Blog Directory CineVerse: The devil is in the details

The devil is in the details

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Exorcist, released in late December 1973, came out of the gate like a thunderbolt and immediately established itself as a modern fright classic, becoming the second-highest-grossing film ever at that time and setting a new benchmark for quality in the horror genre—garnering 10 Academy Award nominations and winning two Oscars. Directed by William Friedkin and produced by William Peter Blatty, who penned the 1971 novel of the same name, The Exorcist depicts the possession of a young girl named Regan, portrayed by Linda Blair, and the determined efforts of Father Damien Karras and Father Merrin, played, respectively, by Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow, to expel the demon inhabiting her. Ellen Burstyn also stars as Regan's mother Chris.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Exorcist, conducted last week; to hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode spotlighting The Exorcist, click here.

Why and how does The Exorcist remain one of the all-time great horror movies five decades onward? This film deserves praise for its authenticity, high production values, and quality craftsmanship. The phenomenal special effects aren’t shlocky or budget-constrained: The outstanding makeup work by Dick Smith and the carefully orchestrated practical effects—from Regan’s rotating head and levitated body to the simulated projectile vomiting—look and feel realistic. While his tactics may have been abusive, selfish, and extreme, Friedkin pushed his cast and crew hard to achieve these horrific visuals and lend the film a verisimilitude that places The Exorcist many notches higher than standard horror fare for this era. It also helps that he and Blatty imbue the picture with authentic details, basing the narrative on a true account of exorcism, consulting with religious experts to accurately depict the exorcism rite, placing his actors within a refrigerated bedroom set to produce visible breath vapor, and taking advice from medical experts to make the hospital testing scenes so unnerving yet also faithful to what was involved with an actual angiography at that time. The collaborators deserve kudos for giving The Exorcist an utterly plausible sheen of realism by paying attention to the fine details and making Regan’s physical transformation disturbingly graphic.

Much of what makes The Exorcist so great is that it wasn’t afraid to push the envelope and risk extreme controversy. Audiences had never before seen a demonic possession so convincingly portrayed or a young female character so graphically vulgar or sexually expressive in this context. Add in the blasphemous and profane words Regan utters, the grotesque physical manifestations of the demon inhabiting her body, the brief but completely upsetting subliminal images like flashes of the face of Pazuzu, and the gross-out hospital testing sequences and you’ve got a potently distressing film whose content consistently upset audiences—creating a perfect formula for word-of-mouth buzz and high ticket demand. No one had ever viewed a film like this before, one that reportedly caused viewers to faint, vomit, suffer miscarriages, believe they were possessed, seek medical and psychiatric care, and flee theaters in abject terror. This movie was so alarming it was banned in the UK and other countries and received negative reviews from several prominent critics at the time, although many others gave it positive notices.

The Exorcist isn’t a simplistic exploitation film going for gore, easy jump scares, and cheap shocks. While the supernatural elements are front and center in the second half, it also explores psychological horror elements by examining the personal torments and inner turmoil of Chris, a terrified mother desperate to help her child, and Karras, a priest experiencing a crisis of faith and guilt about his dead mother.

The sound design proved exceptional; consider the many abrupt loud, percussive noises meant to startle us (such as the attic din, the horse cart in Iraq, the unexpected rings of the phone, and the noisy medical equipment) as well as the fantastic amalgamation created to conjure up the demonic voice, which includes haunting words by a gravely-voiced actress mixed with animal noises and electronic sound distortions.

This is a slow-burn film that demands great patience from viewers who are eagerly awaiting the scares; the possession doesn’t kick in until at least 40 minutes have passed, and the famous exorcism sequence arrives in the final 26 minutes. For that matter, several key actions occur offscreen, preventing the viewer from seeing the killing of Burke, the death of Karras’ mother, and Merrin’s demise, for example.

Slant Magazine critic Wes Greene wrote that the film prefers “tone and theme over story: The horror is mostly dictated through its masterful atmosphere and ellipses, which carefully eliminates exposition and character detail to subconsciously put the viewer in a state of unease and preparing us for the overt frights that occur later on.”

The success of The Exorcist also owes much to the outstanding performances, especially by the 12-year-old Linda Blair, who had to endure extreme physical and psychological discomfort to inhabit this role, as well as Ellen Burstyn as her mother and Jason Miller as Karras; all three earned Oscar nominations despite being relatively unknown newcomers. The fine cast further includes Max Von Sydow, who distinguished himself years earlier as a stellar thespian for Ingmar Bergman (often playing faith-challenged characters), Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman, and Mercedes McCambridge as the unholy voice of Pazuzu, the demon possessing Regan.

All of these aforementioned aspects coalesced to make The Exorcist a groundbreaking picture—one that added legitimacy to the horror genre and cleared the path for other prestige horror films to come that benefitted from bigger budgets, acclaimed filmmakers attached to them, and more extensive marketing, including Jaws, The Omen, Carrie, and Alien in the 1970s. It’s no small feat that The Exorcist won two Academy Awards (for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay) after 10 nominations and was the first horror film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, one of only six movies in this genre to earn that distinction—and one of only 19 horror films to have won an Oscar in any category. The Exorcist proved that horror movies could be incredibly frightening, artistically constructed, and well-made and should be taken seriously as an art form and work of entertainment.

The box-office triumph of The Exorcist prompted Warner Brothers to greenlight a sequel—a rarity for the horror genre at this time; in fact, this film spawned three sequels, one prequel, a TV series, and innumerable imitators and copycats in its wake, especially in the immediate years that followed. For proof, consider Abby (1974), Beyond the Door (1974), Seytan (1974), The Antichrist (1974), The House of Exorcism (1975), The Sentinel (1977), The Manitou (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979). More recent examples include The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), The Devil Inside (2012), The Possession (2012), The Conjuring (2012) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), Deliver Us From Evil (2014), The Devil's Doorway (2018), The Cleansing Hour (2019), and The Exorcism of God (2021). The sheer number of films within the possession horror subgenre speaks to the lasting influence and pop culture pervasiveness of the original from 1973. And The Exorcist’s extremely graphic scenes depicting mutilation, vomiting, urination, and bloody self-harm likely inspired future films in the body horror subgenre, too.

This work had an immediate cultural impact, as evidenced by all the press and media coverage it received in the months following its release and the extent to which it was parodied and emulated in pop culture. Additionally, The Exorcist sparked spiritual and existential conversations, including renewed debate about the existence of God and the devil, the endless struggle of good versus evil, and the relevance and value of Christianity and Catholic doctrine.

The Exorcist also proved that you don’t necessarily need a traditional score to musically punctuate a horror film; the choice to add atmospheric music instead, including Mike Oldfield’s song Tubular Bells, was an inspired one, as was Friedkin’s decision to feature the avant-garde music of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, which uses unsettling tones, loud chords, sound clusters, and non-melodic instrumentation to evoke a frightening mood. The Shining took a cue from this latter musical choice, and countless horror films in the decades since The Exorcist have copied this approach to discordant, disquieting musical accompaniment.

Furthermore, the movie illustrated that challenging the norms of what was deemed acceptable in filmmaking could spark significant interest and discussion—prompting the development of inventive marketing approaches for future horror movies—and backlash; several communities, cities, and even countries banned or tried to ban the film.

Friedkin often pushed his actors and crew to extreme lengths to achieve his vision. He slapped one actor to elicit an alarmed reaction just before turning on the camera, for key scenes he fired gunshot blanks in the air to unsettle his thespians, and both Burstyn and Blair were injured during the filming of violent scenes. Friedkin often employs a slow zoom-in or zoom-out on characters or objects in The Exorcist to produce a disconcerting visual effect; this style was copied somewhat in two subsequent classics of 1970s horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien.

The director further deserves applause for allowing himself to be inspired by earlier artists, including painters like Rembrandt, Monet, and Magritte, and filmmakers Sidney Lumet and Alain Resnais (who each had films that also effectively utilized subliminal images) and Hitchcock (he borrows at least two shots from Psycho).

At its heart, this tale is about the timeless conflict of good versus evil and faith versus doubt. What Regan suffers can’t be explained or cured by science or psychology. This film purports that truly evil and demonic forces exist that can be supernaturally embodied within us against our will—even within the form of an innocent young girl. When Karras essentially asks “Why her?” (in the director’s cut, not the original theatrical version), we hear Merrin tell Karras: “I think the point is to make us despair, Damien—to see ourselves as animal, and ugly—to reject our own humanity—to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.”

Deep Focus Review critic Brian Eggert wrote: “The suggestion is that Satan has chosen Regan not because she is vulnerable, but because those around her are vulnerable. The demon’s goal is to drive the family apart and antagonize Karras, while also inciting a re-match of sorts against Merrin, whom Satan has battled before. Regan’s imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, tells her lies about Chris’ friend Dennings to drive them apart; the demon attacks Karras where it hurts, with his mother. The real victim is not Regan, but those who must bear witness helplessly as the demon tears down the girl.”

Filmmaker Mark Judge agrees, writing: “The point of the demonic in The Exorcist is not to levitate bodies, vomit on priests, and telepathically toss furniture around the room…The demon refers to Regan’s mother, a famous actress named Chris, as “Pig,” and to Regan as “Piglet.” Part of this is carried over to the film, where the demon calls Regan “the sow.” This is part of the dehumanization that Fr. Merrin talks about—the way evil attempts to make us despair and consider ourselves animals unworthy of God’s love. This theme is effective in the story because Fr. Karras is having a crisis of faith—he both doubts the existence of God and feels his sins have made him unworthy of love. The demon, as Fr. Merrin notes, ‘knows where to strike’… Amidst the drugs, scandal, rock and roll, and moral collapse of the 1970s, The Exorcist announced that there are some evils that are timeless and don’t change.”

Selflessness and sacrifice are also front and center in The Exorcist. This is more a story about Karras rising to the occasion than a tale about Regan or Chris. Suffering a crisis of spiritual faith and racked with guilt over his mother’s suffering and death, Karras has to summon inner strength and conviction to battle Pazuzu, especially after Merrin dies. The exorcism rite has been thwarted or failed, and he must take matters into his own hands and attempt to pull the demon out of Regan and into himself; Pazuzu helps matters by yanking the St. Joseph medallion off Karras’ neck, which enables the entity to possess the priest. Karras then throws himself from the window to prevent full possession and protect Regan.

Another salient theme is symbiosis and the intersecting of disparate lives. Gradually, the film brings together four key characters who seem drawn together by fate: Merrin, Karras, Chris/Regan, and, to a lesser extent, Kinderman. Bad omens, foreshadowing elements, and premonitions proliferate through the first two acts—such as Merrin’s unsettling experiences in Iraq (and the sudden stopping of a clock that suggests his ticker will eventually expire), a framed photo of Regan clasping her hands in a prayer-like pose, the declining health of Karras’ mother (recall her convalescing in a mental hospital amid patients who look possessed), and the falling St. Joseph medallion in Karras’ dream that later becomes reality. By the final act, all these prime characters coalesce inside Chris’ home and the ultimate battle between good and evil transpires.

Another takeaway? Conservative values matter. The Exorcist suggests that age-old forces of good and evil are at work shaping the world and that science, technology, and secularism are no match for belief in a higher power. It’s no surprise that Friedkin described this as a film “about the mystery of faith.” For Karras to defeat Pazuzu and save Regan, his faith in God and belief in the existence and power of the devil had to be restored. Because Chris is a liberal-minded, divorced single mother working in the Hollywood system who proves powerless against the demonic possession of her daughter, the message, for those who subscribe to this disputed theory, is that feminism lacks agency and children need a traditional family paradigm with a more dedicated mom: That’s why it takes two patriarchal priestly figures to rescue Regan and restore her body, soul, and innocence.

Per film reviewer Richard Scheib, The Exorcist “seems to imply that innocence is a natural state of childhood and that for children to be obscene, use sexual references, masturbate, even to pee on the carpet is something evil (i.e., it is behaviourally alien to them, therefore it must come from The Devil). It is a type of thinking that sits atop the mood of conservative parental thinking of the 1970s – that of parents suddenly unable to understand how come their children were no longer innocent and cherubic and were instead dropping out of society, taking drugs, having sex before marriage and rioting against established authority. The 1960s youth revolt was something so far removed from some traditional parents’ views that children should be good and innocent that the temptation to see The Devil as the cause must have been strong.”

This is a film with some plot ambiguities. Several unanswered questions that arise after watching The Exorcist include:
  • What is Merrin specifically searching for in Iraq before he discovers the Pazuzu relic, how did he never notice the massive Pazuzu statue before, and why does he suddenly depart for America?
  • Who defiles the Virgin Mary statue?
  • Why is Dennings the only person Pazuzu kills before the priests arrive?
  • Did Pazuzu kill Merrin directly, or did Merrin suffer a heart attack?
  • Why does Karras so violently attack Regan’s body in the climactic scene (this is a 12-year-old girl’s body, after all)?
  • How could Regan have lived after twisting her neck 180 degrees? And how did all those gouges, cuts, and scars disappear so quickly?
  • What happens to Dennings’ murder investigation, and how and why is the family cleared from responsibility in the wake of three dead men?
The Exorcist may not be as traumatizing and radical as it was on first release—a time when Americans’ faith in their country, its leaders, and the future was shaken by the Vietnam War, Watergate, the sexual revolution, and a growing sociocultural pessimism—but it’s still got plenty of venom in its sharp fangs. And I expect that it continues to serve as an alarming sensory and psychological experience for so many different types of watchers. If you’re a parent, this tale is your worst nightmare. If you’re a teenager, you put yourself in Regan’s position and perhaps worry if you’re a candidate for possession. Perhaps most vulnerable to its spiritual scares are religious types, who can find affirmation of their faith in a higher power after screening The Exorcist, while secular viewers and lapsed Christians, on the other end of the spectrum, could end up asking themselves, “what if?” and shuddering at the inexplicable. Older fans can find inspiration in the tried-and-tested Merrin yet be horrified by the reality that age eventually catches up with you and, if the devil doesn’t get you, a heart attack might.

The Exorcist’s greatest gift could be that it’s an equal opportunity terrifier—a film with a deserved shock reputation that precedes every rewatch and reminds you that, for the past 50 years, this has been regarded by the masses and the media as the most frightening film of them all. It’s no surprise that Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, Time Out, AMC, Vudu, Study Finds, Meerkat Movies, and other reputable sources, pollsters, and publishers have ranked The Exorcist #1 on their lists of the scariest film ever made. The ability to terrify so many generations after half a century is one helluva superpower.

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