William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST. Pretty good. Pretty popular. Pazuzu possesses the young lady, she behaves inappropriately according to most forms of etiquette, the two priest guys of different generations say the magic words and die, hooray for everyone. Please note that it’s not called “THE EXORCISTS,” there is only one exorcist of record, so either Father Merrin or Father Karras is getting the shaft in that title. Whichever one you like least. Fuck that guy. Who does he think he’s fooling, trying to be The Exorcist by sacrificing his life for a little girl? Go away, loser, there’s no room for you in this title.
There’s a persistent myth that when she pukes up green stuff it looks like split pea soup. In fact it looks like Nickelodeon slime. If you read the book it’s very clear about that. Anyway – good movie.
There are a handful of beloved classics that are part of what I consider “the modern era” of horror and yet were made before I, a pretty old guy, was born. Of those I’m more attached to PSYCHO, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, but THE EXORCIST is a good one too. It’s been around long enough and been considered important enough that arguably one or two people have said one or two things about it, and there might not be much room for new points to be made. But I’m not looking to make a definitive review here. I’m just trying to make one a little less dumb than the first time I wrote about it.
I always think it’s interesting that it starts with ten minutes of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, STRANGE BREW) on an archaeological dig in Iraq and doesn’t feel obligated to explain it. Yeah, he’s a priest, he’s also Indiana Jones, people can do different things, just go with it. He finds a medallion that corresponds to a large statue which I know from reading is a character called Pazuzu, taken from Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, a “demon of the home” and “wandering wind demon” who’s supposed to be the one who possesses the little girl. I think maybe uncovering the medallion is supposed to set the demon loose and lead to the possession, but if so I don’t really know where the movie indicates that, or even where it says the name Pazuzu. You might just have to know it from sequels and other material, same way you would with a Star Wars.
Whatever his reasons may be (I don’t want to judge him), this Pazuzu fella begins to inhabit the body of young Regan (Linda Blair, CHAINED HEAT), daughter of famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, THE WICKER MAN ), currently in our nation’s capital to film a movie about unrest on college campuses. Regan begins behaving strangely and obscenely, strange and obscene things happen around her, mysterious crucifixes appear in her room, eventually she’s speaking in various voices and languages, her face is turning into a monster, etc. If left unchecked perhaps she would fully turn into Pazuzu and, according to myths, protect homes as well as pregnant women and fly around in the mountains breaking the wings of other demons. That’s not movie canon though. This version of Pazuzu seems to have very few charms. He’s just gross. Kind of an edgelord, come to think of it. A troll.
We get some glimpses of regular Regan before all the pazuzabaloo, and she’s quite the opposite – a bright, funny, creative kid who makes little paintings and sculptures. (Is she supposed to be the one who desecrated the Virgin Mary statue in the church? It is a desecration with some style to it, after all. And she has the materials. But we never see her even leave the house. It’s hard to imagine her breaking into the church and doing that.) She found a ouija board in the house they’re renting and has been playing with it off screen. Honestly I don’t like this part because it’s such an obvious ploy to make this part of the Hasbro cinematic universe and set up Regan joining GI Joe when COBRA teams up with Pazuzu. Also I don’t like the possibility that we’re supposed to think playing this dumb party game attracts demons, but hopefully they weren’t thinking that.
I’ve always liked the parts about Regan getting all the medical tests when they’re trying to try to figure out what’s wrong with her. Friedkin was the top choice of the author of the book, William Peter Blatty, who thought the director’s experience in documentaries and the “documentary realism” of THE FRENCH CONNECTION would apply well. The studio didn’t agree, but their choices (Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols) all turned it down. The way Friedkin grounds everything – lots of on location shooting, out in the real world, then treating the situation as you would a real problem: going to hospitals, getting evaluated, listening to theories, trying to see what seems like the most plausible explanation – is actually what struck me most this viewing. The realistic feel of those scenes continues into the one where Chris first sees the bed violently shaking on its own. At this point there is clearly no plausible explanation. You can’t say it’s “nerves.” You can’t say it’s muscle spasms. Well, they do say that, but Chris knows that’s ridiculous. As the movie builds, Regan will start wearing monster makeup and the room will turn so cold you can see everyone’s breath and stuff, but for now Friedkin doesn’t bring in the gothic horror atmosphere. It’s just… the bed is shaking. It’s so effective.
Just seeing poor Linda Blair getting flopped up and down so violently is pretty upsetting. It’s clearly really being done to her, to some extent. And I love the details like all the sudden she’s strapped down and there’s padding wrapped around all the parts of the bed. These are the kinds of solutions you have to come up with.
On this viewing I also had one of those experiences where a scene is so famous you would assume it’s lost its power but really you were taking it for granted and you forgot all the context, so when you see it again it hits you way harder than you expected. Like when I watched THE TERMINATOR for the first time in a million years and realized “I’ll be back” is not just some one-liner, it’s from the scene where the Terminator comes to the police station looking for Sarah Connor and he’s told “Look, it may take a while. If you wanna wait, there’s a bench over there.” So he looks around, scanning the structure of the building, says, “I’ll be back” and walks out. The officer at the desk thinks nothing of it, but you’re like, oh shit, what is he gonna do? And like ten seconds later he rams his car through the lobby. Beautiful.
The EXORCIST equivalent is the scene where Regan turns her head around backwards. As far as I ever remembered, it was just a weird, creepy thing she did, a supernatural thing. I’m sure this is obvious to most people, but I don’t think I ever understood that when she says, “Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughter?” she’s speaking in the voice of Chris’ deceased director, Burke, whose head twisted backwards when he died, officially from a drunken fall down the stairs. So the demon is taunting and confirming that Burke was really killed by a possessed Regan, twisting his head backwards and throwing him out the window. And also it’s a weird, creepy, supernatural thing.
I can’t tell if Blatty and/or Friedkin saw any meaning in all this happening to a movie star’s family, as opposed to anyone else. I wondered if it was the idea of the godless Hollywood people being less likely to believe in Christian good and demonic evil, but I don’t think the movie really points in that direction. What I did notice is that Chris is kind of an entitled jerk, always yelling at people. Usually it’s at the doctors, and you can justify and forgive it because she’s freaking out about not knowing how to help her daughter. But before all that there’s a time where she’s upset that Regan’s dad doesn’t make himself available on the phone to talk to his daughter on her birthday, and she takes it out on some random operator. Not cool. I guarantee you that more than once she’s pulled a Do you know who I am!? I’m Chris MacNeil. I’m the star of Warner Bros.’ CRASH COURSE! It might not come out because the director is dead and nobody has mentioned if I have to come back or not but still, I’m Chris MacNeil!
I wonder if that operator is like “Holy shit, I got yelled at by Chris MacNeil!”
One thing her profession does do for the movie is create a real class contrast with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, TOY SOLDIERS). Chris rents this giant house in Georgetown while filming, and owns a place in L.A., but she’s selling it and planning a trip to Europe while a new place gets built. When Regan asks for a horse Chris doesn’t say no, she says “We’ll see.” She has an assistant and a maid and butler. We see the poor maid having to scrub Regan’s piss out of the carpet after a demonic possession/party incident.
Meanwhile, Father Karras is very working class. A boxer, we see in photos, and later at the gym, when he takes out his frustrations on a bag. (I wish he got to punch the Devil in this, but that doesn’t happen in a movie until THE TOXIC AVENGER III.) He lives like Travolta in STAYING ALIVE in a tiny, ratty apartment in Georgetown, periodically going to New York to check on his mother (Vasiliki Maliaros), who has a tiny, ratty apartment of her own. When she can’t take care of herself his uncle (Titos Vandis, FLETCH LIVES) puts her in a home where she doesn’t have her own room and has to be strapped to the bed. Karras can’t bear to leave her there, but neither he or his uncle can afford better, so (in between scenes) he brings her home, which leads to her dying alone, to his great guilt.
I’m not sure I ever thought about the obvious contrast between Chris having access to any kind of healthcare she needs (though it won’t help) and Karras having to settle for the shitty level of it that he can afford. I guess that’s one of the things that hits you different in a movie when you’re young vs. when you’ve dealt with that type of stuff with your own parents.
Or maybe I just wasn’t observant enough before, because it also never occurred to me that Karras is so upset to see his mom confused and strapped to a bed, and then he has to see the same thing with Regan (and the demon knows it and taunts Karras about his mother).
You know what, I’m leaning toward Karras being the titular Exorcist, even if later prequels are about the other guy. Merrin gets that adventure in Iraq at the beginning, but Karras is the one the movie checks in with throughout. We see him as an onlooker when Chris is filming a scene on campus, then we get what’s going on in his life, and he finds out important information when he gets interviewed by the detective (Lee J. Cobb, COOGAN’S BLUFF). He’s a psychiatrist, he believes in science, he’s also having a crisis of faith after the death of his mother, so this is an important lesson to him too, that actually evil is caused by a mean monster from the middle east and it’s worth dying to stop him.
I kid. But that is what it’s about, I think. I’ve always thought THE EXORCIST was a good, well directed movie, but since it was so famous as the one that scared the absolute shit out of people, made everybody faint and puke and pee and die and go to Hell right there in the theater, and since it was never very scary for me, I felt kinda left out. I figured you had to actually believe in that stuff, or at least be raised in a religion that told you it was real, so that you have a fear of it deep down in your bones, otherwise it doesn’t seem like much. If you read about the terror it caused at the time, there’s talk of people worrying that having seen the movie would endanger their souls or some shit. And even when I went to church as a kid that wasn’t the type of stuff they taught us. That’s just not a frame of reference I have, there is no part of me that’s even mildly superstitious about anything like that, so when it seems like believing it is a prerequisite to enjoying the movie suddenly I turn into the Christopher Hitchens of horror, I guess.
For example I still get worked up thinking about the movie where Eric Bana played a real life cop who believed drug addicts were actually possessed by demons, and tried to perform an exorcism on the job. They advertised it as a true story, which begs the question “Uh… this guy who believed this was allowed to go around with a gun and point it at people? As his job? And you assume we’re gonna be okay with that?”
That’s what makes it different from, say, a Freddy movie. No, I don’t have to believe in Freddy to enjoy a Freddy movie. But also the people who make the Freddy movies aren’t trying to tell me he’s real. The makers of THE EXORCIST did in fact believe in demonic possession, claimed this was based on “a real case” (in which there were no deaths, please note) and tried to make the movie “accurate.” A 2019 article in the Jesuit magazine America tells how Blatty read a 1949 article about a supposed exorcism in Maryland during his junior year of studying theology at Georgetown University, and considered it “tangible evidence of transcendence.” Decades later when researching the book he “found most tales of possession inconclusive and overly credulous,” and was concerned that maybe he shouldn’t write about it if he didn’t believe in it. But someone got him a copy of a priest’s diary from that 1949 case that originally drew his interest, and he found that to be “beyond any doubt.”
For his part, Friedkin told the Vatican’s daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that although he was raised Jewish he “made the film as a believer, not as a skeptic,” that he “believed in the possibility of demonic possession and the possibility of exorcism,” and that he and Blatty “made that film to spread the Gospel.” He cast two actual Jesuit priests in the film so they could act as technical advisors as well as bless the set or come to Sunday dinner with he and Blatty and say Mass. (One of the priests, William J. O’Malley, who played Father Dyer, was accused in 2019 of sexually abusing one of his students in the ‘80s. I don’t know if that makes the blessing void or not.)
Friedkin also claims in the interview that the movie caused a huge rush of new people wanting to become priests or join the Catholic church. It sounds like how TOP GUN got people to join the Air Force.
The America article mentions that Jane Fonda turned down the role of Chris, saying, “The reason I don’t want to do it is because I don’t believe in magic.” I’m with Jane. But you know, it doesn’t really bother me anymore. Friedkin and Blatty’s conviction about this stuff is probly part of what makes it good. If Michael Bay believed Transformers were real that would probly make for a hell of a movie. I am not a religious person, and I don’t like the idea of blaming evil on some little Assyrian fella with a snake for a dick instead of on the real, existing human beings who actually do the shit. Also I just think Pazuzu is a pretty cool guy, I actually want them to make another EXORCIST prequel that’s just about Pazuzu in Assyria, and it’s indistinguishable from a SCORPION KING movie. But I am enjoying watching these EXORCIST movies and seeing the different ways the characters struggle with questions of faith and good and evil and what not in the face of magic.
David Gordon Green’s THE EXORCIST: THE BELIEVER comes out this week, but that’s honestly not why I rewatched this. I actually just felt like watching part II again, but doing that inspired me to watch part III again, and then I started realizing that there are all these characters in the sequels that I didn’t really remember from the first movie, which in turn made me realize I may not have revisited it since the extended cut’s theatrical re-release under the title “THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE”… which it turns out was 23 god damn years ago! So I went back to the theatrical cut (still good) and I invite you all to join me in the coming days as I look at all of the theatrically released THE EXORCIST joints. (I’ve heard the TV show is good, but don’t think I’ll have time for that now.)