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The Exorcist


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In honor of Halloween, Todd and I have done a podcast on The Exorcist over at Film Geek Radio. (Todd also summarizes Scott's talk about horror from The Glen Workshop 2012).

SHOW NOTES:

  • 0:00 – Intro, summary of Scott Derrickson keynote address on horror.
  • 06:42 – Historical significance: real evil in an age of unbelief.
  • 11:35 – Mechanics of fear vs. true horror.
  • 15:20 – Gothic vs. Horror.
  • 18:17 – Impressions on a new viewing: soundscape, pace, and performance as theme.
  • 29:00 – Does the exorcism fail?
  • 39:51 – Defending the ending.
  • 53:00 – Thumbs up to the devil? Esteeming vs. recommending.

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  • 1 year later...

Thanks to Google Street View, we can now all take a look at the house where the boy whose exorcism inspired The Exorcist lived. (Details on how the house was identified here.)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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It's also the importance of sensing the ancient quality of the demonic.

Yes, THE EXORCIST is most effective when it pulls back the veneer of the modern, urbanized, spiritually atrophied world to reveal the ancient spiritual forces lurking beneath (in this respect, it's very much in line with Weir's THE LAST WAVE).

Unfortunately, THE EXORCIST is hampered by its reliance on effects-driven shock horror, which doesn't make such a great vehicle for creating a sense of an ancient, malevolent force. The emphasis on physical violence and disturbances--flying furniture, projectile vomit, people being hit--makes the devil seem a bit too much like a drunken brawler; too much brawn, not enough brains.

Edited by Ryan H.
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That's an interesting insight Ryan and I think it might be an indication of how our cultural attitude is changing when it comes to these things.  I remember when I first heard about THE EXORCIST as a kid.  It was something that was considered to be very real (if one believed in these sort of things), but then as time went on into the 90's there were murmurings about the puking business being over the top.  Maybe what your saying is coming out of a progression in the Western cultures thought to a certain extent, being a more sophisticated way of looking at things, which requires a more sophisticated demon?

Edited by Attica
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  • 1 month later...

The Exorcist is 40 years old today. (The film, that is; the book is slightly older.) Here are links to all my articles on the film and its sequels/prequels -- including a few links back to comments I've posted at A&F.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 months later...

Here's my thoughts on the exorcism scene in The Exorcist

The Exorcist
 (1973), that great masterpiece of horror cinema and cinema in general, is known for many things: realism regarding the supernatural, a convicing defense of the supernatural realm of good and evil, brilliant performances, a documentarian style courtesy of William Friedkin, theological depth courtesy of William Blatty (author of the original 1971 novel), and a truly horrifying atmosphere that is a happy balance between shock and chill.

 

But there was one moment which I wanted to discuss: the exorcism scene where Father Lankaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Damien Karras (Jason Miller) exorcise the demon (Mercedes McCambridge) out of Regan (Linda Blair).

 

That scene is full of brilliance, awe, and a grand conflict of good and evil fighting one another, with Max von Sydow give a commanding role as Merrin, reading the exorcism rite with power and magnitude, even when he startes cursing the demon ("I cast you out! Unclean Spirit!"). And Jason Miller perfectly displays Karras, the less experienced priest who is shocked by the terror he sees, from the foul-mouthed language of Regan ("Your mother sucks c--ks in hell," "Stick your c--k up her a--, you mother---ing worthless c--ksucker.") to the bed levitating to the ghastly white face he saw in a dream before to the headspin and to the ghastly sights he sees. And Linda Blair, with the help of Mercedes McCambridge, is fantastic in her display of how far she has degraded since the demon entered into her. She uses everything bad, from foul language to headspinning to blasphemy to levitating in the form of a cross while the priests shout "The power of Christ compels you."

 

And the lighting and aura is so perfect for the scene that it has been copied by many movies (many of which I haven't seen yet), and it fits so well with the darkness that Merrin is fighting. The noises are still scary and frightening, and it shows how visual displays and sounds can be truly frightening, milking it to the true potential.

 

I would also like to note the iconic "The Power of Christ Compels You" moment, where the priests call upon the power of Jesus Christ to lift down the girl after she had been lifted high by the demon. They pour holy water over her, which seems to fail (as she gets these rashes on her), but eventually it does succeed (but not in casting out the demon). The acting is excellent, showing both the command they have in saying that line and the exhaustion they face after saying that so many times.

 

And the reveal of the entity possessing her (a demon with a penis named Pazuzu) is very effective in its reveal, after a great buildup of exposition, horror and terror in the previous moments of the film (especially the chilling beginning). Regan's whimpering as he kneels lifting her hands while the demon's likeness is shown in the background, while the priests (especially Merrin) watch in shock.

 

I would also like to note that the non-scary moments work well too, from the scene where Merrin takes his pills trembling and Karras assures Chris (Ellen Burstyn) that Regan won't die. as well as the (extended) scene where Merrin gets to the point as to who might be the real targets of the Satanic attack.

 

As to some criticisms the scene receives, an author said:

 

The Exorcist
 resolves into a more straightforward good-vs.-evil clash in its last half-hour, as “What’s happening to Regan?” becomes “Can’t someone get that evil creature out of Regan?” In the end, Father Karras comes through, when he coaxes the demon to leave Regan and enter him, just before he kills himself. It’s a symbolic gesture: the doubt-filled, depressed Karras reconnecting with his spiritual beliefs in a very real way. But while it’s a powerful ending, it’s disappointingly blunt in comparison with what came before. What’s at the root of the MacNeils’ problems? The demon Pazuzu, now cast out. The end. Blame absolved. (
)

 

I would say that the bluntness helps me admire the movie more as a Christian myself, and while I do have theological issues with the ending myself, it is interesting. And the ending allows us to guess the restoration process of what Regan can go through after being healed (a little more clearer in the original novel, as many have noted). And as a Christian, I do hold that demons and evil spiritual entities can cause problems (or at least exacerbatethem), and this view is held by many people, both Christians and non-Christians. I feel that this depiction of demons and familial problems is overall plausible, showing that the demon exacerbated problems that already were there (Regan going through divorce, the career of Chris, etc.) and branching them out to new ones (blasphemy, foul language, supernatural horrors and evils)

 

And finally, let's get to the climactic ending of the film, where Merrin dies and Karras gives himself over to the demon to save Regan. This is brilliant because not only does it show how a servant of God (Merrin) faced evil unto his very death but also how Karras (the inexperienced priest and the "Doubting Thomas" of the movie) sacrifices himself for Regan in a Christlike, if theologically problematic (most Christians hold that a saved person cannot have a demon possess him; a demon might motivate a Christian to sin or torment him, but never can a demon possess the Christian, for the Holy Spirit resides in him (2 Timothy 1:7)), manner. For example, we don't hear much music in the background, and this is enough to convey both the horror and the goodness of this very scene.

 

First, Father Karras gives into his anger and punches the living daylights out of Regan right before he says the famous "Take me!" line. So after Regan rips the amulet off around Karras's neck, we get a close-up shot of Karras's face as the demon is gaining its foothold over him, and he falls over his back. He gets up, using his own willpower, and as the demon is compelling him to assault Regan, his good will wins ("NO!") and he jumps out of the window, thus sacrificing himself for her, killing himself, and defeating the demon. And while this leaves Regan weeping and Karras a bloodied mess, we are finally glad to see the demon defeated and the restoration process ready to begin (thankfully Regan doesn't remember this, and let us ignore the much-hated Exorcist 2 when discussing the post-exorcism events).

 

So why is this scene still powerful after all these years? Apart from the effective writing and fantastic performances from Sydow, Miller (a Puliter Prize winner, FYI), and Blair (who sadly never went to anything as fruitful after that), the scene encompasses what this movie is: scary, dark, shocking, visceral, intelligent, and ultimately spiritual.

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  • 1 year later...

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 4 years later...

I nominated The Exorcist for the 2020 iteration of the A&F Top 100.

I am not a horror fan, but in terms of cultural impact, it is a film that I think is essential for our list, and if the Golden Ticket idea had flown, I suspect I would have ended up using mine on this. 

The Exorcist and The Godfather came out a year apart, and they signal for me not just a pivot in my own movie-watching career (I was six years old at the time, so did not see either movie until almost a decade later) but a very real cultural shift away from post-Enlightenment Gothic tradition of the explained supernatural as the predominant way of talking about the supernatural (or spiritual) while maintaining skepticism or agnosticism. The Exorcist reverses that tradition by having the priest be the skeptic out to debunk the reality of the demonic, only to be confronted with the realization that all the things modern man has dismissed or explained away (psychologically, intellectually) are older and realer than so many of the things we take on faith simply because the majority now believes them. 

I used to think I was being eclectic or reaching until I read that Friedkin was influenced and inspired by Ordet and specifically by the idea that the film could be made because the supernatural could exist within a depiction of the world that is meant to be realistic...not metaphor, not fantasy, not symbolism. Fact.

In Screwtape Letters, C.S. has Screwtape opine that what he and their "father below" want is a culture full of materialist magicians...people who deny the existence of God but are still enthralled by and seduced by the power of hell, the demonic, spiritual "forces." That passage seems prescient 70 years later, and I suppose The Exorcist is an important part of the transition. While in some ways that condition is worse than not believing in anything at all (or believing in things that can only be described in vague spiritual language), the infatuation with horror as genre, particularly among generations that have followed mine, speaks to, I think, an existential horror that being alone in the universe of the modernists and naturalists (I'm thinking of like Jack London's "The Law of Life" or Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean Well Lighted Place") is ultimately a harder pill for some to swallow than a world that is filled with predators, and demons, and hostile forms of life.

I have no ideas if The Exorcist can find its way onto our life, but I have no doubts that it belongs on it. 

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Ken, I hadn't really considered the possibility of where THE EXORCIST fits in terms of my preferences, but the points you make seem all pretty sound to me.

I hate to respond by diverting attention to another film, but given your comments and what I know about what you tend to like, I hope you get a chance to see UNDER THE SUN OF SATAN, which seems to me to be a match with what you're describing thematically with the stylistic austerity that characterizes some of the Bresson films we've been kicking around for a while.  There's one scene in particular that's just remarkable.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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I watched this for the first time last night and was thoroughly unimpressed, and actually felt strongly antipathetic towards it.  

First, I just didn't find it to be that good of a film, technically and artistically.  Von Sydow is caked over in lame-appearing aging makeup and powdered gray hair.  I'll watch his infinitely more complex performance in The Seventh Seal 99 more times before I watch him anemically perseverate 'the power of Christ compels you' again.  The pre-possession Regan is a smiling, happy-clappy from a Hallmark movie.  And Father Karras' mother is straight out of immigrant central casting.

The characters aside from Father Karras lack any complexity or individuality.  I didn't even know which guy Regan had launched out of her window (the one before Karras) for five minutes, because the characters are so devoid of personality.

Second, and here I'm influenced by my recent watching of Haxan and Hail Satan?, the whole demonic possession narrative strikes me as socially deleterious.  The righteous judges in New England and across Europe were executing women by the thousands for the nonsense that is portrayed here.  It's certainly convenient to project evil outside of the Catholic Church in 1973 and on into the Satanic Panic of the following decade, when the real evil was being perpetrated by the molesting men in black cassocks (an estimated 6% of priests, per Spotlight).

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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5 hours ago, Andrew said:

Second, and here I'm influenced by my recent watching of Haxan and Hail Satan?, the whole demonic possession narrative strikes me as socially deleterious.  The righteous judges in New England and across Europe were executing women by the thousands for the nonsense that is portrayed here.  It's certainly convenient to project evil outside of the Catholic Church in 1973 and on into the Satanic Panic of the following decade, when the real evil was being perpetrated by the molesting men in black cassocks (an estimated 6% of priests, per Spotlight).

Andrew, I hope I've stockpiled enough friend points by now to say with some credibility that your Atheism is something I respect, but I think calling the film socially deleterious and invoking the Salem witch trials (or the Memphis Three if you prefer) is begging the question, akin to my saying that films like, say The Central Park Five or Just Mercy are socially deleterious because they erode confidence in the police and, after all, most people who are arrested turn out to be guilty even if those cases say nothing about the truthfulness or not of the narrative in question.

Millions (perhaps billions?) of people believe that demons exist. Perhaps you are right that they are deluded and wrong. You are definitely right that there have been instances of (and fine movies about) cynical, ill, or evil people who have exploited that belief in order to perpetrate more petty crimes for more venal motives. 

So I can see and disagree with your stylistic complaints, but, honestly, the last paragraph makes me more skeptical of the first because it makes me question whether or not you are just doing the Atheist version of Medved-type criticism -- it's good or bad because it aligns with my belief system.

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1 hour ago, kenmorefield said:

Millions (perhaps billions?) of people believe that demons exist. Perhaps you are right that they are deluded and wrong. You are definitely right that there have been instances of (and fine movies about) cynical, ill, or evil people who have exploited that belief in order to perpetrate more petty crimes for more venal motives. 

Hey, we're good.  I'll chalk up your lumping me with Medved to the fact that this is a preciously-held film of yours.  (But c'mon, I freaking love First Reformed, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and A Hidden Life, so I hope you recognize that I'll acclaim Christian-themed films if I perceive them as well-crafted.) 

I didn't write what I did expecting to change your mind, but I did want to offer a dissenting perspective.  

And yeah, I recognize that mine is likely the minority view worldwide about whether demons are real or fictional.  But operating from an evidence-based standpoint, there's a whole lot more data for pastoral malignity than head-twisting, goo-spewing devils.  But it's funny how the latter was getting all of the attention in the 70s and 80s.  One could almost say it's Screwtapian in its deviousness. 

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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