Here at the extravaganza we like to think that strong themes are the backbone of great horror movies. So far we have covered the horror of scientific discovery in The Fly, the darkness and claustrophobia of depression and post-traumatic stress in The Descent, and the entry this week is no different. The flick I have picked this week goes deep into the frightening world of religion, and more specifically faith, all while being toted as the scariest movie of all time. Of course we are talking about the William Freidkin classic, The Exorcist.
As one of the original movies that got yours truly into the genre, The Exorcist has a special place in my heart. Little 13-year-old Ben getting his guts scared out in his buddy's basement just off the music alone is one of those movie memories that I will never forget. Not only was I excited to revisit my main source of childhood nightmares, it had been probably around 10 years since I sat down and watched The Exorcist. I was interested to discover what new frights I would discover with my seasoned eyes. With lots to discuss and a new week quickly approaching, it's time to get into the action. I will remind you that this will be a spoiler-heavy post but if you have not seen this one yet, well, then I don't know what to do for you.
It is possible that there is no movie more controversial or polarizing in the modern age of cinema than The Exorcist, it really has everything. A young girl spewing vulgarities that would make a sailor blush. Lots of bodily fluids of all kinds and colors and a subject matter about people who take themselves and their ideas way to seriously. The thing that I probably found most interesting when watching through adult eyes and what I will attempt to prove throughout this article is that The Exorcist is not a movie that is anti-religious, in fact I think it is quite the opposite. Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty do such an amazing job of not only delivering an outstanding movie but do it with some real panache.
Need look no further than the characters for some examples. With three real major players and a slew of strong side performances, The Exorcist seamlessly gives just enough back story for each in an unbelievable amount of time. In the first half hour we are shown the sheltered make believe life that Chris MacNeil lives, the spoiled but ultimately adorable existence of her daughter Regan and the save the cat moment when Father Karras travels by all forms of transportation to visit his ailing mother and even leave her the few dollars he has. Hell we even get to spend a bit of time putzing around the middle east with Father Merrin before really diving in. This gives the movie enough time to let these characters have strong meaningful arcs that will not only effect their decisions throughout the movie but also in the story as well.
Possibly more impressive than the characters is the vast range of ways that Friedkin frightens the viewer. He does so many things to scare you and most of the time they don't even have anything to do with a possessed child. Yes there is the defecation of the statue in the church and such but small things like sound cues are what really get the hair on the back of your neck to raise. There are massive needles and terrifying CAT scans that do not exactly look medically sound. There is tremendous use of the camera to build an uneasy feeling and some of the best lighting between darkness and light that any viewer could ask for. Even the odd spooky face that will find it's way into the frame does not really have any religious aspects to it, just something to keep the viewer on their toes. This outside the box thinking does not stop there as The Exorcist is almost as much a psychological horror movie as it is a straight forward one.
I don't have children but I can relate to loving and caring deeply for something, such as my dog or the Green Bay Packers. While Aaron Rodgers and my Labradoodle are not exactly perfect examples, what I am trying to say is that I understand the plight of the mother in this movie and can totally see parents losing their minds just at the though of their precious little child being sick, let alone possessed by el Diablo himself. Every parent has the fear of something happening to their child and no matter how hard they try to solve the problem they are not able to. In a similar vein the movie opens as previously mentioned with Father Merrin tooling around Iraq looking for who knows what. I think it is probably safe to assume that in 1972 most western people did not know much about the middle east and especially little without the internet. There is nothing more frightening than the unknown and for most Americans there was probably no part of the world that felt more foreign than the middle east. Just a little food for thought.
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I want to return to the idea that this movie does not take a negative look at religion but really a positive one. We are all used to the devil as a big red demon with horns, Blatty and Friedkin take the subject far more seriously than that. This is not the Sunday school version of the devil who tries to convince you to smoke pot instead of giving your mother a call to see how she is doing. Instead they really thought about how Lucifer would truly spread his terror. Possessing a young girl, torturing her mother and attacking what Karras is most scared of are just a few examples. On the subject of Father Karras, his arc is not only the most interesting but one that really holds the theme of the movie.
For most of the movie Father Karras is struggling with his faith. His inability to pay for proper care of his mother has forced him to question what he has dedicated his entire life to. He feels horrible for putting his mother in what can only be described as an insane asylum and even worse when she passes away there. Swing the story over to Chris MacNeil who is desperately looking for a doctor to help her daughter, none of which can help her. When Karras and MacNeil meet up in the third act she is out of options and he is almost trying to convince her that his life's work is nonsense. Of course Karras being the good guy he is can't leave her in this state and decided to help her no matter how little he believes her.
Now let's fast forward to the final scene, the power of Christ has compelled and everything seems calm, for the moment. Karras has been mocked by the devil as his recently deceased mother and is becoming broken. Only after zombie Regan kills Father Merrin does Karras reaffirm his faith and is able to take the devil into himself. Karras was not returned to his faith by the good of the world or seeing a miracle but rather quite the opposite. Faith, no matter what kind is not important when everything is going well. Faith and belief during the darkest of moments is when it really counts, it should not come easy or the entire point of it all is pretty meaningless.
So what does all of this add up to, the flawless storytelling, the compelling characters, the incredible use of sound and light and the combination of straight forward horror elements with some real life terror makes for one of the best cinematic experiences you could possibly have. The actual exorcism scene is bone chilling and for my money the best horror scene ever filmed. I can't speak for anyone else but that scene is probably the one which has forced the most people to reassure themselves "It's only a movie" and leaves us with an impression that won't soon wear off. There have been movies that have defined this genre in so many ways but none have done it as well as The Exorcist. It was more than a pleasure to revisit this masterpiece and if it has been a while I suggest you do as well, because of course, THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!