The Exorcist (1973)

Halloween DVD Review – Written for Film and TV Now Oct 2015 (Available here)

It could be easy to dismiss The Exorcist as of its day. To think of it as a boundary pushing film at the time of release back in 1973, that generated hype and hysteria, and became more of a legend off-screen. You might think that it would have lost its edge, with more convincing special effects now and with audience sensibilities more jaded and depraved since the Saw franchise ushered in the torture porn genre. How could this film still hold weight considering that its iconic status means that people know the scariest moments before they even see it?

The Exorcist is much more than the few scenes it is remembered by. It is a true horror film that deals with something much bigger than a monster in the dark, or the devil in a young girl. It wrestles with deeper ideas which make it so much harder to dismiss as trashy or cheap. It is both scary and compelling, intensely dramatic but often very real.

The story centres around Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her 12 year old daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) who falls ill and starts behaving out of character. When the doctors struggle to identify what exactly is wrong, pushed to the limits of what science will allow, they offer an alternative solution – that Reagan has been ‘invaded by an alien intelligence – a spirit’. Out of sheer desperation, atheist Chris enlists the help of two priests to perform an exorcism to try and bring her daughter back – but they will all be tested to the extreme and witness the most ungodly acts as a once angelic girl becomes a demon.

The film actually begins in Northern Iraq, where we glimpse the foreboding mythology of the demon Pazuzu. Father Merrin, the eponymous exorcist, takes part in an archaeological dig where he discovers the beastly icon in stone. This role is significantly played by Max von Sydow, a man who struggled to find faith in God and challenged Death to a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal.

Already The Exorcist is bigger than one film – it taps into a wider network of meaning that makes its themes more potent, it’s monster more powerful. Adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty, who was struggling with his own faith, and directed by agnostic William Friedkin, the film is really about faith, and the struggle of one priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller) whose belief in God is waning. It is a film about good versus evil as young Reagan is possessed and tortured by demonic forces in order to test him.

The first half of the film focusses on the relationship between Reagan and her mother, and also psychiatric counsellor-turned-reverend Karras and his mother, who he visits and cares for. They each show tenderness and loving affection until they are torn apart as Reagan is possessed and Karris’ mother dies, making him doubt his belief in God and whether he should change profession.

The dedication to developing these characters has a huge effect on the viewer, you find yourself caring more, invested in their situation. Friedkin draws on his documentary experience to make the characters more real and empathetic – actually favouring real priests over actors – this is before the second half of the film crashes into chaos, before the beloved little girl becomes Pazuzu.

The Exorcist

This is where the iconic moments bloom: from head spinning and puking green slime to Reagan’s spider walk down the stairs – which has been put back into the director’s cut. Every effort is taken to turn this girl into abject horror, utilising practical effects and detailed sound design which have a unique ability to unsettle. Linda Blair is extraordinary in portraying both the little girl and the demon within. Auditioning over 1000 girls for the part, they had to be careful that this very young girl could handle such extreme material, which she does with a flourish despite stating she didn’t understand everything she was doing.

Shot on location in Georgetown the grand architecture adds a gothic, religious tone which feeds into the themes of the film and actually play an important part in the story. The use of stairways become an underlying motif that reinforces ideas of ascension. In a dream Father Karras sees his mother descend down subway steps before he can get to her, this is before possessed Reagan taunts him with notions of his mother in hell. This demon is all knowing, all powerful and aims to challenge Karras’ faith.

The Exorcist immerses you in the world of its characters before plunging you into the depth of its darkness – it is beautifully composed and definitely worthy of its status as a classic.

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