Bucket List Movie #459: The Exorcist (1973)
Happy October, everyone! It's that magical month of witches, goblins, ghouls, sweets ranging from those delightful miniature Hershey bars to that God-awful candy corn, and little kids dressed as Spider-Man and Disney Princesses as far as the eye can see! It's also the ideal month for horror films! Okay, so horror is pretty flexible as a genre and isn't restricted to a particular month out of the year, such as holiday films. Not that you can't watch Christmas movies whenever you want, but doesn't it feel a little weird watching A Christmas Carol in, say, March?
But moving along, there are an appalling number of horror films I have yet to see, so I've decided that October is the ideal month to catch up on my scary movie quota. October will be the month for "Boooo-cket List Movies"! Ha, ha...
*Silence. Crickets chirp.*
Well, I thought it was cute.
I will also be reviewing films by the unsung master of horror, Tod Browning, director of Freaks, one of my all-time favorite horror flicks! So put on your hockey masks, douse yourselves in red corn syrup, and hold off from all that sex-havin', because Ms. Twopenny is lettin' loose for Horror-tober!!! Mwah ha ha ha!!
Get ready to laugh at Little Miss Slow on the Uptake, because I only just saw The Exorcist. I know, right? Amish people have probably seen The Exorcist. Whenever there is a list of quintessential horror movies, this is often (if not always) number one, and with good reason. The themes of demonic possession, helplessness, crisis of faith, and losing control of your body and soul to a malevolent being will never date. I was fortunate enough to view the director's cut of The Exorcist on blu-ray, where it looks brand new. Director William Friedkin knows how pack every scene with an emotional sock in the gut, I'm glad they were able to restore the now famous (and previously deleted) "spider-walk" scene, because it's one of the most effectively terrifying things ever put in a horror film.
Once again, it feels pointless to summarize, but that ain't gonna stop me: actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is shooting a film in Georgetown, D.C., her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) in tow. Despite her hectic schedule, Chris is a loving, devoted mom to Regan, and despite Regan's odd new hobby of playing with a Ouija board and talking about a made-up person called "Captain Howdy", life is good.
At least it is until Regan turns 12 and she begins to change, and I'm not talking about puberty, either. Regan starts complaining about her bed shaking, cursing out anyone who crosses her path, and horrifies Chris by peeing on the floor during a party. Chris is naturally upset that her sweet daughter is behaving so bizarrely. She tries consulting doctors, but when objects start flying around Regan's room on their own and Regan develops superhuman strength, a bestial voice, frightening contortion skills, and begins, um, misusing a crucifix, Chris has little choice but to consult an exorcist.
Tiresome Trivia for the Day: For the record, Regan's distinctive voice was provided not by Blair, but by a then-uncredited Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge was an Academy Award winning actress (for 1949's All the King's Men) who made a name for herself playing harridans in such classics as Giant and Johnny Guitar. She initially didn't ask for credit for The Exorcist, but then changed her mind. It's possible that her belated credit is the reason she wasn't nominated for her work on the film.
Enter Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest/psychiatrist who has recently lost his elderly mother and is starting to question his faith. He takes pity on the visibly shaken and desperate Chris, so he agrees to at least take a look at Regan.
Karras, who initially dismisses the case as one of simple mental illness, is aghast to find a little girl with a reptilian complexion, inhuman green eyes, and who knows way too much about Karras's fears and weaknesses. He agrees to perform the exorcism, but can't do this controversial procedure alone, so he entrusts Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an older, more experienced priest to aid him and act as the emotional anchor to the ensuing chaos.
More Tiresome Trivia for the Day: Max von Sydow was only 44 years old when The Exorcist was released, and was given realistic (and very uncomfortable) old age make up to look the part.
"Chaos" is an understatement, for the unnamed demon (who claims to be the Devil) who's possessed Regan puts our priests through whatever torture it can, from projectile vomiting (actually split pea soup) to outright violence. Merrin believes that the demon is trying to convince them that there is no God, redemption for the human race, or even in point in having hope. But they boldly persevere in weakening the demon, which is powerful, but still not enough, and a difficult choice will have to be made to save Regan once and for all.
I am sorry to say that, like Rocky, The Exorcist has been spoiled a thousand times over for me because it is such a staple in popular culture. Still, it is a hell of a film, and its significance is nothing short of staggering. According to the IMDb, adjusted for inflation, The Exorcist is still the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, and even more astonishing? It was the only number one film of the year featuring a female protagonist until The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in 2013. Think about it: it took four decades to have another top grossing film featuring a female lead! You'd think the second wave of feminism that was born around the time of The Exorcist's release would have made a greater impact on the world of film, but it's sad to say it barely dented it. One can only hope that the Hunger Games franchise will spark a greater trend in more diverse storytelling.
It really is everyone's finest hour in The Exorcist (save for von Sydow, who is always good, even in Ghostbusters 2). Ellen Burstyn was a year away from her Oscar-winning role in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Honestly, I found that particular movie a bit overrated, and I think Burstyn deserves more recognition for The Exorcist. Burstyn has always had this great ordinariness about her, and I don't mean that as a criticism: it's actually one of her strengths as an actress, because it's difficult to play an ordinary person, and she makes Chris MacNeil's grief, anger, and mounting terror all the more palpable because of it. One could argue she isn't given much to do, but Burstyn ably transcends the potential thanklessness of the part. I also want to commend the movie for not making Chris a clueless, negligent twit, but a busy, yet still caring and attentive mother who will do anything to help her daughter. Considering that "working parent" is now code for "bad parent" in today's fiction, it's refreshing to see a positive portrayal of a single, working mom who's genuinely doing her best in the worst possible situation.
While I found Linda Blair's early scenes a little too sweet at times (I'm aware it was necessary for contrast), she is very fearless during the possession scenes, going from a nice kid to a literal hellion (The Exorcist could be seen as a metaphor for kids transitioning from uncomplicated childhood to turbulent adolescence). She is asked to do the most grisly things, including that business with the crucifix, and her precocious lack of inhibition is quite remarkable. Blair unfortunately proved somewhat limited as an actress later on and was never able to recapture the lightning in a bottle, and fell into the sadly unsurprising traps laid for child actors. Since then, she's risen above her troubles and is an animal rights activist who frequently does the talk-show circuit.
The Exorcist is probably every horror fan's desert island movie. I urge you to not just see the movie, but to read up on its legendary filming (it took 224 days, and everything that could go wrong did). Everything works brilliantly, to the haunting cinematography (who can forget the image of Merrin's silhouette against the misty streetlight?) to the spine-chilling score that sounds years ahead of its time.
If you'll forgive me for repeating myself, The Exorcist passes my particular horror movie scratch test in that it made me worry for poor Regan, undeserving of this wretched torment, and it kept me hoping that our intrepid men of the cloth would save her soul from the pits of Hell. That's why people will always love The Exorcist: because it cares about the fate of its characters, and so do we.