Movie of the Week: The Exorcist (1973)

Written by William Peter Blatty, based on his nvel
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
Released December 26, 1973
RT 122 min.
Home Video Warner Brothers
Classic Horrors rating = 9 (out of 10)

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What can I possibly say about The Exorcist that hasn’t already been said? I don’t even have a memorable story to tell about the first time I saw it.  I know it was very controversial and, because I was underage at 10-years old, my dad had to accompany me to see it when it was released in 1973.  But, it didn’t really make a lasting impression on me and has never been one of my favorite movies.  In fact, I felt almost like I had to watch it again, because it is undoubtedly one of the landmark films of the 1970s.  No body of work about horror movies of the 70s can neglect it.

I watched The Exorcist recently and learned three things about it that I had either forgotten or I did not realize. First of all, regardless of genre, it is an excellent movie!  Second, while it is definitely an intense and disturbing movie, I don’t know that it’s a particularly scary movie.  Third, maybe (as I’ve sometimes read) The Exorcist isn’t really a horror movie at all.  Please allow me to elaborate upon these three points.

The Exorcist is an excellent movie!

Due to its reputation, my opinion of The Exorcist developed during the years that I never actually watched the movie. It wasn’t one I watched over and over again.  I understood it to be a classic horror movie, a must-see for anyone who loves the genre.  When I watched it recently, though, I realized that whether or not that’s what it is, it is also an expertly made movie.  Does anyone remember it was nominated for ten Academy Awards?  And not even for make-up or special effects (I wonder if there were categories for those back then).

The Exorcist was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Best Art/Set Direction and Best Film Editing. It won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay (William Peter Blatty) and Best Sound.  Every one of these was well deserved.  The nominees lost to the likes of The Sting (which won seven awards that year), Glenda Jackson, John Houseman, Tatum O’Neal and George Roy Hill.  As usual (until The Silence of the Lambs in 1991), the subject matter probably clipped its number of wins.

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Burstyn is phenomenal in The Exorcist as the mother of a teenage girl who becomes possessed by demonic forces. Her reactions to what’s happening are natural and realistic.  For the key moment that draws me to this conclusion, don’t watch how she responds to the various atrocities she witnesses.  Instead, watch how she responds when she realizes her daughter may have killed someone.  She’s been holding in her feelings when she’s chatting with the detective (Lee J. Cobb) investigating the death of her friend, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowan), but as soon as he leaves and she shuts the door, the floodgates open.  Maybe she doesn’t understand what’s happening in her daughter’s bedroom upstairs, but she understands murder.

Friedkin is a master behind the camera of The Exorcist. The movie is composed of mostly short scenes with no clear idea of the passing of time between them.  Some key events aren’t even witnessed, such as the death of Dennings.  In a way, we as the spectators are experiencing the same perspective of events as the characters living them.  One of his creative choices, I assume, was to use music sparingly.  Very rarely during the movie, is there music in the background.  The famous “Tubular Bells” music comes early when Burstyn is walking down the street, not during any horrific scene.  Often, the only soundtrack is the low, guttural growling of the possessed Regan MacNeil (Blair).

The Exorcist is intense and disturbing, but not necessarily scary.

If you’re not disturbed by images of a 12-year old girl spewing green projectile vomit at a priest or her head spinning completely around 360 degrees, I hope you are by the vision of her stabbing her crotch with a crucifix. These are scenes that don’t lessen in impact due to the passing of years.  But I’m not sure I find them “scary.”  For me, it is far more terrifying to witness the looks on the poor girl’s face and in her eyes during the moments these things are not happening.  She’s lost somewhere and needs help, but she is helpless.  Whether or not her possession is a metaphor for something else, no parent should be able to hear Regan’s cries without his or her heart breaking.  But that’s more sad than scary.

I’m scared in movies when I think its events could really happen. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’m scared in movies when there’s a threat of danger to someone, particularly to someone to whom I can relate.  I’m not saying demonic possession couldn’t happen, but I don’t feel it’s likely to happen to me or my family.  I mean, there’s a larger chance one of us would be stalked by a slasher.  In The Exorcist, I never feel a threat to anyone but Regan herself, therefore, I can’t relate.  It also comes down to suspense.  Even unimaginable circumstances can be made terrifying with suspense.  The Exorcist is not a suspenseful movie.  Again, it’s intense and disturbing, but not suspenseful.

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Look at how Friedkin presents his horrors. They are sudden and unexpected, with no gradual build-up and reveal.  For example, the first two instances that something funny is happening to Regan are so matter-of-fact that they’re nearly throwaways.  Regan mentions in passing her imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, and later walks into a party and urinates on the floor.  Both of these events occur with neither fanfare, nor, as mentioned earlier, music.  There are no attempts to build suspense with scenes like this; they simply happen.

The Exorcist isn’t really a horror movie at all.

This may be my most controversial point. But think about it.  I’ve just explained that the director does nothing to build suspense, or even shock the audience with sudden surprises.  Horrible things happen, but not for the sake of scaring the audience.  In an introduction to the version of The Exorcist I watched, Friedkin says the movie is about faith.  “Yeah, right,” I thought, “he must be ashamed of the horror genre and he’s trying to distance himself from it.”  But after watching it, I tend to agree.  Why else is the movie split between what’s happening in Chris MacNeil’s Georgetown brownstone and what’s happening in the life of despondent priest, Father Damien Karras (Miller)?

If you can’t tell from the look in his eyes, Karras flat out tells a colleague that he thinks he’s lost his faith. In the obvious sense, the fact that he accepts that Regan has indeed been possessed is how he regains it.  I mean, if you believe in the devil, you must also believe in God, right?  But in a less obvious way, The Exorcist is all about faith.  For one thing, the MacNeils have no faith; they are not religious.  What does that say about the possession?  Were they targeted by demons because they were godless people?  Or are demons just indiscriminate predators?  It’s fairly certain that faith will not automatically protect you.  In the face of horrible things, how important is faith?  Apparently, it cannot protect you.

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I could easily be convinced that The Exorcist is more a drama than a horror film. In fact, it’s almost a really ugly, albeit well-made, version of a disease-of-the-week TV movie.  What is wrong with Regan?  Doctors think she has a lesion in her temporal lobe.  (“There’s nothing wrong with her bed; there’s something wrong with her brain.”)  But there’s nothing on her scan.  It must be drugs, then.  Nope?  Well, let’s call the psychiatrist.  When hypnosis fails, let’s call an exorcist.  I mean, if Regan believes she is possessed, then maybe believing the demon is being cast from her will heal her.  You know what?  This would make an excellent episode of House!

Conclusion

All I can say definitively is that when I re-watched, The Exorcist, I loved it! Technically, the filmmakers and actors were at the tops of their games in producing one of the rare movies to which I would award a rating of 9 out of 10 on the Internet Movie Database.  The fact that it provides the opportunity for debate 45 years after it was first released is a testament to its status as a classic.  I’d like to encourage people who have never seen it because of its perceived genre to cast their preconceptions aside.  Don’t think of The Exorcist as only a horror movie.  It is a simply a movie, perhaps one of the best.

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