The Exorcist Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Exorcist Review

    “What an excellent day for an exorcism.”

    By novel and by motion picture, The Exorcist, the tale of Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) becoming host to a volatile and aggressive demon and the subsequent war of wills and faith that two Jesuit priests undertake to drive it out of her once and for all, created a thunderclap of critical acclaim and a cultural shockwave the tremors of which can still be felt throughout the genre at large. Spawning two sequels (one very good, one very bad) and two versions of a prequel (both of which are bad), The Exorcist (1973 but released in the UK in '74) is a film that needs no introduction. For the sake of this review, I am not going to go and regurgitate the plot for I find it pretty much impossible to believe that anybody reading this is not already very familiar with the story. So, spoilers be damned, let's see if we can get to the soul of what William Friedkin achieved with just an ice-frosted set in New York, two men-in-black and a girl with the most alarming potty-mouth this side of Big Brother.

    However, for a film that has been written about so much, studied and documented ad nauseum by scholars, critics and historians, my job here is really to try to find something new, or fresh to say about it. And, obviously, there isn't any angle left to explore that hasn't already been extensively plundered. So, the double-edged beauty of discussing a film like this is that it means I am now forced to accept the one last remaining option – and that is to provide a sort of post-mortem on what the film means to me, someone who is, let's face it, as devout and dedicated a follower of the Horror Genre as you could ever hope (or dread) to meet.

    So, let's dispense, right away, with Friedkin's assertion that his box office avalanche is “not” a horror film, eh? It damn well is, Billy-Boy!

    In fact, The Exorcist is undoubtedly one of the horror genre’s biggest and most notable offerings, and the sheer weight and power of its very name is enough to inspire shudders and revulsion in even those who haven’t seen it. The importance of William Friedkin’s now-classic tale of the demonic possession of an innocent young girl in autumnal Georgetown, Washington simply cannot be overstated whether one actually likes the film or not. It is a work of impeccable style and surprising intelligence, and one of a rare few that actually takes such incredibly emotive and spiritual subject matter seriously. The story, and Friedkin’s handling of it always provokes debate and speculation, and the great thing about such a ripe and audacious premise – the Catholic Church battling to save a young girl’s abducted soul in a modern and cynical world – is that the viewer is totally engrossed and utterly gripped by this desperate crusade even if they, like myself, have absolutely no religious beliefs at all. This simple fact is the most admirable yet astonishing legacy that the film can claim – it straddles the theological border between faith and realism with consummate ease, crashing headlong into the paradoxical mysteries of what lies beyond our own existence, as well as confronting the hopes, fears and alienation that a parent inevitably feels as their offspring grows up. After all, when a child reaches that certain age, it can certainly seem as though they are, indeed, possessed by another, and rather unpleasant, identity.

    “Take me! Come into me! God Damn You!!! TAKE ME!! TAKE ME!!!!

    The demonic “biggies” have always been Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and this. Personally, I prefer the more outlandish and elaborately episodic The Omen, from Richard Donner (BD reviewed separately), because I find it more frightening, more exciting and just much more fun, but this is taking nothing away from Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s script (his second and more faithful draft adapted from his own novel), nor from his satanic, iron-fisted grasp on the proceedings. Slapping his cast about the face, firing shotguns off beside them to elicit the appropriate shock reactions, and ignoring pleas to be gentle during some of the rougher stunts made him a something of an enfant terrible within the industry and whether one accepts such hard-line tactics in the furtherance of art or not, it cannot be denied that his strategy certainly worked with some impulsive élan on The Exorcist. Still a very young filmmaker at the time, Friedkin had the requisite guts to get the job done. He had the ambition and the enthusiasm that Romero, Craven, Carpenter and Cronenberg all had in spades when they started out, that vital single-mindedness that cast caution to the wind in the creation of a nightmare. He had a vision strong enough to enable him to push boundaries with an appropriately “devil-may-care” attitude that ensured he wouldn't sacrifice anything in allegiance to public tastes or the moral high-ground or issues of censorship. And to this end, The Exorcist, when it was released, was certainly the most shocking mainstream horror film that audiences had ever seen. Before this, there had been Night Of The Living Dead, but Romero’s ragged zombie outing had Drive-In and Exploitation written all over it, and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was even grungier and more underground again, would roar its way onto the map only a matter of months after The Exorcist debuted. Both became cultural nitro that were lit up into incendiary accusations of a degraded American society, but they were still films that most “nice” people did not go to see. The Exorcist was different, though. It had an air of respectability about it, nay – a certain “importance”. It was based on a best-selling novel, and its themes were strong and undeniable - the concept of faith versus non-faith an irresistible allure in the pungent and nihilistic air of 70's. But, such heady ideas aside, people simply flocked to cinemas to have the pants scared off them, the stories of people fainting and throwing-up in the aisles certainly not acting as a deterrent. Word-of-mouth and critical acclaim rammed home the idea that simply watching the film was something of an endurance test and that you could put pat yourself on the back if you had been able to sit through it all and go the demonic distance. Maybe even get a medal for spiritual stamina.

    Hyperbole? Sadly, yes.

    Dubbed “The Scariest Film Of All Time”, I'm afraid that The Exorcist, as great as I think it may be, is anything but when it comes to the more, erm, conventional aspects of the genre.

    When I first came to Friedkin's film I was interminably bored by it. Admittedly, I was only young, but I was already exceedingly well-versed in genre films and fully clued-up as to what I should expect from the story. I'd even read the novel previously – and, perhaps a bit more understandably, I'd been bored by that as well. To be honest, it is not a well-written book. While I'd been enthralled by older black-and-white chillers like the Universals, the RKO's and The Haunting, Night Of The Demon, and then, moving ahead, by the likes of Night Of The Living Dead and, of course, Halloween and Suspiria – and a great many other titles that relied primarily on atmosphere, theme and character over relatively simple but gratuitous thrills and blood-spills – I was left feeling cold, and painfully unmoved by the fate of Regan and the valiant Jesuits tasked with saving her soul. Naturally, when you come to one of the so-called greats, you have a lot of expectations and, equally as naturally, viewing the final product usually results in something of a disappointment. Well, The Exorcist, so boastful and profoundly touted by seemingly all and sundry, was that, and more.

    But nobody can be surprised at the transformation that I, and I suspect many others (for we are legion), underwent over the years, as appreciation and sophistication gained a greater foothold and the need for constantly faster-paced sensationalism abated. Having returned to Friedkin's classic many times over the years, my respect for it has only grown. My philosophies may have evolved, but my religious beliefs haven't altered one iota – yet, for me, this was never the essential point of the story anyway. A little girl was possessed by a demon that was slowly killing her – whoever is trying to save her, whether they be a priest, a policeman, a paramedic or even a ghostbuster … I'm right there with them.

    “Your mother washes socks in Hell, Karras! You faithless swine!”

    You know, with some people's socks, that can amount to the same thing as what Pazuzu really says!

    Stripped down to its core – The Exorcist is about the battle to save this young girl from evil and exploitation. The metaphors are incredibly rife with this theme, of course. And, on this level, the film can fascinate, stimulate and move with tremendous conviction. Demons or no demons, the notion of the selfless sacrifice that someone – a parent, a guardian, a reluctant Jesuit or whatever – makes in order to save the life (or soul) of another is the unbeatable and paramount aspect that makes The Exorcist a winner. I'm not going to sit here and preach to anyone that simply by becoming a parent means that such a plot as that revolving around a child being placed in diabolical jeopardy suddenly has more relevance and importance – hell, I understood the primal level of gut-rage at such a threat even when I was a child - but it is a scenario that is absolutely, one-hundred-percent magnified when you imagine, even if only for one a nano-second, that it is your child who is going through this ordeal. Thus, The Exorcist hits its audience on two very dramatic, distressing and very heart-crushing levels already. The religious are put through the wringer, but so is anybody with even only an ounce of human compassion residing inside them. And, once gripped in this claustrophobic fist, the story works other, more insidious black magic upon us. As we shall see ...

    The Beast, metaphorically speaking, lurks within us all. The werewolf and vampire myths respond vividly to this. The Exorcist and other possession movies – and this is a sub-genre that, given its rather stifling limitations, really hasn't been very successful – use an external invasion as the catalyst, but the psychological and physical transformation of the victim is just as explicit in effect. But, and this is where we encounter the film's most disturbing undercurrent, our most despicable and wicked tendencies – locked permanently away in the vast majority of society – are horribly hinted at with the The Exorcist. The sexual crisis that Regan's contortions, self-abuse and sickening dialogue ignites is something that we, as an audience, find abhorrent and shocking, but such scenes as the “crucifix masturbation”, the grabbing of the hypnotherapist's genitals, the seedy comment by the doctors about being “touched-up” and the vile language that the demon spits from the young girl's mouth, do inevitably make us squirm all the more uncomfortably because by using such imagery and words, we are forced to entertain their implied meaning and manifestation ourselves. And most of us should find that an extremely upsetting device. The demon uses it as a manipulative measure, and so do the film's director and screenwriter. One of Horror's greatest tricks was to use subjective POV camerawork that placed us in the position of the killer as he/she/it stalked and tormented a victim. Friedkin and Blatty go a great step further by instructing our minds to conjure up thoughts and pictures that they, themselves, would never show in a million years. This, folks, is cinematic and thematic power at its most potent. Visual imagery may well scar for life – there are, indeed, a great many images that I have seen that I wish I could rip from my mind and burn – but thoughts and impressions go a hell of a lot deeper than that and would take more than the skill and patience of an exorcist to permanently eradicate. Fritz Lang's child-killing “M” did this with a surprising amount of dignity and inspired suggestion. A Nightmare On Elm Street, on the other hand, skated so blissfully over the notion of vile child molestation and murder that you could very easily forget that this was Freddy Krueger's genesis. The Exorcist isn't even about such things, but it still puts just such a poisonous taint inside you. So, for religious, emotional, parental and sexually deviant reasons, The Exorcist incontrovertibly attains its status as one of the grandest shockers around.

    No matter where we have gone with taboo material these days – torture-porn, human centipedes (!), home invasions and hoodie-horrors – there is little out there that relies as instinctively or as intelligently upon our most primal concerns as The Exorcist.

    “Well, then let's introduce ourselves. I'm Damien Karras.”

    “And I'm the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps!”

    The history of the Horror Film can be told pictorially, with images of each iconic monster, creature or maniac from across the ages spread out in a chronological slideshow of terror. From Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Monster, through Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man, Christopher Lee’s turn as the Count, Bruce the Great White and the Alien, to Jack Nicholson’s deranged face at the Shining’s door, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy and Pinhead - and there's probably room for an Asian girl with long wet dark hair plastered over half her face, too. But, of course, what I'm getting at is that Linda Blair’s pudgy mutilated face is right there amongst the roster, equally as frightening, equally as immediately recognisable as any of these other nightmarish visages. But the curious thing about this is that she is the victim … and not the monster, yet that face, clawed, corpse-coloured, mucus-streaming and hag-like, still sends shivers down the spine. Regan is a little girl. Just a little girl. For such a small character to become a figure of unparalleled fear and grotesquery is down to a vast array of ingredients. We know that Dick Smith’s superlative makeup effects enabled Regan’s head to swivel 360-degrees and allowed her to project hellspawn-vomit with torpedo-like velocity and precision, but the design-work that transforms the cherubic Blair into a savage, calloused harridan is far more indelible than the more outrageous trick mechanics. In The Omen little Harvey Stephens was a frightening creation, but he was basically an innocent child who was unaware of his own powers and his own status and was therefore merely an irrelevant pawn in those celebrated set-piece denouements. He did have a couple of malevolent moments – a furious tantrum outside the church and that last, lingering smile back at the camera (at us) at the very end – but Damien was never anything less than human in appearance, and despite our knowledge of his true identity, we still only ever saw the child. The most emotive and tragic revelations concerning Regan’s plight and our continued and inescapable involvement in it are down to the fact that this innocent girl comes to resemble a monster so vividly and so aggressively that we actually come to hate her cackling, snarling, foul-mouthed presence – the outside appearance transforming her innocence into the accursed physicality of the Beast within. With a very young Rick Baker at his side, Smith (already a Hollywood veteran with The Alligator People, Little Big Man and The Godfather to his credit before Friedkin came calling for demonic duty) broke new ground with latex, bladders, blood-and-vomit tubing and pumps. His work on Regan would massively inspire the likes of Tom Savini and Tom Burman, and he was the next authentic heir to the mantle of Universal's monster-man Jack P. Pierce after Hammer's own Roy Ashton. Yet, he never forgets that there is a little girl beneath it all. One of the most powerful scenes for me, and I suspect for many others, is when Father Karras, furious at the death of Father Merrin, simply gives in to the baser aspects of human consequence and grabs Regan, throws her to the floor and begins to beat her. You are genuinely torn between feelings of anger at this display of Satanically-encouraged retribution and wishing that you could push the priest out of the way and land a few choice blows, yourself. Once again, Blatty’s and Friedkin’s film confronts you with a poisonous dilemma that challenges your moral core. How many times has one of your children made you almost angry enough to hit them? There is an escape here with this scene, a pressure-release. But, Jeez, that catharsis is short-lived and tinged with guilty venom! More so than many more obvious “family dramas”, The Exorcist taps into the agonies of parenthood and finds fertile soil from which to nurture nightmares. And all of this is wonderfully lit and shot in a classical style by Owen Roizman, with stark yet fascinating compositions and vigorously atmospheric use of shadows and often clinical juxtapositions from sterile hospitals to intimate obscenity.

    “The attack is psychological, Damien. And powerful. So don't listen to him. Remember that - do not listen.”

    Friedkin isn't a director who has iconic imagery keenly in mind when he makes a film. He would probably argue with this charge, but neither The French Connection(s), The Ninth Configuration or To Live And Die In LA, as brilliant as they are, are concerned with visual poetry. But The Exorcist is a different matter altogether. There are images here that are spellbinding in their collision of theme, mood and character. Father Merrin standing on the rock in silent, soul-stifling confrontation with the stone figure of Pazuzu in Iraq. The manifestation of the same statue in Regan's bedroom as the possessed girl rises in excruciating worship before it. And, most famously of all, Father Merrin standing outside the MacNeil household in silhouette in the light-shaft spilling down from Regan's bedroom. Here, in a moment that is as phenomenally powerful as it is visually sublime, Friedkin creates one of the genre's most beautifully emotional and complex visions. It was only natural that it would see decades-worth of service as the film's poster image. Arriving in a misty, silver-grey veil, the one last hope for the salvation of Regan's soul actually appears as though he is the thing that we should be afraid of. A figure dressed in black, tall and gaunt. It can be no coincidence that his shape – the long coat, the hat and the bag – resembles that of a visiting doctor, but the mood and the movement that emanate from this figure put you in mind of Doctor Mengle, or some other sinister Nazi experimenter. We've already had some Nazi accusations bandied-about by Chris's drunken friend and the director of her latest film, Burke Dennings (a poncified Jack McGowran), aimed at Chris's loyal Austrian servant, Karl (Rudolph Schundler), so this connection is further embellished to create yet more instinctive friction. His head, face unseen, is cocked upwards, intuitively sensing the battleground and the enemy lying in wait. We can't help but shudder because, for better or for worse, we know that the real trauma is only just about to begin. Good guy or not, the stranger is going to change things. So, yes, it is not surprising that we are afraid of this dark figure.

    But the wonderful thing is that, with one fabulous shot of the possessed Regan's reaction to his arrival, we can plainly see that the demon is also afraid.

    By and large, the acting is phenomenal. With the exception of Blair and Mercedes McCambridge (who voices the majority of the demon's dialogue), everyone underplays their role to affect that essential realism that is the distinction of one film, especially a genre film, over another. They are at pains to depict this tale as being in the here and the now of modern urban existence, in the house just up the street from you.

    Predestination and fate are concepts that Max Von Sydow is no stranger to, with epic turns in The Seventh Seal, Hour Of The Wolf and, erm, Flash Gordon to back up his credentials. As the aged and frail Father Merrin, the much younger actor conveys immense solemnity, inner vigour and, best of all, genuine fear. He doesn't get a great deal to say that isn't a part of the exorcism rites, and he isn't even in the film for all that long, but Sydow pivotal character allows the film to turn full circle. He has encountered the demon Pazuzu before and, during that enigmatic prologue at the dig in Northern Iraq, has the horrific realisation that he will have to face it again. We don't need any more details about their prior battle – the look in his eyes and the trembling of his hands reveals all we require. His fumbling fingers struggle to take hold of his nitroglycerine tablets, his disappearance from much of the narrative giving him the air of a warrior-monk retreating to a temple to prepare for one last conflict. Which, of course, is precisely the point. It is a brilliant device that allows us to perceive his death as being merely a sacrifice that Merrin has willingly undergone – we don't see him actually swallow that final tablet – to enable the conflicted Father Karras to dig deep, in his anger, to find that faith that he needs to combat the demon. As Friedkin says, the entire film is a metaphor for the doctrines of Christianity.

    “Would you like some bourbon in that, Father?”

    “Well, my doctor says I shouldn't … but, thank God, my will is weak.”

    I've only seen Jason Miller in a handful of movies, but he is one of my all-time favourite actors. His performance in The Exorcist is stunning, absolutely peerless. The character of Father Damien Karras is a work of rare genius. Whereas Merrin is, pretty much, a stock and clichéd depiction of the devout and devoted priest, Karras is a boxer, a man of the streets, a cynical, world-weary revisionist who is, quite simply, just one of us even if he does happen to be wearing a dog-collar. Now I could happily sit through a movie that was just about Karras going about his daily routine, such is the hangdog charisma of Miller. But put him up against such traumas as the loss of his mother (played by Vasiliki Maliaros) and the virtual combat mission to eradicate the demon from Regan and you've got the Rocky Balboa of the priesthood. The fact that Miller had never even acted before is truly jaw-dropping given the performance that he delivers. A critically lauded and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, it just so happens that Miller is also a failed priest, having dropped out of the Catholic university that he was attending when he found that the vocation just wasn't for him. Karras, too, is lapsing. His faith is crumbling in the face of the modern world, his profession as a psychologist not exactly helping matters when his day-job entails consulting other “problematic” priests. So, this is the sort of poetic, fate-dictated beauty that helps bolster the film's own mythology. I believe that the ending is contrived and all-too simplistic, as I've said, but Miller makes it singularly resounding and a combination of the thrilling and the tragic. His greatest scene comes when Chris MacNeil, emotionally battered and now prepared for the worst, asks him if Regan is going to die. Suddenly, in that moment, Karras finds his faith and the determination to carry on when all hope had fled. Miller, with just one look and a simply stated refusal, rises to the final challenge and, somewhere in the back of your mind, there is the Rocky theme playing on a church organ. It is a stunning scene – literally a revelation. For my money, Damien Karras is the best and most memorable priest in the movies, just about stealing the prize from Patrick Troughton's spire-shafted theological turncoat in The Omen. And the less said about the utterly ridiculous performance from Rod Steiger in The Amityville Horror, the better.

    Alongside Miller's haunted priest, Ellen Burstyn is outstanding as a struggling mother driven to the brink of madness, herself, by the events taking place in that frozen room upstairs. Whereas I don't buy her playing this adored film celebrity, the new darling of Washington high society, Burstyn is magnificent where it really counts. Her frustrations at her estranged husband, Regan's neglectful father, and with the medicals who relentlessly fail to come up any solutions or explanations to her daughter's terrible condition, is hammered out of a trauma that convinces so compellingly that her harrowing appearance as the film goes on becomes just as upsetting as Pazuzu's redecoration of Regan's face. Burstyn manages to hold that struggling composure together with exquisite detail during her talk with Kinderman, but she delivers very authentic outbursts of wits-end anger and impatience at each successive obstacle, until finally there is a quiet aura of spiritual devastation about her as the exorcism begins in earnest. Regan's soul has been stolen, but hers is clearly tearing itself apart.

    And you can't possibly ignore the remarkable performance from Linda Blair. The actress may not have gone on to anything as accomplished or as indelible as this but that does not detract from such a difficult and arduous role that she tackles with astounding gusto. Some of the more extreme sequences may have been aided by the older actress Eileen Dietz – the vomiting, the upside-down blood-spewing (it is also Dietz's face that we see made up as the ghastly Pazuzu) – but Blair handles the foul language, the disturbing hostility and the sheer physical agonies of the possessed Regan with considerable expertise given her lack of acting experience. Whereas it is probably a whole lot easier to perform as a monster when you are made up to look like one, I find myself mesmerised and haunted more by her earlier depictions of Regan in the partial possession stages, just sitting there staring, almost comatose, her eyes totally revealing that the girl has become lost in the limbo between humanity and the damned. There is something staggering upsetting about that lost and lonely, soul-strangled expression that really gets under the skin. Some writers have actually derided her performance in the film, which I find totally unfathomable, but I think she is incredible.

    “Do you like movies, Father?”

    Lee J. Cobb is likeable as Kinderman – full of idiosyncrasies and certainly a presence that you warm to in a film that is so cold and bleak and sterile – but he is performing little more than a slightly watered-down Columbo impersonation. (In his commentary, Friedkin actually claims that it is Peter Falk who stole his Columbo from Cobb's interpretation of Kinderman – but, quite honestly, Columbo came first in 1971, so he's got that wrong.) A necessary character he may be, but I cannot avoid the impression that he also merely a hanger-on to the events that unfold. Other than a few facts that he supplies, Lt. Kinderman doesn't actually do anything that properly propels the narrative. He has absolutely no part in the trajectory of the story and his investigation into the suspicious death of Burke Dennings (in one of the genre's most notorious “unseen” murders) is, putting it mildly, very ineffective and somewhat unconvincing. For my money, George C. Scott did a much better job with the same character in Exorcist III, though it seems perplexing to me that Blatty would have found so much in the character to warrant such a grand second outing. Cobb is every inch the affable-but-cynical 70's detective – friendly, conversational, perfectly polite and at-ease, yet obviously sniffing about every damn second that he breathes. He is a great little sideline to have, but I would argue that he certainly isn't necessary in the overall scheme of things. Contrast his weathered and worn Lt. with Arthur Kennedy's fascist thug of an Inspector in Jorge Grau's sensational The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (BD reviewed separately) that was released the following year – proactive, volatile and exceptionally brutal, he was the exact opposite of Kinderman's playfully lethargic approach to a case promulgated by the supernatural. It was as though Grau was pushing authority to the limit in his picture in direct response to the almost lackadaisical enquiries made in the smash-hit mainstream horror film that opened the floodgates wide enough for him to get his own grim tale off the ground. You've got to love the persistent infatuation that Kinderman has for the movies though, even if there could be a lot of strange things read into his need to have a priest accompany him to each showing.

    “He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will try to confuse us.”

    The inclusion of real-life priests Father Thomas Bermingham and Father William O' Malley to play virtually themselves in the film is an act of amazing foresight. Not only was the film sort of blessed and given the Catholic go-ahead as a result, but, as Friedkin himself puts it, there was a genuine solemnity and presence that the two brought to the screen that having actors in the parts simply wouldn't do. Obviously Merrin and Karras need to be heightened for the sake of the narrative and their own respective characters, but both Birmingham and O' Malley do exceptionally well. The latter has such a warmly vulnerable and forlorn demeanour that, ironically, he invests probably far more genuine humanity than Friedkin ever expected. Bermingham even worked as the film's technical advisor. One suspects that the Catholic Church saw an avenue that could be exploited with The Exorcist. Not only does the story reinforce their teachings, but it completely endorses their actions in a good and hugely powerful light. Incidentally, it is true what Friedkin says about you taking away from the film what you choose to see in it. If you believe in Evil then the story will only confirm its existence. If you believe in God and the power of Good, then you will take succour from that fact that the forces of Good triumph over the forces of Evil. However, I do think that this overly simplistic equation is rather less than reassuring. Pazuzu, for example, has been driven out before, but he returned and claimed the lives of three people. Good won out this time, but what is to stop the demons coming back again? Well, the sequels attempt to discuss this further, but the bigger point in all of this is the disgusting randomness of evil … whether it is Satanic in origin, or just the depravities of Man. To my way of thinking, you can't ever beat evil, and the apparent “happy ending” to The Exorcist that many viewers cling to is utterly bogus in the grand scheme of things. This is not a criticism at all, you understand. The film is deliberately set up in such a way that you are forced to explore your own feelings and ideas about what has happened. And, as ever, this can only be a good thing.

    “A belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear.”

    “You're telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor. Is that it?”

    You can’t hear Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells without thinking of The Exorcist. It is not even a piece of music that I particularly like – well, not the part that is famously utilised for the film, anyway – and, to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t even think that it actually works as a theme for the movie, however slight its contribution to it ultimately is. For me, it strikes a totally different tone and seems rather ill-fitting. I'm probably very alone in this opinion. After famously throwing out Lalo Schifrin's original score for the film and sacking him and his orchestra in fury, Friedkin then created a melange of classical pieces, from Krzysztof Penserecki, Hans Werner Henz, George Crumb and Anton Webern and had Jack (Starman) Nitzche sew them together. The resulting score, like Kubrick's The Shining, is utterly beguiling in its insidious lack of thematic cohesion and startlingly effective its nerve-jangling barbarity. But then the entire sound design for the film is truly extraordinary and an experience unto itself. Harsh creaks and groans from the attic, rustlings and whisperings. Sudden bellows and roars. The heightened violence of furniture tumbling or draws opening and the cacophonous bedlam of full-bore supernatural disturbance. The shattering of glass and the skin-bristling growling and snarling of dogs locked in duel. The soundtrack is a riot of tumultuous squalling and the abrupt, air-sucking silence. And then there is voice of the demon, Pazuzu. When distorting Linda Blair's own voice over the course of 150 painstaking hours of experimentation didn't suit Friedkin's needs, the director turned to actress McCambridge (what a superb name that is!) and she readily agreed to exacerbate her own trademarked husky voice further by swigging alcohol and chain-smoking. The sound engineers then manipulated the ghastly results a touch more. Incidentally, Lalo Schifrin would sort of get his own back when he composed the Oscar-nominated score for The Amityville Horror.

    This debut BD release contains both cuts of the film on two separate hi-def discs. The original theatrical cut still seems to be the one that most people prefer, but I have a leaning more towards the director’s extended version. Here, we have not only the infamous “spider-walk” sequence, that is truly amazing even if it leaves you wondering just happened next and how they managed to wrestle Regan back up to the bedroom (which is addressed in the “fuller” cut found on the disc as a deleted scene), but the marvellously poetic final dialogue between Lt. Kinderman and Father Dale. In this slightly longer cut, we also have the scene of the beleaguered priests sitting on the stairs for a much needed respite between punishing rounds with the Devil. This is a brilliantly sublime moment that provides a genuine sense of helplessness and dark fatalism. “Why her?” asks Karras. “Why this little girl? It makes no sense.” Merrin’s reply is stark, simple and far-reaching in its terrible implications and I feel that Friedkin was wrong to have removed the exchange in the first place - not that it, or any of the other changes that he made over the two versions, had even the slightest detriment to the success of the movie. But this one quietly devastating spell forms the heart of the story. There is more talk with the doctors, a nice introductory shot of the MacNeil household before we cut to Iraq, and an extra scene of Karras listening to recordings of Regan's pre-possessed voice. Other alterations are more cosmetic. The tweaked version put in a few more demonic CG faces to add to the unsettling aura, but Friedkin has now lessened the number of these sudden image-flashes for this extended cut. The digitally created coat for Chris in the frosted room is still there. It is worth mentioning that even Blatty, who would go on to actually direct the quite impressive third film, is happier with this cut because it now treats his original intentions with more respect.

    At the time of writing this review, news has just broken about an incident in France in which a group of people in an apartment apparently threw themselves out of the second floor windows to escape what they claimed to have been the Devil that had come amongst them. Although they had seemingly mistaken one of their own number (!) for the Fallen Angel, a small baby was killed and several others were severely injured in the frantic exodus. If nothing else, this proves that for some people, the Devil certainly exists.

    “In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ! It is He who commands you! It is He who flung you from the Gates of Heaven to the depths of Hell!”

    “F*CK HIM!!!”

    Weighing everything up, The Exorcist is still a masterpiece, but it is a fundamentally flawed one. Technically, the film has pros and cons. I still think that the first half of the film is rather clumsily done, no matter which version you watch. Some of the dialogue is fantastic, but some of it is woefully contrived. The pace builds up steadily over the course of the film, but some individual shock scenes possibly end too abruptly. Quite a lot of probably pretty important details appear to happen off-screen - that's one helluva a police investigation that gets brushed over at the end - and events can develop with some degree of leap-frogging – a rush, a lull, another rush. Friedkin's desires not to spell things out for audiences in the original cut was definitely a mistake in my opinion and would, in all fairness, have denied the film the top marks that we all know The Exorcist demands. Plus, you'd have to be Superman to make the leap to those notorious steps from Regan's window! But what makes it all hang together is the fact that it feels raw, and somehow haphazard, despite such a polished and acclaimed creative team working on it, as well as the doctoring that it has received over the years. Friedkin's semi-documentary tone establishes a non-flashy, glitz-removed saga in which characters come first and last. It is surprising how very few horror films since The Exorcist actually adhered to this sort of ethic. So, with the fact that the Extended Version actually flows better and makes more thematic sense, I have no hesitation in awarding the film the full 10 out of 10. Come on, this film did as much for the evolution of its genre, and of Cinema in general, as the likes of Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, Spartacus and The Wild Bunch did for theirs.

    It is an unmistakable classic.

    And you know what? The biggest and most undeniable hypocrisy of all … if my daughter exhibited the hellish manifestation of a harboured demon and all manner of psycho-analytical mumbo-jumbo had failed? I, a non-believer, would also turn to a priest for help. Make of that statement what you will … but when all else has been lost and the power of your own physical vengeance is rendered null and void and impotent, you really wouldn't have another choice.

    The Exorcist. For the two hours of the film's duration, you are prepared to believe anything.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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