October Nightmares #9: The Exorcist (1973)


Demonic possession, as a concept, has been a part of society ever since the first man wanted a convenient excuse for taking a day off work. The fear of an overpowering, otherworldly influence capable of corrupting the mind, body, and soul has seemingly always frightened and fascinated humanity. An extreme example shows up in the New Testament in which Jesus faces off against a man possessed by thousands of demons - cool in a Neil Gaiman kind of way. The idea can apparently be traced back to the ancient Sumerian civilisation of Southern Mesopotamia, who were supposedly the first to attribute physical and mental ailments to a sinister chthonic influence. Whether true or not they were not the only ones: this is an idea that has spread and appeared in multiple forms throughout human history. I can certainly see why primitive cultures would see this as a rational way of explaining and identifying the otherwise irrational - mental illness recognition is, relatively speaking, a new development after all.

What does seem strange is that the concept can still hold weight in our modern scientifically-focused society. It seems to be buried deeply enough into our collective consciousness that we can have an endless barrage of demonic possession movies, all claiming to be based on a true story. I've counted (using Wikipedia as my source) and since 2005 there have been at least fifteen mainstream films that are in some way about demonic possession or exorcism. Call me cynical, but I'm sure this is all part of the eternal attempt at recapturing the box office gold that was The Exorcist. Using the term 'recapturing' makes the film sound like Harrison Ford escaping a horde of Tommy Lee Jones style producers á la The Fugitive. The Exorcist is a film that should need no introduction, however, such is its legend amongst horror fans. And whilst I'm not about to join film critics in slobbering all over it like an armada of starving dogs enjoying the world's largest steak, I will say that The Exorcist is my favourite exorcism focused film.

The reason for this is simple: unlike most of its kind, The Exorcist possesses an eagerness to be nothing more than a shocking horror movie. I remember seeing The Rite (2011) in cinemas and rolling my eyes when I saw the words "based on a true story" appear on screen. Because I knew it'd be a half-arsed affair, courting the line between fictional horror and realism. I don't know why these films are so afraid of going to the extremes offered by dealing with the supernatural; we already assume that the filmmakers are heavily employing artistic license. Is there some hidden corner club for horror directors? One with a strict admissions policy, maybe? "Sorry Bob, I can't let you in: your non-metaphysical monster is showing." The Exorcist is based on a true story, admittedly. But as it is loosely adapted from a novel inspired by 'real events,' I feel that there was enough separation to give William Friedkin (director) and William Peter Blatty (writer) creative freedom.

The Exorcist concerns twelve-year old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) who falls under the control of the demon Pazuzu (Assyrian wind king), an entity that proceeds to cause rapid degeneration. Her distraught mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), a famous actress, seeks help from the world of medicine and science, before finally turning to disenchanted priest and psychiatrist Damien Karras (Jason Miller). As the situation progresses for the worst, Karras resorts to bringing in the lionized Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow); a man informed by his own harrowing experiences. While I'm on the subject of Max von Sydow, I always thought it was weird that they got a fortysomething actor to portray an eighty-year old. But the make-up department did an impressive job of predicting how he would look at the age. Especially when compared to Guy Pearce's prosthetics in the far more recent Prometheus; his face had more creases than the spine of Christopher Paolini's Book of Tolkienesque Clichés.  

What sets the film apart from its peers is a focus on establishing its world. In the first thirty minutes, we are introduced to three 'separate' worlds. The narrative opens in Iraq with Father Merrin leading an archaeological dig in an ancient temple. Through sun-scorched shots of mystical places of worship and eerily quiet bazaars, Friedkin establishes a sense of the 'other,' an old mysterious place detached from our spiritless modern world. He deftly creates an ever-encroaching uneasiness, perfectly visualised by the shot of Pazuzu's monument and Merrin facing each other across a ravine - a fiercely burning sun between them. Perhaps adding to this feeling (in hindsight, of course), is the knowledge that the temple now houses the truly evil death-cult ISIS.

From here Friedkin shows us the privileged life of the McNeils: fine-dinning, servants, a large upper-middle class home, the fixation on the trivial. This is at contrast with the modest lifestyle of Karras, who inhabits a gritty world that rejects faith and the opportunities offered to them. Where children play in streets ruined by graffiti and dilapidated buildings - running on top of broken cars. By combining these vastly separate cultures and traditions, Friedkin hints at a sort of universality, suggesting an evil without borders or confines. Understandably, however, it is the later more visceral set-pieces that come to mind for many when they think of The Exorcist.

The iconic scene with Regan turning her head 360 degrees, for example, or the volatile projections of unnaturally green vomit, or even Regan's disturbingly ruinous contortions. Other exorcism movies play with these tropes but never take the final step for fear of tarnishing their credibility. In The Exorcist, there is never any doubt as to whether a demon inhabits her body. Which is a little incredulous when the neurosurgeons have the gall to claim she is acting up when she goes from sweet young girl to looking like the fucking Bride of Wittgenstein. And I suppose she learned to swear like that from a Guy Richie film about sailors?
But for me, The Exorcist is bigger than that. It's a film that builds atmosphere from the generous use of Gothic architecture; old churches with imposing steeples, the narrow, crooked staircase leading up to the house. Many of the exterior shots filled with more dread than the now-aged effects used on Regan. The gloomy image of Merrin stood outside the house in the fog as Tubular Bells rings out in the background, is far more foreboding than whatever was going on in Regan's bedroom. I suppose that is telling of my background. Where I'm from seeing a hideously haggard figure caked in their own vomit is normal, not a cause for alarm.