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October 27, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #95 - The Exorcist

People think I'm really messed up when I say it, but The Exorcist is easily one of my ten favorite movies in any genre of any time of the history of cinema.  And here's the kicker - I think it's a rather uplifting film.  I think it's one of the greatest representations of what a film - not just a horror film, a film in general - can do to take control of the viewer's emotions and change their perception of things around them.  I think it's a flat-out moving cinema experience, and I think it's awesome.  I think a lot of it, obviously, and now I should probably stop myself and try to see if I can come up with a few of the reasons why.
Though it's uncool to admit it in today's political/social climate, I'd be crazy not to admit that a large part of The Exorcist's effect on me is because I am in fact a Christian horror fanatic.  Though I'm far from Catholic, and though I don't know how much faith I'd put in an alleged case of demonic possession, the battle that is waged over several souls in The Exorcist just strikes me as fantastically epic.
At the center of the war between good and evil - well, it's actually normalcy vs. evil - are two of the most interesting characters in horror.  One is a 12 year old girl - Regan McNeil, played by Linda Blair - and the other is a psychiatrist and priest - Father Damian Karras, played by Jason Miller - who's losing his faith while battling personal demons.  There are a lot of other established movie star folks in the movie - Ellen Burstyn as Regan's mom, Lee J. Cobb as a nosy investigator, Max von Sydow as the well-aged title character are among them - but for me almost everything in the movie comes back to Father Karras and little Regan.
I've talked about how much I love Miller's turn as the doubting padre many times in my days, but I will continue to sing his praises until the day my horror lovin' heart dies.  The poor guy just seems beaten and broken early in the film as he deals with his mother's fading health and the realization that he can do nothing to change her mortal fate.  There are few moments when he doesn't appear that he wants to submit to the world, which are basically the moments when he's punching the sin out of a punching bag or jawing with that investigator about rites of confession and John Garfield and Sal Mineo.  He just can't muster the strength to be the religious man that he is supposed to be on a daily basis.
Enter Regan MacNeil, the daughter of an actress who doesn't go to church and who suddenly and inexplicably becomes a host to the demon Pazuzu.  We don't really know why the demon picks Regan as a vessel into our world - and I'm not sure I've ever bothered to ask that question either - but the marriage between the demonic force and the seemingly innocent young girl creates some of the most unnerving events we've ever seen.  Little Linda Blair would deservedly receive an Oscar nomination for her role, because the line between human and demon must have required a lot from the young actress. (It also required plenty of special effects and makeup and one helluva voice talent in Mercedes McCambridge, but that's another story.)
It's important to note that The Exorcist never has its characters start preaching to Regan or her mother, who are at best closeted Christians.  There's a trend in horror that uses religion, particularly in the vampire subgenre, that states the characters who are being assaulted by an evil force must do things like renouncing sin and accepting God and being made pure.  This was never the intent of director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty, whose film seems to be more about the faith of Father Karras than anyone else, and he's only given a brief "Catholic Cowboy Up" speech from the elder Father. 
 Though both of the priests who play into the film's outcome are men of the cloth, both have human weaknesses that the demon can exploit.  This certainly isn't one of those films where the scholarly doctor rushes in to save the day because he knows everything about the villain. One could argue that the film's statement here speaks to the uncertain nature of faith; that making the exorcists so frail can remind the viewer that all control lies in the hands of whatever God is out there.
I suppose the presentation of the two priests is just one example of how unconventional The Exorcist is in the annals of horror cinema.  I don't think there's another film that was made before it or an imitator that came after it that so blatantly invites demonic wickedness into our world.  There's nothing in The Exorcist - except for maybe a couple of moments where Cobb's character makes us laugh - that brings levity to the proceedings.  The stories of how Friedkin kept the set tense - including freezing the room, shaking the floor with hydraulics and even firing a handgun in the tight space for effect - are well documented, and you can certainly tell that it worked.  At one point or another, everyone in the movie looks like they've had their spirits broken by the demonic presence.
So how the heck can I say that The Exorcist is an uplifting experience to me? The easy answer would be to say that it's just a movie.  You know, it's that age old "horror makes us feel good because it scares us and then lets us loose in a safe world" argument.  But I think The Exorcist is bigger than that.  Because if we believe in the kind of evil that The Exorcist offers - even if its dramatized like this - then we're reminded that we also believe in the kind of good that Father Merrin and Father Karras devote their lives to.  It reminds us that these imperfect men represent something bigger, and that something is worth fighting for when evil shows up in our world.
With Halloween upon us, there's no reason any horror fan couldn't benefit from another viewing of The Exorcist.  There's plenty to love for everyone - Christian or non-believer - and I don't think anyone can effectively argue against its technical prowess.  But to me it's always been something bigger than that.  It's an experience that represents everything a movie can be, and a life changing piece of cinema.  I don't necessarily believe in the events of The Exorcist, but I believe in what they stand for.  And that helps make The Exorcist a midnight movie that moves me like no other movie can.


Chris Hewson said...

So have you seen either Exorcist 2: The Heretic or the 'spiritual sequel' to the first one, The Ninth Configuration?

Kev D. said...

I didn't sleep for at least a week after I saw this for the first time. Although the original Ghostbusters had a similar effect... so maybe I was just a weenie.