The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley, Vasiliki Maliaros, Barton Heyman, Peter Masterson, Rudolf Schündler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Thomas Bermingham, Titos Vandis
(out of 4)
WARNING: Spoilers below.
The fact that The Exorcist is engrossing almost 40 years since its debut speaks to the skillful craft of director William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live And Die In L.A., the 1980 crime/horror Cruising, 2007′s Bug), the great performances of the cast, and the staying power of the subject matter from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel. I can only imagine the shock to the system of the viewing audience back then; not necessarily because they weren’t ready for the visceral onslaught or vulgarity of its body horror, but because so many taboos were being broken by a mere 13 year old girl. I think the success of the film owes a lot to the professionals behind it who made it more palatable – the repulsive effects were like drive-in content packaged in modern studio filmmaking. (Audiences could get a little bit of 42nd St. without actually having to go there.) Naturally, watching The Exorcist in the 21st century, most people won’t be particularly frightened by it – we’ve all seen too much since then – but the movie still retains a kind of raw power and fearlessness in putting its players (especially Linda Blair) through the wringer. In some ways, our society might be more Puritanical today – what are the odds of a major studio cranking out a film where the pre-teen girl spouts obscenities like “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” and jabs a crucifix up her privates? I’d say nil.
I think The Exorcist is even a bit old fashioned. The storyline is “God versus The Devil” and the good guys come from the Roman Catholic Church. The major conflicts in the movie are centered around three characters – possessed Regan’s mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), and Father Karras (Jason Miller). All other characters are secondary, including Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) who serves merely as a conduit for Father Merrin’s demon nemesis. Indeed, the first 15 minutes of the film don’t even take place in Georgetown, D.C., they take place in Iraq, where Merrin is on a archaeological dig. He makes two discoveries – the first is a St. Joseph medallion, similar to one worn by Father Karras later in the film; the other is a figurine head in the shape of the demon Pazuzu (the name Pazuzu isn’t revealed until Exorcist II: The Heretic). The way the environment changes for Merrin after his discovery is almost perfect foreshadowing. People look at him strangely in the street, a clock on the wall stops ticking, he drives into desert ruins and comes face to face with a statue of the demon in what looks like a standoff in a Leone western. Back in Georgetown, Chris is a famous actress doing a scene for a movie in which her character pleads with campus protestors to “work within the system.” That’s exactly what Chris tries to do as the behavior of her daughter deteriorates to a point where she’s cursing up a storm, masturbating with crosses, moving furniture with her mind and turning her head around 180 degrees. The effect on Chris is obvious; guilt, loss, becoming a social outcast – the movie is exploiting parental fears (an early scene of Regan interrupting a party by urinating on the rug is most successful in communicating this point). Despite Chris’ best efforts, her daughter is straying from her.
So, one possible reading of Regan’s possession is that of a young girl entering womanhood, and all the hormonal, physical changes that entails. The psychosocial reading of her condition could be that she’s a troubled kid with psychosomatic disorders brought on by a broken home (parents are separated, daddy can’t even be bothered to call on her birthday). The movie also drops hints that, from a Christian point of view, the family has a spiritual void. Mother and daughter casually play around with a Ouija board; Chris seems to be an agnostic/atheist (as a line later in the film reveals, she knows as much about priests as she does witch-doctors). Any good exorcist will tell you that demons will exploit the spiritually weak, so Pazuzu starts nosing around (as a warm up, he makes noises in the attic). There’s a definite science/faith debate as Chris exhausts all medical possibilities. Regan gets Ritalin prescriptions, brain-scans, spinal taps, you name it. Chris seeks out the Church as a last resort, and only because one of the doctors suggests it as a form of suggestion therapy. “Hey, maybe exorcism works, but not for the reasons you think!” No character embodies this battle between reason and religion more than Father Karras, who has a psychiatric background which tends to overrule his nature as a priest. Indeed, Karras is tormented and in the midst of a major crisis of faith. This, along with his guilt feelings over his mother’s death, are used as weapons by the demon, who knows quite well that Karras is the weak link and attacks that link constantly. It is only at the end, when Karras finally regains his faith and makes his sacrifice, that the evil is defeated.
The victory of good over evil lets The Exorcist stand apart from other films of the era that tended towards being nihilistic (Last House on the Left, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas). For a changing society torn apart by upheaval (60s/70s), the message is that the ways of the Church are the only solution. The Exorcist has been seen (probably correctly) as a very reactionary film – an indictment of the counterculture movement which has turned away from God and traditional values (you might be surprised to hear about people’s faith being restored by this picture). I would disagree with those who see the film’s philosophy as a complete rejection of science, merely that religion will fill in for what science can’t explain. (I still think an atheist should be able to enjoy it.) The movie endures today not based on fear factor but the interesting characters, eerie soundtrack (Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is used to good effect), and the constant interplay between elements of innocence, corruption, faith, reason, religion, science, medicine. There’s also enough depth to spawn differing interpretations of the text – one article I read by Rob Ager that I found fascinating was the comparison of Regan’s possession with the behavior of a child suffering from sexual abuse. It made me take extra notice of the character of Burke Dennings and his odd behavior. The Exorcist is a landmark horror film, rich with symbolism (and pea soup).
- Bill Gordon