Happy almost Halloween! I’m taking on another big one tonight – The Exorcist [1973, directed by William Friedkin]. This film is about a lot of things, but mostly, it’s about humanity. Yes, it is about faith, but not just faith in a higher power – in humankind, as well. My copy of the DVD had a neat little intro by Friedkin, where he says something similar, basically stating that if you believe humankind is a dark and desolate place, this story will feed into that belief, but if you believe in basic goodness, you are reaching the quiet message of this film.
First, a brief history
Some crazy facts about to come at you. The novel this film is based off of comes from a real life possession case, Roland Doe (which is a pseudonym; the boy’s actual name was never given). Now, this case has been largely disputed, and many think that “Roland” was just mentally ill. This brings to my mind the case of Anneliese Michel, who you may know better as “Emily Rose” – that’s right, y’all have probably seen Laura Linney defend a priest against murder claims in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (and I’ll probably write that one up soon). In both cases, the church made a spectacle out of some very sick people.
Crazy fact number two! You know that MRI tech that wheels Regan up to the MRI machine? That guy was an actual MRI tech and was an actual serial killer after the film came out. Paul Bateson stabbed and dismembered approximately 6 gay men in the late 70’s, bagging up his victims’ remains and dropping the bags in the Hudson River. Friedkin went on to direct Cruising in 1980 about these murders. The film was protested by the gay community as being very anti-gay. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t speak to that. But Bateson is a P.O.S.
Many called The Exorcist a cursed film. Set disasters, health problems, and all sorts of mayhem happened around this film. Check it out via the Google – it’s crazy stuff.
Opening and ending scenes
I’ve always found the opening few minutes of this film to be a bit scattered. Father Merrin looks very ill and shaking, wanders around crowded marketplaces to loud clanging, passes through tunnels, and men praying. The narrative is wandering until Merrin wanders up the ruins to face the statue of the demon. Once he sees it, he starts to notice the darkness of the world (creeping people, dogs fighting).
We then move to Chris and Regan’s house, which is immediately haunted. Chris hears dogs growling in the attic, and somehow thinks the sound is rats. Seriously? When do rats throw furniture and sound like a vicious dog?
Circles and overlaps
This film circles back over and over again, especially in the first and last 30 minutes of the film. For example:
- When we first see Chris and Regan, Chris walks past the open window, where we’ll end.
- Chris tackles Regan near the foot of the stairs, where Regan will predict Burke’s death and then pee herself in front of the house party guests.
- Chris and Damien see each other multiple times but don’t actually meet until after an hour into the film.
The world is full of horror
The Exorcist’s world is full of darkness, both physical and spiritual. Some examples:
- The hallway to Damien’s mom’s apartment is totally dark. His face and collar are the only points of light.
- Kids stomp on an abandoned car to break it apart while Damien walks past.
- A homeless man asks Damien for money, saying he used to be an altar boy, that he’s Catholic.
- Guests physically fight at Chris’ house party with little provocation.
… And the world is full of light
The careful eye doesn’t just see the dark hallways, but also sees the good things, the helpers, in this film:
- Damien tucks some dollar bills near a dish in his mother’s kitchen. He knows she’ll find it and not realize it came from him.
- The story takes place around Georgetown and academia. We get the sense that everyone around is possibly capable of helping in some way.
- When Damien falls at the end of the film, a mob of people rush over to help him.
- The spot where Burke and Damien died is cleaned over and over again. Someone cleans the streets, so every horror is cleaned by someone.
- Phones ring throughout the film in the background, usually before something important is said, revealed, or interrupted. It’s a quiet (or not quiet) reminder that we are never alone, that someone is always trying to reach us.
Absent or out of touch fathers are a theme here. Regan’s father is in Europe and seems to be completely disconnected. Damien’s father is never mentioned, but he outright says that he’s lost his faith. Is it really true? He snaps back into the duty when it’s time to go to work. If you look carefully, The Exorcist is filled with these heroes.
There are some oddities that I can’t fit neatly into any section, so I’m going to list them here:
- Stop it with Ouija boards, seriously! Nothing good comes from that. Uggh! Regan says she found this board in the closet. NBD. And no one seems worried. Sigh.
- Chris says “For Christ’s sake” constantly, like she’s always trying to cast out the demon afflicting Regan.
- It’s super hard for me to accept that medical professionals would recommend and then carry out incredibly invasive medical tests before recommending that a patient with a complete personality change undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
- It’s even harder for me to believe that doctors would recommend that a patient undergo an exorcism. That… no. That wouldn’t happen.
- Lots of stuff happens off-screen. Regan draws the statue Merrin saw in Iraq, and makes a statue of the head. At some point, but it’s unclear when. Paranormal things happen in a flash in this movie. You really have to be paying attention to catch them. (For example, the Ouija board’s planchette flies out of Regan’s hands when Chris reaches for it, and Regan somehow acquires the crucifix Chris left downstairs in the foyer and stabs herself with it)
- Regan’s possessed look is totally bizarre. Friedkin wanted her to have a gangrene look. She looks entirely different from everyone else in the film, including the slew of patients at Damien’s mother’s hospital. We know this look to be iconic, but it’s actually out of place.
Wait… which one is the exorcist?
The film opens with Merrin, and he does do most of the exorcism, but he’s actually only in the film for about 20 total minutes. Isn’t that weird? Everything from his sweaty opening scenes to his iconic shadowed approach to the house, to the gorgeous shadowed silhouette at Chris’ front door bookends the film and punctuates it, but this isn’t his story. Which is weird, because Merrin has a history with this demon that the film doesn’t delve into (and no, I’m not going to address the sequels here, I’m NOT DOING IT). He is often in shadow, and we get the idea that he has spent most of his life passing through darkness. Merrin is more of an angel-type character, swooping in to save and sacrifice – he knew this exorcism would kill him, and he did it anyway. The exorcism scene is really long, about 15 minutes or so once the priests are in the room. That seems unusual to me; I’m thinking of the other exorcism movies I’ve seen in recent years, which usually ends in a short, climatic exorcism, with lots of screaming and it’s usually storming outside.
I think Damien is the real hero here. He suffers the most and grows the most. Damien feels the weight of responsibility for the salvation and general well-being of every person. He feels this especially with his mother, and with everyone he passes on the street. He is tormented by what he calls a loss of faith, but we know he is just consumed by guilt from leaving his ailing mother in New York. Damien’s personal hell is his mother wandering alone in New York, and her being restrained to a bed in the psych ward of a low-budget hospital. This is a man on the edge of breaking.
Damien’s academic background reveals more about his character. He was a priest first, then his seminary sent him through medical school. So he started with faith, then he learned the dark corners of the human mind and it shook his own beliefs.
I chose to write up this film for a few reasons. First, I’ve been watching The Exorcist on Fox, which I actually recommend! It’s an oddity, but it’s fun and spooky and has those moments of redemption that I love in this film.
The second reason. It’s easy to be afraid of what people are capable of, especially in the current American climate. So, be a helper, kiddos. Keep the horror on the screen, please.
I’ll try to squeeze in one more post before the best day of the year, but in case I don’t – have a fantastical, phantasmal, spooktacular Halloween.