Thursday, July 16, 2015

Film Friday: The Exorcist (1973)

When is a terrifying horror movie not a horror movie? When it’s one of the greatest films of all time and it was made in the 1970’s. As we’ve mentioned before, the films of the 1970’s were different. They tended to be contemplative and involved solid storytelling rather than being about quick emotional triggers. The jokes took time to develop. Love was the goal, not sex. And when it came to scary movies, filmmakers strove for building psychological terror rather than quick shock. The movie that demonstrates this best was The Exorcist.

The Plot

The Exorcist begins with a character you won’t even see again until near the end of the film. The film starts with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archeological dig in Iraq. In a scene that involves more sights and sounds than words, you see Merrin uncover an amulet which resembles a demon Merrin defeated in an exorcism years ago. The exorcism lasted several days and nearly killed Merrin. The demon he exorcised was called Pazuzu.
The movie then switches to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is here to film a movie at the Georgetown University campus. Her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) plays with a Ouija board and soon strange things begin to happen at their home. These are very minor at first. In fact, they are mistaken as just being rats. But soon Regan begins to show signs of potential mental illness. MacNeil has her daughter evaluated by every specialist she can find, but none of them has an answer. They finally suggest an exorcism as a sort of placebo because Regan has begun to claim she is possessed.

As this story progresses, we simultaneously meet Father Damien Karras. Karras is a priest and a psychiatrist. He is a firm believer in modern science and he disbelieves things like exorcism. In his story, Karras's mother dies without Karras being able to help her and that causes him to lose his faith in God.
With her doctors having told her to seek an exorcism, MacNeil seeks out Karras, whom she has seen at the film set. She now believes that Regan is possessed and that Regan has killed her director Burke Dennings. Karras tries to dissuade her from pursuing exorcism, but ultimately agrees to see Regan. He meets with Regan several times and starts to believe that she may actually be possessed, even though the demon within her gives both evidence of his existence and evidence that he is being faked by Regan. Ultimately, however, Karras decides to do the exorcism.
To do this, he needs the permission of the Church. The Church assigns Merrin to help Karras. They then do the exorcism, which involves several truly iconic moments in film.

What Made This Film So Special

The Exorcist is perhaps the best example of how 1970’s films were different than today because there are so many films we can compare to it. Indeed, you can’t really find a modern exorcism movie which isn’t essentially a direct copy of The Exorcist. Yet, all of them fail to live up to the original. And the reason all the imitators fail, despite having so many advantages, such as having a success to study and the benefit of being able to go further in terms of effects and scares with modern audience, is exactly what makes The Exorcist the great film it is.
Unlike the modern copies, The Exorcist takes its time, but it does so with a purpose. This is something too many modern directors don’t understand: time does not equal drama, careful use of time does. Consider the sequence where Pazuzu possesses Regan. This begins so slowly that the audience could be forgiven for not even knowing what is happening at first. Indeed, at first, it seems like a game where Regan is talking to an imaginary friend over the Ouija board, and then MacNeil thinks there are rats in the ceiling. Soon, Regan’s behavior starts to grow stranger. At this point, the film cleverly leaves the door open for this being either something demonic or simply Regan having a mental condition or possibly a seizure condition. At the same time, the director slowly isolates MacNeil. By the time we know for sure, MacNeil has no friends outside her home and Regan is showing supernatural signs of being a prisoner in her own body... she has become bait for Merrin and Karras.
All of this is vital because the point to this story is not the possession itself, it is the horror caused by the possession. Specifically, it the horror MacNeil faces as her daughter succumbs to a condition MacNeil cannot treat which terrifies us as we translate it to our own children. It is the horror of being Regan who becomes a prisoner in her own body which makes us shudder at being in her condition. It is the horror Karras feels when Pazuzu taps his guilt over his mother and what Karras must do to save Regan which makes us sick as we ask if we could do the same thing. That is where this film works and it is through the slow build that the film makes this real. The modern copies don’t get this. They think the horror comes from making the demon seem as evil as possible, but the demon is irrelevant here... a mere Macguffin. Indeed, this film could almost end with the possession being faked and be just as terrifying because it sells us a drama of a mother, a little girl, and a priest who endure extreme suffering. The copies would be a joke without the demon, since that’s really all they offer.
What's more, another key distinction is that this film actually cares about the character stories. Consider Karras’s issue with his mother. We are essentially given an entire movie about that story before Karras ever meets with Regan. The reason is that we are meant to be pulled into who this man is and what his problems are long before we are shown the monster who will exploit his weakness. The copies generally replace this entire movie of story with a montage of someone the priest loves dying and then the priest telling his boss that he’s lost his faith. That gives you the form, but nowhere near the substance of The Exorcist which is why you can’t even remember the names of the copy-cat priests, but you remain haunted by Damien Karras’s story long after you have seen the film.

This film worked because it was a story about several people who endure horrific choices and incredible suffering. It was not a film about two priests fighting a demon. That is what makes this film so unforgettable, so re-watchable, and why none of the copies have ever approached its quality.



Anonymous said...

An excellent review. My list of the greatest films ever made goes as follows:
1-Rocky II
2- Tie between the original Rocky and Rocky Balboa
3- The Deer Hunter
4- The Exorcist.
When I talk about movies with my friends I always draw funny looks because I don't consider The Exorcist a horror film. It's a psychological drama disguised as a horror film just like Alien was a horror film disguised as science fiction. You're right, the horror in this film is not the demon, it is the helplessness of the people trying to help Regan and their growing realization that there is a demon.This is to me the single best film ever made about the struggle between Good and Evil. In modern films evil is gimmicky. The priests have to find some quickie magical solution and apply it and the demon goes away. Not so here. Both priests died defeating the demon but they did defeat him.Remember the last scene as Burstyn and Blair are leaving? Someone says "She doesn't remember any of it." Get that? She doesn't remember any of it. No flashbacks, no ptsd,she doesn't remember any of it. That's because she was completely delivered. She was saved from Evil. Good won. But then,as her mother is talking to the priest, Regan catches a glimpse of his collar and she quickly leans up and kisses it. The look on Blair's face right after she does this shows that she is a little surprised at herself. Shedidn't know why she kissed the priest but she associated him with good, even though she doesn't remember her ordeal.
And you're right, the movie takes it's time and let's the horror build. In the first scene where me meet Regan she's so childlike. She's talking about a horse she saw and how pretty it was and she's trying to talk her mother into getting her one, just like little girls do. She does little kid things like wanting to sleep in her mother's bed when she's scared. That makes her behavior during the possession all the more horrifying because we actually watch the transformation between what she was and what she's becoming.
All the actors do such a great job. Ellen Burstyn does one of the best jobs I've ever seen an actress do as a mother losing touch with her child. Her determination to save her daughter is what drives the film.
Father Merrin knew that he was too old for this but he knew that Karras couldn't do it without him. He went to his death as bravely as any soldier who ever threw himself on a grenade or any fireman who ever went back into a burning house to save a child. "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

Anonymous said...

The Exorcist is actually two movies that blend into one although most people don't notice this. It is the story of Chris McNeal's attempt to save her daughter from what is destroying her alongside the story of Father Karras's struggle to keep from losing his faith. What modern film can you think of that even treats faith as a serious issue, or even an issue at all? He didn't even believe Regan was possessed at first. Remember this exchange?
"How would I go about getting someone an exorcism?"
"Well, you'd have to get a time machine and take them back to the 16th century."
But Karras takes this very seriously. He tapes Regan and then sits up late at night by himself listening to the tapes,concentrating and thinking.
And then there's this.
"Did you know that my mother died recently?"
"No. I'm very sorry."
No... was Regan aware of it?
"Not at all. Why?"
And then Karras says abruptly "Nothing. Good night." If she was just a schizophrenic, how would she know about his mother dying?
One of my very favorite scenes in all film is after the first attempt at the exorcism. Karras was crushed by the demon. he lost control of himself so completely that Merrin sent him out of the room. As he sits down stairs,defeated and lost, Burstyn says quietly. "Is it over?" Karras says "No."
Burstyn finally says what we've all been thinking. "Will she die?" And Karras looks up with resolve and in a firm voice says "No." And he goes back upstairs to face the monster. That was a magnificent scene. The Exorcist is 43 years old and it has never been improved upon despite all the advantages that modern directors have. All the actors were great, even Blair who was very young. The director knew what he wanted. A modern director would make the movie then at the very end have some type of shock ending just for a cheap scare. It would be all cocked up. for that and a lot of other reasons. Like I said, 4th on my all time list. I watch it every October.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Thanks! Excellent breakdown too. I think that's exactly right. This is really two movies stuck together through the exorcism of Regan, and the horror is really the psychological trauma Karras and MacNeil face in dealing with Karras's loss and MacNeils' inability to help her daughter. Then you get the added horror of "what would it be like to be Regan." The horror is never "look at the monster!!" as it is in all of the copies. The copies have really fundamentally misunderstood the substance of this film.

Karras is a fantastic character because of his determination. The actor does such an amazing job of presenting such a wide range of emotions with so little in the way of facial expressions. Great acting.

In terms of who won, Regan certainly is free. But I often wonder though if the demon didn't win. It wanted the priests, not Regan, and it manages to kill Merrin and possess Karras before he commits the worst sin of all -- suicide. I often feel like that is the demon getting a tremendous win. I kind of go back and forth on that.

ScottDS said...

Ah, the film that convinced people that Max von Sydow was 20 years older than he actually was. Seriously, Dick Smith's old age make-up is so good that whenever I see von Sydow now, I think, "Wait, how old is he?!" and "Wow, they actually kinda got it right!"

I confess I haven't seen this film in its entirety in years. Oddly enough, I've been on a Friedkin kick lately, watching both The French Connection (for the first time in years) and, for the first time ever, To Live and Die in LA and Cruising. (The one I really need to see is Sorcerer.)

I have nothing new to add that hasn't been said before. I must ask, have you seen "The Version You've Never Seen"? Or for that matter, can you give us a quick take on the sequels? I've heard the second one is good in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The sequels honestly aren't a good thing. The second one is in thee "so bad it's interesting" category, but it kid of mucks with the first one. It takes an incredible movie and attaches a lot of bizarre babble to it that you are better off never associating with the first film. This film doesn't feel like it exists in the same universe as the first.

The third one is largely just a generic horror film, right down to people crawling on the ceiling with their bodies bent backwards. It also ruins the ambiguity of what happened to Karras. And beside that, it's just not a particularly well-done film.

The latest, the prequel, is rather dull. I don't find it to be necessary and it strikes me as trying too hard with too little to show for it.

I would skip all three if you hadn't seen them and just stick with the original as a standalone film.

Anonymous said...

Andrew - Thanks for the response and the compliment! I've thought about that too, but this is my take on the ending. Merrin's death had meaning. He didn't get old and die. He died in battle with the enemy of Christ, who he'd served all his adult life. As for Karras, I never thought of his death as suicide in the religious sense. Yes he threw himself out the window, but remember the circumstances. Karras came back upstairs and found Merrin dead. Karras didn't know what to do. He charges Regan and begins to shout "Come i to me! Take me!" There was the trap. As soon as the demon enters Karras he charges Regan, who's screaming and terrified on the floor. The demon wanted to use Karras' body to kill Regan. With his last seconds of free will Karras throws himself and the demon within him out the window, saving Regan's life and destroying the body that the demon is in. Then the priest that Karras was friend's with runs up and takes his hand. he asks if Karras can hear him. Karras squeezes his hand, showing that he understands. 'Are you heartily sorry for all your sins?" Karras squeezes his hand again, showing comprehension. The priest then gives Karras absolution. Karras died redeemed. That's how I always see it.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, You're welcome!

That's a really good take on it. Like I said, I go back and forth on this. I think the ending is meant to be a happy ending. It just seems that the demon got what he wanted. But maybe, as you point out, he didn't because Karras is absolved and Merrin dies a noble death. It's a fascinating bit of ambiguity to me, and I have never reached a firm conclusion either way. Excellent ending either way.

As for Regan, it is definitely a happy ending and when she kisses the Priest, it seems almost like a blessing bestowed on the Church itself.

I never feel as interested in the endings of the copycat films... not even close. This one, however, has stuck with me for decades.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to look at the sacrifices of both Father Merrin and Father Karras as serving the immediate end of saving Regan. They could never actually destroy Pazuzu as the demon has been around for thousands of years and is eternal, and would have nothing to fear from a mere mortal man. However defeating the possesion of an innocent would be the ultimate victory for both Priests, since that would be the fulfillment of thier purpose for being. Also nothing can top Tubular Bells, that music still creeps me out.

AndrewPrice said...

Toyman, Welcome. :)

I definitely see your point. Both priests fought an immortal, supernatural being for the soul of a young girl and they freed the young girl. They both died, but they died with nobility. So the film definitely feels like a victory for good and I think that's probably what they director was going for.

On the other hand though, it does seem like possessing one of the priests would be a victory for the demon -- I think that was the point of the third film actually.

Either way, I tend to see the film as a victory for good, though I do enjoy the hint of ambiguity it offers as I think it gives you something to ponder as so many excellent films do.

Agreed on the music. It is very iconic in its creepiness!

Kit said...


Karras' death. Having read the book I can tell you that GypsyTyger is correct, the hands squeeze in response and he is absolved by the Priest.

The author actually wanted the movie to have a scene along the lines of Karras floating to heaven to indicate more clearly that the Priests won (interestingly, something not in the book). I think it was good that Friedkin won out here. Adding the ambiguity sort of forces you to have faith that good won and the demon lost.

Kit said...


I think this movie is what Lovecraft would've written had he been a Christian. It takes some Lovecraftian twists, a super-powerful malevolent being, and adds a very Christian Good vs. Evil twist.

Kit said...

Also, catch the murder mystery in the movie? Who killed her British friend? We never see it happen but we know the details of it. It happened after the party, whoever did it was strong enough to twist his head around 180 degrees, and he was thrown out of Regan's room.

If you follow the evidence, as the detective does, it is clear the only person who could've done it was Regan —a 50-70 lb. girl. Thus, the only person who had the opportunity was the one person who is incapable of doing it.

And the closest we ever get to a confirmation that it was Regan was the Priest telling the mother, in the man's voice, "Do you know what she did? Your c**ting daughter?"

And this is a demon who, it must be remembered, will lie.

Kit said...

A note on the ambiguity & faith. I think this and Tender Mercies are the only two movies that deal with faith in a very mature way simply by not giving us a full and complete answer.

Signs tells you the reason why all these things happen but Tender Mercies points out you probably won't get the answer. At least in this life.

Exorcist, instead of telling you flat out that good won, forces you to hope that good won.

Jim said...

Agreed with everything stated so far except that I think that Exorcist 3: Legion is a worthy sequel (but the only one). The exorcism scene was tacked on, but the movie (written and directed by Blatty) was an otherwise chilling discussion of evil and what its purpose is. Bonus points for that one hospital scene...

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I'm glad they didn't add that scene. That would have definitely detracted from the movie.

It is interesting that they add the mystery with the police investigation, because it ultimately goes nowhere. A modern movie could not do that. They would need the cop to show up at a critical point to do something major. But that's what's so cool about these older films, that they tell a complete story whether or not every piece tidies up perfectly or not.

It's interesting, isn't it, that a horror movie could involve a mature discussion of faith. This was definitely a different age.

AndrewPrice said...

Jim, Of all the sequels, Exorcist 3 is probably the best movie. I just personally don't think it meshes well with the style of the original.

Kit said...

The cop does show up at the end —right after Father Karras has jumped out the window.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, He does, but he's just there. He doesn't solve the crime or take part in fighting the demon. In a modern movie, he would need to be heavily involved because modern storytelling rules require that nothing be included unless it's totally relevant to the plot.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, that's a great point. I have a list of movies I watch every October. One of them is When A Stranger Calls. There's a scene in whee Colleen Dewhurst has just woken up and Charles Durning knocks on the door. Dewhurst stubs her toe. She makes a big deal about it. She hops around on one foot, she curses,the whole scene stops while she reacts to stubbing her toe. And then that's it. The movie goes on and her sore toe never comes up again. I love that scene so much because it has nothing to do with the plot. Every time I watch it I think that in a modern movie later on she would be running from the killer and she would start to limp on her sore foot, etc,etc. In a modern movie there is absolutely nothing allowed in that doesn't feed the plot. In real life people stub their toes. Little moments add up to make a better story than just being shoved down a visual production line.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, That's a great example. Older movies gave you a more interesting and realistic world because you saw all kinds of things that may or may not matter, just like in real life, and you got to know all the characters through those moments. But, as you say so well, modern movies simply do not all anything that doesn't feed the plot. Hence, if you see X then you know X will be relevant... and you will never see Y because it's not relevant even if Y would have added a great flavor to the characters.

That's also why all the minor characters are vanishing from modern films: because their lines/roles can be handed to the main characters to make the movie flow faster.

Koshcat said...

One of my favorite movies of all time and great responses.

I don't see Father Karras jumping out the window as suicide but as a sacrifice. Very Christ-like. It also absolved him of the sin, if you will, of questioning God's plans. Why am I here? What is my purpose? I am worthless and couldn't even help my sick mother, how could I help a stranger? Questions that could lead to suicide or worse all answered in the final battle.

Unknown said...

I firmly believe that no other Horror film will ever come close to being no:1,EVER, as it has done since it's showing in 1973,now 42yrs on it remains so. 'The Exorcist'.
And 42yrs on,the impact that film had on me personally has never left.
I am an Exorcist fanatic & have a good collection of film memorabilia. . .& still collecting more. However, the Exorcist 3,was excellent & is a close 2nd.
I then put Dead Man's shoes 3rd, Trainspotting is 4th & Pulp Fiction my 5th . I'm a film buff to,& have also collected hundreds of my favourites, especially rare cult classics. just thought I'd share mine with you. Thanks. Laverne Desoer

AndrewPrice said...

Laverne, I agree. I think this film will always rank at the top. It is just amazing and timeless.

I love Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction. I haven't seen Dead Man's Shoes.

Thanks for commenting! :)

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