Before you continue to read this review, I have a quick word of warning. I do not mean to offend anyone, but I also do not want to censor any of my writing; this article contains, out of necessity, some profane language that some people may find offensive.
I’m just starting to get into an Awards Season mood. The Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, and when they are announced, it will be time for me to offer my own opinions on the year of 2013 in film. So when thinking about why The Exorcist was the most popular choice for the greatest horror movie of all time in my poll, I thought immediately of a tweet put out by the satirical online newspaper The Onion during last year’s Academy Awards.
The tweet read:
“Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?”
While I didn’t find this tweet particularly funny, I didn’t think it was especially offensive either, and I did not hop onboard the bandwagon of outrage that pursued this remark. Perhaps it is because, to me, the purpose of the tweet was blatantly clear. It employs a very rudimentary satirical device: reduction ad absurdum, literally meaning ‘reduction to absurdity’. It is absurd that anyone would genuinely call the then nine-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild a cunt, which is why The Onion sardonically did so. In order to satirise the ugly pomp and circumstance of the Oscars, the tweet’s authors identified the most innocent person attending the ceremony and implied that even she was corrupted by fame and fortune.
This happened in 2013, forty years after William Friedkin’s The Exorcist was released, and people are still offended by anything pernicious happening to a child. Herein lays the everlasting power of The Exorcist, and other artworks that appropriately and purposefully use children as the subject of evil and despair. The film is about a twelve-year-old girl Reagan (Linda Blair), who, for no discernible or tangible reason, is possessed by a demon. Her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), after exhausting all other options, eventually decides to call on the services of two Jesuit priests – the young Father Damien Karras (Jason Blair), a counsellor who is becoming increasingly atheistic by the day, and Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), an older, tempered and enigmatic priest who has performed prior exorcisms.
Because Reagan is so innocuous and innocent, the demon who possesses her is not striving to punish her corroded and sordid soul. Instead, Friedkin depicts evil and death as a random and indeterminate force. If an adult character in The Exorcist was possessed by the loquacious demon, then the film would be somewhat more palatable. The Exorcist has been so inherently disturbing for the last forty years because it so vividly evokes the desecration of one person’s virginal vulnerability.
The scene where Reagan violently masturbates with a crucifix certainly would have turned some heads in 1973 (#LOL). However, the scene still holds innate shock value today, not because of its perversion of prevalent religious iconoclasms, but because we are so acquainted with whom this uncontrolled violence is happening to. Unlike the demonic children in Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, we get to know Reagan as a human being before we get to know her as a vessel for a demon’s whims. We learn that Reagan is a charmingly naive figure who has been sheltered from the realities of human interaction; the details of Reagan’s absent father have been sheltered from her, as have the details of her mother’s acting career.
Similarly, the audience is sheltered from Reagan’s descent into possession for a fair portion of the film. At first, the horrifying things happening to Reagan are filtered through the words and actions of others. For instance, we don’t actually see the first time Reagan starts her expletive-ridden tirades. Reagan’s doctor tells Chris that, in a doctor’s visit, Reagan yelled “get your fingers away from my goddamn cunt”. It is not until halfway through the film that we physically see Reagan’s supernatural psychosis take hold; for the first half of the film, we are made to observe her burgeoning obsessions with Ouija boards and flashes of subliminal demonic faces, rather than being bombarded with gross-out visual effects. Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty trust that their audience is patient enough to endure every slow and painstaking step of Reagan’s possession.
The Exorcist is a brilliantly paced film that unveils the lives and emotions of its characters in a measured build-up of atmospheric uneasiness before flailing the visual and verbal horror. Friedkin knows the value of his marvellous special effects and make-up, which surprisingly are not dated in the slightest, and only uses them once we emotionally attached to the characters. In doing so, Friedkin constantly calls into question the veracity of the supernatural events taking place. Despite the many hints towards Reagan’s demonic possession – the least of which being the subliminal flashes of Pazuzu’s face – Friedkin frequently exposes the malleability of evil. The demon within Reagan does not speak fluent Latin, contrary to what we may think; it merely speaks English backwards. The demon falsifies a reaction to the holy water that Fr Karras pours on Reagan – however, Karras is only splashing tap water on her. All these signs hint to the agnosticism of the dual protagonists Chris McNeil and Damien Karras, doing everything they can to deny the unadulterated evil that lurks within Reagan’s slashed and torn skin.
Outside the film’s ‘horror movie’ exterior is one of the most profound and accurate films about the grieving process. Ellen Burstyn is incredible as Reagan’s mother Chris, evincing all of Chris’ vacillating emotions with utmost nuance, plausibility and acuity. The film is as much about Reagan’s psychological descent as it is about her mother’s, and Burstyn perfectly embodies the moments when Chris is angry, when she is reserved, when she is shocked and when she is scared. Chris undergoes all five stages of grief. At first, she is in denial, refusing to recognise the gravitas of her daughter’s psychological pangs. Then she is angry, screeching and shouting at the doctors who fail to properly diagnose her daughter, which in turn triggers her own guilt. When Chris first meets Karras, she looks emotionless and drained, struggling to utter each word as her depressed psyche is being constantly weighed down by her daughter’s plight. Finally, when the climactic exorcism occurs, she is resigned to the possibility that her daughter may not survive, as she mildly and reluctantly goes through the motions of the everyday – signing autographs and making tea.
The Exorcist is not a scary movie. Perhaps I would find the film scarier if I was more religious. Inevitably, people may find The Exorcist underwhelming because it is so often labelled ‘the scariest movie of all time’. The film never makes me jolt, or makes my heart pound, or makes me want to look away from the screen. There are only a couple of jump scares buried within the film’s chilling atmosphere. Yet The Exorcist is my personal favourite horror movie of all time because there is no denying the ‘horror’ of the film’s fundamental premise: the most evil presence intrudes into the most mundane of human landscapes – familial suburbia.
It would have been so easy to create a film overflowing with jump scares, but the tense atmosphere evoked by the chiaroscuro lighting captured in Owen Roizman’s sublime cinematography is so much more lasting than that. We feel the cold presence in Reagan’s bedroom when we see Karras and Merrin’s frosty breaths protrude from their mouths. The Exorcist isn’t a film like Scream or Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which aim to identify the social ills of their time. The Exorcist aims to identify timeless social ills and their remedies – how the corruption of innocence by unequivocal evil can be countered by love and sacrifice.
To this day, The Exorcist is one of my ten favourite films of all time.