The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Playing at midnight:
Friday, March 16 and Saturday, March 17
The innocuous “Exorcist steps” in Georgetown (now located next to a gas station) have become a horror cultural landmark thanks to The Exorcist (1973). The site where Father Damian Karras, possessed by Satan, lays dying after throwing himself out the window has become a touchstone space for the horrific amidst the everyday. And really, this conflation of normality with inexplicable evil is at the heart of the success and the fear of this film. The Exorcist, adapted from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, rides a wave ignited by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 where audiences get their first taste of post-modern horror; a horror that turns away from outer-space and outlandish monsters and turns inward towards a world in which our own home, neighbors, family members and friends can become deadly.
Of course this twist in everyday life is compounded with The Exorcist’s destablization of the traditional family, mainly in its expression of the absent father. First is the absent father of Regan (Linda Blair). A famous actress, her mother Chris O’Neal (Ellen Burstyn) must balance being both the caretaker and breadwinner for her family, ultimately fighting a demon. Bear in mind that both Regan and Chris have very male names. Second is the absence of Father Karras (Jason Miller) in the life of his aging mother. The guilt over her death drives him to a crisis of faith. The third, and perhaps most significant, is the looming absence of the Holy Father. God is neglectful in preventing and protecting an innocent child from Evil as much as he is exiled by Father Karras’ newfound unbelief.
Exploding this societal ingrained belief in the family structure is a strategy that seems to frighten The Exorcist audiences most. Add to this the exploitation of an innocent child by a malevolent force and you have one universally scary picture on your hands. Director William Friedkin’s documentary approach to the material directly confronts the audience and enhances the irrational fear that this could happen to me!
While widely considered one of the most frightening films ever made, The Exorcist is a very mainstream movie that bears little resemblance to the more experimental horror flicks being produced around the same time: Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Bob Clark’s Dead of Night (1974), etc. These unrestrained films literally eviscerated anything and anyone, at any time. In comparison, it is a Hollywood film, earning a whopping eleven Academy Award Nominations (the other horror film to achieve similar insider accolades was Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs in 1991). So while it is somewhat progressive in its attack of the Church versus Science and in questioning faith, ultimately it shares a similarity with its horror predecessors (literature, theater, film) that also tackled this epic struggle.
That’s not to say that The Exorcist isn’t inventive. Or good. In fact, the opening sequence of Father Merrin (played by Bergman alum Max von Sydow) unearthing evil in the desert of Iraq is genuinely terrifying in both its foreignness and inevitability. We are assured something bad will happen. Also, its incredible sound design, score, and mutable color produces a beautiful film with many chills; few can escape the eerie shudder its famous theme song Tubular Bells evokes nearly thirty years later.
Having seen three ghosts of itself throughout the years, The Exorcist has become what Michael Arnzen calls the “restoration of the repressed”: the first being its original release in 1973 (the one Nitehawk will be showing), the second being a “Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition in 1998 with bonus DVD materials, and the third being the “The Version You’ve Never Seen” in 2000. Problematic in its re-consideration, this latest version re-introducing items from the novel that were intentionally left of the cutting room floor by Friedkin. Employing new marketing strategies to keep this film current with the times may be financially lucrative but, in the end, there is no need to update the narrative on something as universal and timeless as family (in whatever sense we want to consider that now) versus oppressive evil. This is the foundation of the horror genre and is why its relevance endures.