“It’s a story that can, perhaps, make you question your own value system. Even your own sanity, because it strongly and realistically tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe.” – William Friedkin
In all faith, this is the most enduringly terrifying of all horror classics. The Exorcist (1973) is the original blueprint for half of the horror movies cranked out of Hollywood in contemporary times. Its’ power is primal, however, thanks to the pulsating and pungent directing of William Friedkin (“The French Connection,” “Bug”). Friedkin lets the early scenes live and breathe in a real environment, slowly letting manifestations of the devil rise to presence. Friedkin gradually unleashes feverish visual techniques and sputtering soundtrack devices. I could speak of technique endlessly, such as the frigid temperatures that are brought out more by grainy film stock. Yet there is some kind of black magic that works in the film, it’s unexplained, but new generations continue to have convulsive reactions to the film today.
The prologue could be hard to follow for first-time viewers. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is on an archaeological dig in Iraq when he discovers an ancient amulet which has been around for thousands of years. After some investigation, his worst fears become true when the amulet resembles the statue of Pazuzu, an otherworldly demon who takes the form of a man, a ravenous bird, a scorpion and a lion all in one. These scenes of discovery emanate something entirely else, though, due to Friedkin’s style. The gnashing dogs, the devil worshipper music, horrific laughter that sounds like it comes from Beelzebub itself. It’s a premonition itself, and Father Merrin will eventually make a trip to Georgetown, Maryland to help 12-year old Regan (Linda Blair).
Ellen Burstyn, who beat out Anne Bancroft for the role (Jane Fonda and Audrey Hepburn were also considered), is one of the few actresses who will willingly edge into a nervous breakdown for a role. She played Christine MacNeil, Regan’s mother, whose character is a professional actress who has surrounded herself with vain entertainment people. How ungodly of her. Yet she remains humble and compassionate for her own daughter. This fine girl starts demonstrating abnormal behavior including speaking in obscene blasphemies. Regan is a simple and proper adolescent girl, a little naïve about men and boys, and so when she bleeps “Your mother sucks c***s in hell,” this an indication Regan is not herself.
Consider your own person for a moment in relation to Regan’s possession. We go through this life, often striving to succeed with goodness intact, but sometimes in fear behave in completely inexplicable ways. Have you ever acted in a way, that later, you couldn’t understand how you could have done that? We have all felt under possession of something beyond our control ourselves at one point or another, have we not? We’re all thankful we can purge in ways that Regan, or the psychotics of this world, can’t seem to shake.
Regan though commits a hellacious amount of anti-human activity that goes beyond psychosis: super-rapid convulsions, soiling herself, vile puking with a wrathful trajectory, self-mutilation (followed by “Lick me! Lick me!”), twisting her head 180 degrees, and finally, telekinetic powers on objects to swat people with. The devil is sadomasochistic, ravaging Regan’s body from the inside.
The other priest of the film, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), loses his faith in the beginning perhaps because he senses he is fighting demons more than he keeps closeness to God. His mother has rapid-producing cancer brought on by edema, and it spreads to mental incapacity. The mother ends up in a second-rate convalescent hospital, and blames her son for putting her there. Father Karras faces a cruel remark that if he had become a psychiatrist, he would have had a rich spread on Park Avenue where he could have cared for his mother instead of being a broke priest.
Christine chooses the reluctant Father Karras because he has background in psychiatric studies. Father Karras expresses the usual doubts of whether Regan is psychotic and schizophrenic, or if her soul really is being gouged by the devil. He of course finds justification to move forward with an endorsement for exorcism. He finds reason to take the case to the Vatican, wins Church approval, and is joined by Father Merrin for the mission.
The head-spinning last section of “The Exorcist” is a blow out between good and evil, a thunderous battle of spiritual wills. If some of the leading up encounters with Regan have been nauseating, the final showdown is more lascerating in the battle to force Satan out of Regan’s body. “The power of Christ compels you!” is the most famous line, but the litany was always more complex than that. The on-going litany of words speak to Regan from deep within, and her soul re-awakens. The devil makes Regan lash and desecrate her own body during this internal conflict. The physical violence of what occurs, between the devil and the priests and between the devil and the girl, is appalling and powerful.
“The Exorcist” is, to me, the most artistically accomplished screamfest in film history and is my number two for the horror genre. I’d still rank “The Shining” (1980) as the best horror film ever, all in all, because of its breathtaking visual design and hidden symbolism. But thoughts of God, evil incarnations amongst humankind, and general spiritual confusion is what seems to get rattled while you watch the Friedkin film. It is movies like this that get you to think about the world beyond, that there has always been something watching us. For when life goes right, God is watching us. When life goes wrong, there seems to be something inexplicably damning us. That we go through life feeling judged is perhaps why we tread familiar waters. We fear to offend God or signal Satan.
121 Minutes. Rated R.
HORROR / SUPERNATURAL / SATURDAY NIGHT SCREAMFEST
Film Cousins: “The Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977); “Angel Heart” (1987); “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990); “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” (2005); “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005); “The Conjuring” (2013).