Honestly, we found it quite tame.
Yes, yes, yes: we enjoyed the film. Apologies if that didn’t quite come across.
Still, what I think we suffered what that rare phenomenon that happens when one generation gets so scared silly from a motion picture that they idolize it to the next. Rarely are legends embraced with the same love, reverence, and adoration by those who, say, didn’t quite live through the same era. The kinds of scenes that kept our parents awake at night just rang a bit hollow for us, especially given the fact that we’d cut our cinematic teeth on less cerebral home video pursuits like Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Friday The 13th (1980), The Grim Reaper (1980), or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
What scared us – as young, fertile minds – just wasn’t quite the same. Such is life.
But I pledged to go back to The Exorcist at some point in my future, wanting to sit and digest it whole without the thrown popcorn and non sequiturs hurled as distractions around the room from my friends … and I’ve finally done it. The picture screened recently on Turner Classic Movies, and I watched it in all its unabashed glory. Now – with the benefit of wisdom – I took it in and wanted to sound off a bit on what still kinda/sorta got in my way of appreciating it as the landmark chiller so many claim it is.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.”
Years back, a friend of mine suggested that the name for my inevitable biography should be “I Have Many Questions.” I think that’s apt, as that’s largely been how my life has been!
As I’ve always tried to logically understand what I see in the wide, wide world around me, I’ve approached films much in the same way. If something happens on the screen, then I believe it’s been captured for some specific reason. Rarely does anything random take place – each successive piece should understandably add up to one more reveal of the puzzle – so I’m always ‘on the watch’ as characters are introduced, circumstances arise, and plots change. I realize that – to some – this might be a bit extreme, but it is how I’m hardwired.
That said, there’s a good deal that takes place in director William Friedkin’s The Exorcist that kinda/sorta escapes my understanding.
For example, the picture opens with Father Merrin (played by the great Max Von Sydow) on an archaeological dig in Iraq. We see him and these various crews going about their archaeological business of unearthing these hidden treasures and trinkets, and there’s an early suggestion that the team has uncovered something that they’ve been searching for. We – the audience – are never clearly instructed as to what it or its significance might be – we’re shown what looks to be the pendant from a locket along with a small clay face – but that’s it. Not all that long after this protracted introduction, Merrin is shown coming face-to-face with the statue of some lurking figure; and then the audience is whisked far away to Georgetown in the United States.
But because Merrin’s earliest moments aren’t given much clarity – he says practically nothing about what he’s found, nor does any of the other characters who fleetingly share the screen – I’m left wondering whether or not anything the man has accomplished in this far off land was of any meaningful consequence. Granted, the pendant and the clayface do have some thematic ties to later in the story; I just wish and/or William Peter Blatty’s script could’ve given us some indication as to what truly mattered in this curious set-up.
In Georgetown, we’re introduced to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a celebrated actress who’s in town apparently only temporarily to shoot a major motion picture about … well … we’re never told. She and her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) take residence in a fabulously elegant home – complete with servants and a nanny (of sorts); when the mother isn’t on a film set, then she’s entertaining the Washington DC elite in cocktail parties at her house. It’s into this cultured circle that Regan first exhibits her uncharacteristic and weird behavior, suggesting that not all is as rosy as it seems, that sets The Exorcist onto its dark path, but – for me – there’s a key component sorely missing from the story that caused my second break from the narrative.
Chief … just what is the source of Regan’s possession?
Friedkin’s film never definitely states where and how the young lady was introduced to this spectral entity, certainly not as to why and how it now exists in scenic Georgetown. Why is it here? Where did it come from? How was it drawn to the girl? Has this place always been haunted, or did the introduction of the Hollywood influential to the area have something to do with it? The script makes a few suggestions – there’s something nefarious out and about in the attic (which only Chris can seemingly hear off and on), and Regan’s apparently made friends with something from the ‘other side’ that goes by the dubious name of ‘Captain Howdy’ via a Ouija Board found on the premises – but the particulars are always vague.
As I said above, I realize you – faithful reader – may make light of my shortcomings. My only defense – frail though it may be – is that as one who does write fiction and non-fiction I assure you that those who dabble in spinning yarns put a good deal of thought into every decision made big and small. Typically, nothing gets committed to print unless it has a succinct reason to be there; my stumbling here is that the pieces just don’t help bring the tale to light the way I believe they should, and that keeps me from enjoying it as much as you.
The introduction of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is where – finally! – The Exorcist starts to make more sense to this old brain.
For those unaware of the details that you perhaps deem secondary and therefore trivial, let me shine a bit of light on what a character truly could, would, and should look like. Karras is a man of faith who has taken to questioning his role not only in the church but in his life. His ailing mother requires more and more attention – time he truly desires to give in return for her blessing him with life – and because of the road he finds himself walking he’s no longer convinced that he’s effectively serving himself, his peers, his world, and – the big one – his God. He believes that there are others who can pull their weight more strongly than he can, so he’s even requested to be given a new assignment from his bosses, one that might put him back in the light of righteousness. It’s only after he’s introduced to the MacNeil family – well after he’s wrestled with his own doubts regarding Regan’s condition – that he’s forced to see inevitably that faith is what you make of it. In the big finish, he’s the only one able to make the ultimate sacrifice both for his God and his fellow man, and this leads finally to the redemption we see him searching for over the course of the picture.
The world of The Exorcist frowns culturally on how the artificial has become so important when trying to live a life with purpose.
Chris is an actress, and we spend time with her trying to balance time with Regan against that involving faux friends and our intellectual betters. Once she’s served a wake-up call with her daughter’s possession, she delves into the world of science as doctor after doctor – specialist after specialist – concocts some cutting-edge diagnosis to explain Regan’s sudden descent into madness; and none of this leads to any resolution. Eventually, Chris is left with not so much religion as the answer as it is faith … faith in something untested and unproven and unvalidated by those around her. Similarly, faith is something Karras hasn’t so much lost as he repeatedly questions why he’s here when nothing he does seems to make any lasting difference. In the end, he achieves his salvation when he comes face-to-face with the harsh reality that purposefulness may not be achieved ultimately to the race of man but instead might be found in saving a single life – Regan’s – when you are the only solution.
The Exorcist (1973) was produced by Warner Bros. and Hoya Productions.
Don’t think that I failed to enjoy The Exorcist, but – as the attraction that truly showed a generation of filmmakers and audiences what cinematic Horror’s true potential was – it’s definitely a film that deserves to be both preserved and celebrated as a groundbreaking achievement. If you’ve read the above, then you might suspect I didn’t like it as much as I did … and you’d be wrong. It’s an incredible experience, a daunting work of art that continues to resonate with those who find it. As can happen, even incredible experiences might fall short of one’s expectations, and – like Father Karras – I tend to gravitate toward the gray areas more than I probably should. I question my place in the audience. I question what the filmmaker tried to tell me. In the end, I’m left with a moral to the story that might be as imperfect as the way I’ve come to understand the wider picture, and here’s hoping I’m not cursed by any phantom spirit for the choice I’ve made.