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The Exorcist (1973)

by on 2010/10/26

In the times before I brought my coffee geekdom in-house, I’d often visit a local Starbucks.  There a weathered grey gentleman sat in silence, poring over old leather-bound books, scratching notes on a pad.  He worked there often, reading and writing in symbols I imagined stood for some long-forgotten wisdom.  By his actions he was reconnecting with old truths, working diligently (religiously, if you will) to discover, interpret, and codify something of scholarly value, perhaps an ephemeral necessity.

I expected something of that sort from the opening act of The Exorcist, with its archaeological setting, careful pace of discovery, and scholars as likely to gather dust as brush it off their unearthings.

How very wrong I was.

Like most movie fans, I’d heard the notorieties . . . the head-twisting, spider-walking, pea-soup gushing lot.  Those expectations caused me some confusion early on as I shifted my mind into a Raiders by way of Arabia mode.  The scene soon changed, however, into the domestic drama of a single mother and daughter.  And then I grew apprehensive, long before the threatened spinning and spewing, because if anything unnerves me, it’s not a spirit, demon, or devil, it’s the suffering of children.  But rest assured (or not) for this enterprise is possessed of suffering enough for all.

Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is a priest burdened with religious doubt, a family crisis, and insufficient funds to salve either one.  Whereas the introduction’s archaeologist, Father Lankester Merrin (Strange Brew’s Max von Sydow) is the weaker physically, Karras is more of a spiritual risk.  Hanging in the balance between them is the fate of twelve year old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair).  The daughter of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), her innocent eccentricities gradually pile up into something more sinister than growing pains.  What begins as an imaginary friend, sleepwalking, and forgetting to close her window will eventually lead to medication, some surgery, and psychiatry.  When those solutions fail, the exorcism of an evil spirit becomes the last resort.

Despite the small pool of major players, the characterizations leave something to be desired.  For example, the relationship between the mother and daughter is rich with convincing grace notes, but undermined by cumbersome flaws.  On the plus side, what child — current or former — can’t relate to the actions which illustrate their family?  Regan says thoughtless things without quite knowing why, pretends to be asleep when kissed goodnight, and sneaks into Chris’ bed before dawn.  Unfortunately other decisions mar the portrayal, like the mother’s condescension and the daughter’s Pollyannaism.  When they actually communicate aloud they’re less convincing as characters than when they simply emote.

Does Chris’ vocation suggest the end result of — or reason for — her shallow moodiness?  If her awkwardness is intended to demonstrate an overworked parent’s unfamiliarity with their rarely-seen child, shouldn’t the daughter demonstrate some resentment?  Though Regan’s sickly sweetness might throw her own metamorphosis into stark contrast, it fails as reason enough to sympathize with a mother who is otherwise frankly unpleasant.  If the dialogue and its performance are intentionally twee to stand in relief with the darkness to follow, then it all feels heavy-handed.  Yes, movies are contrivance but, like a master illusionist, shouldn’t the successful ones hide it?

My intention here is not to attack the performances of Blair and Burstyn.  These issues appear throughout.  If I may be as forthright as The Exorcist is not, this effort’s principal failing is its inconsistency.  While one could argue bipolarity fits the “good versus evil” nature of the material, it also makes the viewing experience less uneasy than uneven.  More examples:  the narrative doesn’t so much pivot and evolve as abandon one line in favour of another, characters and subplots appear and disappear without appreciable contribution to the main story, and the elements of individual threads suffer for the jarring quirks of script and delivery.

These elements all dilute and distract from the matters at hand.  In one circuitous subplot, a lonely cinephile (Lee J. Cobb) investigates a death in the MacNeils’ neighbourhood, adding much Columbo quirk and little real substance in the process.  In another scene, two high level clergymen engage in a thoroughly unnecessary (and dramatically unconvincing) discussion.  Among other trivialities, they inform us a prior exorcism done in Africa “damn near killed” its practitioner.  Its inclusion ostensibly serves to involve Father Merrin but comes long after his original introduction and portentous declaration that “There is something I must do.”

Exactly what he must do is no endeavour for the squeamish, for the gore is plentiful, though the makeup and effects are less disturbing than the ideas.  That said, some of those ideas are less controversial now than they would have seemed in 1973.  Harder to overlook — and more off-putting for their crass shock value than any meaningful provocation — are scenes like the one in which Regan, cursing a blue streak, violently penetrates herself with a crucifix, before forcing her mother’s face into her bleeding lap.  Rather than suggesting the dangers of possession or demonstrating the corruption of an innocent, such impulses call to mind a hard-of-thinking prankster, desperate for attention, and trying every trick in the book to get it.

Truly interesting ideas are few and far between.  Aside from impish vulgarity, the remaining tactics are banal:  mysterious noises, sudden darkness, lights flaring, and the standard juggling of a poltergeist.  Still, if I take umbrage with its more extreme attempts, I’d be disingenuous to knock it unduly for a reliance on horror cliches.  While conventional they are also well executed, building suspense and preparing us for a monumental reckoning . . . though one which unfortunately never manifests in a satisfying way.  Renowned critic Roger Ebert, as I have noted on occasion, is disappointed by pieces which devolve into physical combat when they might have resolved in a clash of ideals.  Well the denouement in The Exorcist proves far less effective than either.

(Spoiler begins.  Highlight to read.)

The climactic battle of invisible wills and rote recitation is astoundingly uninvolving.  Like a sheriff standing outside a locked door, reading an eviction notice aloud, the tag team sermonizing is not particularly interesting and, unlike a bog standard fist fight, has no visceral energy.  Some religious conviction may enhance its impact but, if you weren’t already a believer, hearing “The power of Christ compels you!” repeated more than a dozen times won’t likely win you over.  When the “conflict” finally ends, the twist feels like a perfunctory cheat with no convincing motivation and little effort in staging for impact.

I have heard the ending is deliberately ambiguous, that predisposition will inform interpretation.  Ironically (given my criticisms) I saw it as hopeful.  Still, a single moment of light is insufficient reward for the preceding morass of dark.

(Spoiler ends.)

Some people believe art is intended to elicit a response . . . any response.  In the case of art as entertainment, however, I need that response to be something other than oppression.  A slow-going numbness is not what I pay for.  While my own estimation is not far from that of its contemporary critics, The Exorcist has steadily grown in stature.  I braced myself for the so-called “scariest movie of all time” and found myself waiting in vain.  As much as I wanted to join in the celebration of a classic film, I discovered only inconsistent adequacy.

* * *

Rated R for adult situations, frightening scenes, language, and violence

122 minutes (Original 1973 Theatrical Feature version)

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