Friday, November 3, 2017

The Exorcist

Train Wreck Cinema

By Jonathon Saia

The Exorcist (WB, 1973) – Director: William Friedkin. Writer: William Peter Blatty (s/p and novel). Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, William O’Malley, Barton Heyman, Peter Masterson, Rudolf Schündler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch & Thomas Bermingham. Color, Rated R, 122 minutes.

When at 14, I begged my relatively progressive mother to watch The Exorcist, despite its crude sexuality. She conceded – as long as I watched it with her. And we watched it during the day, which I think was more for her benefit than mine.

I had been watching "inappropriate" things with my grandmother Betty for a while before that. On my brother Stephen's and my overnight excursions to our grandmother's, we would have Freddy Krueger marathons, capped by a double dose of American Gladiators and The Jerry Springer Show; The Exorcist felt like one of the few things I HADN'T seen (that is, until I became an adult and saw Sweet Movie, Salo, and The Human Centipede. If you want to talk about shocking!).

I distinctly remember that first viewing of The Exorcist: my mom and I on the living room couch, surrounded by our golden retrievers; Pazuzu wasn't getting anywhere near the Saias. I remember being underwhelmed and disgusted, understanding why it was acclaimed, but never needing to see it again.

And then I became obsessed with the film; its edginess, its terror, its legend. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I got the Special Edition VHS for my birthday, complete with the hour-long documentary. I purposefully watched it on evenings when I was home alone and could be terrified by the reclusive silence of our two-and-a-half acres and the dark corridors of our two-story, open-concept home, as the THX shook the walls, hoping the devil, an entity I didn't even really believe in, wasn't lurking about to possess me. The film had achieved its desired effect.

I saw The Version You Have Never Seen Before in theaters and remember being livid at the stupid teenagers that thought it was hilarious. How are you not terrified? How are you not in awe of Friedkin's magic?! I was so angry I actually called out to the other patrons, those disrespectful mongoloids, to "Shut the f— up!" which met with even more laughter.

And then something happened a few years back. I started to see the film for the mess it is, started oscillating between "masterpiece" and "train wreck.” I have watched this film at least a dozen times and I sadly must settle on the latter. The general consensus when a film fails is that it is the director’s fault. The auteur theory demands it. And while Friedkin has definitely made some horrible movies in his time (Good Times, 1967, and Jade, 1994, come to mind), he is arguably one of the greatest (and underrated) of filmmakers to emerge from the Golden Age of ‘70s American Cinema. Besides the obvious Best Picture winning stand out, The French Connection (1971) and the cult favorite Cruising (1980), his stage to screen adaptations of Bug (2006), Killer Joe (2010), and The Boys in the Band (1970) are extraordinary, which proves what he can do with great source material. The shots in The Exorcist are gorgeous, the choice of music is inspired, and the lengths to which he went to achieve the special effects and to get some of the performances are legendary (to get the actors' breaths to show on camera, he built Regan's room inside a giant freezer; he routinely would fire guns on set to elicit reactions). But it all climaxes to a giant so-what. The problem with The Exorcist is the script.

First off, I have never read William Peter Blatty's novel, based on the real life 1949 "possession" of 13-year-old "Roland Doe," so if fans want to give him praise for his adaptation, this would fall on deaf ears. Secondly, I am an atheist who finds the epic battle of "good" vs. "evil" as somewhat ridiculous; so any "spiritual catharsis" found within is also a moot point. However, neither of those things should matter. When taken solely as a film, the screenplay is a patchwork of BS weaving the preposterous with the mundane.

Let's address the "reasons" behind Regan's possession. Blatty suggests that "Captain Howdy" (Regan's name for Pazuzu) entered her during a game of Ouija. But then we have all of this drama about Regan's absent father. Are we supposed to think this made her soul vulnerable to possession? Is it really necessary for us to see Chris cussing him out on the phone because he forgot her birthday? Only for us to get a shot of Regan looking distant and numb? Oh, but this is supposed to be an explanation for her outrageous behavior! She heard her mother cussing and is pissed about not having a father (although Linda Blair never for a second plays the pre-possession Regan as having any kind of animosity for her mother or their divorce) that makes her scream obscenities at priests? OK....And why is her possession so lengthy!? If a spirit, particularly a demon spirit, is going to enter you while playing a board game by Milton Bradley, why is it biding its time? It would come in and get down to business. You're telling me the devil is going to luxuriously wait for people to think he is in charge when he has an entire world to dominate? Hell, no. Especially when he isn't even after Regan.

The beauty of The Exorcist lies in the performance of Jason Miller as Father Karras, the psychiatrist/priest who loses his faith when his mother dies. Throughout his interactions with Pazuzu, Karras' faith is not strengthened but completely eradicated. The demon knows every button to push to send him over the edge, appearing as an apparition of his mother and telling us some of the nasty things she is doing to the other people in Hell. Blatty is painting a morality tale that basically says, "If you turn your back from God for even a second, the devil will come in and destroy you." And he does. Karras' death can be read two ways: One, when The Demon enters him, Karras voluntarily throws himself out the window to "kill" Pazuzu. Or when Karras becomes possessed, Pazuzu throws Karras' body out the window to kill him. Seeing how the death of the physical body would not kill a spirit, one has to go with the latter: The Devil, 1; Karras, 0.

The problem with the film being about the dangers of losing one's faith is that it makes Regan and her mother pawns in a very elaborate chess game. The devil chooses Regan because her soul is weakened by the divorce and she invites in danger by playing Ouija (and she has no religious beliefs so is ripe for the picking). And then uses Regan to lure in the services of Father Karras in order to win his soul. Why not just possess Karras? Or Chris! She is a famous movie star! Imagine if he could make her do his bidding? Get people on board with the Satanic Gospel!? Think of it. Julia Roberts getting on YouTube preaching about the benefits of a godless world? What is going to affect the most people? And if Satan's goal is world domination, why would he try and win soul by soul? Why is Karras so special to get the devil's undivided attention? "You can't rationalize the acts of Satan, Jonathon!" Well, I am calling bullshit. It seems counter-productive and sloppy. If he is the Prince of Darkness, maybe he needs to be dethroned.

Is her possession meant to teach Regan and Chris to also believe in God? Maybe Blatty chose for a non-religious child to be possessed so Regan and Chris could also believe. Is he using Old Scratch to make a larger point about the importance of religious conviction? Whatever his intentions, the message is muddled and convoluted, and frankly doesn't even make for very compelling drama. There is suspense and there is filler. Why do we need the scene on the movie set? To see Father Karras in the audience and to use "Tubular Bells" on her walk home? Why do we need Chris' party and the drunken showdown between Burt and Chris' German servant? Or the relationship between Kinderman and Karras? Why do we need all of this ridiculous banter between Regan and Chris, stealing the cookies from the cookie jar and talking of buying horses and sightseeing in Georgetown (a smart cut from the original film)? To show the ominous under the innocuous? Blah. Blatty is building all of this suspense to have us somehow feel sorry for Chris and Regan when we don't; unless the film is really about the loss of Regan's innocence.

Forget for a moment that all of the drama happens with Karras and just focus on the Chris/Regan dynamic. Chris is a single mom raising a daughter who is, presumably, going through puberty. Regan is acting out, cursing, moody, taking on a different, practically split personality, while fixating on sex; sounds like a typical teen to me! Maybe The Exorcist is partially an allegory for the growing pains of adolescence and how the sweet little angels our children once were slowly, then all of a sudden, turn into these demonic creatures we no longer recognize. Maybe this is why I initially adored the film, paralleling my own love for my parents and the middle finger attitude that comes with being a teen hell-bent on "controversial" antics. Maybe I am reaching and it is all claptrap.

One thing is for certain: sex is at the heart of The Exorcist, particularly the idea that sex is dirty and comes from the Devil.

Let's look at the litany of "offenses" that Regan commits while possessed:
Masturbation (with a crucifix, no less)
Telling her mother to lick her vagina and then forcing her to do it
Moving her tongue in a lascivious manner at a priest
Telling said priest that his mother sucks c—ks in Hell
Demanding that the two priests f— each other
Desecrating the statues in the church, giving them giant claw like phalluses.

Really? This is all the devil, in his infinite power, has? Insults and lewd gestures?

If the idea of sexual repression (and sexual expression as sin) were not on the forefront of Blatty's mind, then this is the most obvious accident in the history of the cinema. For a boy who was taught that sex was a beautiful thing not only from his parents, but that it was a gift from God, this damning of sexuality is palpable and very Vatican I.

The Exorcist, inexplicably, went on to net a total of 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. This could partially be explained by the mania. The Exorcist was billed as the scariest film of all time, complete with vomit bags in the theater (what William Castle must have thought!); lines were around the block and it had become a cultural phenomenon, grossing almost $200 millions in 1973 money. 

But The Exorcist was also singled out because Friedkin's previous film, The French Connection, had won a total of five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. All three principal actors in The Exorcist, despite dangerously veering into camp on more than one occasion, were nominated (Burstyn losing to Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class; Blair losing to another child star, Tatum O'Neal for Paper Moon; and Miller to John Houseman for The Paper Chase) as was Friedkin (who lost to George Roy Hill for The Sting, that year's Best Picture). The only two awards it did win were for Sound Mixing (a much deserved accolade) and, ironically, for Blatty's Screenplay. The only award it should have won was for Jason Miller's touching portrayal of the afflicted (and conflicted) Father Karras; he grounds the film throughout its foolishness with a sense of melancholic hope.

As all hits, particularly successful horror films, are prone to do, The Exorcist was followed up with two sequels and two prequels. Exorcist II: The Heretic, directed by John Boorman in 1977, was universally panned and is easily one of the worst sequels, if not one of the worst movies, ever made. Oscar winner Louise Fletcher and seven-time nominee Richard Burton play Regan's psychiatrist and a priest who is sent to investigate the death of Father Merrin, respectively. Burton knows that Regan knows what happened and Fletcher is afraid that if he unlocks those memories, she will lose it, maybe even kill herself. But Regan already remembers everything. So she agrees to hook up to this machine that allows the participants to telepathically "see" each others' memories (you just have to go with it) so Burton can travel to Africa to visit a guy (James Earl Jones!) who once defeated Pazuzu and learn how to slay the demon once and for all. If the Razzies had been around, Richard Burton and Linda Blair most certainly would have been nominated. He is hysterically over the top while she is attempting to be earnest to hilarious results. And Louise Fletcher is flatlining in her thankless role. If the script of The Exorcist is a mess, Exorcist II's script is a goddamn catastrophe. This is an actual exchange:
"What's the matter with you?" (says a little autistic girl who is also been treated at the counseling center)
"Oh, I was possessed by a demon...but don't worry. He's gone now."

But wait there’s more! Exorcist II, while indeed horrible, rightfully shamed for its infamous status as tripe, and yes, recommended by yours truly for its sheer camp factor is by no means the worst film in the series. That dubious distinction belongs to both of the prequels.

Why are there two prequels you may ask? Well, because when Paul Schrader (Scorsese’s most talented writer) delivered Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005) to Morgan Creek Productions, they thought it was garbage and feared that people would stay away in droves. It was not the thriller they had hoped for, instead being a very slow "cerebral" piece of introspection of Father Merrin's first experience with Pazuzu in Africa, post-WWII. So they hired the guy who made Cliffhanger to come in and take a second pass at the material (retitled Exorcist: The Beginning, 2004) and amp up the action. Which resulted in an even worse film. So instead of shelving them both, Warner Bros. RELEASED both, making The Exorcist look like the masterwork most people think it is.

But the greatest film in the series is easily The Exorcist III (1990) Why? Because it is actually a thriller.

George C. Scott plays Lt. Kinderman, the investigating detective and Karras' friend from the original film. For the past 15 years, he and Father Dyer (Karras' confident and fellow priest also from the original) have commemorated Karras' death with a viewing of It's a Wonderful Life (isn't that ironic!) and a bite at their favorite coffee shop. But this year, the Gemini Killer (an obvious rip on the Zodiac) has returned to strike again, even though he died...15 years ago. Could Karras be the Gemini Killer? Blatty adapted the screenplay from his own sequel novel, Legion, and ended up directing when Friedkin dropped out. Blatty turned in an edge of your seat film, full of twists and turns and great parallels to the original material (Blatty had nothing to do with Exorcist II so he treated it, like Moustapha Akkad had done with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, as if it had never existed). The only thing that rings false or forced about The Exorcist III is...well, the exorcism. That's because it was never supposed to be included. Morgan Creek made him add one because what's an Exorcist movie without an exorcism? The Exorcist covers that ground more than sufficiently (as do the million rips off) so to insert it at the end of The Exorcist III was ridiculous and pointless. And Blatty knew it. He apparently wanted to restructure the film in a director's cut, but the footage had all "gone missing." Somehow George C. Scott was nominated for a Razzie against Stallone for Rocky V....which is ludicrous. His performance is fantastic. A tad overblown at times, but not outside the demands of the material.

If you've never seen The Exorcist, by all means, see it. It is a piece of iconic cinematic history. And even as I write, I have a yearning to give it one more shot. It is one of the only films that no matter how many times I have seen it, no matter how many times I have been disappointed by it, I always go into a viewing with eager eyes and an earnest hope that I will return to its glorious splendor (call it, the Eyes Wide Shut syndrome). Some of the scenes with Karras and Regan are still spectacular; the sound effects are fantastic. But is it the masterpiece it is touted as? Is it the "scariest and greatest horror film of all time"? Not by a long shot (although I'm not sure what would hold that distinction...Halloween? The Silence of the Lambs? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Alien?). And yet The Exorcist’s power demands, one could even say possesses me to hop in my car, drive to the library, check out a copy, rush home, and watch it this very second. Or, hell, buy the damn thing (again) so I can watch it on a loop and unravel its mystery.


  1. A little rough, with some good points, but the real target WAS Dr Kart as all along!

  2. That's what I'm saying! If the real target was Karras, the devil certainly prefers subterfuge, rather than direct possession. Ha. Thanks for reading!