There’s not much that can be said about William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s brilliant novel THE EXORCIST that hasn’t been said before but I’ll give it a shot. Although I recently watched the film for the umpteenth time, I can tell you that there were many years in which I absolutely wouldn’t dare do so. I thought of it as akin to courting the devil and I guess my ultimate fear was that by watching it, I might become possessed myself. Looking back, I guess there was a lot of magical thinking and supernatural paranoia occupying my head as a kid. As much as I enjoyed watching babysitters and camp counselors get killed in creative ways as a budding horror fan, my bravery evaporated when it came to anything religious or especially, anything dealing with the devil. I believed in that Satan guy until one day I miraculously didn’t and what a relief it was.I still consider myself spiritual to a degree but these days I take everything I absorbed as a child from Sunday school with a hearty pinch of salt. Still, my mind remains open a wee crack, there are no atheists in foxholes after all and who knows what the future will bring. Anyway, when my abject fear of religion hit the high road so did my overwhelming terror of the demonic force in THE EXORCIST. That said, I highly doubt there will ever come a time when I don’t squirm like a worm on a hook during the medical procedures endured by Regan (Linda Blair. Those scenes always make me wince and stand to prove that there are some kindertraumas that you never grow out of.
Luckily, you don’t have to be shaking in your shoes or freaking out in your footwear to enjoy THE EXORCIST. No matter your level of skepticism it’s still an expertly crafted masterwork with a hypnotic score, dynamic acting (the entire cast is impeccable) and an autumnal atmosphere that’s singularly seductive (that scene when Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) strolls through Georgetown sidewalks carpeted with fall leaves as trick or treaters pass to the tune of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” is one of my favorite moments in all of cinema). Even though the lightening quick flashes of Captain Howdy’s pale visage no longer have me hiding under the couch, I’m very far from the mentality of a semi-recent audience I viewed it with who chuckled at every curse word thrown (philistines!). Happily too, I can say that a part of me relates to young Regan’s plight now more than ever before. I don’t know what it’s like to have my head turn three hundred and sixty five degrees but due to recent disappointments, I do understand the urge to stay in bed, use foul language and throw furniture at anyone who dares enter my immediate space. Even if you strip away the film’s blaring religious garments, there still stands a universal clash between the powers of darkness and light, positivity and negativity, and optimism and hopelessness to consider. No one religion owns this eternal struggle that we all participate in every day whether we’re conscious of it or not and you certainly don’t have to be religious to have faith in the power of good and the value of life. In this area, Blatty’s profound, surprisingly sanguine book is more adamantly persuasive than the film in relaying the idea that for as much evil as there is in the world, there is also clear, identifiable goodness as well. I always try to keep that in mind when the pea soup begins to gurgle inside me, waiting to spring forth.
Happy 50th anniversary to The Exorcist.
I love The Exorcist; have from the first time I saw it at 5 or 6, did when I saw it in 2000 during it’s theatrical rerelease and the numerous times I’ve seen it since. It scared me shitless the first time and it still has the power to creep me out; in my estimation it’s one of the few genuinely scary movies. It has an otherworldly atmosphere coming off it, and a normal human transmogrified by an evil entity into a grotesque thing is a scary prospect, especially when you put yourself in the place of the character as you always should in order to feel the full effect of a horror film.
I am not Christian and never have been, so mine is not the semitic worldview; never had to cleanse myself of it, have no residue of it and Satan doesn’t hold any special place in my consciousness. I’ve always found it funny for instance, how most vampire movies subtly proselytize Christianity anytime the hero whips out a crucifix to defeat that evil aristocrat Dracula.
What sets The Exorcist apart is it transcends it’s Christian packaging. William Peter Blatty knew what he was doing; Pazuzu can’t be pigeonholed, bitch. Evil exists, it’s very real and holds sway in the world now more than ever and it is our job to combat it through service to God. That simple yet profound message is what has always resonated with this “idol worshipping pagan”.
Good Grief Ghastly – you saw it at 5 or 6? How in the name of Pazuzu did that happen?
I have been always uninterested in tales of demonic possession. Even as a child, when heavenly forces still invoked awe, I could never swallow the concept of Satan or demons.
Consequently, I did not see The Exorcist until I was in my 20s. I am glad, as I would have likely been distracted by the grotesque displays as a kid and it would likely have not resonated with me like it did.
It is the Rocky of horror. Like Balboa, Karras is wayward, drifting from his destiny until war is declared. They are both tough as asphalt and determined, but are ultimately overmatched by their foes. In the end each achieves the only victory possible for them, and those ends were never guaranteed.
And Unk, don’t let recent disappointments overwhelm you. These days it seems that merit and its due only bump into one another on occasion.
Yeah, my father showed it to me; it was one of his favorites. I’m thankful because I shudder to think what my taste in film would be without his influence. I’d probably be eagerly anticipating the latest Marvel CGI shitfest; at which point I’d have to find a good tall building and leap from it or bring the toaster with me into the bath, I couldn’t live with myself.
The radical physical transformation, spinning heads and pea soup aspect of demonic possession is theatrical but it’s an outside representation of a very real inner process, which is the real demonic possession.
It’s an inversion of values through subtle metaphysical medium. Unfortunately the dangerous part about movies like The Exorcist is that the dumb will see the theatrical stuff and think “that’s not real” and laugh at it, but in so doing, they open themselves up to the real thing by letting their guard down.
This place has been in the grip of real, true demonic possession for a very long time and seems to be accelerating on practically a daily basis. Evil has been having it’s way more and more. Now with all of the acting out and things people say and do and believe and go along with on this mass scale it’s becoming more apparent, even to the dimmer among us.
Wow, I cannot imagine watching THE EXORCIST at age 5 or 6! My little head would have exploded for sure. I’m guess the first time I saw the movie it was edited for TV and I still probably tapped out at some point. After that I just avoided it like the plague until I was old enough to handle it (which took decades). You’re right that there’s something otherworldly about the movie and I can totally understand why audiences became physically ill while watching it. Before the internet made images easily accessible that Captain Howdy face was so amorphous and fleeting and I think worked on an almost subliminal level.
At this point I’ve watched it a countless times on home media and I’ve seen the OG in a revival house and “the version you’ve never seen” when that was out. Not a fan the latter. Absolutely hate that they put Captain Howdy’s face in the oven range and killed his mystique.
I love your observation that THE EXORCIST is the ROCKY of horror! That is brilliant! I have to say, that scene where he has the dream of his mother in the street and he can’t reach her is so powerful and universal! It really captures the helplessness of the human condition and the guilt that sometimes accompanies grief. I’m really thinking I’ve got to read the book again. It’s one of the most satisfying novels I’ve ever read!
Maybe because I was raised Jewish (and we’re told from day one that there is no devil!) I was never scared of possessed Regan because I was too busy identifying with her rage (it didn’t fully connect with me that the angry swearing demon wasn’t Regan, and that she had been kidnapped to hell–which might have scared me if I thought about it). When I saw the movie on the big screen in the ’90s it scared me for the first time because of the hospital scenes you describe (and I didn’t even know that one of the techs was the real CRUISING killer!). Only now, in middle age, do I truly find THE EXORCIST scary, and for me, the part that pierces me deep in the soul is the part that I didn’t understand at all/thought was boring as a kid: Damien Karras’s grappling with his aging mother, her inner-torment that he can’t save her, and his guilt that he moved to another city and left her to pursue a career. THE EXORCIST has something for everyone! Truly a four quadrant film. I love it so much. It has always ensured that I didn’t feel alone in my deepest darkest feelings. Also I just recently read the book for the first time and it was one of the best experiences of my life! It became my best friend. You can see why it was as successful as PEYTON PLACE.