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One of my Favourites… The Exorcist

Hype is a dangerous thing. It can ramp up expectations to unreachable levels, and leave us feeling disappointed with something that was merely good and not “THE BEST THING EVER”. Hype is detrimental to the movie going experience more often than not, and so I try to ignore it as much as possible.

But how do you ignore legend?

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (based on William Peter Blatty’s novelisation of a real case) was released in 1973 to more than hype. The stories of audiences vomiting, crying, breaking down, and passing out from absolute terror cemented the film’s reputation as the most frightening movie ever made. It became legendary. So much so that it was commonly agreed upon that it was the scariest film ever by people who hadn’t even seen it. Its reputation alone scared people.

How can a film, viewed now, forty one years later, compete with that kind of legendary status? Can it compete?

Short answer: No. Not really.

The only way the film could live up to its reputation is if you literally shit your pants whilst watching. Or you flat out die. That won’t happen (probably). It’s strange to think of that not happening as a bad thing, but back when I first watched The Exorcist, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that I hadn’t messed myself out of gut churning, bowel loosening terror. I’m sure many people reacted the same way.

But I gave the film some time and space and came back to it. The iconic scenes, the spinning head, projectile vomit, etc, are indelible moments of cinema, once seen (or even heard about) never forgotten. You go into a film, particularly a horror film, already knowing its biggest scares, reveals, plots, beats, whatever, and they can’t possibly have the same effect on you they would have if unexpected. They just can’t. You prepare yourself and are ready for them. But, and this is where The Exorcist proves its genius, when I watched the film again, I was so focused on the big moments, so ready for them, that the smaller, less memorable ones crept up on me and buried themselves under my skin. It was like watching a completely different movie. The first time around I didn’t vomit or pass out, which is what the legend surrounding the film told me I would do, and so I wrote off its ability to unnerve me completely. I let my guard down. And it was then, in my relaxed state, that it got me good.

The film opens in Northern Iraq as Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) unearths a strange little trinket during an archaeological dig. The cracking of rocks under pickaxes ring out. The gusting wind obscures dialogue. Everything is too loud. The cacophony irritates. The volume remains heightened throughout the film and never lets your nerves settle. Something clatters about in the attic of the MacNeil household. Leaves rustle along the streets of Georgetown unnaturally loudly. Honking, screeching traffic is a constant. The score is odd and eerie. Not just the iconic Tubular Bells, but the accompanying avant-garde sound scape of pieced together noise. By the time Merrin stares up at the demonic statue, set to a sound track of howling dogs, the constant barrage of noise has me on edge. The mood is set, and I’m deeply uncomfortable.

The thing about the film I so often forget is how long it takes to get to the actual exorcism. Over an hour is spent getting to know the central characters. We follow Father Karras (Jason Miller) as he loses both his mother and his faith. We meet Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) on the set of her latest movie, and watch her interact with her difficult director. We experience what life is like at home for young Regan MacNeil (the fantastic Linda Blair), Chris’s sweet but lonely daughter. Nothing scary happens for so long that it actually becomes frightening. We know something terrible is coming, we’ve prepared ourselves for it, but the longer it takes to happen the bigger the knot gets in our stomachs. And all the while there is that constant background noise, retaining the tension.

Finally Regan starts acting strangely. At first it’s just behaviour that is a little out of character. Lying, bad language, that sort of thing. The doctors give a number of possible explanations. But she keeps getting worse. So they conduct some more intrusive tests. Regan gets strapped into and put under numerous large medical machines. All of which grind and scream. These scenes are actually some of the most disturbing in the film. We feel Regan’s discomfort because we’ve gotten to know her. We like her, and our discomfort only grows as hers does. We also understand Chris’s frustration at these tests lack of results. Nothing is helping, and seems to only be worsening Regan’s condition. It is here the film offers us a slight insight into what it must be like living with and caring for someone with mental illness when treatment offers no respite. Chris’s exhaustion and desperation is palpable.

Once the Demon inside Regan makes itself known the film’s most famous moments of physical and mental degradation come thick and fast. These are the scenes we are prepared for. But on this watch through they elicit a different reaction. On my first viewing I was so aware of what these scenes did to the audience (the crying and fainting) that my attention was on myself and how I responded to it. I was watching the film at a remove. I was wrapped up in myself rather than in the film and characters, and so the effect was diluted. But when re-watching the film I didn’t anticipate a reaction in myself, and so fully focused on what was happening to the characters. As a result I fully felt their horror.The moment Father Karras sees his mother, tiny, frail, and drained of colour, sat up on Regan’s bed, my whole body went cold. Chris’s screams, the demon’s vulgar profanities, Regan’s numerous bodily fluids, Karras and Merrin’s ineffective shouts of “The power of Christ compels you”, it all piles on top of you and you need it to stop. The film’s carefully engendered atmosphere of utter dread never lets up and it is here that we reach breaking point. My stomach felt cold and tight. The muscles in my face ached from wincing. By the time it was all over, I was completely drained. A whimpering wreck in need of a drink.

It was the total opposite of how I felt after watching it initially. The film failing to live up to expectations first time around allowed me to get into the correct mind set to really appreciate it on the second go through. For me (and the fault was with me, never the film) The Exorcist had to fall short of its legend in order to surpass it.

A true masterpiece that stands alone in the genre.

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