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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“The Exorcist” (1971; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2011)

It’s quite a cliche to snidely remark that the book was better than the movie. We’ve all done it at some point, I’m sure–and in many cases it’s true. The original work is usually the best; if it’s good enough to be adapted for new media, it doesn’t mean it will do well in a new medium. This is generally as true of cross-media adaptations as it is of remakes. There are exceptions, but they’re relatively few and far between (at least in horror).

Which is why it’s so weird that The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, the original novel on which the brilliant, seminal 1973 film is based, is simply not that great.

I’m assuming you’ve seen the film or at the very least are familiar with the general trajectory of the plot. It doesn’t take a lot to figure it out. There’s a demon, a girl gets possessed, priests perform an exorcism, a few folks die. There’s vulgarity and profanity and pea soup vomit everywhere. It’s a good time.

If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes to think about where you went wrong. Really reflect on it. I’ll wait.

The novel contains all the same narrative stuff as the film. The characters are all there, doing their thing. There’s the same Stephen King-esque focus on the grossification of the familiar. Much of it is brilliant, it’s true. The narrative walks the line between mystery/thriller/horror, and it illustrates why the supernatural is such a potent rhetorical tool. It comes off as what I can only call intelligently pro-Christianity. It’s not a preachy novel, and there’s a great deal of room for interpretation in terms of the cosmology Blatty establishes, but at the end, the priests are the good guys, Father Karras’ broken faith is, in the final moment, restored, and there is a cautionary message about the presence of evil in the world.

The story is brilliant in its simplicity and, despite the problems I’ll get into in a minute, it has quite an emotional impact. Really, it comes down to the difference between a good story and a good telling. Blatty’s story is excellent, but it suffers in the telling.

The writing is angsty and dripping with thesaurus-busting metaphors that put me in mind of self-indulgent high school fanfiction. Especially terrible is his dialogue. I don’t know if people in the early 1970s really spoke like Fred from Scooby Doo; but Chris McNeil, the mother of the possessed girl, Regan, sounds like her biggest worry is that Old Mr. Jones has been scaring everybody away from her amusement park.

He also uses the word “surmise” about four times too many.

There’s also a couple of subplots that didn’t make it to the film, including one with the housekeepers Karl and Willy, and their drug-addict daughter–the presence of which serves virtually no purpose, except perhaps to illustrate the saccharine humanity of Lt. Kinderman, the overweight detective. The worst vestigial narrative turn involves Karras’ ongoing struggle to convince himself that Regan is really possessed. This happens in the film, too, but it isn’t centralized in the way it is in the novel. The crappiest part, though, is that Karras ultimately convinces himself that Regan is not possessed, because he believes that her bizarre powers are manifestations of completely normal parapsychological phenomena.

See those italics there? Those italics are there so you know how goddamned ridiculous this is.

See, Karras decides that he does need to do an exorcism, but not because she’s possessed. Rather, Karras believes the ritual will serve a psychological function, ridding Regan of her disorder or whatever. But he has to build a case for exorcism to present to the Church. Some of this makes it into the film, but I don’t recall a single mention of paranormal phenomena in the movie. Which is a damned good thing. At one stage, Karras, having witnessed Regan reading people’s minds, and seen her bed floating firsthand, concludes that it’s all totally explainable as ESP and therefore is actually an argument against exorcism.

My mother is a psychiatric nurse, and I asked her if parapsychology was sufficiently in in the 1970s to merit this kind of bullshit. Apparently it was, so I guess I can’t blame Blatty for playing to the times. But it’s immensely frustrating that a clearly, blatantly supernatural thing would be dismissed in this way. Imagine if somebody had cancer, and the doctor, after running some tests, concluded that it was not cancer, but was in fact a mass of cells growing out of all proportion and destroying the surrounding tissue, a phenomenon which his particular branch of medicine had recently started calling a flibbityfartlepoo for some stupid reason. 

See where I’m going here? “It’s not a demon, the girl is just an insanely powerful homicidal psychic.” Something doesn’t add up.

I don’t know why that all came out so hostile. I enjoyed the book on a certain level, particularly the surprising humanity and warmth with which Blatty imbues the various heroic male leads (Karras, Merrin, Kinderman). I suppose I just love the film so much that I was let down by what feels to me like a pulpy, grocery store paperback. Like the greats of supernatural horror, Blatty uses horrible evil to paint a paradoxically hopeful picture of the world and the people in it, and in the end you almost feel like you wouldn’t mind living in that world, despite the evil that exists there. Because you learn, as Karras does, that that evil is itself the proof of goodness. I even liked the demon, in a way. When it speaks through Regan, the demon is witty and, in a weird sense, almost amicable. Like, sure, it’s the devil; but it’s the devil as written by C.S. Lewis. He’ll serve you Turkish delight before he devours your soul. You know, civilized. Except for the vomiting and crucifix-masturbating and whatnot. But otherwise, civilized.

But it’s too much. It’s too aware of how grotesque it is, too caught up in its own literary qualities and too inclined to verbose descriptions of scenery and long stretches of awkwardly written interior monologues.

All of this is especially strange when you consider that Blatty himself wrote the screenplay for the film. I know nothing about filmmaking or the processes involved, but it seems to me that he at least recognized how many of these textual flourishes simply wouldn’t make sense in a screen version. And again, thank god he cut what he did. If the film contained the parapsychological stuff I doubt it would have had the same impact.

The Exorcist is worth a read, primarily for the sake of comparison with the infinitely better film. But really, make sure you see the movie first, if you haven’t. The book won’t grab you like the film, which, though equally dated, somehow transcends its era–something the novel just doesn’t quite manage.

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