By John H. Foote
Horror remains subjective, like comedy the most personal of the film genres. What scares you might not scare me and so on and so on. When I was a boy the supernatural horror films from Universal frightened me, but not really because I knew under the make-up were actors. But with Psycho (1960) suddenly the killer, the monster was a boyish looking young man with a mother fixation. Later the monster would be a Nazi dentist in Marathon Man (1976) or cannibalistic serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Realistic horror works on me, that scares me. The two shooters in Elephant (2003), now that is terrifying, teenagers armed with mail order automatic weapons about to slaughter students and teachers remind each other to have fun before the carnage begins.
It was never the horrific make up, the projectile vomiting, levitating bed, swivelling head, or masturbating with a crucifix that scared me with The Exorcist.
Not the intensity of the language (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell Karras…”), nor the shocking moments of furniture moving as though at will, or the creepy atmosphere created by the director, Oscar winner William Friedkin.
No, it was the approach to that door.
We never knew what manifestation of evil might be presented to us on the other side of that door. That door held back nightmares, contained as best it could something sprung from Hell. The demon might appear as itself or take the form or voice of other characters from the film, often seen fleetingly.
When William Friedkin agreed to direct The Exorcist, he did so after winning the Academy Award as Best Director for his electrifying cop thriller The French Connection (1971) which revolutionized such films with its grim realism and near documentary feel. He would bring that same shockingly intense realism to The Exorcist, based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, who claimed the book was based on a real-life incident.
Perhaps what gave the film its authenticity was the fact that the Catholic Church believed in demonic possession, believed in exorcism. There is to this day a creed for The Rites to Exorcism in the massive Catholic Church handbook. The fact the Church, and such a powerful Church believed in demonic possession gave the film an added boost of authenticity. That seemed to lend a sense of credibility to the film, that this was not some Universal horror film based on supernatural stories from Europe or classic literature from the past. This was something the powerful Catholic Church believed in and some would say, feared. It is well known that deep in the Vatican library are accounts and books the public is not permitted to see, and it is believed among those papers are real accounts of demonic possession.
I was 14 the first time I saw the film, my dad took me because, one, he was super cool and two, he too was curious and knew I was dying to see it.
Friedkin went to every major actor and actress in movies and was turned down by them all. Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Burt Lancaster all turned the director down, none wanting to be associated with a horror film. Max Von Sydow however had no problem signing on to portray Father Merrin, the ancient priest, who had confronted this demon before, while Ellen Burstyn, fast on the rise, took the role of the mother of the afflicted child, essentially the lead, Chris. For the plum role of the tortured Father Karras, he went to Nicholson, Al Pacino, Martin Sheen and Robert De Niro but none were interested so he offered the part to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, a sometimes actor Jason Miller, who accepted.
Rounding out the cast was 12-year-old unknown, perky Linda Blair who was stepping into the most formidable role ever attempted by a child. Blair would portray Regan, the young pre-teen possessed by the devil, though her demonic voice would be provided by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge, best known as the doomed sister of Rock Hudson in Giant (1956).
Warner Brothers remained nervous about the film and initial screenings did nothing to alleviate their fears. The picture was unlike any horror film ever previously released, and with reason, the studio was nervous. Their fears were not unfounded as the first screenings terrified the audiences, but it was when critics saw the film the studio realized they might have lightning in a bottle. Greeted with excellent reviews, the film opened to thunderous success, as lines formed around the block to see the picture. What made this unique was that this was a horror film that was also a startling work of art.
The film sticks closely to the book, no surprise given the author wrote the script. The film opens in Iraq, where Father Merrin comes face to face with the statue of a dangerous demon he had once encountered, Pazuzu and who he realizes he is going to encounter again.
In Washington D.C. actress Chris McNeil is staying in the city while she shoots a new film. It is here she begins to notice changes in her young daughter Regan, which doctors cannot explain. Though do everything imaginable to find out what is happening, they come up with no answers. It is only when Regan’s appearance begins to change, her language becomes foul, and her strength increases. She complains that her bed shakes at night, something Chris witnesses, throwing herself on the bed and not only seeing it, but feeling it.
From there everything escalates very quickly, with Chris watching in horror as Regan masturbates with a crucifix in front of doctors and her mother, and hurls people across the room effortlessly. This sends Chris to a priest, the convicted Father Karras, who has recently lost his mother and is feeling the guilt over her death. Chris convinces Karras to see Regan and what we see when he first encounters her is shocking. Any sign of the happy, smiling child we were introduced too at the beginning of the film is gone, replaced by a horrific creature in a child’s body. Her face is a mass of open sores dripping with pus. Her eyes are watchful and filled with hate and her voice is not that of a pre-teen girl, but a low, guttural croak that is horrifying. She teases Karras, opening a drawer with her mind, suddenly with no warning sending a stream of vomit across the room at him, and mentioning his mother, whom Regan had never met or encountered. Though still not convinced it is a demonic possession, Karras is concerned enough to take to his superiors who suggest he contact the famous Father Lancaster Merrin.
The Exorcist arrives as the police close in on arresting Regan for the murder of the director of the film Chris was working on, the killing pieced together by the purely decent detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb).
Together, the two priests perform the exorcism, altering their lives forever more, restoring Karras’ faith but at a terrible cost.
While much was made of the brilliant make-up, visual and sound effects that brought the demon to life, critics could not deny the power of the performances of the actors. They gave the film a heart and soul, a terrific believability that it needed to make the narrative work.
Singled out were the non-actor, Jason Miller, superb as Father Damian Karras, tortured by his mother’s death and his tremendous guilt, left questioning his faith, yet never doubting he and Merrin could save the girl. Miller was intensely focused, present with each line reading, completely believable in every way. It was an extraordinary performance that should had led to a solid movie career, but sadly did not.
Ellen Burstyn was marvellous as the distraught Chris, desperate in her search for answers, refusing and terrified to believe the worst yet fearless to seek help for it. Burstyn goes much deeper than one expects with the role, fleshing out a genuinely frightened woman dealing with the unspeakable.
As Father Merrin, Swedish actor brings a regal presence to his role, a devout, purely decent man who wages war against evil, the worst kind of evil. Never through the torrent of actions the demon throws at Merrin does he waver, he moves forward and implores Damian to do the same. Having gone through exorcisms before, he knows what is coming and tries to warn the younger priest.
The finest performance in the film is Jason Miller as Father Karras, both priest and psychiatrist, struggling with his faith, struggling to save an innocent child. The look of absolute certainty on his face when asked if Regan is going to die and he answers firmly, confidently, “No”. There are moments that show Miller to be a first-time actor, but he overcomes everything to give a powerful, commanding performance.
And Linda Blair.
Perfect as the intelligent, mischievous Regan who before our eyes turns into this vile creature spit from the depths of hell. By the time the demon has full power, any trace of Regan is gone, no small feat because under that make-up was Blair. Yes, her voice as the demon was provided by McCambridge, a deep guttural series of croaks and raspy voiced sentences. A special Oscar should have been awarded McCambridge.
The images from The Exorcist are difficult to erase from memory.
Merrin face to face with the ancient statue of the demon in the Iraq desert; that shaking bed, rising and slamming back down effortlessly; Regan violently slamming a crucifix into her ruined vagina, then suddenly slamming back on the bed as her throat expands and her eyes roll white; Chris breaking down meeting Father Karras; the first time we see the demon totally manifested, strapped to the soiled bed; the fact we can see the breath of anyone in Regan’s bedroom; the obscenities spouting from its mouth, the most vile language; the projectile vomiting; Karras and Merrin walking with determination to that door; the exorcism itself, complete with levitating bed, Regan turning her head all the way around; Karras finding Merrin dead and making his final choice to save the girl, at the cost of his own life; The final moments of the young priests life; Regan, now healed, staring intently at the collar of a priest as she and her mother prepare to leave.
The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards after winning the Golden Globe four Best Picture (Drama). Among the nominations were Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (Miller) and Actress (Blair), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. It previously had been unheard of for a horror film to earn such favour with the fickle Academy. Of the ten awards it would win just two, for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Sound. There were no nominations for Visual Effects or Make-Up, a huge surprise.
That The Exorcist and American Graffiti lost to the very ordinary The Sting remains to the eternal shame of the Academy.
The film kicked off a resurgence in horror, which included a sequel, still the worst film I have ever seen.
The Exorcist remains a landmark, a moody, atmospheric horror film unlike any previous film ever made.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.