Tuesday, October 29, 2013

REVIEW: The Exorcist (1973)

If I had a nickel for every demonic possession movie that came out these last five years or so, I’d be rich enough to make sure there was never another one. I mean honestly. What subset of movies has been sucked dry more than this? Let's just take a look at some of these wonderfully creative films which have so much of their own ideas...


...and the list goes on. It’s gone beyond beating a dead horse and more into beating a dead horse with the flogged carcass of another dead horse, while sitting on a third dead horse. Where does it end? Where did it begin?

Well, we can answer the second question.

Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn

Yes, The Exorcist, often touted as one of the scariest movies ever made. And rightly so. It’s a masterpiece. It is one of the most richly textured horror films out there, as much a drama as it is a horror film really. But at the same time, it also packs some of the blackest, vilest depths of evil you will ever see in a film. But to truly understand this masterpiece of cinema, we must call a priest and have him cast out everything from the movie so we can examine it.

The movie begins slowly, with an old man out in Iraq discovering some mysterious artifacts that remind him of something long-past that we don’t know about yet. We get some quiet build-ups that really just establish his character and the hesitation he’s going through. We fade out on a shot of him standing in the desert against a demonic shadow figure.

Pretty damn effective and ominous.

Then we get our main characters, Regan and Chris, who are both women born in that strange ambiguous time when men and womens’ names seemed to be interchangeable. Chris is an actress and spends her time trying to make her hairdo as gender-ambiguous as her name. When she’s not doing that, she hangs out with her British director, Burke Dennings, and plays with Regan in the evenings. Regan has made a new invisible friend named Captain Howdy, who I think used to hang out with the Devil’s Rejects cast before this movie.

Another difference between then and now: parents would immediately become suspicious in 2013 if their little girls started saying they were hanging out with Captain Howdy.

So the movie unfolds pretty slow and comfortably, taking its time to set up its characters. Shit – most modern movies would have had about twenty jump scares at this point. Some people might confuse this kind of pacing as sluggish, but I like it. It sets up everything very well and you get to like the characters pretty well. We get introduced to our other main character in Father Damien Karras, a priest in the city losing his faith while his ailing mother passes away under the gaze of uncaring relatives.

Here’s another thing this does so well – it really does a good job with those scenes of people trying to figure out what’s wrong with Regan. To start with, there really isn’t much of a transition into her getting sick. We get introduced to the character, she seems okay, and after we return from some of the Father Karras scenes, she’s just in the hospital – bam. No other explanation needed. I love how we find out a lot of the stuff wrong with her just through Chris talking with the doctors. There are no goofy over the top jump scares and no bullshit mythos – it’s all very grounded in reality at first, which is really the way to go. Unfortunately these days, we are so over-saturated with these kinds of stories and we have the Internet to contend with, so it wouldn’t be believable quite as much to have a scene like this in, say, The Last Exorcism III: The Dead Horse.

In The Exorcist though, we get some very good, detailed scenes of hard-working doctors trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with Regan. There are some expensive medical treatments and some very uncomfortable scenes. The film, again, takes its time. Remember in my Paranormal Activity review when I said research isn’t scary? This is the exception.

The reason is because it’s all so slowly built up – the film crawls toward its point by establishing that the characters really have no other options to turn to. Chris is pushed to her breaking point and simply cannot find any other explanation except the supernatural. She becomes so desperate that she ends up accepting the one thing she never thought she would: demonic forces from another plane of existence.

"Hmmm...my diagnosis is, you're fucked."

That’s really, really good, actually. If you’ve never seen this movie before, let me go back and explain a bit – in the middle of the research scenes where the doctors are puzzled about what’s wrong with Regan, one of the doctors asks if she or Regan has any religious beliefs. Chris replies that no, neither one of them do. Which would be a fairly commonplace thing nowadays – many people are atheists now and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Most people don’t even blink at that. But this was the 70s, when we as a country were just starting to come out of the long shadow of the Church and of religion in general. It was a confusing, transitional time and people were moving away from the old guard of religious beliefs – the world was changing.

And that’s the cincher right there – that’s why this movie is so scary. Because it takes a woman who, by all accounts is rational and modernistic in this world, and shows her that really, everything we know as sophisticated, civilized and modern is just a bunch of shit. Really, the old world never left and it never will leave – the old world is eternal and the Devil is real. That’s fuckin’ terrifying, man. That’s the pitch blackest horror there is. The Exorcist takes our changing, atheistic and unchristian world and turns it upside down.

The expression on their faces sums up the movie for me: pure fear masked by a shaky confidence in science and manmade inventions, even though what lies beneath the Earth is about to take over. Terrifying.

So yeah, I guess I should talk about the Regan devil-possession scenes…they’re pretty damned gross. I don’t think these scenes by themselves are anything that scary as much as they are disturbing. I mean, especially if you don’t like people vomiting up green bile. In that case, don’t watch Troll 2. You’ll probably have an aneurysm.

There's one for the family photo albums!

These scenes are just crazy. I mean, there’s one scene where she scuttles down the stairs backwards with her mouth bleeding. I don’t think there’s enough antibiotics in the world for that. Plus, this scene comes on the tails of Regan discovering that her director friend is dead and that Regan’s doctors can’t help her. Jesus. Can this woman’s life get any worse? Why not just add in the fact that she doesn’t get to appear in the sequel to the mix?

Oh, well, that last one – probably a plus…but still:

So we get some scenes of this detective guy who looks like a drunk, out-of-work Paul Newman investigating Father Karras – ironically, he says Father Karras looks like Paul Newman. Maybe having Paul Newman in this movie wouldn’t have been a bad idea. You could have had him be the possessed one. That would be something…especially if he played the role of the daughter just like Linda Blair does. I’m not going to post a picture of that, but just let it sit in your mind for a while: a little girl contracts an otherworldly possession and turns into Paul Newman. Terrifying.

And yes, I fully realize the above passage will never be entered into the annals of my all-time funniest jokes on the blog. Shut up. The detective guy’s only character seems to be inviting the people he interrogates to go see movies with him. I guess it’s supposed to be a way to try and bribe them, but I dunno; I’m more inclined to think he just has no friends after letting the killer in 12 Angry Men go free.

Well I never!

Either way he doesn’t get very far, and the movie mostly focuses on Chris’s attempts to save Regan. She finally consults with Father Karras, who has become a tortured soul after his mother passed away. Karras takes her seriously enough to start an investigation into whether or not Regan’s case merits an exorcism.

This is yet another difference from most other movies that took influence from The Exorcist: these scenes actually take their time and feel realistic. The Church above all is not just some transparent entity that lets people do whatever they want – there are rules. And very few times – much less in films like The Possession, The Devil Inside or The Conjuring – would they actually just allow an exorcism. But here we have the exception: this is the case that throws everyone for a loop, that proves the Church wrong after years of nothing, here’s another exorcism they have to do, nestled in this modern agnostic world.

Movies today just treat exorcisms like any other everyday thing: “Oh, damn, time for another exorcism again. Want to meet for coffee after?” Just try and tell me with a straight face that any of the scenes in The Conjuring that try and make this idea suspenseful are any good. Fucking please. This is the real deal. Here it feels like things matter. You, the viewer, feel the weight of Karras’s discovery and of the decision to perform the exorcism. That matters a lot.

They recruit Father Merrin, who was the old man from the opening, to come and help out. Apparently because Merrin has so much experience after almost dying the last time he did an exorcism. How do you think that conversation went? “Hey, Father Merrin…remember that time you almost died doing that extremely dangerous exorcism? …Want to do it again?” How rude.

So then we get the exorcism scenes, which are great in part just because any movie that can make two guys standing over a wrinkled Muppet reject and shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” suspenseful is doing something right.

"And for my next trick, I'll make a sequel without any logic or sense in it whatsoever!"

But we quickly find out that it doesn’t work as well as they’d like. Karras tries, but the demon in Regan just won’t let him forget his dearly departed mother, channeling her at every turn to rattle him. Karras has to go downstairs, and when he comes back up, Father Merrin has been killed by the demon. Losing control, Karras goes and strangles Regan until the demon leaves her and comes into him instead. Then he jumps out a window and dies, ending the demon’s reign of terror forever…or until the two sequels came out. But either way, hurray!

The ending does raise some interesting questions though – they went through all that ritualistic bullshit when the real way to beat the demon was just to strangle it out with your bare hands? How stupid they must be feeling now! Ha ha…a good man just lost his life. But seriously though. I really do like the subtext here: religion isn’t all-powerful, the Church isn’t all-knowing. In place of a holy, sacrosanct ritual, it’s blunt violence that wins the day in this movie. That’s pretty important.

And it’s a very important movie. As gruesome and unpleasant as The Exorcist can be, it really is a prime example of horror working outside its bounds and making something artistic and meaningful, while still being scary and suspenseful. It’s the best of both worlds, and an all-time classic. If you’ve never seen this, and are enamored with its pale imitators…well, you need to treat yourself to this movie this Halloween. Whether or not you agree with me that its modern-day imitators are crap, there is no denying the power of The Exorcist.

Happy Halloween!

Images copyright of their original owners.