Thirty years of horror: The Exorcist (1973)

Chris: If you ask people to describe the most iconic scenes from The Exorcist, you’ll hear about pea soup, twisting heads, skin writing, and levitation. Those bits are all fine for what they are, and some of them are terrifying. Nothing in the movie though — not one thing — is as scary to me as one little line, uttered by the demon who’s possessed poor little Regan: “Father, could you help an old altar boy?”

We’re still fairly early in the possession at the point of this line. Doctors and specialists have tried to convince Chris MacNeil that her daughter’s problems are medical in nature. We’ve seen evidence to the contrary, but maybe we’re still sort of giving that some thin amount of credence. Even if we do think that there’s something supernatural afoot, maybe we’re trying to bargain that down. It’s the house. It’s the Ouija board. Something. That line — which Father Karras has already heard on a subway platform from a homeless man and uttered in the old man’s voice — turns any mitigation we might try to make of the demonic presence upside down. It suggests and omnipresence or at least omniscience on the part of the entity; it knows what we do and what we say and what we think. The implication of that line is terrifying.

After the jump, far too vulgar a display of power

Chris: Much has been said and written about The Exorcist, which created a cultural phenomenon when it opened the day after Christmas in 1973. It pushed the horror genre front and center in cinema as something to be considered and taken seriously, and as such it has an influence that lingers to this day. Perhaps more than any other film on this list — maybe with the exception of Jaws — it is iconic. The devil and demonic forces of hell had been movie horror themes before, most notably in Rosemary’s Baby. In Polanski’s film, though, we knew why Ro was being tormented. She married the wrong guy. She ate the mousse. She kept inviting the creepy lady from next door into her life. Nothing of that sort of thing happens in The Exorcist. Maybe it’s the Ouija board. Maybe not. The demon here just seems to pick Regan at random without much explanation, and that’s a frightening implication.

Tom: The camera — and the devil — seems to just find this Georgetown house, much like it roved over New York before settling on the brownstone where Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband would live. The devil is as capricious as a stray bullet. Plus, he loves actors. But the randomness, the lack of explanation, and the subverted rules are an important point in The Exorcist. A lot of horror undercuts itself by explaining too much. The implication here seems to be that Lancaster Merrin loosed something in Iraq, and that it then settled in an attic on its way to Regan MacNeil’s temporal lobe. That something doesn’t loosen the straps on command, he doesn’t divine Karras’ mother’s maiden name, and he won’t magically open a drawer a second time. He plays with the rules. He exists to sow doubt, confusion, and chaos. All “vulgar displays of power” are optional.

Thirty years later, a wise psychic in Paranormal Activity will explain that demons are beyond human ken. They are completely beyond our experience. In that regard, they’re like God. This is a movie about religion, about the impenetrable natural order, which is the stuff of religion, shepherded by fallible men. These priests aren’t your typical latter day movie priests. They aren’t wrestling with their faith because of someone they want to fuck or have fucked or are going to fuck. These priests aren’t shorthand for child molesters. These priests wrestle with the inevitability of death like the rest of us. They will accept science and medicine, like the rest of us. They drink and smoke.

Chris: So what’s left for a viewer of this movie 40 years later? Well, plenty, I think. I’ve seen the movie dozens of times over the years, and like everyone else, I know the good guys win in the end. That doesn’t mean the journey to that finale isn’t fascinating. Even after so many viewings, the transformation of little Regan and the effect on her mother is harrowing.

Tom: Exactly. It’s not all that grotesque make-up, which looks awfully commonplace these days. Raimi and crew have ridden that horse into the ground. If you’ve seen one white-eyed white-faced hoarse demon, you’ve seen them all. Instead, Mercedes McCambridge’s voice acting and a very young Linda Blair’s total commitment are absolutely timeless.

Chris: I love how William Friedkin’s direction moves things along. I’ve heard his direction here described almost as that of a documentary filmmaker, and I don’t disagree. He mostly knows to stay out of the way and let the actors and story happen. This makes the decision to edit in a bunch of subliminal demonic faces and tension-breaking scenes to the Director’s Cut version of the film baffling. It undercuts the strength of the original direction and tells me that Friedkin’s weakness is a lack of awareness for telling his smart moviemaking choices from his dumb ones.

Tom: You can disabuse yourself of any notions of Friedkin’s exceptionalism by watching some of his later movies. He had quite a fall from grace after the 70s.

Chris: Not that there aren’t a few noticeable missteps here and there. The opening sequence with Father Merrin in Iraq feels a bit too long. The decision to show the demon at one point next to Regan in one of the exorcism sequences feels clunky and unnecessary. Detective Kinderman’s role feels tacked on and out of place here. The director’s cut of the film adds some deleted scenes with Kinderman that help round out his character, but as mentioned, there’s too many superfluous things that don’t work in the new version to make it something I’d recommend.

Tom: Did anyone need Kinderman’s character rounded out? Hey, look, it’s a wacky detective who seems to have sauntered in from some dippy TV show. This week on Kinderman! Everyone’s favorite moviegoing homicide detective investigates the mysterious death of a Hollywood director. Lights, action, murder!

I just rewatched the extended edition, as I know from the crab-walking scene. That really doesn’t work in my opinion. It’s just kind of goofy. Freaky, but goofy. But I like the split-second demon face edits. They still freak me out. Were all those added? Surely there’s at least one in the original version of the movie.

I love that practical shot of the statue from Iraq and the powerfully bright backlight. Regan’s straps are loosened, her body is contorted, reaching, striving, as if something in her is trying to escape. In fact, I’ve put that image at the top of this article. Take that, Hornbostel! The power of practical effects compels you. The power of practical effects compels you. The power of practical effects compels you.

Furthermore, I absolutely love the Iraq prologue. I love how The Exorcist takes its time establishing a tone and introducing the characters. The early bits like the man with one blind eye, the snarling dogs, and the stopped clock are all memorable. The Exorcist is at first a puzzle. Three pieces are introduced: a dig in Iraq, a house in Georgetown, and a priest who looks like a boxer. The puzzle is “how do we get from there to here?” William Friedkin’s Sorcerer plays with the same concept, showing us four unrelated characters before bringing them together for a spiritual and physical trial.

Chris: Friedkin’s greatest contribution to the film may have been his discovery of Jason Miller — in his first movie role ever– as Father Damian Karras. The “could you help an old altar boy” line sets the film in motion in a way that I believe establishes him as our protagonist. No other character in the film will change so much. Miller so inhabits this role that I suppose for audiences it was impossible to imagine him playing any other character. That’s the only explanation I can give for why the actor would be unable to parlay what appears to be a star-making performance into greater things. Miller’s performance to me is that of a virtuoso. He’s onscreen with Ellen Burstyn and Max Von Sydow and yet he commands our attention whenever we see him, and not with any grand flourishes. With his sad eyes and craggy face, he does more acting with his eyebrows here than many actors in horror films do with their entire bodies and voices. Jason Miller’s understated performance alone here makes the movie worth revisiting and gives it an enduring quality.

Tom: For me, the towering presence of Max von Sydow as Lancaster Merrin is key. It anchors the beginning and ending of the movie. It’s a vital part of the story, and it’s such a shocking death. We don’t even get to see it. The movie takes over an hour and a half to get back to Lancaster Merrin, and then it senselessly kills him.

But not before he can answer the overaching question of why, asked throughout by Karras. Why this girl? Why these characters? Why suffering and death? “I think the point is to make us despair,” Father Merrin says through a latticework of bannisters. “To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.” This is Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty’s point. It’s a concept he’ll explore further in a lesser known movie called The Ninth Configuration, which is the real follow-up to The Exorcist while Hollywood fumbles around for four more movies.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)