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Why The Exorcist is a horror classic

The ExorcistFor this month’s column, I am going to write the first of an occasional series on favourite films, books or other items which have influenced me in some way, genre-wise at least. To kick it all off, I’ll be talking about one of my favourite films: no, not Hellraiser (although that is a favourite and will no doubt be touched upon at some point in this column), but The Exorcist.

Much has been said, and will continue to be said, about this (in)famous film. Released in 1973 and directed by William Friedkin with screenplay by William Peter Blatty adapted from his 1971 book, and starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and Linda Blair (as the possessed Reagan), it caused something of a sensation with the cinema-going public of the time. Reviews were quite mixed upon initial release, however over the years the critical reception has more or less consolidated into it being considered a classic, with some even saying that it’s still one of the most terrifying horror films of all time as well as being one of the best horror excursions ever committed to celluloid. Over and above that, the film poster, with Max von Sydow standing in the beam of a streetlight looking up at a first floor window of a fog-wreathed house, has itself become a powerful visual icon.

I first saw the film in the late 80s, at a time when the film was unavailable in the UK. In 1984, the Video Recordings Act had been enacted in the wake of concern about the so-called ‘video nasties’, leading to a whole raft of films being banned. Many people believe that The Exorcist is one of those films, but in fact Warner Brothers had released it uncut for home video in 1981, but when the Video Recordings Act was implemented the studio decided against submitting it to the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). In other words, the film never made it to the notorious ‘video nasty’ list, the studio itself making it unavailable.

We all know, however, that effectively banning something only glamorises it and serves to pique people’s interest. In the case of many of the films on the list, the reasons for banning them were quite laughable as the films were extremely risible. A mystique had built up around The Exorcist, however, and I was determined to procure a copy from somewhere. And procure a copy I did, through the services of a video search service in North Wales called Video Vultures – I also remember paying a great deal of money for it as well.

It’s very much a film of its time, and also seems to be a transition between the gaudy Hammer-type films of the sixties and early seventies, and the gory excesses of the eighties. If you’re looking for high-octane occult thrills and massive amounts of blood and guts, then the film isn’t for you. It’s a very quiet film, the tension up being built up slowly and gradually, and deliberately steering away from sensationalising its subject matter. The fight with evil is fought mostly off camera, where we can’t see it: we only see the effects it has on little Reagan, her mother and those around her. It does contain some pretty graphic scenes, the projectile vomit and the head-twisting segments being the most famous, but in some respects the shock isn’t because of the graphic nature of these scenes but the fact that it’s a young girl who’s undergoing it all.

An aspect of the film which is often missed is that Blatty is a deeply religious man and, despite it being almost universally categorised as a horror film, it’s also a deeply religious film. I’ve read much about The Exorcist over the years (much of it forgotten by this old brain of mine) but I seem to remember that the basis of the book and film was to warn people about the realities of demonic possession (Blatty’s novel was itself based on a ‘real-life’ incident, the Roland Doe case of 1949). The film was meant to be seen as a propaganda piece, hopefully leading people back to the Church. I also seem to recall that the Catholic Church was quite heavily involved in its production, and in fact some of the priests in the film are actual priests. Parallel to the idea that demonic possession is a very real and serious matter is the subtext that science doesn’t have the answers to everything – certainly one of the most incongruous moments in the film is when a specialist suggests an exorcism, albeit couched in secular scientific terms, in other words that the ‘victim’ believes so strongly in possession that only something commensurate will cure them. It appears that sometimes you just have to resort to some of that old-time religious exorcism in order to sort things out.

Of course, expectation sometimes magnifies and glorifies in unrealistic ways. That could certainly be said about The Exorcist. If you’ve been used to watching films produced in what I call the ‘Wham! Bam!’ school of filmmaking then you will definitely be disappointed. To show you what I mean, just after I acquired it I showed to a group of friends, all of whom were a few years younger than me. They hated it because it was too slow, with ‘nothing much’ happening in it. But this is the very reason why I love it: it’s subtle and underplayed, focusing on human relationships, uncertainties and frailties, rather than on the sensationalist aspects (although there are plenty of shock moments). The tension is gradually piled up layer upon layer, shifting the emphasis from the medically plausible explanation to the scientifically heretical notion very subtly that it is indeed a ‘real’ demonic possession. The latter is made even more starkly heretical because it’s happening in the modern period, not the medieval. It’s telling us that evil will always be with us, no matter how advanced we may become as a species or culture.

Consequently, for me, it’s masterful filmmaking, although even I will admit that it’s a tad overlong perhaps. The misdirection is handled expertly, especially in the ‘rats in the attic’ scene. The effects are excellently constructed, bringing a level of realism that was hitherto missing from horror cinema. It’s also a very human story, playing on all our fears about the unknown and that which we are still trying to explore in our consensual reality. The film seeks to undermine our perceptions and our sense of what is real in a sideways fashion, pulling the rug from under everything we know or believe to be true. Nevertheless, one would have to acknowledge that it would probably never receive the green-light in today’s Hollywood, with its current diet of rapid jump-cuts and explosions – its geologically-slow pace would ensure it would die a slow death at the hands of the public, if not the studio executives first.

The reasons why it wouldn’t fare particularly well in the cinematic climate of today are what draw me to it. The subject matter is one of those things that, at heart, we are all afraid of – being possessed by something other than ourselves, or descending into a type of reality-bending madness over which we have no control. We all like to think we are masters of our own destiny, but The Exorcist touts the idea that perhaps there are forces outside of us which seek to undermine us as individuals (and consequently society at large). In the political climates pertaining in certain countries today, that subtext has an alarming resonance and solidity. In addition, it’s that slow-burn build-up which invests the whole affair with the power and strength it undoubtedly possesses – one can imagine that in real life, possession wouldn’t necessarily manifest itself suddenly and dramatically, but instead be a subtle invasion of mind and body. Above all, this is a thoughtful and intellectual film, with a vein of solid and relevant subtext running through it – something which Hollywood no longer seem capable of producing.


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1 comment

  1. Good article, as usual. I’ve been meaning to watch The Exorcist again for a while. I respect it as a piece of seminal film-making, but for some reason it doesn’t quite disturb me in the way it should. I find the film sad and in some scenes unintentionally amusing, and I’m not a sick-minded individual. The propaganda element is very to the fore and I’ve often puzzled over my reaction. I’ll admit I don’t quite ‘get it’. I can see how you’re saying the film proposes that evil will always be with us, but then the human aspect of the film is rather weak – a hysterical mother, a doubting, ineffectual priest… and a demon with a twisted sense of humour. Something in the balance has always struck me a little ‘off’, because there are no heroes, only victims. Maybe that’s the point. Still, I do regard it as a classic and I loved reading about the making of the film in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Thanks for the read.

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