Franchise Firsts: “The Exorcist” (1973)

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Let’s just get this out of the way: The Exorcist is the best horror film of all time. There. Now, onward.

I expected this film to be less impressive on my sixth viewing, or whatever this was. On the contrary: I noticed things I never caught before, nuances of acting and emotion and scene and stuff that made me have feelings. And here’s another point to get out in the open: not only do I regard this as the best horror film of all time, but as one of the most uplifting, hopeful movies ever made. Honestly. I’ll get to why in a moment, but let’s get all our cards on the table, n’cest pas?

The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, tells the story of Regan, the daughter of (fictional) famous actor Chris MacNeil. Since the plot of the film is mostly the same as the novel on which it’s based (though the details differ), I won’t waste time on it now: in lieu of that I’ll refer you to my review of the latter here. Instead I’ll focus on why, no joke, I actually cried a little on this most recent viewing.

In some ways this is a near-perfect film. Every frame is wonderfully composed, and while there’s some annoying camerawork by today’s standards, the cinematography still holds up. It is utterly complete, every detail accounted for, every scene significant: it is economical, spartan even, with nothing wasted, no throwaway dialogue, no unrelated scenes. That’s what caught me most by surprise on this viewing, in fact: how important every detail is. I didn’t realize, for example, that the iconic head-spinning scene was actually possessed Regan’s way of acknowledging that she killed Burke, the drunken British director, whose head was twisted around ninety degrees. I’d seen it half a dozen times before and never made the connection. I knew she did it, of course; but I didn’t realize that the answer to the infamous, “Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughting?” was, well, she killed the British guy. Likewise, I didn’t catch that Lt. Kinderman, the kindly cop played perfectly by Lee Cob, was doing something important when he commented on Regan’s cutesy clay sculptures (in the previous scene he’d discovered one such sculpture at the scene of Burke’s death). Chock it up to youthful stupidity; regardless, watching the film with fresh eyes revealed lots of new stuff.

The Exorcist also shines as an example of how uplifting horror can be. And I really mean that: it’s a battle with a terrible supernatural power and humans, though at a disadvantage, still have a chance. The themes are clear as crystal: the old priest, Lankester Merrin, encounters the Pazuzu statue and suddenly becomes intensely aware of the darkness and ugliness in the world. But though shaken, he’s not beaten by it. His resolve makes him the demon’s greatest adversary. Damien Karras, the young priest, has lost his faith and now can only see the evil in the world. He wants to do good but he’s disgusted by humanity, by people’s debasement of themselves and their places and their lives. Ironically the demon’s appearance saves his faith: by the end, he unquestionably believes. His seeming condemnation is actually his salvation, sort of. It’s beautiful, and you don’t need to be a religious person (I’m not) to experience a surge of what’s been called “the religious feeling” from this narrative.

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Nowhere, to my mind, does the movie assault the audience with pro-Christian messages: if anything there seems to be some commentary on the Catholic church’s backwardness and conservatism (one of the neurologists examining Regan makes a comment to this effect). But differences between dogmas become irrelevant in a world like the one proposed by The Exorcist, in which the supernatural is both real and threatening. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you worship in a church or a mosque or a synagogue or whatever: the MacNeills are themselves areligious, but their faith, or lack thereof, doesn’t seem to factor into Regan’s possession. What matters, the movie seems to say, is that there is a real spiritual evil and that only clarity of purpose and strength of character and, perhaps, faith in some equivalent spiritual good can combat it.

And best of all are the tiny human kindnesses, the warmth of the banter between Kinderman and Karras, and later Kinderman and Father Dyer (in the extended version), and Father Merrin’s unshakeable goodness. In one scene Kinderman visits the MacNeill’s house and, as he’s leaving, he tells Chris, “You’re a very nice lady.” She responds, “You’re a nice man.” In the midst of these awful events–Chris’ daughter has the devil in her; Kinderman is investigating Burke’s homicide, and he’s reluctant even to suggest that Regan could be responsible (though he’s clearly thinking it)–this simple exchange seemed so decent that it made me get a little teary this time around. Admittedly there was also wine, but still, it’s touches like this that make this film great.

Horror like this, stories of the supernatural where it is frightening but people can do something about it, are the ones that speak most to me as a dorky folklorist whose secret wish has always been to be a vampire hunter. But what do you think? Does The Exorcist deserve its iconic status?

After a review like that, if you can even call it a review, there’s only one score that’s appropriate.

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3 thoughts on “Franchise Firsts: “The Exorcist” (1973)

  1. You made some great points about the film and the details. A few times in past years I had seen parts of the film toward the end and it didn’t seem as scary as it did when I was younger. But I watched it recently from start to end and it was scary again. It seems to be that you have to watch the whole film to get the true experience of fright, which I guess is true of most films but even more important in this one. It’s the build up and even the quiet moments, the calms before each storm, that allow the greatest impact.

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