Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Exorcist

For all its pea-soup vomit, crucifix masturbation, head spinning, and swan dives out of high windows, The Exorcist (1973) is really about evil. Not a monster, not a lunatic, not a ghost, but the source of all that is vile and corrupt. Something so vile and wicked, it defies understanding that the only rational response is incomprehensible horror. It's a film that not only shocks you with horrific visuals but overwhelms the soul with dread.

Directed by William Friedkin and adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, The Exorcist is the story of Reagan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the daughter of actress Chris (Ellen Burstyn). Reagan begins acting strange and violent, her personality completely different from the sweet young girl she'd been. When doctors and psychiatrists fail to help her, Chris turns to a Jesuit Priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) for what she believes to be her only hope: an exorcism to drive out the demon possessing Reagan.

The summary doesn't do the plot justice because it's only the last 20 minutes or so that the actual exorcism occurs. The Exorcist does not rush to the supernatural showdown between good and evil. True, the final confrontation in Reagan's bedroom, with Karras assisting the older priest Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) with the ritual, is a tour-de-force of atmosphere, climax, and special effects.

But most of the film is devoted to the leadup to that confrontation, and it is a grueling, emotionally draining experience, and I don't mean that as a putdown. In a genre filled with so much hokiness, exploitation, and campiness, The Exorcist is a horror movie that feels real, not fake, not a gimmick. Watching the movie feels like you are watching something genuinely evil on screen, and for the running length of the film, there is no reprieve. The horror grows not from special effects and makeup, as good as they are, but from the characters and their situation.

The Exorcist concerns protagonists who find their faith in the face of such evil. Chris is an admitted non-believer. Why the demon chooses her daughter is never explained, and when science and medicine failure her, she turns to the church for help. Meanwhile, Karras himself has lost his faith. He tells Chris the best way to receive an exorcism is to go back to the 1600s because diagnoses of mental illness have replaced belief about demonic possession. He was already waining before his mother died, but after she passes, he's practically an atheist in a clerical collar.

But the film finds the modern world, specifically science lacking. Reagan is poked and prodded by all sorts of doctors with wince-inducing equipment. Looking for a lesion on her brain to explain her behavior, doctors subject her to a rigorous round of testing, including the injection of a huge needle into her neck, but all this effort is for naught because they find nothing. When psychiatrists try questioning Reagan, they are physically pulverized by her.

Friedkin shoots the film with a documentary sense of realism, his camera in the middle of all these wild experiences, so the viewer feels uncomfortably close to all of it. The bedroom, where the supernatural stuff occurs - the flying dressers, the spinning heads, etc. - becomes a harsh, desolate , almost otherworldly realm, a place so cold the characters shiver and frost is visible on their breath. Meanwhile, Chris and the others affected by the transformation of Reagan are physically and emotionally battered. When she first meets Karras, she wears sunglasses to conceal a black eye and is on the verge of hysterics.

The demon, despite demonstrating the ability to levitate and great strength, prefers not physical pain but emotional and physical. As Father Merrin explains, the demon is a liar but will mix truth with lies for desired effect. This is especially true when the demon uses Karras' guilt about his mother against him.

And of course, that voice. So chilling. So evil.

The Exorcist is cited in many polls as the scariest movie ever made. I don't think I'm qualified to make that judgment, but it definitely belongs in the running. It grabs the audience and shows no mercy. The experience of watching it will have you questioning everything: life, death, good, evil, faith, the meaning of it all. It's not a "fun" horror movie, like say the thrill ride of a Halloween. It shocks and disturbs. It really does.


  1. I always wondered why it picked her

    1. No definitive answer is given, but in a deleted scene, since included in later releases, Fathers Merrin and Karras discuss it. Merrin speculates it's more to target the people around her, to make them despair, reject their own humanity and lose their faith in the idea that God would ever love them.