Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The Exorcist

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

The 1973 classic.

Father Merrin, an elderly priest taking part in an archaeological dig in Iraq. Father Karras, a young priest living in Washington D.C., struggling with a loss of faith and the fact that his job has taken him away from his ailing mother in New York. Chris MacNeil, an actress staying in the Georgetown area of D.C. while she works on a movie in the city. Regan MacNeil, the actress's daughter, dealing with her parents' divorce, her mother showing interest in a new man, and her own burgeoning adolescence. A film-loving police detective. Like people in a Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson film, all of these characters' lives will intersect, but in this case the event tying them all together will be the possession of young Regan by an ancient evil.

Regan's first contact with the demonic entity comes through the use of a Ouija board, that tool of evil mass produced by Parker Brothers. A spirit with the innocuous moniker Captain Howdy can move the Ouija's planchette around the board and answer questions. No big deal, kind of fun. The contact with Howdy coincides with strange occurrences around the house Regan and her mother are staying in. Noises in the attic. A shaking bed. Soon, Regan begins to act strangely herself.

At first, Regan's problems are passed off as symptoms of a nerve disorder. Lying, hyperactivity, lack of concentration, profanity. Her doctor prescribes Ritalin. But that's not the answer. Regan's behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and inappropriate. Very inappropriate. Urinating on the floor in front of party guests inappropriate. The doctor then begins to suspect she might have a lesion on her temporal lobe, which could cause hallucinations and convulsions.

It isn't until 53 minutes into (the director's cut of) the film that it becomes very clear that Regan doesn't have a behavioral disorder or a medical condition. Something evil has a hold on her. Karras is brought in to examine the situation, and when he decides that an exorcism is in order, that's when Merrin, an experienced exorcist, gets involved.

A lot of people have stories to tell about the first time they watched The Exorcist. The luckiest ones were those who were able to discover how frightening it was at the time of its initial release, the best stories would be from the people who actually passed out or vomited in the theatre because the movie got to them so. Now people seek it out and go into it knowing its reputation, so there's a lot of build-up and hype, but it can still work for them.

A girl I used to know has a story about the first time she watched The Exorcist, but it's not an ideal one. The girl was watching the movie with her father, and when Chris MacNeil says something about a "witch doctor" around halfway into the movie, that immediately made him think of the David Seville song. He started singing it and was ting tang walla walla bing banging all over the action from then on. It was disruptive for the girl at the time, but it did make the viewing memorable. She still remembered it 10 years later, and I'm sure she looks back on it fondly in a way.

My own father has a story about the disturbing day on which he first saw The Exorcist, in either 1973 or '74. A day that comes to his mind whenever he drives through a certain intersection. It was thunderstorm season, and as he exited the theatre after watching the movie, a storm was blowing in. Windy, dark sky. Driving home, he came upon a single vehicle accident at an intersection where a car had gone through a stop sign beside a cemetery, crossed the street, and crashed into a tree. The driver and passenger of the car were both killed - a just married bride and groom, still wearing their wedding dress and suit. Unnerved by the movie and the sight of the deceased newlyweds, my father still had to go to work that dark and stormy night, working as a truck driver hauling farm supplies. That night, he had to pick something up at a rickety old building. Walking through the building, the wind blowing outside, the wood plank floors creaking under his shoes... The way he talks about that day, his story has a very creepy and even apocalyptic sort of feeling to it. He and I sometimes have to drive through that intersection, and the tree the couple hit is still missing bark where the car made impact.

Myself, I don't have an interesting story to tell about the first time I watched The Exorcist. I don't really remember it, I just know that I rented it on VHS at some point in my childhood. As years have gone by, I've seen it twice theatrically, first during the 2000 release of "The Version You've Never Seen Before" and the second time at an all-night horror marathon in 2004.

It's a fact that The Exorcist is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made and one of the scariest. For me personally? I've always liked it, but it's not high on my list of favorites, and I never thought it was scary. Unsettling at moments, yes, but it didn't scare me. When I was a teenager, when it seemed cool to make belittling comments about popular things, I would say that The Exorcist worked best for me as a comedy. Like the line from Beetlejuice, "I've seen The Exorcist about 167 times and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it!" That's not the case anymore, but in my teens I found the vulgarity spewed by possessed Regan to be amusing.

So The Exorcist isn't one of my top favorites, it never gave me sleepless nights, and my first viewing of it was nothing special. But I do think it's a very well made film. I have a lot of respect for it and the cultural impact it had. It's a movie that does the horror genre proud.

Director William Friedkin was coming straight off of a huge success with The French Connection when he signed on to bring author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty's story to the screen. The French Connection had been nominated for several Academy Awards and won quite a few, including for Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director. And after setting the Oscar on his mantle, Friedkin didn't approach doing horror as slumming it, he didn't work down to the genre like so often happens, he was on his A game making an A picture.

Because of that, a Friedkin film again got a slew of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. William Peter Blatty won for his screenplay. Friedkin was nominated for Best Director, but while he didn't get the Oscar for The Exorcist, he did get a Golden Globe for it.

The performances from the cast are fantastic. Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, Linda Blair as Regan, and Jason Miller as Karras all got Oscar nominations. Max von Sydow is wonderful as Merrin. My favorite character in the film is Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman, the detective investigating the possible link between desecration at a church and the mysterious death of the director of the movie Chris MacNeil is working on.

Between the horrific moments, the movie works as a great drama and takes its time letting us get to know the characters. Sometimes it takes a little too much time (the director's cut runs 132 minutes), which is part of why I rank it less highly than some. For example, the first 10 minutes are just Merrin making his way around in Iraq, disturbed by the fact that the archaeological dig has unearthed a statue of the demon Pazuzu, the demon that was involved with a very difficult exorcism he performed years earlier and the demon that will soon inhabit Regan. I find 10 minutes to be a bit much for this sequence, it's always been an awkward start to me. Interestingly, we don't see Merrin again for another 90 minutes, when he's contacted about the exorcism.

The exorcism itself is awesome, a lengthy sequence of intensity and thrills, and the "The power of Christ compels you!" moment gives me goosebumps.

There were some issues getting a score done for the film, it has been said that composer Lalo Schifrin's music was rejected by the studio for being too frightening when paired with the images, a reason which doesn't make much sense to me. The movie does, of course, very memorably feature Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells".

Evangelist Billy Graham was so shocked by The Exorcist that he claimed a demon lived within its celluloid film reels. I've heard similar things before, my schooling was done through Christian schools and at least one of my teachers told her class that watching horror movies made you more susceptible to demonic possession. That didn't go over well with me, already an established horror fan, and my timely reply was that making that claim was like saying watching Jurassic Park made you more likely to be attacked by a dinosaur. In her own Exorcist write-up, Final Girl makes a good point about this movie: beneath the vile images and vulgarity, this really is a story of religion overcoming all, showing its relevancy even in our modern world that has turned to science and psychiatry. Churches should be as open to and accepting of The Exorcist as they are the latest Kirk Cameron movie.

It's not even the demonic possession aspect of the movie that gets to me. As with Rosemary's Baby, it's the medical stuff. Ranting demon kids I can take in stride, but before the possession confirmation, when the doctors are trying to figure out what could be wrong with Regan medically, giving her an EEG and an arteriogram, that stuff bothers me. Clunky, noisy machinery in a hospital room. A needle stuck in Regan's neck. Squirting blood. A doctor warning that she might "feel some pressure" before he sticks a needle into her artery and feeds a line into it. And this being done in the primitive early 1970s. Those are moments to cringe over, that's a situation that scares me to think about.

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1 comment:

  1. The power of Linda Blair compels me to rip all her clothes off and bugger her senseless.