The Exorcist (1973)
written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel
directed by William Friedkin
Rating: 3.5 / 4
In 2000 The Exorcist was named the scariest film in history by a wide margin. I agree. Maybe it’s no longer the one movie that makes you jump out of your seat the most (it still kind of does). But it’s definitely the most disturbing.
The first time I saw it was in 2000, when Warner Brothers released the director’s cut. Even though it scared me, what really struck me was its sheer audacity. The Exorcist has scenes that no director would dare shoot today.
An example? The protagonist is a teenage girl who at one point masturbates with a crucifix – the demon inside is essentially raping her – until she’s bleeding. The girl then grabs her mother by the head and smears blood from her vagina all over her face. This is a brutal scene. Unpleasant, bloodcurdling… and impossible to repeat. It could’ve been done in the 70’s, but not today. I came out of the theater thinking, “These people really had guts. It will never be done again.” Better yet, you don’t get the feeling that it’s just for shock. Moments like this one make sense and serve a deeper meaning within The Exorcist.
The second time I saw the film was a couple of weeks ago, at home. It scared me again. Once more I was impressed by its audacity. But something new happened: I identified deeply with the mother’s distress. I didn’t have any children in 2000. Now I have a nine-year-old daughter… a beautiful and smart epileptic girl who suffers horrible convulsions maybe six times per month. But more on this later.
In The Exorcist, a sweet twelve-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair) starts to display aggressive and self-destructive behavior. Her single mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous divorced actress. She looks to modern medicine for help, but a battery of specialists can’t figure out what’s going on. Regan gets worse rapidly. It’s not about belligerent conduct anymore. Things start happening that border on the supernatural. Tied to her bed, Regan contorts her hair and body in ways no one can. Her voice changes. Her bed seems to jump up and down. Her bedroom turns cold. The desperate agnostic mother follows the advice of the doctors and turns to the Catholic Church. She convinces them to give her daughter an exorcism. And what follows is the most terrifying and agonizing battle between “good” and “evil” ever put on film.
The Exorcist is not just a classic horror movie. It still remains valid today. And if you don’t focus on the surface (its once great special effects seem somewhat cheesy now), if you understand the characters’ motivations, then The Exorcist will shock you. Horror is just the chosen vehicle for the film, but not the whole package.
What follows are some of the things I personally see go beyond The Exorcist’s film conventions. Of course, it’s just my personal opinion and not an exhaustive or objective summary.
– The Exorcist and history:
The movie is based on the real exorcism case of a fourteen-year-old boy in 1949. The director, William Friedkin, and the writer, William Peter Blatty, insist that everything we see in the film is based on eyewitness accounts of that and other exorcisms. But the truth is that the “evidence” around exorcisms is only anecdotal. As Carl Sagan would say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and testimonies are simply not enough. Having said that, the sheer power of the film remains intact.
– The Exorcist and special effects:
The Exorcist has one big problem, the same that happens to every movie which relies too heavily on the technical advances of its era. In the 1970’s, people would laugh at the makeup and special effects of movies that forty years earlier caused audiences to leave theaters in a panic, such as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). The same happened in 1973 during showings of The Exorcist, but today some of its special effects seem a bit humorous. The bed that shakes, the gyrating neck, the reptilian tongue, levitation and demonic makeup… they’re just not as effective anymore. But the forcefulness of the story, the acting and directing, continue to impress.
– The Exorcist, faith, and medicine:
In The Exorcist, when Regan starts to display symptoms that seem to indicate something’s wrong (one wonders if it could it be the stress of her parents’ separation), her mother takes her to the doctor. After a couple of minor exams, the doctor prescribes some pills and tells the mother not to worry. The mother asks the most basic and intelligent question a mother could ask: How? The scene reminded me of one of those moments where doctors, in perhaps an honest but superficial attempt at reassurance, end up displaying a total lack of empathy.
The girl doesn’t get better. The doctors diagnose epilepsy. They subject Regan to more tests, each one worse than the last. Her mother pleads hysterically with the doctors to come to the house so they can see the full extent of her daughter’s transformation. The physician in charge does, and Regan attacks him with superhuman strength. Now the medical field realizes this is not a case of convulsions or maladjustment. This is something that goes beyond their expertise. They recommend that the mother request an exorcism for the girl, not because they believe in the power of religion, but because they figure mental suggestion may help cure her.
So on one level The Exorcist is a critique of modern western medicine, interested in treating the illness and not the patient, unwilling to listen to the parents who are, after all, the ones who know something’s wrong. And on another, it’s a critique of the Catholic Church. There’s a fascinating moment in the film when Father Carras (Jason Miller), the first priest who attempts to help Regan (the real exorcist will come later), comes up with a simple test. He sprays her with “holy” water, and the girl (or perhaps the demon within) reacts violently, screaming that it burns. But later, the priest informs us that the water wasn’t blessed at all, which means that the Church will not authorize an exorcism. In other words, the priest has done a scientific experiment to determine if the possession is real. In essence, the Church has resorted to the scientific method, using “holy” water as its tool. Wow! Absurd, and yet that’s the way it happens in reality.
In the end, Regan will not be helped by either science nor religion. Both are equally at a loss. The only thing that can save her is the self-sacrifice of a human being: Father Carras, a man who represents the Church but who no longer believes in it. He may have lost his faith in the institution, but not in his fellow man. And he becomes the unlikely hero of the film.
– The Exorcist and life:
My daughter suffers from grand mal seizures. When she convulses, it looks as if something has gotten inside her body and is moving it around. I know it’s not a spiritual problem. It’s neurological, and in her case it can’t be controlled (most of the time anti-epileptic drugs can help the patient, but she hasn’t been that lucky).
I know what it feels like to spend months watching my daughter transform into something that wansn’t her, with no one able to explain what was happening. It took the doctors three months to diagnose her with “just epilepsy,” and the tests she had to go through – and still goes through – are not a lot of fun.
It doesn’t surprise me that, for centuries, epileptic people with grand mal seizures were victims of witch hunts. Every time my daughter suffers from one, her face gets disfigured as if someone was stretching her muscles with invisible wires. Her eyes turn upward. Her extremities become rigid and shudder in a way no one could control voluntarily.
Being the father of a daughter with epilepsy and seeing how the doctors couldn’t help or even understand what I was going through made me identify with Regan’s mother. In a way, it also made me appreciate the suffering I went through watching The Exorcist for the second time. Any father (and I suppose, even more, every mother) will immediately empathize with Chris’ plight, although having a child – epileptic or not – is certainly not a requirement to “enjoy” the story.
If you haven’t seen it… do it now. If you have… do it again. You will find in your next visit that The Exorcist is much more than a simple horror film. It’s a story about faith, but not religious in any sense. It’s faith in the hope that good will triumph over evil. In that sometimes we must do what’s right… even if it takes our lives.