The Exorcist

The seventies really were, in my opinion, one of the best decades for film. For better or worse it really changed the way films were being made and brought in a new generation of inspiring and challenging filmmakers. It was also a great decade for horror and a lot of my favourite films are from this period. Not just in America but in Europe as well. Horror is one of my favourite genres and I can’t get enough of horror films. I love them. Movies in the seventies just had this sheen and grit that I find very enjoyable to watch and I find it all very inspiring. I love the way they use the camera. The use of sound was getting better and better. Aspects of the cinematography in a lot of 70s films are something I really like in films that came out in this period. Shots and camera frames were long and wide and aspects of film were methodical and slow, in a good way to make sure the audience is able to ingest every detail of the movie. The seventies just had so many blockbuster films that came out that just changed the game. It was just game changer after game changer. Films like Jaws, The Godfather, Alien, Star Wars and of course The Exorcist. You had lines of people lining around the block trying to get into the cinema and get tickets for the movie. That was such a big deal back then. I miss seeing that these days. The Exorcist was a huge blockbuster success and you had a director working at the height of his powers in the 1970s. That director was William Friedkin who was fresh off his success with the gritty cop thriller The French Connection for which he won Best Director at the Oscars. Then he made Sorcerer and his career never really recovered or reached the same heights as it was when The Exorcist was released in 1973. Sorcerer is a lost masterpiece and I watched it last year for the first time. It’s brilliant. I have yet to see Cruising which apparently is an extremely controversial film. He himself is quite a controversial figure and he is regarded as a brilliant but demanding filmmaker. The last thing I will say about Sorcerer is that it would have been more successful at the box office had it not come out the same time as Star Wars. Nothing was going to dethrone that important and famous piece of cinema. By the end of the decade, movie studios got a lot more hands on and the auteur filmmakers who thrived often struggled in the wake of disasters and hard productions like Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate.

I was having a conversation about The Exorcist fairly recently with a group of friends from film school. We’re part of a little film group. We meet each week online to discuss a film (or two) and this week we discussed The Exorcist. My friend who had chosen the film regards it as a great film, which it is, and at the same time it is a great horror film too. The funny thing about it is that every time I sit down to watch it, it feels like I am watching it for the first time again. Every moment that made me feel intense and scared the hell out of me, gets me every time again. It’s a film where all the elements work. The directing works, the acting works, the cinematography works, the screenplay works, the sound design works, the music works and, especially, the make up works. It’s just an engaging and frightening film. It has some real, relatable issues and great and well written and developed characters. It is a very thematically strong horror film. My friend who introduced the film talked a lot about how the film smartly and interestingly uses these religious aspects and is respectful to the church and Catholicism. It asks some very interesting questions about religion and this idea of the nature of good and evil. It also has this nuanced look at science vs religion. It never feels like it is trying to be satirical or take a side. And also, more importantly, it’s not glorifying satanism despite what people claimed at the time. Poor Linda Blair had to have bodyguards after the film was released. It’s a film about a young girl who is possessed by demonic entity calling itself “The Devil” but at the heart of the film it is about a man trying to reaffirm his faith and come to terms with his grief. And that man is Father Damien Karras played by playwright, actor and director Jason Miller. He maybe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, but he is the one the audience mostly connects to and the one who has the strongest arc. He is the closest thing that this film has to a hero. We do of course focus on Chris MacNeil played by Ellen Burstyn trying to figure out what is happening to her daughter Regan. As doctors and psychiatrists struggle to give her a straight answer, she turns to Karras and asks for an exorcism. An exorcism is a long and investigative process before it can even happen and Karras says to Chris if she wants one to be performed on her daughter, she should find a time machine and go back to the 16th century. But of course, we do have an exorcism scene with Father Karras and Father Merrin played by Max Von Sydow who appears briefly in the film’s prologue set in Iraq. It isn’t until the last 30 minutes of the film does Merrin appear again. His backstory and history with the demon that possesses Regan is developed upon in the film’s god awful sequel Exorcist 2: The Heretic directed by John Boorman and the prequels. I say prequels as there are two version of that film. One directed originally by Paul Schrader and the other one directed by Renny Harlin which pretty much reshot all what Schrader shot with a mostly different cast. I would stick with The Exorcist 3 which was directed by William Peter Blatty. He wrote the book and also adapted the screenplay and won an Oscar for the film. The other Oscar it won was for Best Sound and I think sound is so much more effective than something jumping out at you. What you hear terrifies me more than what you see. This film has a tremendous sound design, and the music adds to the horror of the piece too, but it is wonderfully minimalistic. I don’t think the Exorcism scene would have been scarier, more intense and more effective had there been a score playing underneath.

William Friedkin does come across as an intense and demanding filmmaker and I think he does get the best performances out of his actors using all the tricks of the trade as well as doing some unorthodox things like slapping an actor across the face to get them in the right mood before rolling and also firing a gun onset. It resulted in Ellen Burstyn calling him a maniac. The set of this film must have been uncomfortable. It must have been a gruelling film to make much like Sorcerer was a gruelling film to make. Watch the film and you’ll understand what I mean. All that is stuff that shouldn’t happen on sets today and to be honest we still have a long way to go in that regard. Particularly on low budget sets. But it paid off tremendously although I don’t condone Friedkin’s methods. Brilliant filmmaker but probably a demanding and exhausting person to work with. The strongest element of the film is the screenplay written by William Peter Blatty. His storytelling and pacing are quite extraordinary. I would love to read the screenplay and the book. He creates and writes these very human and realistic characters that you instantly connect to. The horror is slowly introduced into the film. Of course, there is a sense of foreboding and suspense in the prologue set in Iraq, hinting that evil is all around us and influencing us. And more importantly, testing us. It gives you a chance to be with these characters and get to know them. Once the horror kicks in, you feel horrified and sympathetic for these characters and their plight. That’s the most important thing about horror, you need to be invested with the characters. 

The Exorcist has of course inspired so many horror films and it of course echoed in a wake of exorcism films and a slightly unnecessary franchise that doesn’t need to be rebooted. There is a sequel to the first one being developed and is being produced by Blumhouse and being directed by David Gordon Green who have had big box office success with Halloween H4O and Halloween Kills. Given how I feel about those two films, I am not too enthusiastic about another Exorcist film. The technical and cinematic tools used to frighten and make the audience have intense reactions to the film were convincingly strong and minimalistic to a point. The movie doesn’t feel dated in my opinion and all the special effects and make up look better than most similar movies released today. Given how far filmmaking technology has come, a lot of movies trying to emulate the feeling of The Exorcist and/or trying to be a classic new exorcism never really come close. They don’t replicate the charm and get lost with what they can do seeing as budgets are quite high these days and the tools are more refined. The only one I can think of that nearly does come close to The Exorcist is Daniel Stamm’s film The Last Exorcism released in 2010. That film also scared me to death, and I was scared to go to bed after watching that film and I still find it effective. Better than most Exorcism films. The Exorcist has been imitated but it’s never been bettered. I wouldn’t say it is the greatest horror film ever but it sure is one of them. And I think it is something that people can learn from when making horror movies. It’s effective in its execution and it still makes me feel the same reaction just like I did when I first watched it. It doesn’t get any better or scarier with The Exorcist when it comes to this kind of horror. My friend from film school said this film is part of an unofficial trilogy of Devil films. It includes, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. All fantastic pieces of horror that will be endured and continue to terrify audiences year after year. I hope. And also, when thinking about it, there was a lot of Satanism and Satan Panic going on in America at the time. But I guess that will be something I could research and tackle at a later time. 

  • Anders 


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