The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)


Being confronted with The Exorcist, a 1973 story of demonic possession in Washington D.C. that somehow does not involve the then-current president, marks one of those moments when I would strongly prefer to be simply a viewer of movies and not somebody who feels inexplicably compelled to write about them. I admit to occasionally rolling my eyes at people who, more than three and a half decades after its inception, can’t accept that hip hop is a long-lived musical genre. But rolling back to film, which I might care about even (slightly) more than pop music, I find myself completely incapable of seeing the virtues of horror movies. There are other genres that don’t do it for me — war, sci-fi and fantasy, for instance — but I consider my outlook properly calibrated on those fronts; in other words, I think it’s possible to create a science fiction, fantasy or war film and do it well. I also think I’ve allowed my self-imposed duties on this blog to contribute to kind of an evolution. I once thought I didn’t like westerns or musicals; now I’d feel rash about making such a remark. The singular problem with horror is similar to the problem I have with, to go back to music briefly, heavy metal. I am so baffled by them, by what people even see in them, that part of me assumes they can’t possibly be as bad as they look to me, especially since — aside from The Blair Witch Project and some of George Romero’s films, which barely fit any conventonal definition of horror anyway — I don’t have an admired yardstick to measure their failings against.

In other words, I can feel comfortable saying Inception is a bad movie because I know that sometimes science fiction speaks to me. Can I feel similarly comfortable calling Billy Friedkin’s The Exorcist a terrible, embarrassing, antiquated artifact of a sick, sexist, puritandical culture? Sure I can, but I can probably be called out on it by a reasonable person and if this blog had any semblance of professionalism driving it, there’s no way I’d agree to attempt to dissect the film. The sole regards in which I can directly dispute it are largely technical: one scene does not meaningfully relate to the next, instead amounting to a vaguely coherent arc attached to a set of disconnected skits that intend to have a visceral impact that may or may not come off for you. The actors are unable to communicate dread, exhaustion, or relief because Friedkin’s misguided, breakneck minimalism (which worked so well in The French Connection, seemingly an outlier) gives them no chance, nor does the well known drag of a writer William Peter Blatty. So by the final scene, after hell has come and gone in clear personification in the bedroom of a little girl who had a slight attitude problem, it seems as if nothing has even happened; the closure could just as well be that of a John Hughes picture, wherein after a child brutally fights off burglars with increasingly violent tactics because that’s really “funny,” it’s time to just hug each other with sugary-sweet music playing till the credits.

In fact, The Exorcist is essentially the precise antecedent to Home Alone; in attempting to score an easy emotional response (with kids involved, naturally), it exposes for all to see the slobbering pathology and desperation of its creators. The only way to make the two films more similar would be to make Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s characters pedophiles. Some trashy horror pictures become fun to watch by mere virtue of their schlock; I had fun being among a receptive audience for The Conjuring, for instance, despite thinking it was a perfectly awful film. Even while drunk or high or buzzed on caffeine, The Exorcist‘s dullness and absurd reverence for itself and its heady religious themes conquer any bid we make to enjoy ourselves. It does become quite funny once young Linda Blair becomes “possessed,” which means she dons kooky makeup and recites benignly obscene insults to those around her; in other words, she is becoming a teenager, a point more succinctly made (though still with unnecessary gender specifications) by Animaniacs in their Katy Kaboom sketches.

It’s telling that the movie is best in the first act, before the girl is possessed. As in the later Poltergeist, the family relationships have a sense of reality and warmth that make you wish you weren’t watching a horror movie, because of course the moment the Excitement begins, everyting we’re seeing becomes conventional and by-the-numbers, sacrificing all semblance of character depth. Blair is a delight through and through, given by far the most fun role even if Friedkin seems to think this stuff is all very dire and serious, and Ellen Burstyn is quite good as her beleaguered actress mom. Max von Sydow is wasted in a humdrum role as a dour priest, Lee Cobb is Lee Cobb, and Jason Miller is inexplicably cast as the guardian spirit / priest / psychiatrist / whatever else and manages to give absolutely one of the most slack-jawed, incompetent performances in any major film. Without him the movie would be a juvenile exercise in Christo pandering but it wouldn’t be nearly so overlong or irritating. The boredom of Miller’s work does offer a buffer from its grosser excesses; it’s hard to be mortally offended by something that bores you, despite all of its trite preachiness and its faith-based and horror-based bids at Shock. There is nothing shocking here unless you really think a girl pushing a guy out of a window because Satan instructed her to is the stuff of nightmares.

Which brings us to another point — it’s entirely possible that one must believe something like this, a possession and then an exorcism, could really happen in order to find this film effective. My limited conversations about The Exorcist with others seem to bear this out, but it also speaks to something alluded to in the first paragraph here — almost no horror film works for me for this reason; The Conjuring is stupid because its basis is wholly in ghost-hunter woo woo claptrap, and offensive because it takes at face value the idea that one’s relationship to an executed victim of the Salem Witch Trials — which, say it with me, were a wrongful and ignorant blight on our country’s history — predicates one to possession and witchcraft and all such bloody nonsense. Conversely, The Exorcist is stupid because it’s narratively facile, tame in its scare tactics, silly in its googly-eyed obsession with teenage girls having sexual interests and vaginas, and offensive because it’s a sermon. Not just religiously, though that’s a part of it, and a big reason why I don’t want this shit in my house. There are also the risible scenes in which young Blair, feeling ill and not herself, is sent to various physicians and hospitals and Friedkin shoots the medical equipment, the scans, the procedures as if he’s in James Whale’s laboratory from Bride of Frankenstein, reinforcing the film’s point that something proven to help people like medicine is useless compared to a ludicrous concept born of wrongheaded church practices that amounts to human torture and has actively caused people to die as recently as this century. That’s the kind of shit that makes one want to fling a picture like this into the nearest sewer.

If you don’t buy that Friedkin, the lovingly Capra-like creator of such cuddly cinematic treasures as Killer Joe, a film in which a woman is forced at gunpoint to fellate a chicken leg because that’s also “funny,” is a moralizing, hollow lowlife, check out the Criterion DVD of M from your local library and watch his interview with Fritz Lang, black and white and ghostly with Friedkin himself in profile. Observe how he makes sure to include, with no on-camera prompting, an elderly and probably out-of-it Lang talk about how we need religion taught in schools because that’s where “morals” come from. Maybe Lang believed that and maybe not, but the importance Friedkin placed on it is telling. That’s the essential hypocrisy at the core of The Exorcist in a nutshell — he and Blatty want so badly to lecture people, to turn their entire canvas into some sort of a scold, that they are willing to sink to the lurid depths to do so. As ever, it’s those most indulgent in their own trash and psychological backwater that want to tell the rest of us how to live. Blatty, meanwhile, wants to make the argument that he’s presenting the “facts” of the case that inspired his novel, but this too is a convenient act of commercially-motivated fake ignorance. There’s simply no way Blatty believes the hogwash he’s peddling any more than, say, John Edward does, but he certainly believes in his power to manipulate others, and sadly — judging from the number of tags at the bottom of this blog entry — he was and is correct to do so.

Still and again, The Exorcist is mostly a bore, its prime currency an ability to make us jump and cower that it’s lost if it ever had it, which I doubt; its real skill was probably preying on the Christian paranoia of a particularly guilty and easily manipulated contingent, which is no slur on people who grew up that way. The premise is so unforgivably dumb to me that everything else kinda falls apart, but again, I suppose I’m not really the audience? What seems tougher to dispute is that the treatment of Blair’s young demon as a character suggests some uncomfortable anxiety about girls and women, the character arcs and back stories of the two exorcists are so incredibly generic and boring I have a hard time believing anyone thought they were a good thing to include (but then again, this is Blatty we’re talking about), and the wallowing in suggestive bed-bouncing, “your-mother-sucks-cocks-in-hell” and crucifix-masturbation is, aside from being unintentionally funny, reliant on a very naive and easily disturbed audience. On the whole, it seems that even if you can take it more seriously than I can, it’s finally a banal and empty effort that doesn’t deserve the mantle it’s hopefully poised to lose as the years go on.

[Inherits some portions of a very brief 2005 review.]

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