The Exorcist (1973) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb
By Alan Bacchus
The scariest movie of all time? Perhaps. But it’s the arguably the horror film (along with Psycho) that had the biggest cultural impact on cinema. If Rosemary’s Baby laid the foundation for this type of ‘Catholic-centric’ horror exploiting ingrained fears and guilt of the venerable old religion, The Exorcist gave us all a little bit of Catholic guilt whether we were religious or not.
My last viewing of the picture was the director's cut, years ago, when it got a small rerelease. At the time I had thought the film lost a bit of it's edge, the physical effects, specifically, rendering the scares more corny than chilling. But going back to the original theatrical edition on glorious Blu-Ray, it's a different experience. Though it was on the small screen and not the big screen you can still that get that feeling why it was such a phenomenon almost 40 years ago
It's a peculiarly structured film. Of course we all know the story, a single mother and her daughter struggling to understand, makes sense of, and ultimately cure the young Regan of a nasty case of demonic possession. It's a very careful build up to the celebrated shock value scenes in the second half. Wonderful moments such as a game of Quija board, or some curious noises rustling about in the attic, form a great foundation of tension. And William Friedkin's knack for creating documentary-like realism from salacious stories renders everything that much scarier. The story of the film's co-lead Father Karras has its own completely separate parallel story for over half the movie. Karras has his own problems, his mother who has just died has given him with a large empty hole in the heart and a decent helping of guilt for not being there at the end. The convergence of these two storylines with the confrontation of Regan in her bedroom makes for an intense and dramatic second half.
There's also the film's peculiar and oblique opening, a lengthy sequence in Iraq introducting Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) involved in an architectural dig for some kind of relic. Then the film cuts to Georgetown for the main action involving the lead characters. Other than Father Merrin and the reappearance of the beastly sculture after the death of Burke Dennings, there’s little if no direct narrative connection between the opening and Regan’s predicament. Yet the scene is so important in establishing the scope of the film, that either, something evil has been released unto the world from man’s archeological intervention or that the devil’s fingers can imprint itself on any part of the world, whether it’s the Middle East or a humble street corner in middle class America.
There’s almost no dialogue in the sequence, instead Friedkin’s use of enhanced sound effects, atmospheric ambiance creates a quiet creepy tension which warns and teases us with the shitstorm of horror we’ll eventually have to face. And so what a bold and risky stroke for Blatty/Friedkin to use this scene as tonal context (Friedkin would use this same type of narrative discordia in his 1977 film Sorceror). And once we’re in his grasp, Friedkin carefully plays out the events which lead up to the possession of Regan and the emotional torture of her poor mother.
Since The Exorcist, the themes, tone, and even plot structure has been repeated by a number of other fine horror films since. The Omen, in particular, which is also a masterpiece in its own right, seems like a near carbon copy of The Exorcist’s template, same with John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, a delicious merging of William Friedkin and George Romero. Even Poltergeist, which doesn’t have any overt religious references but could be argued as the New Testament/Evangelical version of The Exorcist.
Like most of the great horror films, cause and effect is left more obtuse and loose than obvious. The best of horror cannot be explained.What is the cause of Regan’s psychosis, or why has the devil targeted her, or perhaps even Chris? The film never really makes this clear. While in most films, characters who suffer tend to suffer for a reason, or that suffering becomes the catalyst for the character to change. In horror and in particualr The Exorcist, the horror is random, striking ordinary, humble, decent people, testing their internal strength and the bond of their family. And so, ultimately, The Exorcist is story of a single mother and her only daughter and the inexplicable connection by blood and soul which fights off the devil.
The Exorcist is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video