Monday, February 19, 2007

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

Scary movie?

(Warning: plot of this and Rosemary's Baby discussed in explicit 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 picture 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 produced once made up a wishlist of scenes he regrets were cut, and every one of them is back (the doctor's exam, the talk between the two priests, the ending). Whether the director (William Friedkin) truly approves is a matter of speculation*; whether the additions actually improve the movie-- well that's what we're here to talk about.

* (In a grotesque interview on the making of The Director's Cut Friedkin sits opposite Blatty and attempts to outline his objections tactfully--which Blatty brushes aside-- then fawns over the writer-producer, calling him a greater artist than Poe, Kafka, etc.)

Right off I disliked the digital; coming to a point that I dislike practically any digital effect-- they're a form of cheating, of pushbutton magic. The imposition of demonic faces on some of the quieter scenes is distracting and so is the low near-subsonic tone you hear some points (to add I suppose an 'ominous atmosphere'). The scenes worked fine without them; seeing and hearing the additions mostly remind you that the picture has just been 'new' and 'improved.'

Early on we see a restored sequence of Regan (Linda Blair) being given a medical exam. Blatty in an interview says this was meant to establish that Regan has psychological problems ("it's just as the doctor says-- it's nerves") but all it actually establishes is just how green Blair was at that time. When she snarls at staff her delivery is more wooden than startling, as if she were saying words she didn't understand (which may be the case-- Blair was fourteen and this was the '70s).

Then there's the spider-walk, a combination of stunt double and wirework, which is startling to look at but ill-timed. One of the few things Friedkin does right in The Exorcist is the sneaky escalation of occurrences-- from unexplained sounds to odd details (the Ouija piece flinging itself from one hand to the other) to increasingly disturbing behavior (pissing on a carpet, using profanity). Having this 'spider-walk' sequence inserted after a family friend's death but before Regan's violent deflowering disturbs that escalation and frankly violates the movie's realistic tone, even if the effects team did manage to digitally erase the wires from the stuntwoman's body.

Two later additions aren't so bad. Father Karras (Jason Miller) listening to the unpossessed Regan is actually moving-- the priest wants to get to know the actual girl, and you realize this was his only chance to do so. Then there's an 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 actors deliver their lines with such weary understatement (the word "despair" rolls elegantly off Von Sydow's tongue) that it's a lovely moment.

The ending has been knocked by critics for turning a moody atmospheric conclusion into a sentimental lovefest, with Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) taking Father Dyer (Father William O'Malley) to the pictures. Here's what I think: first, the new ending adds symmetry (Kinderman talks movies to Karras, now he's talking movies to Dyer) and closure (Kinderman moves on from Karras to find a friend in Dyer). Second, people tend to forget that Blatty began as a comic writer--he helped write the screenplays of A Shot in the Dark and Gunn, based on Blake Edward's witty 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 movie 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 according to his nature. Personally I find Kinderman and Dyer's gentle banter 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 isn't evil enough.

Think about it: who does all the really nasty stuff, the girl? No, the demon inside (which absolves the girl). What do we know about the demon? Not much save he has the voice of Mercedes McCambridge (the gloriously butch gang leader in Touch of Evil) and sounds like a real raconteur (Is why I wanted more talk between Karras and Pazuzu; besides revealing more of his motivations and being evidence of those 'massive psychological attacks' Blatty keeps hinting at, the demon might turn out to be an accomplished standup).

Back to the topic-- Von Sydow warns of despair, but the characters don't demonstrate the emotion much; after all they've been at this for only three days. Blatty notes that real exorcisms last for months and admits he kept his short so it wouldn't strain 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!) maybe we would have seen something--  either mother or  priest putting Regan out of her misery, or the mother 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 a common enough sin (just waking up in the morning is enough to induce a bad case)? I keep thinking 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 results 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 his way out of his restraints!). This is less a horror pic than it is a comic withdrawal pic.

By way of comparison, think of Rosemary's Baby, where powerful men and women conspire to bring about the birth of Satan's son. Conscious evil, an entire department store catalogue of it-- from greed to cynicism to envy to sheer unadulterated malice-- all there. The film takes its time to develop-- roughly nine months-- and during those months you see Rosemary's spirit crumpling as the darkness closes in; in the end the single authentic act of love in the film-- totally in accord with Rosemary's nature-- 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 finest is the thrill at the base of your spine (the haunting image, the unsettling detail); the lowest the grossout (spattered blood, yanked intestines). If you want the finest you want Rosemary's Baby; if you want gross-out you want The Exorcist.

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

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


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.