Monday, February 19, 2007

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

Scary movie?
(Warning: story of this and Polanski's Rosemary's Baby discussed in detail).

When The Exorcist--that sensational horror flick about a girl possessed by a demon--first screened in the early '70s it was touted as the most frightening film ever made; for almost thirty years that reputation has held--has, if anything, grown.

Now the film comes to us digitally spiffed up and cleansed and with an extra 16 minutes added, but don't be fooled--this is not strictly speaking 'the director's cut.' William Peter Blatty, who wrote both novel and screenplay and who produced, once made up a list of scenes he wished weren't cut out of the film, and every one of them are up there (the doctor's exam, the talk between the two priests, the ending). Whether or not the director (William Friedkin) truly approves is a matter of speculation*; whether or not the additions actually improve the movie…well, that's what we're here to talk about.

Right off, I disliked the digital effects; it's coming to the point that I dislike practically any kind of digital effects--for me they're a form of cheating, of pushbutton magic. The superimposition of demonic faces on some of the quieter scenes is distracting, and so is the low, almost subsonic tone you hear at certain points (to add, I suppose, an "ominous atmosphere" to the scene). The film worked perfectly fine without them, and seeing and hearing these additions pointedly remind you that this is a film you're watching, one that has been 'new' and 'improved.'

Early on there's a never-before-seen scene of the girl Regan (Linda Blair) being given a medical exam. Blatty in an interview tells us this helps establish that Regan already has health and psychological problems, but all it actually establishes is just how inadequate an actress Linda Blair was at that time. When she snarls at the clinic staff her delivery is wooden, not startling--as if she was saying things the meaning of which she had no idea (which was probably the case, Blair being fourteen at that time).

Then there's the spider-walking scene, which is startling to look at but at odds with all the other scenes involving supernatural forces. One of the few things Friedkin does right in The Exorcist is the floor effects--levitating bodies, shaking beds--things that happen 'right before your eyes,' so to speak, without the benefit of special photographic techniques; this helps make what's happening more persuasive, more 'real.' At the end of the walk Blair spouts blood, a climactic act that I felt was totally unnecessary. The spilling of blood in The Exorcist hardly felt gratuitous before, and there was a neat escalation in the scale of horror--from the MRI sequence, where a needle is inserted in Regan's neck and arterial blood spurts the length of Regan's body, to the deflowering-by-crucifix scene, with vaginal blood smeared liberally all over Regan's face. In both scenes the blood is explained (arterial spurt, deflowering) and in both scenes the moment is utterly convincing (well, okay, her vaginal blood looks a touch too pinkish). Having this 'spider-walk' sequence with its bloody-vomit climax inserted in between disturbs that escalation and violates the realistic tone of the film.

Two later additions aren't so bad. Father Karras (Jason Miller) listening to the unpossessed Regan is actually touching--the priest wants to get to know the girl as she once was; later you realize that this was his one and only chance to do so. Then there is a short exchange between Karras and Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), in which Karras essentially asks: "Why?" and Merrin replies "to make us despair." Bald expository theology, perhaps, but the two actors deliver their lines with such weary understatement (the word "despair" rolls elegantly off Von Sydow's mouth) that it's actually a lovely moment.

The ending has been knocked by critics for turning what was once a moody and atmospheric conclusion into a sentimental lovefest, with Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) taking Father Dyer (Father William O'Malley) to the movies**. Here's what I think about it: first, the new ending adds a certain symmetry (Kinderman talks movies to Karras, now he's talking movies to Dyer) and closure (Kinderman is passed on, from Karras to Dyer). Second, people tend to forget that Blatty is really a comedy writer--he helped write the screenplays of A Shot in the Dark, an early Pink Panther movie, and Gunn, based on Blake Edward's sophisticated and witty Peter Gunn TV series. The best dialogue in The Exorcist is comic dialogue:

"There's an alien pubic hair in my gin. Never seen it before, have you?"

"I've got tickets to The Crest."
"What's showing?"
"Who's in it?"
"Othello--Grouch Marx."
"I've seen it."

If Blatty wants to end a horror film with a parody straight out of Casablanca, with Kinderman as Humphrey Bogart and Dyer as Claude Rains, he's perfectly within his rights to do so and acting totally according to his nature. Personally, I find Kinderman and Dyer's gentle banter to be more amusing than the original ending's quiet portentousness.

Third and final point: after all is said and done, The Exorcist isn't exactly the great horror classic it's all pumped up to be--certainly not one that can't stand a little revision, and I'll tell you why:

It just isn't evil enough.

Think about it: who does all the really nasty stuff in the film? The girl? No, the demon inside her (which completely absolves the girl). What do we know about this demon? Nothing much, except that he has the voice of Mercedes McCambridge (the gloriously butch gang leader in Touch of Evil) and that he sounds like he could be witty (That's why I wanted more dialogue between Karras and Pazuzu, which is the demon's name in the novel. Besides our learning more about his motivations and his eventually showing evidence of those "massive psychological attacks" Blatty keeps hinting at but never really delivers on, the demon could reveal himself to be a really accomplished stand-up).

Back to the topic--aside from the demon, who remains a cipher, The Exorcist isn't exactly full of voluntary and conscious evil. Von Sydow does warn of despair, but the characters don't demonstrate much; after all, they've been at this for only three days. Blatty notes that real exorcisms last for months, and admits that he kept his short so it wouldn't put too much of a strain on audience's attention spans. If Blatty had been less considerate to attention spans (the artist's bane!), and truer to his artist's instincts (the audience's bane!), then maybe we would have seen something--either the mother or the priest thinking of killing Regan to put her out of her misery, or the mother thinking of killing Kinderman, to keep him from arresting Regan. Maybe Father Karras and the mother could have an affair. Who knows?

And despair--isn't that an easy sin to bring about (just waking up in the morning is often enough to induce a bad case)? I keep thinking that if Regan was an alcohol or drug addict that for one reason or another the mother couldn't hand over to a rehab clinic, the effect would have been the same--the bedpans, the nasal drip, the vomiting, even the tying down and manipulative conversation ("you could loosen the straps son…" how like an alcoholic to talk about them!). This is less a horror film than it is an alcohol-or-drug-withdrawal film--it actually makes more sense to think of it that way.

By way of comparison, think of Rosemary's Baby…where a band of powerful men and women conspire to bring about the birth of Satan's son in the womb of an innocent woman…and with her own husband is involved. Voluntary, conscious evil, an entire department store catalogue of it--from greed to cynicism to envy to sheer, unadulterated malice--it's all there. The film takes its time to develop--roughly nine months--and during those nine months, you can see Rosemary's spirit crumpling, the forces of darkness closing in. And to top it all, the single, authentic act of love in the film--one that is totally in accord with Rosemary's nature as a woman and mother--is the single most evil act in the film.

Stephen King of all people once gave an excellent definition of the different kinds of horror. The best and finest is the thrill at the base of the spine (the suspenseful or haunting image); the lowest and most common is the gross-out (splashed blood, pulled-out intestines, etc). If you want the best, finest kind of horror, you want Rosemary's Baby. If you want the gross-out (a lot of it of the "pop-up" kind--watch once and it'll startle you; watch a second time and it's dull) you want The Exorcist.

* In a hilariously grotesque recent interview on the making of the "Director's" Cut, Friedkin sits opposite to Blatty and attempts to outline his objections tactfully…which Blatty promptly brushes aside. Then he fawns shamelessly over Blatty, calling him a greater writer than Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, etc (Blatty's the producer, after all).

** "I want to make sure you know that the Devil loses," Blatty said about this scene, while Friedkin looked distinctly uncomfortable sitting in his chair.

(First published in Businessworld, 10/27/00)

(Reprinted as part of my book Critic After Dark, in a section on Catholic films)

This post reprinted as part of Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blogathon


Etchie said...

pretty eyeful for a review there, noel.

and yeah, i agree with you. The Exorcist lost a considerable amount of fright factor. i don't know the reason but i think people nowadays tend to be scared out of their wits by visual horror---something that i'd probably attribute to poor writing pitifully compensated by an abundance of special effects (think Saw).

Noel Vera said...

Poor writing is right; I think Blatty was out of his league. Only reason the novel is such a hit is because it probably hit the zeitgeist--belief in the supernatural, in the early '70s, must have been sexy--partly because we should know better (the allure of the forbidden), partly because people then were trying to reach out to all kinds of mysticism (the allure of the unknown).

Anonymous said...

What? "The Exorcist" is an awesome novel and film. All this review and the two comments made after show is that there are people who just borrow from "Making of" features and other critics. The film is an extremely fine telling of the story and has been borrowed from non-stop since it was released. I really don't think anybody here actually gets what an impact this film has made.

Anonymous said...

Also, "Zeitgeist" doesn't mean "belief in the supernatural."

Noel Vera said...

It's overrated. Conventional wisdom has it that it's the greatest horror film ever made, and to that I'd throw, oh, Nosferatu, both versions, Vampyr, Eyes Without a Face, Freaks, and Bride of Frankenstein.

This was written for the contrarian blogathon, what do you expect?

And if someone actually wrote about my point, that what's missing from this movie is the element of choice, and that this is really a drug or alcohol addiction flick in disguise, I'd like to know about it.

Also--I don't mean zeitgeist means belief in the supernatural. Read it again.

Noel Vera said...

Uh--evil implies choice, this is really an addiction flick, and Blatty's really a comedy writer. Those are my three basic points. Capish?

Anonymous said...

You can argue that anything is overrated. Everybody knows that William Peter Blatty used to write comedy prior to "The Exorcist." That is not a point; that is just a fact. I think you might want to quit borrowing from other people with crap like "evil implies choice; it's about addiction!"(that's not even what's going on in this story as a victim experiencing evil has NO choice! Capish?) Seriously, that just sounds like a lame attempt to be profound. William Peter Blatty is an excellent writer of both comedy and horror. Get over it! "The Exorcist" losing any fright factor over the years has been due to its familiarity, the fact that it has been imitated, borrowed from, refrenced, talked about and parodied as any successful horror film will be. It is also an older film when literature was the primary outside source of material for films, instead of video games and theme park rides, so it is slower and has an amazing build in events. Sorry it didn't turn into "Volcano" or "Independence day" so that you could feel there was enough "evil" action taking place on a more "global" scale.

This movie has excellent actors, an interesting and believable story, brilliant effects;Owen Roizman and Friedkin did a fantastic job mixing realism with surrealism.

"The Exorcist" should have won Best Picture over "The Sting" easily. And regardless of anything either one of says, it is one of the greatest horror films ever made. It certainly opened many "A-list" doors and minds that had been previously sealed to horror as some lesser genre. We need more of them of this magnitude.

Noel Vera said...

"That is not a point; that is just a fact. I think you might want to quit borrowing from other people"

A point can't be a fact?


Where did I borrow from, exactly?

Blatty wasn't all that funny even when he was trying. Fell asleep watching A Shot in the Dark. Edwards did good to move away from Blatty and rely on Sellers and his own comic instincts.

"This movie has excellent actors, an interesting and believable story, brilliant effects"

Check out the titles I mentioned, then get back to me. Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, for example, doesn't resort to cheap schlock effects like floating girls and pea soup. And as Blatty himself pointed out, that rotating head was really silly.

Anonymous said...

Rosemary's Baby was an excellent film, in a dozen different ways, but you seem to be comparing apples and oranges. RB was more of a satire; consider the last scene where everyone is sitting around having cocktails with an inverted cross dangling in the mouth of a pram festooned with black cloth. It's pretty funny, and I'm pretty sure Polanski intended it to be. Polanski was making fun of religionists; Blatty was not, A lot of the reason that The Exorcist is not as effective anymore, in my opinion, is that we simply aren't as bound by religious belief as we used to be, even in the 70's when that film was made. The film is only convincing if a part of you, however small and subconsciously, believes in absolute evil, and many of us no longer do. Modernity has rooted that out. We don't see a lot of demon movies anymore because of this, and those that we do see rely on techniques like hyper-realism (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity) to try and make believers out of us once again.

Noel Vera said...

Rosemary's Baby had a sense of humor, and that's its strength; it allows for cynicism in the face of the supernatural, which keeps it relevant today. Exorcist--Dave Kehr in his recent article makes the interesting case that in the '70s it was Friedkin's contribution to storytelling--cut out the expository fat, leave the high points and a more elliptical narrative.

That said, The Exorcist could have used more humor. Blatty's a comic writer, I don't see why he can't do that. But then I also think Ira Leven's a better writer overall than Blatty.

Demon movies have been coming back, haven't they? And that reality series/documentary schtick is the default format for this. Good point.