Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin                                 Writer: William Peter Blatty
Film Score: Jack Nitzsche                                Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller and Max von Sydow

One of the incredible ironies of religion is how much Christians love the Devil. I don’t mean literally, but the reality is that while God appears to be reticent in making himself known to man, the Devil has had no such inhibitions. This is something Arthur Miller makes wonderfully clear in his introduction to The Crucible. While it seems almost impossible to prove the existence of God, it seems very easy to prove that Satan is real and thereby indirectly proving God is also. When someone says they hear the voice of God, people usually think they’re nuts. But when someone says they have been contacted by evil spirits, people look at them wide-eyed with more than a willingness to believe. This is really the great trick of The Exorcist, first a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty and then a blockbuster movie phenomenon when it was initially released. Several sequels followed and it has since become a franchise. Unlike monster movies that present a terror from without, this film’s secret lies in the idea that no one is safe from the spirit world, and once that world gets access through even an innocent child it will do anything it can to manifest itself to an unsuspecting humanity.

The film opens with a beautifully shot sequence in Iraq, something Steven Spielberg would crib for the opening of Close Encounters with Françios Truffaut in Mexico. Max von Sydow is a retired priest doing archeological work and discovers an artifact that seems to frighten him, a figure with a strange face. It causes him to leave, in fact, but not before facing down a giant statue with the same evil face. Across the world in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Ellen Burstyn is a Hollywood actress shooting a film there, staying in a brownstone with her daughter, Linda Blair. Burstyn hears noises in the attic one morning and assumes it’s rats, while in her daughter’s room the window is wide open and it’s freezing so she shuts it. On location at the college, priest Jason Miller watches with the rest of the crowd before leaving when the scene is over. The music by Jack Nizsche that accompanies Burstyn as she walks home on Halloween is something that would inspire John Carpenter’s main theme for, what else, Halloween. She also sees Miller on her way home and she remembers him for later. Miller is an interesting case, a priest who has lost his faith and essentially works as a psychologist. He visits his mother, who lives alone in New York, whenever he can but feels guilty that she won’t move into assisted living. Burstyn, meanwhile, discovers Blair has been playing with a Ouija board. It’s after this that several things happen at once.

The rats in the attic turn out to be a poltergeist that attacks Blair, and Miller’s mother winds up dying in a mental hospital. The church is vandalized and Burstyn takes Blair to a psychologist, but her behavior becomes exponentially worse. Finally the doctors, running out of ideas, refer her to Miller for a possible exorcism. When Bursyn comes home one night to find that her boyfriend has been killed jumping out of her daughter’s window, Lee J. Cobb, a homicide detective, comes sniffing around to ask questions. By the time Miller gets involved the situation is beyond belief, with Blair being completely possessed, and so the church recommends he bring in von Sydow to perform the rite. When seen from forty years later, The Exorcist is a marvel of restraint. Though at first blush it wouldn’t seem so, considering the legendary status of the scenes with Linda Blair, the film actually has exquisite pacing of the kind that has all but disappeared in Hollywood productions over the past thirty years. In fact, it’s almost a full hour into the film before anything genuinely horrifying happens, and when it does . . . all hell breaks lose. Friedkin takes his time to set up the characters, make them believable, and allow the audience to invest in them before unleashing something from beyond this world, and pitting the two holy men against it.

Jason Miller’s character is perfect for the story. To have a priest who has stopped believing have to face the Devil--the very proof of God’s existence--is the masterstroke of Blatty’s original novel. The amazing Max von Sydow is, quite literally, ageless. He was playing eighty-year-old men while still in his forties, and his roles have only recently caught up to his age. He is masterful as the priest who has seen it all before. Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair are also terrific in retrospect, especially in the believability of their mother-daughter relationship. But among this surfeit of acting talent, Lee J. Cobb’s role almost seems like an afterthought, and by the end of the film almost beside the point. The special effects were state of the art at the time and are still much more impressive than the CGI of modern horror films. The suburban setting is one that would be revisited by the Spielberg produced Poltergeist as a way to heighten the horror, and the Catholic iconography is deliciously frightening in and of itself. The shame is that modern audiences, who have become jaded to this sort of thing, wise to special effects and impatient at the pacing, will never be able to shed their disbelief long enough to really appreciate the artistry of what a film like this can really do. But the fault is not in the film. This is a classic in every sense of the word.

In Terrence Rafferty’s essay in The A List he begins by making a nice historical parallel by comparing the expulsion of the evil spirit from Blair’s body to the expulsion of Richard Nixon from the White House. He also adds some quite humorous personal history from the time the film was released, and as it was written to coincide with the release of the director’s cut, some equally humorous anecdotes about the feud between Friedkin and Blatty, especially over the ending. The one addition that merited praise from Rafferty is the extended screen time for Max von Sydow, whom he calls “the planet’s greatest living actor.” Hear, hear! The writer compares him to an old western gunslinger who has seen too much to really get excited over anything, and perfectly describes him as “the one person involved in the movie who understands that it’s not a theological parable but an exceptionally perverse western.” Cross genre references like that are something that don’t usually spring immediately to mind, but once you hear them you can’t see the film in any other way. Rafferty’s dry humor is just what is needed for a gross-out flick like The Exorcist, and rightfully credits the film with the explosion--pun intended--of the genre.

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