Friday, 5 May 2017

The Exorcist (1973)


Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Cast: Ellen Burstyn (as Chris MacNeil); Max von Sydow (as Father Lankester Merrin); Jason Miller (as Father Damien Karras); Linda Blair (as Regan MacNeil); Mercedes McCambridge (as the Voice of the Demon); Lee J. Cobb (as Lieutenant William F. Kinderman)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #100

For all the pea coloured puke and expletives about peoples' mothers, it gets ignored how drastically entrenched in the New American Wave of seventies cinema The Exorcist is. This isn't surprising considering William Friedkin as a director before and after this film, even when he was making genre movies, but in retrospect (and against the public perception of what The Exorcist is as a film), the scene of Linda Blair's head turning a hundred and eighty degrees around being repeated in word of mouth, while disturbing and iconic, does water down the significance of the character drama that makes 75% percent of it. The last time I saw the film I had even dismissed it a little as a rollercoaster of shock scenes, something I look back at as the comment of a younger, dumber self I wish to take back.

It's a rare and risky task to have made a horror film this realistic and serious in time at this point in time, in hindsight to what many American horror films were from the early seventies, where outside the wave of exploitation films many Hollywood horror films still played the genre off lightly and with camp, intentional or not. When many films were period or very phantastical, this reality based drama where demons and evil are made a living entity would've stood out considerably as well, a film which could've failed immediately if it came off as pretentious at any point. The Exorcist has in its favour William Peter Blatty, the author of the original novel and someone who had experience in screenwriting in his elaborate career beforehand. Able to have some creative control in adapting his own source novel to screen, he stressed the importance of its central message, the notion of evil being real and having to overcome it, carefully written to emphasis the emotional devastation of a young girl Regan (Linda Blair) being possessed, without psychology or medicine able to prevent it. Friedkin shows absolute restrain in depicting this even with its notoriety for its more extreme scenes, showing the extent of this possession, a verisimilitude found in its Washington locations and a more cynical, adult tone which even for a film from the seventies, where this genre was at its grittiest, stand outs from others. (Note, for example, the frequent use of expletives like "fuck" in dialogue without becoming overbearing, a realism to the dialogue that feels natural to the ear). The casting as throughout is also exceptional, even a side character like Lee J. Cobb's movie obsessed police detective having enough prescience on screen to be memorable (and even front a second sequel in 1990).

When the film does have shocks, it's not only nasty still but, with the added effect of its emotional core, has material that you couldn't get away with in most modern Hollywood horror, a level of transgression justified in wanting to depict to destructiveness of a demonic possession, but still amazing to witness in what was depicted. Obviously the crucifix masturbation scene is still extreme to this day, but there's a chilling nature alongside the head spinning and blasphemy with the witnessing of a young girl being both physically and mentally transformed in such horrifying ways. The biggest advantage The Exorcist has in retaining its power is that, even if you're an atheist and the demonic incidents are purely fantastical, Father Karras' crisis still connects if viewed as a man doubting the entire point of his life when a loved one is cruelly pulled away, and his position within the Catholic Church becomes marred in doubt to the point of his own life, whilst Regan's possession can be a metaphor for violent mental illness as one's child starts to act in ways self destructive and without control, her mother slowly becoming ravaged emotionally by grief. Most of the film is a drama with two, very well integrated sides, and with Regan's story the extremity depicted through elaborate special effects - a floating bed, a room built within a freezer - is always after lengthy, character based drama, building these figures up before something gruesome and terrifying, especially if a viewer was religious or a parent, takes place. It helps as well that even today the effects still stand up, as repulsive in context that it's a young teenage girl being physically devastated without becoming pointlessly offensive for a viewer, whilst it would be considered a sin not to mention Mercedes McCambridge as well, giving a figure that's only seen properly in a flash frame and ancient statues a full prescience that's still creepy to listen to.

The only aspect I had some grievances with, at least on this viewing, is how the titular exorcism become a sudden rush of various practical effects whilst the drama lingers in the background. Really the grievance is only because Max von Sydow, as Father Merrin, is one of the greatest actors of the medium, and any more dialogue for him would be wanted, a candidate for someone who could read the telephone book aloud for hours and be utterly compelling to watch and listen to. Even if an odd way to begin at first, the prologue entirely in Northern Iraq with Merrin is underrated in how it sets up as well the ominous, world weary tone of the film before it gets to the Washington D.C. locations, showing the demonic figure behind it all as something more than a Catholic concept but something universally evil; unfortunately said demon (wisely not named Pazuzu as it is mythological and in Blatty's original source material due to how "cute" the name sounds in a modern English tongue), when further stories in this universe should've expanded on this intercontinental and ancient horrors quality, was depicted in a very unfortunately sequel. Aside from the few quibbles in content by the end however, growing older and more knowledgeable on horror cinema has given The Exorcism greater effect on me. Now I can appreciate how serious it is but also justifies this by having a dramatic depth to add alongside it. I learnt as well how, with its reputation of audiences fainting in the aisles, a visceral tone as disturbing as in this film can be matched by a quality of incredible drama and work perfectly when everyone (direction, script, cast and production team) is on top of their game. Considering how hard and long the film took, how it developed a curse in Hollywood lore and was nearly scrapped by the studio that bankrolled it, it deserved the legacy it did, and if anything only now can I appreciate this with a greater need for more in my horror films.


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