions, flapping her tongue menacingly at the priests, and thrashing about like a madwoman.

The special effects are rather impressive for 1973 as well – the scene where Regan’s head turns backwards is still creepy as hell today. The classic scene with the projective-vomit pea soup is a little cheesy by today’s measure, but you fall right back into fright just moments later when you see Regan, caked in her demon makeup, soup dripping from her chin, and a look of utter hatred and madness in her unnaturally green eyes. And of course, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” remains one of the all-time great horror movie scores. Those haunting chimes, even today, are enough to give anyone who has seen the movie a chill.

However, coming back to the film for the first time in several years, it’s interesting just how different it is from modern horror films. The first real supernatural occurrence – the shaking of Regan’s bed – doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into this 122-minute film! Blatty spends nearly a third of his running time on exposition and character before he actually gets into the meat of the storyline, a technique that a modern movie studio would consider absolute poison. It’s another full 35 minutes before Chris and Karras meet for the first time, and Karras doesn’t see Regan for the first time (in heavy make-up and strapped into a bed that has been heavily padded – in a very effective visual) until the movie hits the 80-minute mark. Merrin himself – the titular exorcist – doesn’t really factor into the story in any substantive way until the final 30 minutes. It’s also hard to imagine a movie today ending without little Regan engaging both priests personally, physically, hand-to-hand, with lots of overdone CGI, instead of allowing her demonic powers to do the work for her. And let’s not forget the most horrific thing in this film that would never, never turn up even in the most soulless, horrific perversion of cinema in 2011: the scene where the doctor lights up a cigarette in his own waiting room.

Terrors.

Speaking of the doctor, the film also continues the proud cinematic tradition of having people in authority be absolute idiots. “She’s thrashing wildly, throat is bulging, eyeballs turn white… oh, and her entire bed is levitating. It must be psychosomatic.” Sure, there’s an effort to justify their disbelief by cooking up the old stories about tiny women lifting up cars in times of stress, but that really feels like quick lip service to get us past the perfunctory need for these characters to exist.

Like all great horror films, it works because it taps into genuine fears of the time. The idea of the devil is nothing new, nor is the idea of possession. This movie – and the novel it’s based on – hit just when people were ready to fear these classic horrors again. Besides the religious implications, the film works because it taps into the fear that comes with changing the familiar into something unfamiliar. Taking a child – particularly a little girl, perhaps the most innocent form of human life one can imagine – and turning her into an object of terror is a very effective way to gut the audience. If it didn’t speak to something primal in the human psyche, it wouldn’t have done so well, nor given birth to so many imitators. In terms of influence, this film kind of kicked off a rash of movies about children possessed by (or embodying) the supernatural: The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist, and Children of the Corn all come to mind. Each of those, and many others, bear the fingerprints of this tale in one way or another.

Once again, we see the fears of America shifting from the supernatural to the demons within. Tomorrow we tousle with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.