31 Days of Hell: The Exorcist

We review The Exorcist. But first, change your underpants. 

"Are you the bastard
that ate the last piece of pizza?"
Imagine all the pain, anguish and spiritual conflict of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman’s filmography crammed into one movie and you have a rough idea of what’s to come in The Exorcist.  A flawless masterpiece of unparalleled power and perfect union of horror with intellectual cinema that still manages to disturb and terrify, director William Friedkin’s world famous, Academy Award winning film of William Peter Blatty’s novel of demonic possession and exorcism reaches that rarely seen apex of mainstream Hollywood art.  

Based on the true story involving a young boy named Roland Doe in 1949 Georgetown, Washington D.C. (also the setting for the film though the gender of the victim was changed), nothing like it was seen before 1973 and the many imitators which continue to follow pale in comparison to the havoc wrought by Friedkin’s shock treatment.  One of the highest grossing and most controversial films of all time, The Exorcist has lost none of its potency in the 41 years since it was first unleashed onto unsuspecting and unprepared moviegoers.  No doubt one of the greatest films ever made and easily in this reviewer’s top 5 favorite films of all time, The Exorcist is that rare perfect film that can’t help but better with every viewing. 

"No. Turn that back on.
I love Slayer!"
What makes The Exorcist so deeply unsettling is how Friedkin addresses the material.  Beginning his career in documentaries before winning the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture with The French Connection, Friedkin applied an unfettered realism to the proceedings, both onscreen and behind the scenes with his toughness, short temper and extra miles he would cross professionally to achieve his vision.  Laden with ageless special effects wizardry to bring the MacNeil house to life with poltergeist activity and a gradual transformation of the pretty little girl into Satan himself, The Exorcist bloodies and bruises the viewer as well as its cast and crew.  The production itself is legendary due to the numerous mysterious deaths connected with the film, the state of the art visual effects being attempted, and the very real ordeal Friedkin put his actors through.  Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn both suffered back injuries due to technical mishaps involving special effects shots, and the famous shot of projectile vomit the possessed Regan fires at an unsuspecting Father Karras burned the actor’s face.  To startle the actors for particular shots, Friedkin brought shotguns onto the set and often fired them without warning.  The makeup work itself for Linda Blair was clearly taxing on the young actress with hours of latex application and contact lenses she could never adjust to.  To top it off, Regan’s demon-frozen bedroom set was refrigerated with air conditioners to a temperature of 50 degrees below zero while Linda Blair frolicked about the homemade arctic region in her blue nightgown.  Burstyn recalled the shoot as going ‘way beyond what anyone needs to do to make a movie’, and it shows. 

Equally striking is the use of sound and music, which goes from a deafening shriek to total silence at the drop of a hat.  Winning the Academy Award for Best Sound, The Exorcist contains some of the most original sound engineering in cinema history, from the Foley effects happening on set to the inhuman, asexual voice of the demon (provided by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge).  Reportedly composer Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry) was commissioned to do a score only to have it promptly rejected by Friedkin because of how much the music informed the viewer how to feel about the proceedings with standard horror cues.  Friedkin was so enraged by the score he took the tape off the recorder and threw it across the parking lot before someone picked it up off the pavement and repurposed it years later into 1979’s The Amityville Horror.  Inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Friedkin instead opted for preexisting avant-garde pieces of music, which ultimately left viewers alone and uncertain of how to process the incomprehensible events unfolding.  Among the composers Friedkin utilized was a Polish newcomer named Krzysztof Penderecki, whose starkly terrifying atonal music would become a staple in everything from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Peter Weir’s Fearless, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.  Not since the Hungarian composer Gy├Ârgy Ligeti’s shrieking monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has an avant-garde musician solidified himself into the public consciousness.  Equally iconic is the use of the New Age record Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, which lends a mixture of jazz and melancholy to the film as a whole. 

"I'd like to have a talk with you
about our lord and savior, SATAN!"
Ultimately, The Exorcist horrifies not because of the inexplicable metaphysical events happening onscreen, not because of the transgressive obscenities the possessed girl spews forth, but because it holds a mirror to mankind’s own hideousness and weakness.  In an iconic deleted scene (restored to the abysmal and unacceptable writer’s cut aptly named The Version You’ve Never Seen), post-exorcism priests Merrin and Karras muse about why the demon has selected a little girl for his dominion.  Merrin remarks the point is ‘to make us despair, to see ourselves as animal and ugly.  To reject the possibility that God could love us’.  Man’s capacity for evil and self-destruction is boundless, and the world of The Exorcist is cold and unforgiving.  And yet, in the midst of it all is also a possibility for love, devotion and redemption.  In the end, it’s unclear whether or not evil has triumphed over good and vice versa. But even foggier in clarity is how those of us left behind should deal with what we’ve seen and heard transpire.  Worse still than living on with the memory of the traumatizing experience is our inability to know where or when the unfathomable horrors will inevitably strike again.

-Andrew Kotwicki