GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (USA, 1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair 

IMDb Top 250 - #206 (12/6/13)

This is the 400th film I have reviewed since joining Rotten Tomatoes in 2009. You can find all my rating and reviews, both pre- and post-blogs, here:

When something is billed as being the scariest film of all time, it's already setting itself up for a fall. Being scared is an entirely subjective experience: what will leave one person catatonic with terror would have almost no effect on another - worse still, they might even laugh at it. The Exorcist still has much to offer in the ideas it raises, or the performances through which they are raised, but after 40 years of iconic pop culture status, it's nothing like as scary as once it was.
Much like its cult contemporary The Wicker Man, there are whole sections of The Exorcist which don't feel like a horror movie at all. It spends a lot of its running time as a mystery film or character drama, and only truly becomes a horror film in its last couple of reels. Both films seek to create unease through a series of strange events, which arouse our suspicions while also leaving the possibility that we are just being paranoid. But for all its odd diversions into musical and comedy territory, Robin Hardy's film is the more effectively unnerving.
The reason for this lies in the director's sensibility. Throughout his career William Friedkin has been a film-maker who has confounded expectations, in ways both good and bad. He has always made the films he wants, just the way he wants them, and to be a true Friedkin fan we have to totally buy into these unusual creative decisions. But where Hardy's juxtapositions in The Wicker Man actually contribute to the unnerving atmosphere by throwing us off the scent, Friedkin's choices feel more archly choreographed, like he is toying with us often at the expense of the film's content.
This practice of counterpointing the serious and the frivolous can be seen at the beginning of The French Connection. We are introduced to Popeye Doyle, one of the roughest, toughest, hardest detectives in film history - and one of his first scenes involves him busting a drug dealer while wearing a Santa outfit. Likewise, in The Exorcist, Friedkin shoots one of the main conversations about the ethics of exorcism in front of some nubile young ladies playing tennis. In both cases the juxtaposition makes the film memorable, but it also offsets and compromises the intended mood; we might remember it, but there's no guarantee that we'll remember it fondly.
Because of its iconic status, it's very hard to judge The Exorcist impartially. Most new viewers will be aware of some aspect of its legacy, whether it's the infamous spider-walk (cut from the original version), Regan's head spinning all the way round, the levitating bed, or the opening theme of Tubular Bells (which barely appears at all). There is a real danger of judging the film by its reputation, rather than actually seeing if it works plain and simple as a film. The only way to do this is to look at its different components in turn, assessing its technical strengths and the ideas it seeks to raise.
Whatever Friedkin chooses to fill his scenes with, The Exorcist is a good-looking film, at least for the time. Owen Roizman collaborated with Friedkin on The French Connection, and would later shoot The Stepford Wives, Network and Tootsie - in short, he knows what he's doing. His use of shadows is very effective, particularly in the exterior scenes around the Georgetown steps and the corners of Chris and Regan's house. Some shots are overly static, lending the film a creaky feel, but it never feels like the cinematographer is trying to impose himself or a given genre onto the story.
The film also has a very good cast, many of whom have become icons of the horror genre. Linda Blair is magnificent in her most famous role, drawing us in with the sweetness and innocence of Regan, and then freaking us out as this part of her is steadily drained and corrupted, before finally being rediscovered. Jason Miller is great as Father Karras, using his slumped shoulders and the lower part of his face to convey the burden on the troubled priest. Max von Sydow has a good amount of gravitas as Father Marin, and Ellen Burstyn rounds the cast out nicely as Chris McNeil, though she can be annoying at times.
The ideas raised in The Exorcist remain hugely controversial, particularly in this age of increased public scepticism and a heightened awareness of church scandal and corruption. Its main idea is that there can be discernible, physical proof of the existence of good and evil, and that faith is a powerful and important means of combatting the latter. While many film villains are built around and ultimately explained through trauma and psychology, Pazuzu is far more intangible, and the film offers few answers about his origins, motivations or eventual fate.
The four main characters are arranged on a spectrum according to the extent of their faith, and in what force they chose to believe. Chris has no faith, referring to priests as "witch-doctors" when the idea of an exorcism is first floated. She spends the film is a state of desperation, barely clinging on, and arguably the only reason she survives is because the demon did not target her initially.
Karras wears the cloth but is troubled by the death of his mother; the demon exploits his insecurity, and only when faced with the reality of his own death does he fully commit, and in doing so save Regan. Marin's faith is rock-solid: previous experiences with exorcism, coupled with a life spent in the service of God, have completely removed his fear of death. In the middle of all this is Regan, the unfortunate innocent who is not yet capable of understanding the forces warring over her soul. We could spend an age discussing the role and purpose of her suffering in a theological context, but the debates are perhaps too nuanced and complex for such a brief review.
The film also uses Chris' scepticism as a means of exploring the position accorded to medicine in Western society. So much of the discourse around science concerns its place in a grand narrative, moving humanity out of superstition and into a place where we know all the answers. But Chris is ultimately just as shaky and insecure in the doctors' keeping as she is with the priests. The fear of the unknown still dogs her, and the emphasis we place on science and reason is not proof that evil doesn't exist, nor an effective means to combat it when it manifests itself.
The central problem with The Exorcist is that it fails to manifest these fascinating ideas in a way which can genuinely terrify an audience. Giving evil physicality is an interesting idea, and it's easy to appreciate the craft that went into Dick Smith's make-up. But the film becomes reliant on these physical effects to such an extent that the atmosphere built up in its early sections is compromised. It's not a shock-fest, but it isn't as intimidating as it should be.
When he made Rosemary's Baby five years previously, Roman Polanski very consciously played on the characters' surroundings to increase the tension. By emphasising the intimidating architecture of Rosemary's flat and the apartment complex as a whole, he created a sense of the whole world being against her even before the devil worshippers were introduced.
The Exorcist has moments where it becomes visceral and very scary - one of the main ones being where Regan is under medical examination. But these moments are interspersed with long sections of rudderless calm, so that when the scares intrude, they seem like more of a gimmick than was ever intended. You will be scared at some point watching the film, but Friedkin never quite achieves the level of unrelenting terror that Polanski created. There's something not quite right when a story driven by the Devil's influence isn't constantly intimidating.
The Exorcist is an intelligent and interesting horror movie which is more successful as a series of theological problems than as a means to be constantly scared. The cast and production values are very solid, and its ideas are well-formed without being neatly resolved - it just isn't scary enough to match the standard laid down by Polanski or his predecessors. In the end, the film is a must-see but not a must-love, and is by no means Friedkin's finest hour.


NEXT REVIEW: The Great Gatsby (2013)