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You are surely familiar with that expression that movie marketers use, “You have to experience this film.” Well, I agree with you – or probably most of you – that the term is overused. But, The Exorcist is exactly the type of film that deserves this description. The first time you sit down to watch this horrific film, you find yourself in the midst of an experience. You can’t think about anything else. You can’t take your eyes off the screen. You might find your hands clenched by your cheeks for much of the run time. You dread what could possibly be coming next. I’m not trying to be dramatic – it’s just a fact that this is what they mean when they say, “a film experience.” Let’s consider another marketing term before we get started – “often imitated, seldom duplicated.”
The Exorcist is about a movie star’s daughter who becomes possessed by the devil. After her mother tries all kinds of remedies, from the latest medical technology to hypnotism, she takes the advice of the latest group of doctors at a clinic, and asks a local priest to perform an exorcism. The local priest obliges her after initially balking, mostly due to his own, recent conflict of faith. But, after his initial experience (not to overuse the term, but seriously) with her daughter, he asks his superiors to allow him to reach out to a priest with exorcism experience. Can you imagine that job description and subsequent interview?
Right away the film is polarizing and provocative because it involves faith. More than that, it involves the Catholic Church, which is an entity with plenty of controversy lately. The story involves superstitions that may seem completely out of date. It concerns the very life of a child. And it’s about a mother that is so worried and emotionally obliterated that she just doesn’t know what to do. So, like some of the other horror films that consistently reach top movie lists, and for as out-of-bounds as this film seems, it has some very true, emotional connections that viewers can relate to. Don’t we all want our children to be safe? Don’t we worry like hell when there’s something inexplicably wrong with them? Aren’t we all able to relate to fear?
Let me go step by step to provide an idea of how the film develops. Like many classic films, it doesn’t really open where you might expect it to. The Exorcist begins in northern Iraq, at an archaeological dig where Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is working with several local workers to unearth ancient relics. Some of these relics are clearly giving the poor old guy heartburn: the statues he finds seem to portray a demon. And the way the sun sets and the dogs around the dig fight and the music screeches, these elements all contribute to a feeling of uneasiness that the priest is feeling. These scenes have very little dialogue, but somehow Merrin is able to convince us that he’s been around evil like this before.
Next, we’re in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C. The film uses even pacing and is in no hurry as it introduces Father Karras (Jason Miller). What I mean is, the film never seems slow, it just seems closer to a novel in its pace than modern day films. Anyhow, Father Karras is having a crisis of faith, driven by the illness and eventual passing of his elderly mother. In these scenes concerning Karras, two are worth mentioning. First, he asks to be re-assigned, but his superior insists that his knowledge of psychology is second to none in this region of the church. Request denied. Second, while traveling home after seeing his Mom, a homeless man in the shadows of a subway asks him for some help, saying, “I’m a catholic, Father.” But somehow, it’s another unsettling mini-scene, one of which comes back in an unexpected way.
The building conflict that ends in extraordinary violence starts so softly. Chris notices that Regan’s windows are sometimes open after she’s gone to bed. It’s really cold in Regan’s room all the time. Then one night, Chris wakes up to find Regan in her bed. When she asks her daughter why she’s there, Regan explains, “my bed wouldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t sleep.” Hmmm. One of those things kids say? It turns out, NO. The violence with which the spirit of the devil enters the room and then settle into Regan is – dare I use another overused word? – shocking.
Now, I’d like to make a note concerning the performances, because the acting is a huge reason this film works as well as it does. Given the wrong actor, the entire production might have been a failure. Anyhow, I usually draft these entries, then let them simmer, have a read, look for some other thoughts from various sources… one of the articles I found is linked below concerning Linda Blair’s age at the time. As if the film needed another controversial element, Blair was only 13 at the time the film was made. Now, I don’t feel I can offer any productive thought related to her involvement in the film (from a moral standpoint), so I’d just like to compliment the job she did. I simply can’t believe how young she was. I can’t believe how convincing her body movement was, the makeup and effects that contributed to her performance. Blair’s evolution from a sweet little girl to this living demon is something to behold. Apparently, Mr. Friedkin considered over 2,000 different young women for the part:
EW’s 10 Creepy Details about The Exorcist
Further, the actor who played the voice of the demon, Mercedes McCambridge, went to extraordinary lengths for her director and role. Friedkin wanted McCambridge for the role because he remembered her unique voice and performances from old Orson Welles’ radio broadcasts. Well, McCambridge was an alcoholic, and advised Friedkin she had gone through rehab. But, she would need to drink and smoke for the role to be real. Oh, and she’d have to eat raw eggs, too, to get that flutter in her voice. I have to say, it’s this level of dedication to the story – which was mirrored by the rest of the cast and crew – that delivers a film classic!
Quick sidebar: while the performances are impeccable, another essential aspect to what provides this disturbing, overall feeling of dread in The Exorcist is how the director, William Friedkin, chooses to use sound. There is a scene culminating in deafening obscenities (after the child is possessed), which is followed by absolute quiet in a peaceful Georgetown scene. Sound is used in the opposite way, too. There are scenes in the house that Chris McNeil (Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) are living in while Chris shoots a film, which start very quiet – and then explode as the demon rages from Regan’s vocal chords… I don’t think the use of sound can be under-estimated. When we think of horror films, we usually think of the blood and chaos and violence and maybe music… but we rarely think of how much a part sound design really contributes.
I hesitate to say much more. You’ve no doubt guessed that the priests Karras and Merrin are eventually called in to bring Regan some solace and return her to good health. But the conflict within Karras is fascinating to watch. The anguish that Ellen Burstyn, as McNeil, displays is heartbreaking and a credit to her acting. The violence and special effects required to seamlessly tell this tale of a girl literally rotting to death is something to behold. Will the priests’ ancient remedies help the girl in time?
It’s that time of year when we dress up for Halloween, re-think old superstitions and ponder our fears perhaps more than other seasons. We are all human, and to be human is to know fear. How we conquer or minimize or deal with fear is subject to a great deal of interpretation. It’s a personal meditation, or process, right? As I referenced earlier, the film is polarizing in part because it deals with raw, primal emotions, and world religion within the same story. The Exorcist will challenge your psyche, I promise you, whether or not you’re a person of faith.