The Exorcist

The Exorcist ★★★½

Regarded as one of the greatest horror films, I’m sure that nearly everyone has seen this Wm. Friedkin film at one time or other, so investing time rehashing the plot seems pointless, so this review will focus more on technique and performance than story line.

Back in 1970 I read the amazing Wm. Peter Blatty novel that brought into the public consciousness many things theological that had heretofore remained in the dusty back rooms of Christian Dogma. Things we’ve all seen so very many times now (exorcisms, rituals, Dan Brownish conspiracy theories) were all fresh and novel back in 1970. When it was announced that a film was going to be made from this book, and that Wm. Friedkin, a hot commodity as he had just directed The French Connection, was pegged to direct – the anticipation was palpable.

When finally released in 1973 people were, to put it simply, blown away. Never before had the film viewer been allowed a glimpse inside an actual exorcism – or seen the type of demonic possession on display here. Those unfamiliar with the novel were shocked. Myself, having read the book and knowing what was to come, still totally enjoyed the screenplay (I was 17 at the time).

Now, on this rewatch 40 years later – we come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. There’s nothing wrong per se with Friedkin’s direction (a director I still admire deeply), and Blatty included some nice elements in adapting his novel for the screen, but there are flaws aplenty here – first and foremost the performance of Ellen Burstyn as Linda Blair’s mom. Very over the top – ranting and boiling over – screeching at the drop of a hat, her performance was annoying in the extreme. Add to this her almost hard boiled noir delivery – “tell it to me straight, Doc!” – yadda yadda warden, I’m busting outta dis joint – hoo boy…

Of course, counter weighing Burstyn’s uneven and over the top performance is that of Jason Miller as Father Karras, a Jesuit psychiatrist who is suffering from a loss of his faith due to his mother’s illness and subsequent passing. He feels Christian guilt, like a good Catholic boy and struggles with the notion that all the pain and suffering he is witness to (including his mother’s dementia) are all a part of God’s will. Not the usual kind of fodder you find in a horror film. Miller’s performance is subdued, showing depth and gravitas and a certain world weariness as he watches the horror surround him – and then finally offer him a chance at some form of redemption (see, God provides….).

There are many scenes that work beautifully; in fact the entire 10 minute beginning sequence in Iraq is wonderful, especially the ending scene of this passage where a blood red sun is backdrop to two “idols” facing each other seemingly placed on opposite pedestals. One idol the statue of the ancient demon, the other the catholic priest, father Merrin, portrayed by the one and only Max Von Sydow.

Another symbolic scene takes place when Father Karras enters the loony bin where his mother has been taken. He’s not wearing his collar, and yet the loony women gravitate towards him, wanting to touch him – reminiscent of the parable where Jesus enters the Leper colony to heal them – and the lepers, wishing to be cleansed, overwhelm him.

And yet… there are scenes that play either flat or absurd. The early scenes of Regan as just another 12 year old girl, playing with her mother, or gushing about seeing a horse, seem forced. There’s also a scene where Detective Kinderman (played by Lee J Cobb) interviews Burstyn. In an obvious plot device, after sharing a cup of joe, Burstyn asks if Cobb wants another cup – which allows Cobb to enter the kitchen where, along the window sill are displayed some of Regan’s craft work. After commenting on the clay figures, Cobb is given his 2nd cup (must be Folgers – richness worth a 2nd cup….), he takes a single sip, puts down the cup, and then exits. Arrrgh! What was the point – other than the necessity to include the clay figurines… nothing, that’s what.

There’s also a scene taking place at the center of a walking bridge (hmm, a metaphor perhaps of the gulf between medical science and theological mysticism; a bridge that Burstyn, in her desperation is willing to cross), where Burstyn and Father Karras meet. She asks him for a cigarette, which, being 1973, he of course has. He lights her cigarette and she takes a few puffs as they converse. Then she casually tosses the smoke to the ground and grinds it out. Ok – product placement and all (cigarettes had not become a pariah yet), but litter was already well in the public consciousness – so why show her so cavalier about litter?

Now finally, I get to the crux of the matter – the possession and the exorcism of Linda Blair. I was wondering how these seminal scenes would hold up – would it all seem cheesy and blatantly obvious now, 40 years later? The answer is yes and no. As is the case with many a film that blazes the trail, and with 40 years of advancement in technology and make up in the subsequent years, we’ve all seen this sort of thing done better – but this film still holds a certain panache`. While the make up on Blair seems a bit over developed, it remains plausible, and the effects (levitation, bed rocking, doors slamming, etc) are mundane by today’s standards, yet they are performed seamlessly. To the film’s credit, I am still haunted by those feral, yellow eyes, and will never forget the scene where Regan rises, silhouetted by back light while the demon statue floats beside her.

On a final note – another aspect that I found disconcerting was in sound editing. The scratching, thumping sounds in the attic seem without reference – they lack reverb, or something to make you feel that they were coming from above instead of a layer on a soundtrack. The same applies to the grunting and groaning and speaking in multiple tongues and voices that Regan/Demon performs. It all seems somehow detached from reality – again, obviously on a soundtrack instead of being organically “in the room”. It could be a sign of the times (I know sound editing has progressed light years in 40 years) – but distracting none the less.

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