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Dissecting the Classics – The Exorcist

October 5, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Exorcist Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Last month was dedicated to the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, and sparked a lot of fun discussion from both fans and dissenters. I had a lot of fun with it, but it’s time for a change of pace now that we’re in October. Last year the first week of the month was dedicated to Blade Runner to tie in with a release date, but this time, all four weeks will be about some of the greatest horror movies ever made. So let’s start with something as iconic as it gets.

The Exorcist

Wide Release Date: December 26, 1973
Directed By: William Friedkin
Produced and Written By: William Peter Blatty, based on his book
Cinematography By: Owen Roizman & Billy Williams
Edited By: Evan A. Lottman & Norman Gay
Music By: Jack Nitzsche
Production Company: Hoya Productions
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil
Jason Miller as Father/Dr. Damien Karras, S.J.
Max von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin
Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil
Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William F. Kinderman

What Do We All Know?

There are iconic movies, and then there’s The Exorcist. More than any horror film before (and likely since), this movie prayed on the anxieties of its audience and embedded itself in their psyches. The Exorcist was the highest grossing film of 1973 and the first horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture. Released during the peak of America’s occult paranoia, The Exorcist made that terror real for many audiences who already believed in demonic possession. But while it is a movie of its moment, The Exorcist has a timeless quality to it and still holds up 45 years later.

That being said, The Exorcist has never been one of my favorite movies. I admire it from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective, but it’s never sunk its teeth into me the same way it has for others. I’d consider it a Top 10 film in the horror genre, but not the very best. And I think a lot of that comes from the fact that the concepts of priests against demonic entities doesn’t really resonate with me the same way it does for others. These stories have an inherent advantage over horror movies about zombies, vampires and aliens; there are plenty of people with sincere, deeply felt belief that demons exist. The book and film were written by a devout Catholic who wanted to show the horrors of what he believes in as a dark mirror to the light and power of his belief in God, angels and the power of prayer and belief. And if all of that resonates with you, I suspect that The Exorcist is going to create a stronger emotional reaction. Just know that for me, it does not. And with that caveat out of the way, let’s dive into what makes this movie so good.

What Went Right?

The smartest thing about The Exorcist is how well it establishes the mundanity of Chris and Regan’s home life. Regan seems like the nicest 12 year old girl one could meet, and while Chris’ life as an actor with servants isn’t exactly universally relatable, she seems mostly down to earth. Using this as an established norm provides a stark contrast to all of the insanity that follows in the rest of the movie. Regan’s possession starts as a seemingly mild problem, but as she goes to doctors and psychiatrists who are unable to diagnose her accurately, she gets more and more violent and less and less human. The escalation from harmless normality to a demon using her body to terrorize Chris and murder priests is impressive and the main reason this works as a good story and not just a collection of scares.

But well Regan and Pazazu’s arc sets up a compelling villain and a victim that is worth saving, the main hero of the piece is Father/Dr. Damian Karras. Damian is both a priest and a psychiatrist, and he is going through a period of doubt after the death of his mother. I’m a fan of this character, especially how is torn between his religious study and his familiarity with psychology and modern medicine. He is turning away from his faith at the same time that Chris is being forced to turn to religion to save her daughter, and that’s a cool dynamic. Damian is really compelling to me because he’s someone who gets his faith back not because he meets God or sees a miracle, but because he comes face to face with a Devil and realizes that if it exists, then there has to be a God to put his faith in it. And to quote another movie I love, he’s got to be a mean motherfuckin’ servant of God and do whatever he can to to take Pazazu down.

Something that I enjoy is Lee J. Cobb as he investigates Regan/Pazuzu’s first murder. Cobb is a magnificently charismatic performer anyway, but having this nod to detective movies really strengthens the thematic idea of this movie. While The Exorcist ends in pure horror, a lot of it is simply a detective story as Chris goes to expert after expert trying to find out what is wrong with her daughter. She never gets a definitive answer, she just has possibilities eliminated. Lieutenant Kinderman is the reasoned, scientific investigator trying to find a plausible, down to earth solution. In many ways, he is us – hoping that Regan is simply ill and there is a rational explanation for what is going on. But there isn’t.

While everyone in this films gives a great performance, Max von Sydow is the true MVP of the thing, arriving late in the game as an experienced exorcist to help Damian with his task. This is a man whose faith is stronger because he has seen monsters face to face and knows he can beseech God to defeat them. It comes at a cost, but he can do it. This wisened badass priest role is something Sydow was made for; he almost effortlessly provides a world-weary demeanor and true conviction in his vocal performance. His strong, commanding voice is our anchor through the film’s terrifying finale, and a major component in it being so believable.

Lastly, I have to give credit to the writing and the effects team for creating such a great villain. The things Linda Blair is asked to do and say are stomach-turning but viscerally effective. But the makeup that goes into making Regan look truly horrifying as a demon-possessed girl is truly impressive, as are the effects to make everything in her room and even her body move and fly about uncontrollably. It’s seriously unnerving and helps make this film truly iconic.

What Went Wrong?

One of these days I’d like to get around to watching the theatrical cut of the film and seeing how it compares to the Extended Cut, the only one I’ve seen. And viewing that version, I have to say that the opening scene drags a little bit and is only barely important to the overall experience. I don’t know if this was in the original or not but it’s always been a chore to get through when I want to watch this movie. The rest of it mostly holds up as a slow burn to a grand finale, but the first couple of minutes could be better and feel like a totally different movie.

And In Summary…

While it isn’t my favorite horror movie, I find it hard to argue that The Exorcist isn’t one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It’s an effective slow burn leading to an explosive, arresting finale that stands among the very best that cinema has to offer. Whether you are devoutly religious or not, the possession of Regan by MacNeil by Pazazu is terrifying, spellbinding drama and the overmatched priests trying their hardest to conquer it through the strength of their belief is deeply sympathetic. This is movie magic at its best; practical effects, smart staging, compelling acting and a gripping situation all work together to create a situation that is convincing in the moment and haunting in retrospective. Unless you truly have no stomach for horror movies, this one is an absolute must watch and a true classic.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men

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