Saturday, November 1, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Moves: The Exorcist

Last night we had 58 trick-or-treaters - not bad, but it felt slower than even last year, when it rained on Halloween. We've had as many as 87, and we prepared for more, given that it was (relatively) warm, dry, and on a Friday. Looks like I'll be eating Kit-Kats and Peanut Butter Cups for a few months.

We watched Dracula and House of Wax as the boys and ghouls came and went - House of Wax is our Halloween tradition and Dracula was just for fun - it's a good horror movie to have in the background as little kids arrive. When Halloween falls on a weekend we just run horror movies all day, but it was a workday and a busy one, so those were the only films we got to watch before settling down at 8:45 to watch the final horror flick for 31 Days.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist, not unlike Halloween, was one of those movies I didn't really appreciate the first time I saw it. My video diet at the time was mostly slasher films, monster movies, and anything with gore/nudity. Into that steady stream of stabbings, decapitations, boobs, and dismemberment The Exorcist dropped like a lead weight. I was bored out of my mind and spent a significant amount of time trying to freeze-frame the 'face' that appears during Father Karras' dream.

Part of the problem was that the primary shock pieces in the film - backwards walking down stairs, the head turning around, the pea-soup vomit - had already become entrenched in popular culture. I'd seen those things copied and parodied a dozen times before I got to see the actual film. To me they were elements to be made fun of, rather than be shocked by.

Plus, I'd seen Evil Dead. Pea soup vomiting? Please.

I'd also rejected religion and embraced science in my teens. The ultimate message of the film seemed (and seems) to be that science fails in the face of true evil, and religion holds the only succor. To quote my teen self, "fuck that shit." Of course science had become my religion, but I wasn't going to figure that out for a while yet.

The 1990's were, for me, a time where I re-assessed a lot of things - choices, interests, life-goals, family. I went back to school, got married, and generally moved out of the mental adolescence that seemed to mark my late teens/early twenties. I got a little (only a little) more self-aware about my own biases and ignorance. (Yes, this self-referential rambling is going somewhere.) The 90's were also a decade that offered little in the way of new films for a horror fan, so in the wake of my self-assessment I also started looking at films I'd discarded or dismissed earlier in my life. Halloween was one of those, The Exorcist was another.

Halloween was honestly more of a revelation to me than The Exorcist. I thought I knew Halloween and watching it again in the 90's was like watching a completely different film. The Exorcist remained the film that I remembered - but I had changed, and my enjoyment of the movie changed accordingly. I could now appreciate the anti-science/pro-religion message without feeling like I was being attacked, I enjoyed the pace and slow buildup of fear and tension now that I had developed (some) patience, and I could shake off the cultural baggage attached to the set pieces and enjoy them in the context of the film, rather than that of society in general. And I could see how different the film was than any other horror film being made at the time. How terrifying it must have been to see for people like my mother, who had been raised Catholic (and knew the rap of a nun's ruler on her knuckles). How good it was.

Damn good.

The Medium
We watched the film on streaming from Amazon. I'd planned on picking up the recent anniversary Blu-ray, but it's still too expensive for me. I picked the Extended Director's Cut version, which has several additional scenes not found in the original release. To be honest, I didn't really like the additions and think they significantly impact the pacing, as well as confusing the narrative in some spots. The ONLY addition I like is the bit with Merrin and Karras talking on the stairs after the first exorcism session. All the new 'creepy face flash' bits are particularly annoying.

The Movie
The Exorcist opens on a dig in northern Iraq - Father Mirren (the ever-awesome Max von Sydow) unearths a small statue of a demon (and an amulet). Troubled, he returns to the dig later and climbs to a high point where he faces a large statue of the same demon as the wind howls in off the desert. Though subsequent films in the series indicate that this statue is that of the demon Pazuzu and is the very same demon he defeated in an earlier exorcism, very little in this film directly references that. (Though this opening scene and a scene where Merrin's name is mentioned by the demon possessing Regan are indicators in that direction.)

Though the demon statue always looks to me like it's saying "Hey. What's up?"

Then we're whisked off to Georgetown, where actress Chris McNeil is filming a new movie. She's staying in Georgetown with her young daughter Regan. Chris starts hearing noises in the attic, which she assumes are rats, though her butler insists there are no rats in the building. After an incident with a ouia board in which Regan refers to a spirit she sometimes talks to that she calls 'Captain Howdy' Regan begins to develop strange behavioral issues. She confronts an astronaut at her mother's party telling him "you're going to die up there" before urinating on the carpet. She has violent outbursts and swears like a sailor. After an incident in which Regan's bed begins to bounce around like a carnival ride Chris takes her to a doctor. This begins a long set of medical tests as the specialists try and figure out what's wrong with her.

The medical tests are some of the most horrifying parts of the film. Watching the doctors basically flail around in the dark while looking for a rational explanation really set me off in the 80's, but I've since had more experience with doctors. Things are no longer quite as bad as they are in this film - the incredibly painful and intrusive tests shown in the film have been replaced by much less problematic ones nowadays - but the insistence on more tests in pursuit of theories and hunches is something I've seen a few times. I'm sympathetic - I know medical science requires a fair amount of testing and exploration - but it's just incredibly difficult to watch a loved one get poked and prodded over and over again as your faith in the professionals' ability to figure it out drains away.

"This will be painful and intrusive and has only a 5% of revealing anything useful."

Watching it this time around I was struck by the thought - what if this happened to a middle-class family? A poor family? Chris is wealthy - I mean she's got a maid, a butler and a live-in assistant. She can afford all these expensive tests and treatments. For a poor family this would be impossible - Regan would be committed faster than you can say 'ward of the state.' On top of that, calling in a Catholic priest would carry completely different baggage nowadays. In the 70's it was all about the loss of faith - Chris has no religious background and even Father Karras is having a crisis following the death of his beloved mother. Now it's less about faith and more about trust - a different kind of faith, I guess. Would you let two male Catholic priests be alone in a room with your pre-teen daughter? Though the new Pope seems to be making some progress in restoring, er, faith, in the institution, there's been significant damage done to the Catholic 'brand' over the last few decades. Trust is a lot harder to come by.

And when's the last time you saw a priest this young?

Medical science fails Chris, as does psychiatry. She eventually turns to religion, and Father Karras, who is both a psychiatrist AND a priest. Though suffering from his own crisis of faith he eventually becomes convinced that Regan really IS possessed (I'm always astonished by how much crazy crap this actually takes - I'd be on the phone with the Vatican after the first "your mother sucks cocks in hell!") The Church approves an exorcism and sends Father Merrin, the elderly priest from the opening sequence. Together, he and Karras try and rid Regan of the horrific presence that has possessed her.

"I'll need a cassock, a bible, some holy water and a breath mint. That's for you."

Things really get cranking once Karras is on the case. Friedken has invested a lot of time and effort into presenting a detached, clinical look at how things are building up. There's almost a documentary feel to some of the scenes - particularly the medical tests - that gives a feeling of realism to the events. So once he steps on the gas and shoves us into that freezing room we're unprepared for how crazy it gets. He's established a sense of trust - yes, this is bad, but it's a distant thing - and then Regan is projectile vomiting pea soup, and cranking her head 180 degrees, and floating three feet over her bed. We've been slowly ascending a rollercoaster and now we plummet over the other side.

Every time I see this I think "Invisible Crowd Surf!"

The exorcism scenes are top notch horror filmmaking. They're tense and awful and frenetic and terrifying. The only criticism I really have of the film during this time is the death of Father Merrin. That he dies off-screen feels like a bit of a cheat, though there parallels for Father Karras with the death of his mother, that he also was not present for. Those are not really followed up on, however, so it really just feels anticlimactic - a missed moment for me. It deflates Karras' ultimate sacrifice a bit, though that's still an effective scene.

Is it just me, or does he look like Bruce Banner about to go all 'Hulk' on us?

Friedkin is an effective filmmaker in cinematography, pacing, and direction. One new thing I noticed this time around is in the scene where the detective, Kinderman, questions Chris about the death of the movie director, Dennings. As he questions her more about Regan the camera moves in slowly, getting closer and closer. Once he abandons that line of questioning and moves on the camera starts pulling away - a neat little 'warmer, warmer... colder, colder' moment I hadn't noticed before.

"Sure, officer, I'll be happy to answer your questions."

The acting is generally very good, with Jason Miller as Karras, Linda Blair as Regan and, of course, Max von Sydow as Merrin being standouts. Ellen Burstein is fine and sometimes quite good, but she reaches hysteria too easily at times and leaves herself with nowhere to go. Supporting characters are fine, with Lee J. Cobb as Lt. Kinderman being notable, though his character is perhaps a little too Columbo-cute for the circumstances.

The Bottom Line
Still a horror classic and the defining horror movie of the 1970's. Its success revealed and whetted an un-tapped appetite for horror among the general public and paved the way for a horror renaissance. It's a damn good film - but I'll stick with the original release from now on.

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