What an excellent day for an exorcism. While Anthony Hopkins is in theaters compelling demons out of people and dollars out of people’s wallets with The Rite, we decided it was a good time to revisit the granddaddy of all possession horror, The Exorcist. Made in 1973 by William Friedkin, straight off of The French Connection, it stars Linda Blair, the original Haley Joel Osment, as a charming young girl who loves her mother, horseback riding, and turning her head around 180 degrees while screaming profanities. Ah, youth! So start doing your stretches, because it’s time to exorcise.
Darren Franich: The Exorcist is a slow movie. There’s a 10-minute prologue in Iraq. The main characters don’t meet until more than halfway into the movie. Practically an hour of the running time is devoted to a relentless array of medical tests, which makes the movie almost feel like a proto-satire of the HMO era: “Let’s test her brain! Let’s test her spine! Here, let me recommend a psychiatrist!”
Keith Staskiewicz: Yes, it’s slow, but it’s slow for a reason. A lot of the scariness of this movie is founded on the atmospheric dread built up over the course of the first hour. If Linda Blair just started pea-souping all over the place from Page One you wouldn’t get that great escalation of horror. I also like that it’s a relatively realistic portrayal of how a regular, rational person would react to something like this: Assume it’s medical until there’s literally no other possibility but something supernatural. Which leads into the one constant factor in basically any exorcism movie: They are all extremely religious, and, more specifically, extremely Catholic. People always accuse Hollywood of being a godless heathen land of false idols and fake tans, but in reality, a lot of movies end up falling on the side of presuming that there is a higher being, if only because horror/fantasy/what-have-you films would be a lot more boring otherwise.
DF: That’s the duality of the Catholic horror genre. Movies like The Omen, Stigmata, and The Rite all glory in the most marketable portions of church dogma — Armageddon, the Devil — but in a weird way, they’re also affirmations that God does exist, if only as a counterpoint to evil. Which makes The Exorcist, for all its vérité-realism, look a bit ridiculous, even funny… at least to this former altar boy. Despite the gore, the movie wouldn’t be out of place in Sunday School, really.
KS: I think I saw that in CCD. It was called Veggietales: The Cauliflower of Christ Compels You. Personally, as a lapsed Catholic, this movie scares the bejesus out of me — actually, it probably scares the bejesus into me. And it manages to avoid a lot of the clichés of religious horror movies that came after it. For one, there’s no old Hispanic lady warning them about the devil. (I don’t know if it’s just one of Hollywood’s casual racisms, but why is it that old Hispanic ladies can always sense evil before everyone else? It’s like dogs with earthquakes.) It’s insane that this was made in 1973, only five years after Oliver! won the Best Picture Oscar. What a sea change, from “Please sir, I want some more” to “Your mother sucks c—s in hell.”
DF: The movie probably wouldn’t be even able to be made nowadays, it’s so disturbing. Maybe it’s because it’s so heavily focused on a pre-teen girl. In fact, the movie almost seems like an alarmist tale about the dangers of female adolescence. Regan only starts acting possessed after her 12th birthday, an easy signpost for the onset of puberty. She’s a precocious daughter of divorce. Her body is changing, and she’s getting moody. She can’t focus, so the doctors give her Ritalin. Her implied sexuality adds a whole added disturbing layer to the movie, although I only really noticed that subtext viewing it this time around. The first time I saw the movie, it was when the film was re-released with 11 extra minutes in 2000. Like everyone else in the crowded theater, I was laughing constantly.
KS: I think you mean screaming.
DF: Nope. Which may indicate that The Exorcist is one of those wonderful movies that thrills you in a different way as you get older. When you’re a teenager, you laugh, because, “Haha, teen sexuality!” When you’re older, it scares you again, because, “Ahhh! Teen sexuality!”
KS: The real devil’s work is the fact that Max von Sydow looks exactly the same in this movie as he does in Shutter Island, and that’s a difference of 27 years. They say they used aging make-up, but my theory is that when they were off filming in Iraq, von Sydow discovered the lair of some ancient Mesopotamian demon and made a pact that would let him live forever: The only catch is that he would always be about 75 years old.
DF: That prologue in Iraq is something else that probably wouldn’t fly today. It doesn’t have anything to do with the plot at all. It introduces a character who won’t appear again until practically the end of the movie. You could say it’s more about setting the mood, but even that’s debatable — especially since the rest of the movie takes place in such a modern urban landscape. If you took those first 10 minutes by themselves, they almost seem like the beginning of a never-filmed horror remake of Lawrence of Arabia. Since Hollywood is Hollywood, instead we got two separate terrible prequels.
KS: I think the prologue works. It helps give the evil that invades Regan some context. Otherwise, it’s just some actress’s daughter getting soul-invaded out of nowhere. Actually, I had forgotten that Ellen Burstyn’s character was supposed to be famous, which makes it kind of interesting. Most horror films tend to have victims who are Jane and John Q. Average, probably so that viewers can identify more easily with them. But here, it’s a rich celebrity and her daughter who are afflicted. From what I can tell, it’s essentially what would happen if Willow Smith were taken over by malevolent spirits. (Speaking of which…) Lucky for Burstyn’s character, there weren’t any paparazzi sneaking around during any of this.
DF: My only really serious gripe with the movie is the ending. After spending two hours steadily building an atmosphere of unbearable tension, the solution is remarkably abrupt: Father Karras gets angry, punches Regan until the demon hops into him, and then he kills himself. (The fact that Jason Miller bears such a strong resemblance to pre-stardom Sylvester Stallone almost makes The Exorcist feel like a proto-Rocky IV: Rocky/Father Karras has to avenge his buddy Apollo Creed/Father Merrin on the unstoppable force of evil, Devil-Regan/Ivan Drago.) But that’s a problem with all Catholic-Horror movies, really: In the end, all the great existential questions about religion come down to spooky children and pea soup spurting everywhere.
KS: Great, now I’m hungry.
Next Week: Leighton Meester starts obsessing over her doppelgänger roomie Minka Kelly in The Roommate in a plot eerily reminiscent of next week’s Rewind pick, Single White Female. It’s almost as if The Roommate saw Single White Female, started obsessing over it, and then tried to make itself up to look exactly like it. Meta-creepy!