The Exorcist

The Exorcist ★★★★★

when i was approximately 12 years old, i used to babysit at a farm about a mile down the road from home and one day the mother gave me a medium sized cardboard box filled with pulpy gothic-horror fiction; some of the titles were "we have always lived in the castle," "the shining," "the fog," "the amityville horror," and "the exorcist."

i still remember reading william peter blatty's novel; the cover was all black with a high angle image of a woman's face captured on a negative print so she had nothing but white holes for eyes. i was terrified, but i would stay up at night reading that book under the covers with a flashlight, and then of course i couldn't sleep.

i saw the film, for the first time, a couple of years later.

from its initial musical notes, with simple red titles on a pitch-black screen, to the opening scene of chanting set against a hot desert sun, william friedkin's adaptation immediately captures viewers in an almost suffocating chokehold, which doesn't let up until the film's conclusion.

atmospherically, "the exorcist" remains one of the scariest films i've ever watched.

there are many stills and half-seen shots that build on this anxiety: the ruins in the middle east; the closeups of insane patients during damien's visit to his mother; the priest's silent and slow-motion nightmare; all those corners, shadows and hallways in the macneil house. the viewer's perspective is constantly obscured; we're made to feel uncertain and unnerved.

the editing, too, creates this discomfort: friedkin frequently cuts from quiet, calm and seemingly prosaic scenes to intensely loud and bizarre ones. these aren't quite jump scares, because they're more disturbing than frightening, but we can never quite "settle in" to the narrative. we're always on edge.

for example, when reagan interrupts her mother's house-party, strangely saying to the revellers gathered round the piano "you're going to die up there" while she urinates on the carpet, the scene effects a tonal shift that's difficult to assimilate. and there are other surreal juxtapositions, such as the innocent pre-pubescent girl violently swearing, growling, and contorting; or the young, devoted priest, who "looks like a boxer" and doubts his faith. or those subliminal inserts.

the film never relents.

the violence of reagan's possession is the stuff of legend: cuts, shaking, puking, white eyes, twisted necks. even today, in largely secular societies, the blasphemous language and actions in "the exorcist" remain shocking for their violation and irreverence. the organic special effects and sound design that mark reagan's descent through medical treatments, visits with psychiatrists, and the exorcism itself are still horrific and convincing, especially within the context of the film's 1970's realism. Just witness the verisimilitude of the conversation between the priest and detective at the running track; it could come right out of "serpico." the acting is entirely naturalistic too; thus we believe in the demonic possession much more readily than we might in a more fantastically-styled film, or a cgi-loaded one like those of today. this film "feels" real.

its themes are not far-fetched either. "the exorcist" asks us to think about about broken faith, broken homes, broken cities, broken institutions, and even broken hymens! it shatters our illusions of purity, as all good coming-of-age stories do.

i still remember the touch of those yellowed pages in blatty's novel, the smell of that cardboard box filled with horrors that perhaps a 12 year old should not be reading, the sound of the tapes playing backwards in the film, or the sight of the words "help me" spontaneously branding reagan's bruised skin - from the inside! i suspect no priest (doubting or not) could exorcise me of these memories.

nor would i want him to. i return to "the exorcist" to remind me that we don't always have the answers to life's horrors, that sometimes change happens and we can't stop it, but also that we can survive even the worst demons imaginable. easier to believe when you're not a pre-teen reading in the middle of the night.

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