I’ve decided that, this year, I’d like to review some of my favorite “spooky” films so that folks can have some ideas for movies to watch during this jolly holiday season. These are the types of movies that I watch all year, but most folks don’t think about them until the pumpkins and spider webs and skeletons start showing up on people’s porches. And, because I’m a weirdo, I thought I’d do 31 reviews (both because October has 31 days in it AND because 31 is 13 spelled backwards…) BUT, because I also know that I have some TIME MANAGEMENT issues, I’ve decided to start my reviews a month early. I want to make sure that I get all 31 written before All Hallows! And, if I’m doing reviews of spooky movies, why mess around? I thought I’d start with a solid gut punch right out of the gate! Here’s The Exorcist!
The Exorcist is a 1973 film that was directed by William Friedkin from a screenplay by William Peter Blatty (who also wrote the original novel.) The version of the film that I own was released on DVD in 2000 and includes some eleven minutes of extra material that wasn’t in the theatrical release (including the creepy and slightly hilarious “spider walk” scene, where the possessed little girl, in a contorted back-bend, crawls down the stairs upside-down and then spits a mouthful of blood at the camera. It’s a wonderful scene.)
For those who haven’t watched the film (either because you’re too young to have seen it or because you’ve been too frightened), the story involves three primary plotlines: 1. An aging priest, Father Merrin (played perfectly by Max von Sydow,) whose faith is strong but whose body is failing him, has a premonition that an evil force (which he’s battled once before) is gathering strength to attack again. Merrin, terrified, uncertain whether he is physically strong enough to endure another exhausting ritual, retires from the archaeological dig he’s been working on in Iran to contemplate the future.
2. A second key storyline involves Father Karras, a former boxer turned psychologist / priest, who has lost his faith due to an existential tidal-wave brought on by his duties as a psychotherapist and his aging mother’s failing health. His story is the mirror-opposite of Merrin’s. Where Karras (played admirably by Jason Miller) is physically strong (we see scenes of him running at a track and pounding on a punching bag), we also learn that he has lost his belief in the Divine. Father Merrin, on the other hand, is rock solid in his faith, but that faith is housed in a failing body.
3. The third plotline in this film is a single mother, Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn), who is trying to raise a sweet-natured daughter, Regan (shockingly well acted by Linda Blair, who was only 13 years old when the film began shooting!), while keeping her career on track. Chris is an actress, and the tensions surrounding that life are on full display in this film: long days, rigid schedules, and lots of moving around. Regan, who is portrayed in the early parts of the film as very kind and “kid like” (she makes clay animals and swoons over a horse she saw at the park) does have some psychological hurdles to overcome, particularly the absence of her father and her mother’s inability to give her her full attention. In this somewhat isolated state, Regan makes an “imaginary friend,” “Captain Howdy,” who she speaks to through a Ouija board. As Chris MacNeil’s shooting schedule and media star lifestyle (lots of parties and late nights) push her into a ragged state, Regan begins to show signs of psychological distress, which quickly escalate into full blown “psychosis.”
What makes the film so effective, though it IS 45 years old, is Friedkins’ dedication to a severe naturalism. Much of this film is like a voyeuristic documentary. We, as viewers, are following these people around whose lives are spiraling out of control. The early scenes are mundane, and the dialog is naturalistic, to the point where I wonder if Friedkin let Burstyn and Blair ad-lib much of their back and forth. It really seems like it’s just a mother and daughter talking about their days. And the heart-wrenching scenes in which Father Karras visits his mother, who is ill and alone, are disturbing for their very plausibility. When Karras learns of his mother’s death, this pushes him beyond the threshold and into full-blown mental collapse. None of these things are impossible to imagine, and Friedkins’ naturalistic approach to the film grounds the viewer, so that when the weirder things start to happen, (and these are introduced slowly and build over the course of the film) we care about the characters and are invested in their well-being.
Another technique which Friedkin uses to make the viewer feel like they are watching reality and not fiction, is the soundtrack. There are long stretches of this film with no score music whatsoever. Just silence and the occasional Foley effect, like a creaking floorboard or a machine clicking away in a clinic. These long stretches of silence are VERY disconcerting, because any noise we DO hear takes on greater significance. For instance, in one scene, Regan is suspect of having a lesion in her brain that is causing her strange behavior, and she is put through a battery of tests, again there is no score music, just the doctors asking her to move in certain ways or telling her that she “might feel a little pressure” as they give her a spinal—and the knocking and loud clicking of the brain scanner as it’s taking pictures inside her skull, are awful, and Regan’s subdued, but terrified cry as this is happening is so unnerving that any kind of score music would only muddy the effectiveness of the scene. For someone like me, who is phobic of medical procedures, the hospital sequences are the most uncomfortable, tense, and terrifying parts of the entire film. I HATE those scenes, because of the realism and tension that Friedkin creates in those moments.
Eventually, once the medical explanations for Regan’s behavior have been exhausted, the psychologists are called in, and in time, Father Karras (who IS a psychologist as well as a priest) is roped in, against his will, to coming to see Regan. This leads, inevitably, after many unsettling, disgusting, blasphemous, and absolutely creepy scenes, to Father Merrin being called in to perform an exorcism. From there, shit goes completely haywire…
I’m not going to spoil the film for any folks who haven’t seen it, but let’s just say, I STILL find it incredibly tense and unsettling to this day. In a way, the movie pioneered the “uncomfortable scene” technique, which has been used so effectively in comedy the last few years (in shows like The Office), but Friedkin uses these moments to increase tension, which just keeps building and building throughout the film. I also know, having watched the film with the commentary track on, that Friedkin and Blatty BOTH were believers in the actual possibility of possession. For them, this movie is NOT complete fiction. It is an attempt at showing, in no uncertain terms, how powerful and horrible the powers of darkness can be—and it suggests that only through FAITH (not innocence or science or medicine) can the forces of evil be countered. The movie is very effective, extremely well crafted, and supremely dark, because Friedkin meant it as a warning.
For someone like me, who is NOT a believer in a literal EVIL that can possess and control a human body, it is STILL a disturbing film. It can also be a very FUNNY film, if you are a sick bastard. (When we got the 2000 version on DVD, I watched it multiple times, late into the night, and at about 2:30 A.M., my wife—who was trying to sleep—comes out of the bedroom and says, “WHAT are you laughing at???” And I played her the “spider walk” scene and giggled more quietly than I had been laughing, and she shook her head and went back to bed.)
Moral to the story, the movie is an undisputed classic, a well-crafted, sincere, look at a subject that many, MANY people believe is a completely legitimate phenomenon. For folks of a religious persuasion, the possibilities demonstrated by this film are terrifying, and for folks who just appreciate a spooky-ass “monster” and great story with FANTASTIC special effects (most of which hold up quite well four decades on), there are very few films that are more effective than The Exorcist. It’s still one of the best scary movies I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t rely on JUMP SCARES—which STARTLE you instead of SCARING you—or pointless gore. There is some blood in this movie, but it’s always in service of the STORY…
There is really only ONE thing about this film that’s always bugged me. In one scene, a statue of the Virgin Mary in a local church is “desecrated” with bizarre, exaggerated bloody breasts and a penis attached to it—and we never learn who DID it, what it means, if Regan was supposed to have been involved, if it’s just a coincidence that this happened just as Regan was starting to show signs of possession…NOTHING! It’s just “BANG!” weird, pointless, creepy thing happens. Remember when that happened? That was sure gross. The cops think it has something to do with witchcraft. Does it have something to do with witchcraft? We never find out. (And I’ve even read the novel and I STILL don’t know what the hell that was supposed to be about or how it tied in with the rest of the story…)
But other than that, I still love this movie…
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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