by Mel Valentin
William Friedkin's ("The French Connection," "Sorcerer," "To Live in Die in LA") 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's bestseller (Blatty also wrote the screenplay), "The Exorcist," has become a classic both in and out of the horror genre. Before the 1970s, the horror and science fiction genres were was considered strictly B-movie material. Hollywood studios made few attempts to popularize the genre, unless a cross-over bestseller was involved (e.g., Roman Polanski’s 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller, “Rosemary’s Baby”). Mixing supernatural horror, pre-millennial angst, and gruesome, realistic makeup effects "The Exorcist" became a blockbuster in the truest sense of the term. Its box office success led to critically and commercial unsuccessful sequels and a prequel and several inferior imitators.In Al-hadar, near Nineveh, Iraq, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), a Catholic priest and archeologist, greets the discovery of an ancient, pre-Christian temple with fear and dread. In Georgetown, near Washington, D.C., Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the 13-year-old daughter of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), an actress working on a local film shoot, begins to act erratically. Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest with a Ph.D. in psychology, struggles with his faith in God, his mother’s failing health, and his inability, due to limited resources, to help her financially.
"As frightening and disturbing today as it was in 1973."
MacNeil concern turns to near-panic when Regan begins to suffer from epileptic fits. Doctors perform a battery of painful, ultimately inconclusive tests. A psychiatrist prescribes tranquilizers to control Regan's erratic behavior (she uses a different voice, curses profusely, and, in one scene, uses a crucifix sacrilegiously). A police detective, Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), becomes embroiled in the storyline when he investigates a suspicious death near MacNeil’s home.
MacNeil’s desperation leads her to Father Karras, whom she asks for spiritual help. The faith-challenged Karras gets assistance in the form of Father Merrin, who appears almost miraculously at Chris' doorstep to perform the exorcism. From there, it becomes a battle of wills between the (presumably) possessed Regan and the two priests, one frail and elderly, the other still faith-challenged.
Looking back, it's hard to imagine, with the exception of one or two scenes, viewers being shocked, repulsed, or terrified moviegoers. The Exorcist's makeup effects, parodied often over the last four decades, are almost risible by today’s standards (the 180-degree head turn is one classic example). That's not to say, however, that The Exorcist isn't a well-crafted, well-acted film. It is, thanks to high production values, naturalistic cinematography, or the performances, including Linda Blair as Regan (her demonic voice dubbed by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge). Lee J. Cobb (Twelve Angry Men) also acquits himself well as the potentially clichéd world-weary detective investigating a nearby murder.
Presumably a holdover from the novel, Lt. Kinderman’s subplot serves minimal dramatic purpose, other than to remind the audience that, in the real world, the death of a secondary character would lead to an investigation (again happening offscreen, but, in that case, most likely due to Blatty and Friedkin's decision to play their cards close to the vest as well as the need to retain sympathy for Regan). In a two-plus hour film with multiple protagonists, superfluous characters and subplots should have been kept to a minimum.
More importantly, Friedkin mishandles Regan's descent into demonic possession (or psychosis). The first clue that something may be wrong comes with Regan complaining to her mother about her bed shaking. This minor problem, which the audience doesn't see, almost immediately turns into Regan being subjected to the battery of tests by the neurologists. It's an abrupt transition, and fails to provide sufficient evidence of Regan's escalating condition or for the doctor's preemptive decision to begin testing her.
Is Regan possessed by the Devil, as seems to be the case early on, or a lesser demon, intent on causing mischief and anguish, but nothing more? The Exorcist leaves this question unanswered. More could have been done, either in the prologue or in later scenes with Merrin revealing his connection to the demon to Father Karras (alas, he doesn't). Critics and academics can point to subtext in discussing The Exorcist (e.g., that Regan's possession is a metaphor for adolescence, with parents losing control of their children, or more darkly, of the fears and anxieties tied to female sexuality), but not why Regan was specifically chosen by this particular demon.
Despite its weaknesses, The Exorcist exhausted tales of demonic possession. William Peter Blatty's novel and script are as definitive as they come. The combination of characters, “slow-burn” storyline, realistic (for the time, anyway) makeup and special effects, and visual imagery (the iconic poster image of Father Merrin arriving to perform the exorcism, inspired by the 1954 painting "L'Empire des lumières" by René Magritte, is only one of many associated with The Exorcist), has yet to be equaled.For the director’s cut (a.k.a. "The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen") released in 2000, Friedkin added 10 minutes of material cut for the 1973 release, including the much-talked about scene of Regan's "spider walk" down a flight of stairs, and included subliminal flashes of a demonic face/gargoyle. The additional footage slows down an already deliberately paced film to a crawl. The only plus to be found here is in the pristine transfer that makes "The Exorcist" look like a newly released film.
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originally posted: 10/16/05 14:59:02