Friday, October 02, 2009

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

For the two people who haven't seen this, there are spoilers here. But you know what? I'm guessing if you haven't seen it by now, you probably won't.

Father Damien Karras: Why her? Why this girl?

Father Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as...animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.

The Exorcist is, quite simply, an assault on its audience. William Friedkin's film (written and produced by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel) about a young girl possessed by a demon has not lost any of its visceral impact even after the emergence of countless spoofs, knockoffs, sequels and prequels since its release nearly 40 years ago. In fact, I think such miscellany can easily make one forget how painfully intense the original movie is before one sits down and actually re/watches it.

The intensity of the film's horror runs the risk of overshadowing its more contemplative themes. The Exorcist is not a carnie geek show (though it often feels like one and nothing more), but a film about people dealing with spiritual crises, family bonds, faith and despair. It is not that it is a blasphemous film (and oddly enough, although my religious views are pretty agnostic, the demon often behaves in a way that I can only describe as blasphemous) so much as it is a film about characters dealing with blasphemy and Godless depravity.

And again, it is an assault.

The Exorcist follows two...well, two and a half...storylines that ultimately converge in the final act. In one, Ellen Burstyn plays Shirley MacLaine surrogate Chris MacNeil, a film actress and single mother to her 12-year-old daughter, Regan (played by Linda Blair). While filming a movie in Georgetown, Chris notices some weird behavior with Regan. She's not feeling well. She interrupts Chris' parties with proclamations of death then wets herself (or rather, the carpet). Then, her behavior gets worse.

Much, much worse.

Regan is taken to the hospital, where several tests are run (the scenes in the hospital are also truly terrifying), which leads nowhere. Regan flops around on her bed (well, sometimes the bed flops around on its own), contorts her body in weird positions and spouts out verbal atrocities (mixed with pleas for help, making the situation that more awful). The doctors want to run more tests, but aren't confident. Neither is Chris.

I'm surprised to find how shocked and jolted I still am during many of the film's scenes, even after multiple viewings. The camera often captures Regan's inhuman contortions and shows her spouting unspeakable obscenities with such dispassion that it is horrific and jarring. Sure, the movie has a score, and deploys nifty camera angles and tracking shots here and there, but the most effective scenes are the ones shot without flare and sans music.

(I remember when a crew of us went to go see the extended version at the movie theatre in Kips Bay back in 2000 there was some laughter from the audience when Regan spat out vile X-rated language in a demonic voice, perhaps reminded of Lorraine Newman telling Richard Pryor, "Your mother sews sweat socks that smell," in the famous SNL parody. When she started to stab herself in the vagina with a crucifix, the laughter stopped cold.)

In the second storyline, which runs concurrently during the first half of the film, we watch Father Damian Karras, a Catholic priest and psychiatrist steadily lose his faith as he tries (and fails) to help the mentally ill and tries (and ultimately fails) to take care of his dying mother. Jason Miller plays Father Karras as a sad sack indeed, losing confidence that there's a God offering the world infinite love and mercy. Seeing that his time is divided between trips to the mental hospital and trips to his infirmed mother's apartment, can you really blame him?

Eventually, when Regan's doctors rule everything else out, and as Regan's condition worsens, they suggest an exorcism (not because they believe in demonic possession, but because of the "force of suggestion"), which conjoins the two storylines by bringing Chris to Father Karras.

Although what's happening to Regan is clearly the work of the supernatural (crazy people can't move chairs and dressers with their minds, no matter how crazy they are) all the characters are grounded in the real world, and dealing with the impossible situation as real people most likely would. The doctors' suggestion of an exorcism is a matter of psychiatry, and the priest brought in to perform the exorcism is incredibly skeptical: Father Karras is unconvinced by Regan "speaking in tongues," since it's just her speaking backwards, and her feeling the burn of regular old tap water (which he lies that it's holy water) doesn't help matters much, either.

Also, note the tone in Chris' voice when she says to Father Karras: "Somebody very close to me is...probably possessed." It's as if she knows how ridiculous it must sound to a psychiatrist, but has ruled out every other possibility.

The other semi-storyline that converges in the final act (that's only introduced in a semi-extraneous prologue that takes place in Iraq) concerns Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, the titular exorcist, who once performed an exorcism many years ago in Africa (which damn near killed him) and is sent to Georgetown to perform the ritual with Father Karras' assistance.

This exorcism, which takes up the bulk of the film's final half hour, does ultimately kill Father Merrin (the demon possessing Regan presumably causes him to have a heart attack) and Father Karras, though the latter death is intentional and done so to save Regan. After Father Merrin dies, Damian strikes Regan and implores the demon to take him instead. The demon obliges, and Damian throws himself out the window. Regan is saved and (mercifully) has no recollection of the horrible ordeal.

Even though it's a horror film with a relatively low body count (with two of the three deaths taking place off-screen), The Exorcist is still a raw, relentless experience that still manages to overshadow its weaker successors and imitators. It shows characters forced to deal with the impossible. They're confronted with a view of humanity as "animal and ugly," deprived of God's love, and we're shown how they deal with such a view. And as a result, we get the living crap scared out of us.


James "Headspun" Comtois

Labels: ,


Blogger Goose said...

Well, as you know, this was the movie that started my love for horror when I accidently watched an edited for TV version it at my grandma's house when I was around 6 or 7 years old. Yeah, whoopsie-doodle.

They showed the head spin around. I had nightmares.

I got to see it again when the director's cut was released at the film art house in Kew Gardens. Great smaller theaters, still with the big screen. And, having seen it awhile back, I really liked the director's cut better. They explained the backstory a lot better and it was not just about this girl who just randomly got possessed.

I really like that you said "assault". This movie does assault you, unless you are just a complete sociopath and feel nothing for humanity.

Besides the head spin - the spider walk scene is just unbelievable. Which, from what I remember being told, it was a contortionist who actually went down those stairs. There was another scene (you can you tube it) that I believe was actually Linda Blair or a stunt double, but you can see that their hands never touched the stairs.

To this day, that movie freaks me out on so many levels.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I saw the extended version back in 200 on the big screen as well, but watched the theatrical cut recently for the purposes of writing this entry. I do remember some of the additions, but I actually still feel the original 2 hour theatrical cut works just fine.

I also think I told you that a bunch of friends of mine and I watched this as preteens over at our mutual friend Ben VandenBoom's house one Halloween. I think half of the crew bolted out of the room at the halfway point, not wanting to see any more.

Overall I was really surprised that the possession sequences still hit me so hard on a visceral level. The impact over time and multiple viewings has not been diluted.

4:09 PM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...

I love her kooky crab walk down the stairs. I always wish I could do that.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Because right now all you can do is vomit blood on command. Which is a hell of a party trick, sir. It just depends on the party.

5:08 PM  
Blogger DPS said...

Yeah, it's just as scary as it ever was. It terrifies me every time I see it, and I didn't even see it the first time until late High School, I think. Thank God for that, considering how much "Nightmare on Elm Street" messed me up as a kid.

I still find the almost-subliminal shot of the white face in the dark to be one of the most terrifying devices I've ever seen used in any film. (so I'm doing an homage of sorts in my upcoming Sinister Six movie)

It's a pinnacle of the genre.

5:13 PM  
Blogger blond angel said...

i also saw the movie as a child ...and to this still afraid espially at nite.i had to sleep with my parents for a long time.i agree..the hospital scenes were very creppy& scarry

5:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.