FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Feb 19, 2007

Film Club: The Exorcist

Though long considered "the scariest film ever made", it's not hard to argue that William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) is perhaps the greatest horror film ever made. 30+ years after audiences passed out or fled theatres in fright, The Exorcist retains its visceral power and, even beyond the shocking effects, the film stands as one of the finest cinematic studies of man and his place in the universe.

In a lengthy prologue set in Northern Iraq, we meet Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), an aged Catholic priest participating in a massive archaeological dig. Merrin unearths a statue bearing a demonic face- the statue's meaning (and whether it portends good or evil) is never revealed; almost immediately, however, Merrin finds himself not only surrounded by eerie omens (the hearse-like carriage, the dog fight, the stopped clock...) but also face to face with another demonic statue. The image of Merrin and the statue squaring off across a rocky divide is one of the most important (and artistic) shots in the film.

In that single image, Friedkin sums up the theme of the film in its entirety: there are forces at work that are larger than ourselves; there is good, there is evil, and mankind generally finds itself somewhere in the middle, struggling for identity. I've labeled the picture to help you wrap your head around this lofty notion.

While many consider the opening Iraq sequence to be dull and completely extraneous, I find it to be quite the opposite. The questions raised- what exactly has Father Merrin unearthed? What does the statue represent?- remain unanswered at the film's end. In fact, thanks to an unusual narrative timeline, we don't even learn that the old man in Iraq is Father Merrin until much later in the picture. The Exorcist does not present a rational, ordered universe; if anything, it leaves the viewer feeling rattled and uncertain, a feeling exemplified in the opening reel.

From Iraq, the action moves to Georgetown where the actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is in the midst of filming a movie. She's set up house with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair), by all accounts a happy, healthy 12-year-old.

After finding a Ouija Board in the basement, Regan begins communicating with someone she calls "Captain Howdy". Before long, Regan begins acting, to put it mildly, unlike herself: she mouths obscenities that make me look like a prude, she's physically abusive to her mother, she suffers uncontrollable seizures, she can...uh...move large furniture using only her mind, and she infamously masturbates violently with a crucifix.

During countless visits to various doctors, Regan is subjected to myriad painful, invasive medical and psychiatric tests. Despite all the spinal taps, EEGs, blood tests, and psychological exams, however, there is no accounting for the changes in Regan. Where science has failed, perhaps religion can help: an exorcism is suggested, and while Chris doesn't want her daughter treated by a "witch doctor", Regan's condition worsens and she's left with few options. She seeks the aid of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a psychologist and priest who has lately been questioning his faith.

Karras is reluctant to offer any help beyond the psychiatric, but after spending some time with Regan (now strapped down in her bed), he determines that an exorcism is indeed in order. Together, Fathers Karras and Merrin face down the demon possessing the young girl, a demon who claims to be Satan himself. During the long ceremony, Merrin's heart eventually gives out and he dies. Karras loses control and, giving up on the bible, begins to pummel Regan. He commands the demon to "take him instead", a request which the demon quickly obliges. Karras regains his humanity long enough to leap out Regan's window and, after falling down those long, long steps, he dies, taking the demon with him.

Regan is soon a regular 12-year-old girl again, retaining no memories from her ordeal, and she and her mother quietly leave Georgetown.

Ask anyone about The Exorcist and most likely their reply will deal with the shocking moments: the pea soup, the head spin, the levitating, the crucifix masturbation, the mothers sucking cocks in Hell. These images become indelible once seen not only because they're completely inappropriate, but also because of the way Friedkin presents them: matter-of-factly and believably. Friedkin's camera is a stoic, objective observer throughout the entire film, taking a documentarian, unsentimental stance. From the exotic landscapes of Iraq to the monstrosities in the doctor's office to the final showdown in Regan's bedroom, the director establishes a methodical, removed approach to the proceedings- there's no commentary, he simply presents events as they unfold. For all the "fireworks" in the final reel, The Exorcist is remarkably not an exploitative or manipulative film.

The distance from which we see Regan undergoing her medical tests, for example, heightens our innate fear of invasive medical procedures. As Regan cowers and shakes, a tiny figure beneath massive, clanking machinery, we genuinely feel for her and her mother. Sympathy for both of them is hugely important to the proceedings, and Friedkin evokes that reaction in the audience without telling us we should feel sympathetic. It's a subtle distinction that points to the masterful hand at work.

This detached view, accompanied by a very slow build to the climax, also makes the outrageous events that transpire seem realistic. Regan's transformation takes place over at least an hour in the film- she gradually becomes more grotesque in appearance as she becomes more violent. Had she simply gotten out of bed one day all crusty and wild-eyed, the audience would pull away immediately. It's a lengthy evolution, though, and this allows for a suspension of disbelief to an extent that's rare in film. By the time Regan is going head-to-head with Father Merrin, we believe she really can levitate and spin her head around 360 degrees- that makes for an incredibly effective horror movie experience.

For my money, the most shocking moment in the film isn't the levitating or the head spin, but rather it's a small one: Regan still looks and sounds like a normal young girl and the cause of her behavior is still assumed to be a brain lesion. In the throes of particularly violent and obscene fit, however, Regan lies back on the bed and this happens:

We also hear, briefly, the raspy voice of the demon, and we finally know that this is not a simple brain lesion. There's some evil fucking juju at work here, and it's terrifying.

I'm not sure why the religious community has always been so up-in-arms over The Exorcist; has there ever been a more religious, moral film? Science and psychiatry fail the MacNeils- it's religion that saves them, despite the fact that they hold no religious beliefs. Father Karras questions his faith throughout the film, only to rely solely on his faith in the end. The Exorcist was made during one of the most turbulent eras in American history- the 'peace and love' ideals of the 1960s were over, the Vietnam War was raging, an energy crisis was just over the horizon- and one could easily read the film as presenting a solution to those societal ills: getting right with God. In tough times, many people turn to religion for solace and that's exactly what happens here. Take that idea to the extreme, and one could reason that the film allegorically presents rediscovering a "moral code" as the answer to burgeoning troubled teen years. Is your child wantonly cussing, masturbating, and acting out? Get that child some morals, pronto!

Audiences are largely divided into 2 camps: those who find The Exorcist scary, and those who don't. Personally, I fall decidedly in the former; the sounds and images in this film still burrow under my skin so deep I need to actively think about other things after I've watched it. How awesome is that? What else could I ask for in a horror film?


Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for The Film Club Coolies!

$7 Popcorn
Chadwick Saxelid


Heather Santrous said...

Sorry I didn't join the club this time around Stacie. When you picked this movie I had a feeling I wouldn't be doing a write up for it. I fall in between your two camps. I did find it scary but not as scary as I was expecting it to be, partly thanks to my dad who was always telling me stories about how scary this movie was to him. I'm a little surprised you didn't talk about the added stuff, unless you did and I missed it. Hope you get a lot of other people joining you today!

Amanda By Night said...

As you know Stacie my lovely horror fiend, this movie is not a favorite of mine, but what I really, really like about it is the use of sound, or rather lack thereof. This movie proved that you didn't need a lot of banging noises and false scares to get underneath the audiences skin. I wish more filmmakers would take heed of that.

And yeah, that death mask shit is scary!

Anonymous said...

My two cents:

While I've never found it to be the harrowing experience others have, nonetheless it is arguably the best constructed horror film ever made.

Anonymous said...

You know, I almost went to the Final Girl Forum and started a new topic: "Blogging The Exorcist," but I was afraid it would take up too much space.

This flick and I are old friends. As a typically obsessive young teen, I read the book numerous times before the movie came out. When the movie was released, I began the task of talking my parents into taking me to see it. This was a tad difficult because I was 12 and the movie had so much outrageous press attached to it (e.g., people fainting and vomiting, etc.). Finally, I got them to take me and it was almost a religious experience for my young self.

The movie? I still think it's a great thriller. I'm a little upset about the differences from the source material - there was no levitation scene in the book and they omitted a whole subplot...

Overall, they did a great job. Friedkin's jumpy and abrasive editing did a nice job of translating Blatty's terse writing style to the screen. It "felt" right. Of course, they changed the ending for the movie, but that was fixed in the new version we all just watched. The original movie ending now feels right to me, but I like seeing the book's ending brought to life.

I showed it to my stepdaughter last year at Halloween - she was 12. I told her that "when I was a kid," this was the scariest movie EVER. She watched it and said, "Eh. It was okay, but I was never scared." Kids!

Unknown said...

Naturally, I joined in again.

I'll give you the two camps thing. And I fall squarely into the second. I liked the movie. I thought it was a great story and a very well crafted film. I was not, however, scared by it. I think that if I had seen this as a kid or a teenager, then maybe I would have been. However, my first time watching it was as a jaded adult sitting in an airport.

Everything about it though was good. It certainly holds up very well and is still a pretty powerful story. It's the kind of movie that I'm afraid they might try to remake someday. And THAT is truly frightening.

Stacie Ponder said...

Heather- You'll have to play along next time, that's all. Yeah, there's actually a lot I didn't touch on in the actual review because I probably would have ended up writing all day. As to the bonus material/extra footage...I agree largely with what Chad says in his review. The more you see of the pasty-ass demon face, the less impact it has. I think it's one of the most frightening images I've ever seen, but there's way too much of it in the new version. In the original, it's shown twice: once in Karras's dream, and once near the end during the exorcism. It's almost subliminal, and it's jarring- seeing it pop up everywhere, as we do now, takes away some of its power.

And the spiderwalk, yeah, again Chad's right- it's a cheap scare. But it's such a mind-blowing, unexpected scare that I love it. It's just. Fucked. Up.

Chad this, Chad that...great review, there, Chad! Well said. I love the story about your mom staring at her shoes during the film. And you're right- Ellen Burstyn is nothing short of amazing in this performance. I love her.

Dreamrot: I'm sorry the movie didn't really tickle your fancy...although what kind of mood can you possibly expect to establish in an airport? :D I think you're right, however, and many times how we feel about a movie depends not only on the age at which we see it the first time, but also the circumstances surrounding the viewing.

Do me (and yourself) a favor, though- don't be jaded! Especially considering how many horror movies you've yet to see. Try, if you can, to consider when a film was made when watching it...and dude, just give yourself up to the movie. That's what I try to do as much as possible- while that approach certainly doesn't mean I enjoy everything (nor does it make every movie good), going in jaded is practically a recipe for disaster.

Theron: take up as much space as you want! As to the differences between the movie and the book (which, somehow, I've never read!), it was Blatty who added the bells and whistles in the screenplay. Apparently Friedkin just wanted to do a straight-up adaptation of the novel, but Blatty thought it wouldn't sell on the screen.

Amanda: word up on the sound. This movie, for all its outrageousness, is also very subtle, and that's why it succeeds.

Unknown said...

I do. I try to go into every movie with my mind clean. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. I really did go into The Exorcist with very few expectations. I had an idea of what it was about and I had seen bits of it on tv in the past. I didn't know the story itself.

And I do try to consider when a movie was made. And to be honest, The Exorcist didn't feel like a 30 year old movie. It felt fresh.

It just wasn't for me. It's not to say that it wasn't a good movie, or an enjoyable movie, just not my kind of movie. I certainly don't sit and wish I had watched something else. I really do wish that I hadn't put it off for so many years.

And, now that I have a netflix account, I'm going to try to catch up on a lot of the movies that I keep claiming I've never seen.

I think I need to find a horror movie that takes place in an airport, that might set the right mood!

Anonymous said...

Y'all know that The Exorcist was based on a real incident, right? As an alumnus of a D.C. Jesuit institution, I've heard stories about it for many many years.

Here's the best article on it I've ever seen (shout out to Strange Magazine a publication of my old game-store haunt); the author concludes that it was probably not a genuine case of possession.

That said, I've also had the occasion to talk to a very sober individual who actually participated in an exorcism (he'd been working with the mentally ill, and medicine was at an end with this one patient, who was also showing some very creepy behavior). His story was profoundly unsettling.

Snarf said...

Whoa Final Girl grew a brain! (well ONE MORE brain, because there was one already) What an intellectual dissection of THE EXORCIST!

Great write-up if you ask me. I agree and plant myself firmly in the camp of Exorcist lovers .. I love the two others as well but for very different reasons.

Exorcist 2 is spooky because Richard Burton obviously is possesed by William Shatner throughout the film and the soundtrack by Morricone is one of his finest things! But it's a silly film, but silly done just right to be entertaining. Come the brain syncronizer! A fantastic machine and I love that idea, even if it's absurd.

Exorcist 3 is quite highbrow but has some good scares as well and George C Scott. That name alone is enough to make it a great film.

Man ... this film really gets people writing huh?

Snarf said...

oh ... and by "the camp of Exorcist lovers" I mean I got scared and still get freaked out every time. You can still love the film and NOT get scared, of course ...

Stacie Ponder said...

"Whoa Final Girl grew a brain!"

Hmm...I don't know whether to feel complimented or insulted!

There are some movies that call for a more...serious examination than others, The Exorcist being one. I'd also point to my reviews of The Shining, The Descent, and High Tension for other studious critiques. Even when I swear alot, make jokes, and denigrate a movie, however, I still like to think that I have a brain about it. Usually. At other times, in more photo-heavy posts, for example, I'm just plain silly. But never stupid.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the real-life case the book "The Exorcist" was based on has also been made into a (cable) movie called "Possessed." It stars Timothy Dalton and Chrostpoher Plummer as the Karras and Merrin characters, respectively.


Anonymous said...

I was working as a projectionist when "The Version You've Never Seen" came out, and I remember taking a few friends who'd never seen it to a showing one night, only to see them react with laughter and derision.

The source of it lies in the sub-plot deleted from the original version: the ritalin diagnosis early in the longer cut. Because it was 2000 and because teenagers were hearing about it all the time, Ritalin wasn't some miracle drug to help save Regan, it was something they knew about and thought was funny.

The only thing that ever got a rise out of them was the Spider Walk scene, and I was surprised to hear a number of good friends claim they "never thought [the exorcist] was scary."

In the ensuing years that's changed a bit, but what sticks with me as truly horrifying is the gamut of tests doctors run on Regan, including the first brain scan involving the tracheotomy blood spurt. That's really just as freaky as anything that happens when Merrin and Karras get involved.

I find The Exorcist works in ways that other horror movies don't because it's invested in the characters from the start. We have plenty of time to know the MacNeils and Damien Karras, and thanks to the prologue, Father Merrin, so when it comes together and things begin to mount, it isn't just one character being knocked off one after the other. I always invested myself with The Exorcist, and that's certainly rare in the genre.

Curiously, I did bother watching the other Exoricists, and none of them ever get close to the potency of Friedkin's original cut.

Included here is a brief film report I wrote on The Exorcist last fall, one that sadly only hints at the way the movie struggles with symbolic order and rites of passage and puberty. At that point in the semester the professor wanted reports at one page at most. I gave him three, but oh well.

Anonymous said...

When you find that horror film set in an airport, remember: you have to watch it in a room where an exorcism is taking place at the same time.
Seems only fair...

Unknown said...

cattleworks, that's a good point.

Snarf said...

It WAS a compliment!!! And I think you ALWAYS have a brain about what you write.

Just so you know: I could never insult final girl! (Because I know that if life is a slasher flick, insulting final girl will surely get me killed)

Anonymous said...

Well, I finally watched THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN like last year with my wife.
I first saw THE EXORCIST when it first came out, and I was 12 at the time.
Since then, I usually name THE EXORCIST as my scariest horror film and Tobe Hooper's TCM as my most disturbing horror film (I'm so old school).
Some day, I'll get around to writing a review of this re-released version, but a thought occurred to me while watching it again.
I have another interpretation on that shot of Fr. Merrin staring down the statue of the demon Pazuzu in Iraq.
Well, I guess from the point of view of Fr. Karras.
I'm now thinking the image represents doubt and lack of faith.
The statue represents Evil but Merrin represents not Good, but simply Man in this world.
The void between them is the question: IS there something to intervene between Mankind and Evil?
Is there a God? Or are we completely alone and unarmed and left to battle Evil by ourselves?
Because in this world, God never seems to show himself outwardly, not in the same way that the Devil does.
I mean, you can get into an argument about that, about whether God reveals himself or not to us, but in the film specifically, it seems God's appearance is purely through Man's act of faith in Him.
Uh, so there.

Mark Euler said...

Saw the Excorcist in Guam 1973. Like my Navy buds, we got stoned B4 the film and was sorry I spun my head out of control...half the audience was out of the theatre befoer the movie was half over. Keep in mind, Guamanians (as they are known) in 1973 were but one generation removed from grass huts and wearing animal bones around their necks. They didn't just freak out...they puked, screamed, passed out and fled the theatre in droves.
Ms. Ponder and I share the opinion that this is a relegious film that portrays the effectivenes of faith and the lack of it....if I'm off base here, it wouldn't be the last time.
While I am a devout Catholic (bash me on your time, not mine), I find the movie an adventure of good versus evil, and the basic goodness of people is revealed in the end by the ultimate act of love...laying down ones life for another.
The best relegious horror films seem to always have a Catholic twist...duh.
What is your take on "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"? Not a slasher flick, maybe not even a horror film per se...a "thinker" all the same.
May chills, goose bumps and things that go "bunp" in the night be yours always.
Oh often do you check under the bed and the closet before turning out the lights?
Don't a tall and brave Texan, I've done it a few times.
I'll give you have the key element of talent..."imagination".
Interesting blog Ms. Ponder.
Clyde Humley (aka Texmarc)

Unknown said...

Oh oh, am I too late?

1. The first manifestation occured some 38 minutes into the movie.
2. The possession intensified some fifteen minutes before the exorcism started.
3. The exorcism started 95 minutes into the movie.
4. The actual exorcism is a 19 minute song and dance, and it took place after 95 minutes of waiting.
5. Father Lancaster Merrick, the exorcist, died 113 minutes into the movie. That was 18 minutes into the whole 19 minute ritual.
6. It's a ____ minute movie which reserved a full 20 minutes for its ritual namesake.
7. Life is too short. Find time to masturbate instead. Don't watch this. Or at least don't expect much.

The Igloo Keeper said...

I shit my pants twice during The Exorcist. Mind you, I shit myself three time during Mona Lisa Smile...
and once during Beaches.
Come to think of it, I've probably got a medical condition.

The Igloo Keeper

jervaise brooke hamster said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.