Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Exorcist

I didn't watch scary movies as a kid.  I think the first horror movie I ever watched was Scream; I was seventeen or so at the time, watching it at a friend's house, and I remember being very self-conscious about my reactions to the movie.  I didn't want to give myself away by shrieking like a little girl or wetting myself.  For some reason, I imagined horror movies as being genuinely disturbing, the very stuff of nightmares.  Obviously, I got over that presumption.  After a solid month of watching (and reviewing) nothing but (often awful) horror movies this month, I have finally come to the film that was, at one point, the highest grossing --- and some still say, the scariest --- film of all time, The Exorcist.  Will it live up to my childhood expectations for horror?  Let's find out.

Successful actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has a tween daughter named Regan (Linda Blair).  Shortly after announcing that she has a new (invisible) friend in Mr. Howdy, Regan falls ill.  Not cough cough ill, but things flying around the room ill.  Despite exhibiting surprising strength, an ability to rock her entire bed while she's on it, and speaking in a croaking male voice during these incidents, doctors suspect some sort of brain cancer.  Because cancer makes girls talk like life-long smokers.  When modern medicine turns up nothing, Regan is taken to a psychiatrist.  No help there, but if Regan has thrice weekly visits for the next year, they suspect that perhaps they can improve "no help" to "next to no help."  However, around this time, Chris' director (Jack MacGowran) is found murdered outside the MacNeil home; when Chris checked on Regan, she was asleep, but her window was open to the bitter cold evening air.  Hmm...I wonder...?  When medicine for the body and brain both fail, Chris turns to the church.  Her Catholic priest, like the girl at your party that keeps doing the Mary Katherine Gallagher impression, is obviously flattered at being a third choice and is eager to help.  Unfortunately, this priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), is one of them new-fangled ones that has a psychology degree and might even be losing his own faith.  Father Damien doesn't believe that the Catholic church will allow him to perform an exorcism, and he is even less certain that it will do any good (except from a psychological perspective).  But he asks his bosses anyway, and is surprised that they agree to proceed, but a rookie like Damien cannot do it alone.  The church decides to team him up with one of their heavy hitters, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).  The two approach Regan's exorcism just as (pea green) spit is about to hit the fan.  What does this film have in store for these do-gooders?  Projectile vomit of pea soup?  Of course.   Impossible physical feats?  Fo' sho'.  Creative vulgar insults?  Absolutely.  And smoking, every character smoking!

Director William Friedkin has built his career on the back-to-back successes that were The French Connection and The Exorcist, and deservedly so.  Friedkin's direction is apparent throughout the film.  He does a very good job composing visually attractive frames, particularly with the shot of Max von Sydow preparing to enter the MacNeil home, which would eventually become the movie poster.  The special effects are handled well (even better than in Poltergeist, released nine years later) and Linda Blair's make-up is fantastic.The acting is all very good, with Max von Sydow (who has looked 70 years old for the last 40 years) and Jason Miller managing to portray depth and poise from two characters that could easily have been ciphers.  Ellen Burstyn looks positively haggard as the film goes on, which is appropriate, but I felt that her character was a little too over-dramatic in the beginning of the film; yes, she's playing an actress, but even drama queens aren't as moody as she was portrayed.  Linda Blair does a pretty decent job, for a child actor, but I personally believe her character was too immature to be a twelve-year old.  Seriously, a twelve year-old with imaginary friends would get sent to the psychiatrist even without the supernatural powers.  Most of the other actors --- aside from the always reliable Lee J. Cobb --- were okay, but not particularly impressive.  Still, Bursyn, Blair, and Miller were all nominated for acting Oscars, and Friedkin was nominated for direction; all in all, the film was nominated for ten Oscars and took home Best Sound and Adapted Screenplay.  Not too shabby for a genre film.

Obviously, the film was well-made.  Did I like it? was okay.  I appreciated the way it was made more than I actually enjoyed the movie, though.  Does that indicate that the film has lost its edge over the years, or am I just jaded after seeing so many gory horror movies?  While it's true that a lot of time has passed since this film came out, and it is a film that suggests more than it shows, I think it still packs as much of a punch as ever.  There are some seriously disturbing scenes, particularly the violent masturbation scene and the first possession scene.  However, I was unimpressed with the classic pea soup vomit and Blair's head turning like it was on a lazy susan; they looked technically fine, but I thought they were the least frightening aspects of the possession.  So, I would argue that the film has aged pretty well and that the more explicit scenes were my least favorites.

The key to a film like this is that, since it is not aiming for brainless gore, it has to build the suspense.  Maybe I have just absorbed the basic plot elements through popular culture, but I was never curious as to what would happen next.  Despite the quality of the film-making, I was never frightened or uneasy (well, the needles and blood spurting at the hospital made me uncomfortable).  The story spends a lot of time getting to the exorcism because it's not a normal Catholic practice; because I knew basically how the story went, the build up to legitimize the act of exorcism felt unnecessary to me. Would this movie had been more effective if I was completely unaware of the storyline?  Probably.  Would it be more frightening if I were a Catholic, like the characters in the movie?  Again, probably; this movie didn't attack my beliefs as much as it did any chance of me eating pea soup. Is any of this the film's fault?  Well, that's debatable.  I think I will give the movie another try next Fall and see if it grows on me.  As it is, I can't argue quality work, even if I didn't particularly care for it.

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