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The Exorcist (1973)
I cannot stand listening to either William Friedkin or William Peter Blatty talk about The Exorcist. They have a tendency to speak at great length, not about what they intended, but what the film means to audiences everywhere. How it shakes the foundations of their faith, makes them question their reality, and turns their view of good and evil on its head. It sounds very nice, but even assuming that what Friedken and Blatty say is true, such statements limit the effectiveness of The Exorcist specifically to those people with a strong monotheistic religious bearing. Personally, however, I find it difficult to recommend the film to much of anybody.
The problem with The Exorcist is that it's a horror film made by someone in denial of the genre. It's never a good thing to outright deny the type of film you're making. The film will still be made, but it's either going to apologize for itself constantly or it's going to emphasize all the wrong things. The Exorcist does both.
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the twelve-year-old daughter of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), hasn't been feeling too well lately. In fact, she's taken to urinating at her mother's parties, flailing violently, and screaming obscenities. Chris seeks medical and psychological help at every level, but when Regan's bed begins bucking of its own accord and random items fly about the room, it's obvious that the problem isn't in Regan's body or mind, but in her soul. Some demon (or the devil himself) has taken hold, and it won't let go until she's dead and rotting her grave. Desperate, she contacts troubled, self-doubting priest-cum-psychiatrist Father Karras for an exorcism. Karras, in turn, calls the only man alive to have performed a successful exorcism, the wizened Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).
Breaking down The Exorcist shot-by-shot would actually reveal a treasure trove of directorial moves. There's no disputing that the director Friedkin is talented -- one need only watch The French Connection to know that, and there are a few sequences in The Exorcist that also attest to his skill. Observe the scene where Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) questions Chris MacNeil regarding a murder that took place in Regan's room. Note how the camera closes in and pulls out on the two participants, and the see-saw of meanings that the movement takes for each (a push in is a trapping box for MacNeil, but a rapidly approaching clue for the detective, for instance).
Such intricate analysis is only useful when the film being scrutinized is worthy of it. Sadly, The Exorcist is not. For all the shots worthy of diagramming, they just don't hold up a story. Friedkin's oft-celebrated "documentarian" approach to the subject matter leaves gaping holes in character arcs or strands our interest in a muddle of mundane dialogue. Often the film will simply shift moods, pulling us from one scene of high emotion (Regan writhing and screaming) to another vastly understated one (Father Karras jogging and discussing movies with Detective Kinderman). These shifts disrupt the momentum, jarring whatever tenuous hold the film had built since the last mood shift. Further, most scenes that take place without Regan are so understated that it's difficult to believe that the characters are dealing with such a overwhelming supernatural problem.
The understatements only serve to highlight and magnify the vulgarities of the "devil" scenes. The possessed Regan spins her head 180°, smacks her mother in the face, and masturbates with a crucifix, all while screaming phrases like "Let Jesus f**k you" and "Your mother sucks c**ks in hell." I may have a strange sense of humor, but I find that sort of thing very funny coming from a pre-teen, even one in grotesque Dick Smith makeup. She even spews green pea soup. We usually only get that kind of action in splatstick comedies. Sadly, Friedkin and screenwriter Blatty (who also wrote the original novel) cannot see the humor in what they create, nor do they seek to create melodrama by giving the devil some purpose for his gibberish. The few times we see an unpossessed Regan, she is such a blank personality that it is impossible to be too concerned for her well-being. The result of all of the above is that Regan MacNeil, possessed girl, becomes nothing more than a cacophony of pseudo-horrific blather, blaring so loudly above the otherwise low-key soundtrack that she becomes incomprehensible.
What's worse than that is what Regan's possession represents to the horror genre as a whole. The being inside Regan is the Devil, Satan himself. Not only that, but Old Scratch appears to have no plan. He just wants to sit inside the little girl until she dies. Since he shows himself to be perfectly capable of escape should it become necessary, the fact that he lies in wait of an exorcism seems, well... stupid. Basically, Friedkin and Blatty have taken the Big Bad, the Ultimate Evil and they've made him into a ridiculous fool who corrupts the body of a pre-teen girl for poops and giggles. While that's all well and good for his ultimate defeat (so to speak), it doesn't do much for the genre itself. Good horror typically requires a credible threat. If you go and make a concentrated statement with millions of dollars of backing that not only is the Devil weak, but he's also stupid, you hamper the effectiveness of our villains. One could argue that Friedkin's undercutting of horror's most mythologically powerful antagonist directly contributed to the rise of the slasher genre later in the same decade.
There is, however, an argument to be made that Satan actually has a plan. The argument relies heavily on the fact that Friedkin spends the first 10 minutes of the film following Merrin as he discovers portents of evil in Northern Iraq. The sequence does not appear to have much to do with the film as a whole, although it is unsettling occasionally, if only because xenophobia is difficult habit to shake. It is possible that this prologue is in fact the only truly significant part of the film, as it speaks to the Devil's true intent -- the murder of Father Merrin during Regan's exorcism. The Devil's constant cries of Merrin's name during emotional duress further support this theory. However, accepting it leaves the film with two major problems. One, most of the character-driven scenes that take place outside of Regan's bedroom become useless and inert. Second, it raises the question of why we are being presented a film about the fulfillment of a long-held grudge without getting much detail on the grudge's origin.
It would be foolish of me not to acknowledge that my thoughts here fly in the face of most common critical wisdom. I am aware of The Exorcist's vaunted position in the history of horror. I am not denying that it holds power for thousands, even millions across the world. For that fact alone, it should be viewed with some amount of reverence, if only to acknowledge its overall effect on what was to come. I feel largely the same about Friday the 13th. That I cannot recommend the film personally does not mean that it is without merit. If this seems a contradiction of what I've said before, then very well, I contradict myself. The genre is large, it contains multitudes1.
Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine were approached to play the mother role that eventually went to Ellen Burstyn.