The Exorcist [1973]

31 oct 2014

Father Damien Karras: Why her? Why this girl?
Father Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us. 

Note: This review includes both the original theatrical release and the 2000's "Version You've Never Seen". 

Producing the most important movie of any given film genre it isn’t an easy task for a filmmaker. Actually, they never know what is going to happen with their work. They just put their blood, sweat and tears into their films and the audience and critics are left to draw their own conclusions.

Writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin can tell a lot about it, as they are the masterminds behind The Exorcist, often regarded as the scariest movie of all time.

But that is just an understatement. 

The story was allegedly based on a real case: in the late 1940s a group of Catholic priests performed a series of exorcisms on a young boy whose real name still remains undisclosed, though he is known as Roland Doe

William Peter Blatty’s book is a fictional representation of Doe’s tribulation, even though author Thomas B. Allen claims in his 1993 book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism that there was nothing supernatural about this child. Be as it may, The Exorcist became a bestseller and its film adaptation is a state-of-the-art masterpiece, to say the least.

Regan (Linda Blair) is a twelve year-old girl full of life. She’s living the life of her dreams  with her mother, the actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), despite her father’s absence. Miss MacNeil is a brilliant and smart woman who doesn’t believe in any kind of God or supernatural affairs. She just wants the best for her daughter and the love between them seems to be an unbreakable bond. 

That’s why they cannot even imagine the hell they are going to live. Regan’s behavior starts to change little by little, up to the point where her personality has drastically changed. The beautiful preteen dreamer is now gone and a monster has appeared.

William Friedkin captured the book’s essence in a magnificent way. His artistic vision was so accurate and intense that the groundbreaking sequences changed the Horror genre for good. The best example of this is one of the most grotesque and graphic (yet fascinating) movie scenes of all time: after Burke Dennings (played by Jack MacGowran), a film director and one of Chris’ closest friends) is murdered while taking care of Regan, Detective William F. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) opens and investigation and visits the house. 

The pleasant yet very sharp gentleman gets along very well with Chris, but his questions led her to find out that Dennings was killed by a very disordered Regan herself. 

After Kinderman leaves, the deeply saddened mother hears two different voices coming from the girls’ bedroom. There is a deep voice demanding Regan to “do it” and there’s her own voice begging him to stop. Then Chris enters the room as all kinds of objects are flying and she sees how Regan, now with an extremely deformed face, is literally raping herself with a crucifix. 

She tries to stop her, but the evidently possessed girl forces her own mother to lick her bleeding crotch and brutally slaps her. Then Denning’s voice is heard, as Regan’s head completely spins, confirming the theory that he was killed by the once innocent young woman. 
Maybe Mr. Friedkin didn’t know at that time that the innocence of a whole generation of moviegoers would be taken away with such scene. The audience was used to watch some werewolves and vampire movies from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Such depiction of violence and the mix of religious imagery, sex and horror were indeed too disturbing. But, isn’t a pioneer’s job to change the rules?

One of the movie’s most fascinating characters is Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller). He's both a spiritually tormented man and a loving son. This saintless portrait of a Catholic priest as a man and not as a miracle maker -as many people would like to believe- works perfectly on every level of filmmaking. Such character is any director’s dream and William Friedkin knew exactly how to draw on Karras’ life experiences to embody a thirty-something man walking a wandering way in his search for spiritual enlightenment. 

Karras, who is also a psychiatrist, is struggling with his own inner demons and eventually faces the loss of his mother, who spent her last days blaming him for leaving her behind in a sordid mental institution. In fact, the lack of money stopped him from sending her to a decent retirement home and this feeling of guilt haunts him until his very last moment. 

Then, the non-believer Chris MacNeil desperately seeks for Karras’ help to exorcize Regan, after most doctors have given up on her. The young man agrees to see her and he does what no one else would dare to do. Suddenly, he’s talking to the devil, or at least this is the name that the entity inside of Regan gives itself.

The last part of the movie shows both Karras and Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) exorcizing Regan. Merrin is facing an old and powerful enemy and this last effort could cost him his life. Eventually it does, but not before an epic battle takes place, one that broke every rule in the book of what a Horror movie was supposed to be. For almost twenty minutes, the goodness and high intentions of the two warriors protecting Regan’s soul collide against the most disgusting immorality and depravity. The demon inside Regan (Pazuzu) tortures the two priests emotionally while draining them physically.

The beautiful and talented Linda Blair, who became a pop culture phenomenon right after The Exorcist, has stated in some interviews that is not a Horror movie. Some might agree with her, as this is a film about the nature of evil and the question that haunts most people in the darkest moments of their existences: Is there any kind of God loving us? Is there a Higher Being above in Heaven? If such childish belief is true, then, why does He allow so much pain and suffering in this world?

Both Friedkin and Blatty agree that the movie has a personal meaning for every member of the audience. We as spectators are entitled to reflect on our own approach to make up our minds. However, The Exorcist is so complex that the analysis of every subplot, rather than the whole movie itself, is a very intriguing and captivating process.  

The exaltation of the Mother figure both in Regan and Karras’ lives is a very important part of the story. In Chris’ case specially, the potential loss of her offspring through an evil spirit and the subsequent fight for Regan’s soul might be a metaphor for Mary’s ordeal while accompanying Jesus on his way to the crucifixion, as told in The Bible.

The Exorcist’s spectacular cinematography, sound editing and setting created a very strange kind of beauty: when the two priests go upstairs to fight their last battle, there is an astonishing contrast between the unbearable sounds coming from the room and Chris’ anguish and tears. Even in such unimaginable situation, a mother’s love is stronger than fear. She’s in pain in exactly the same way as if her daughter was suffering from any given disease, but for cinema’s sake of course, she is possessed by a demon

Merrin’s togetherness fills the scene while he quietly asks Chris about Regan’s middle name, as if he wasn’t aware of the danger and rottenness that lies just a few steps ahead. The devoted man of God is very much living in the present moment, a spiritual quality that Damien lacks.

During the exorcism, Damien's faith and patience are tested over and over and he even listens again the “voice” of his defunct mother. That sound that once meant love and joy is now a bizarre sequence of words coming from the father of lies himself. 

Far away from using the over-the-top tricks of modern Horror movies, The Exorcist plays with a latent lack of hope and the disturbing possibility that the places we once loved might become a minefield set to destroy us. In such horrific scenario, the price for our freedom could be the highest one.

At the end of the movie, the two men give their own lives so the young girl may live, and this is the ultimate religious metaphor, of course: the sacrifice of the Lamb leads to eternity. Death becomes life again and resurrection is a miracle made with pain and unspeakable affliction.

There are also those elements that make of this all-time classic an even more enjoyable experience: the representation of true friendship and loyalty (Chris and her assistant Sharon, played by Kitty Winn). The search for eternal peace (Damien’s wordless confession while dying as being held by his best friend, Father Joseph Dyer). And finally the presence of Detective Kinderman at the end, asking Father Dyer (Father William O'Malley) to go to the movies with him. 

Suddenly, as William Friedkin said himself in an interview, everything is right in the world again. Kinderman’s fondness for those simple pleasures remind us that no matter how stormy our path has been, there will always be time to smile again.  

The Exorcist is a lot more than green vomit, freakish head spins and well achieved sound effects (Gonzalo Gavira did a great job, by the way). It is a haunting masterpiece about fear, hope, love and the mystery of God, created with no expensive computer effects at all yet scaring people worldwide for over four decades now. It just takes a legendary director, an extraordinary crew and a group of gifted actors  (it would take a whole book to talk about the talent of each one of them, Burstyn, Blair, Max von Sydow, Miller and the whole cast) to make a film like this.

But appearances can be deceiving: the idea of evil represented in a possessed girl tied to her bed is also kind of naïve.  So it is time to know about real evil:  let’s find out about the most powerful nations promoting and supporting wars in Middle-East countries in order to own their natural resources and killing thousands of innocent men, children and women in the process. 

Let’s do some research and see how many children have been raped and abused by Catholic priests and nuns for centuries. And every time you open a newspaper or watch the news, you’ll hear from time to time about parents beating their babies to death.

That is the real face of evil. And this is the kind of wickedness that should be wiped off the face of the Earth, once and for all. 

Suddenly, the image of Linda Blair levitating off bed with blank eyes doesn’t seem so terrifying. It’s just a mesmerizing film moment in time from the greatest Horror movie ever made. 

October 31, 2014


The Exorcist, 1973
Distributed by Warner Bros
Written and produced by William Peter Blatty
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Father William O'Malley
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Edited by Norman Gay, Jordan Leondopoulos, Evan A. Lottman, Bud S. Smith
Music by Jack Nitzche

31 oct 2014