Week 7: The Exorcist

Terror defined.

The best films are those that reach into our soul, grab something we care about or can relate to, and then shake us to our bone. Over the period of several hours we get to know characters, care and empathize with their struggles, and become personally invested in their futures. The Exorcist is a film that starts and ends with the characters on the screen; it is for this reason it is one of the most horrifying and disturbing pictures ever made.

Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful film actress living in Washington D.C. with her young daughter, Reagan (Linda Blair). In spite being recently divorced, Chris tries to make the best of her life and appears to be doing the best she can to raise her daughter in a loving, supporting environment. Regan is a wonderful little girl that loves her mother.  She is not overtly well mannered or spoiled, but playful and likable; she could be my daughter, or yours.

A secondary storyline involves a Jesuit priest named Father Karras (Jason Miller). Karras, a psychologist, lives in poverty at the University and struggles to take care of his elderly and infirmed mother living in New York. He cannot afford his mother’s care so she is forced to stay in a mental hospital when she injures herself due to being alone in her apartment.  The mother feels shamed by this treatment that she does not understand and cannot even look at her son the last time he sees her alive. It is this guilt that causes Karras to begin to lose his faith in God. We sympathize with his struggle, we have all seen the elderly deteriorate, and most have questioned their faith in one point in time.

It is in these three characters the story begins. Over virtually the entire first hour of the film we get to know them and what they are all about. We care about these people, like them, and would invite them over to dinner if given the opportunity. It is the effectiveness of this first hour that makes the second hour of the film work.

What happens in the second hour of the film has been repeatedly discussed, analyzed, parodied, and ripped off more times than I care to discuss here. The true horror begins about 45 minutes in, when Chris runs up to her daughters room and finds her being jerked violently from front to back and side to side on a bouncing bed. The little girl screams and cries in pain. Throughout the course of the next hour we will witness this wonderful little girl be completely deconstructed by an unknown demon, perhaps even the devil himself. Reagan turns from a delightful little girl into a foul mouthed, horrendous, incarnation of her former self, and the effects are nothing short of terrifying.

There are scenes of true despair here. We watch as the little girl becomes violent and vulgar. The words that come out of her mouth (while uncommon in film) slap us across our face. The blood and scars on the girls face grow every day while the demon continues to take hold. The girl is not evil, but is possessed by evil. We are horrified by what we see, but most of all we are afraid for the girl and the family we have grown to care about.

What makes The Exorcist so effective is the fact that it is more of a drama than a horror film. The writing  has weight. There is not an actor in this movie that gives a bad performance. Everything is treated as realistically as possible. There are no obvious “jump out and scare you moments.” This film could be a documentary. I do not believe in ghosts, demons, or possession- but if these things were real, I can imagine the events would play out similarly to the events in this film.  The film was written by William Peter Blatty, based on his book. The story was based on an actual exorcism that took place in the 1940’s, although most scholars believe this actual occurrence involved a psychologically disturbed individual and the power of suggestion.

Chris takes a very pragmatic approach to helping her daughter. She takes her to doctors first. They run tests, many of which are horrific. (I cannot stomach the scene in which the poor girl is getting a shot in the neck.) They find nothing wrong. Psychologists think it is insanity, but Chris knows better: the little girl strapped to the bed upstairs is not her daughter. The idea of an Exorcism is given to Chris as a last resort. She is not religious and is insulted by the idea of taking her daughter to a witch doctor.

The resulting scene is one of the most effective and disturbing scenes I have ever seen in my life as a filmgoer. Chris is on her wits end- the peak of desperation. First a doctor implies her daughter needs to see an Exorcist, then a detective (Lee Cobb) visits her home suggesting her daughter may be a murderer, finally she hears screams from her daughter’s room. This triple climax and the resulting scene will forever be burned into cinematic history as one of the most notorious things ever put on film:

(Warning: Scene contains intense violence and language.)

From this point on The Exorcist continues at a breakneck pace.  Father Karras convinces the church that a possession has taken place. The church calls upon Father Merrin(the terrific Max Von Sydow) to travel to Washington and exorcise the demon. Merrin has dealt with exorcism before, it is even implied that the films demon is one that Merrin has personally encountered in his past. If Reagan is absolute evil then Merrin is portrayed as absolute good, with Karras the fallible human in between. The end of the film plays like a straightforward Christian parable. The demon destroys all that is good and wholesome, and the righteous must be steadfast and disciplined enough to overcome the evil. The final sacrifice of the film represents the power of free will and choice over evil and oppression.

The director, William Friedkin, shot The Exorcist over a period of 15 months in one of the most notorious of productions. Friedkin was maniacal in his insistence on realism. The scenes involving Linda Blair being thrown around in the bed were done by putting the child actress in a harness and literally jerking her around violently. The child’s screams are real. During the above crucifix masturbation scene, where the demon child slaps her mother, Ellen Burstyn was pulled back so hard that her coccyx was fractured- yet another howl of real pain. Pea soup was used for the vomit sequences and was actually sprayed all over the actors. The entire bedroom was built inside of a refrigerated room and kept at below 30 degrees- the steam coming off of the actors mouths are real. Friedkin fired guns on the set to make the actors uneasy and even slapped actor William O’Malley (an actual priest) in the face before filming the shot of Father Dryer (O’Malley) giving Father Karras his last rites. Do you see his hand shaking? That is for real. The actress Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of the demon) was forced to gargle raw eggs, smoke cigarettes and drink straight whisky before delivering her lines. She was not even given credit in the film. The actors despair comes through in their performances- they were literally victims of a mad director.

Finally, there were the other incidents. A fire destroyed the set of the film and had to be rebuilt over a weekend. The cause of the fire was never found. Nine people directly involved with the production died during production, and actors Jack MacGowarn (Burt Dennings) and Vasiliki Maliaros (Karras’ Mother) died shortly after filming. When viewers first saw the film in 1973 many walked out of the theater, fainted, or even vomited. Billy Graham said in sermons that the film had a demon in the celluloid. These facts only made the picture more notorious: it became the highest grossing film of all time, and kept that title for two years until Jaws came out. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning two for Best Adapted Screenplay (William Peter Blatty) and Best Sound (Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman.) Burstyn, Miller and Blair were all nominated in acting roles, while Friedkin was nominated for Best Director. To date, The Exorcist is the only horror film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Is The Exorcist the scariest film of all time? I don’t know about that. Such labels  are silly. It is certainly one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. It can be a very psychologically terrifying picture. I had not seen the film for nearly a decade when I watched it this week for this review. The last time I watched the movie, my wife and I were dating and she was not even pregnant yet with my daughter. I remember just watching the movie as a horror flick back then, and thinking about how audacious some of the stuff in it was. Now I am the father of a wonderful eight year old girl. Needless to say, The Exorcist had a different effect on me this time. I was much more terrified. This is the kind of film that makes you want to wake up your children in the middle of the night, just to make sure they are okay.

Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey



Cast and Crew:
Chris : Ellen Burstyn
Father Karras: Jason Miller
Father Merrin: Max Von Sydow
Lieutenant Kinderman: Lee J. Cobb
Reagan: Linda Blair

Warner Bros. Pictures presents A William Friedkin Film. Written by William Peter Blatty, based on his book. Running Time: 132 Minutes. Rated R for Strong Language and Intense, Disturbing Images.