Monday, October 31, 2011


(December 1973, U.S.)

Those of you who may have been paying closer attention to my blog than others may have noticed that over the last several weeks I've been posting my films rather sparingly. I must confess that I've been doing that intentionally so that I may write about and discuss one of the scariest films of all time on the day of Halloween. Yes, that's extremely corny, but admitedly effective, nonetheless. So, here it is...the one...the only...the classic...the original 1973 version of THE EXORCIST!

To actually spend time discussing the basic plot of THE EXORCIST would likley be as productive as disussing the plot of JAWS or STAR WARS. It's just one of those films that everyone who's ever been to or watched movies has heard of and already knows what it's about. So, what I'd like to do instead is spend some time focussing on some elements, sequences and themes that make THE EXORCIST the truly powerful and effective film that it is. You see, what I've hoped to achieve with my blog is to not only inspire my readers, based on my writings, to see films they've never seen before, but to perhaps also watch films they HAVE seen before with a more critical eye to the specific. I hope.

What is it that truly scares us about THE EXORCIST? Yes, the idea of demonic possession is in itself a very scary thing (and also an overused theme in films during the 1970s), but let's consider some of the surrounding elements that go with it. The film's demonic possession scares us because it is truly an incomprehensible thing while being based on the very ideas of good and evil in the New Testament. The film scares us because this sort of incomprehensible evil is happening to an innocent little girl. The film scares us because we watch a team of medical physicians put this poor little girl through a series of painful procedures to uncover the secret of her personality changes when we, as the audience, know the truth. The film scares us with it's visual effects, and I'm not necessarily speaking of Regan's (played by Linda Blair) hideous physical transformation or her pea soup projectile vomit, though that is in itself unnerving. I'm speaking more of sequences like Father Damien Karras' (played by Jason Miller) frightening dream sequence when for just a flash moment we see the image of that evil white face with the red eyes. Take a look...

(Shit, if THAT image doesn't keep you up at night in bed with the shivers, I don't know what will!)

The film scares us because the tension, the fear and the drama build up to what will ultimately become a battle between two good men of God and the evil spirit of the Devil. The film scares us because during this battle we watch two seemingly gentle priests reach their point of absolute fury and rage as they repeatedly shout, "The power of Christ compells you!" to save the soul of the innocent girl.

Beyond the fear of THE EXORCIST also lies the incomprehensible ideas of real life that we've likely never seen before. I'm specifically referring to a pair of priest hanging out together in a college bar, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and listening to The Allman Brothers Band on the jukebox. Priests molesting children I can believe (because that happens!). Priests being hip and cool in the 1970s, not really. Also, have you ever wondered why all of Chris MacNeil's (played by Ellen Burstyn) servants did not get the hell out of that house when the evil possession took over? I mean, loyalty is one thing, but geez!

Now let me move onto a point that may border on the philosophical. And please remember that this theory is coming from a lover of film and NOT a man with any religious beliefs or practices or even one who believes in God (because I don't!). There is a specific line spoken in the film that I've never been able to get out of my head. During a scene when a doctor is trying to explain what exorcism is to Chris MacNeil, he says, "Well, it's a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest try to drive out the so-called invading spirit." Did you catch the word RABBI? So, that got me thinking about a thing or two and it was almost exactly one year ago that I decided to discuss this point with my cousin Danny, who is lot more Jewish and religious than I'll ever want to be. My theory is this...somewhere in the New Testament is a section called "The Rite of Exorcism" which, to me, says that the Book is equipped with some sort of practical weapon of defense against evil, should a reality like that ever come to pass. So it occurs to me - what if a JEW were to become possessed by some evil spirit? What practical weapon against evil does the Old Testament hold? Well, as I suspected my cousin Danny would tell me - nothing, nada, zip! This is because (apparently) Jews do not believe in evil possession or Hell, for that matter. Okay, but if evil truly existed and could take the form of a human being, would it really discriminate between a Jew or a Gentile? Does one's non-belief in evil or Hell really mean that it may not exist? And if it does, how would we combat it? Again, I'm not a theologist or even a religious thinker. This is all coming from someone who just loves great films and spends some of his time developing his silly thoughts for discussion. But just take a moment to picture two angry Hasidic rabbis shouting in thick accents, "Ze power of Moses compells you!" over and over again to save the soul of a "nice Jewish girl". Sounds like something Mel Brooks would have done if he'd thought of it first.

So, my friends, the next time you decide to watch THE EXORCIST, watch it with an eye for some of the details I've pointed out. And if you happen to be Jewish, consider the other points I made, as well - just for the fun of it anyway. And by the way, Happy Halloween everyone!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Father Damien Karras: "Look, I'm only against the possibility of doing your daughter more harm than good."
Chris MacNeal: "Nothing you could do could make it any worse."
Damien: "I can't do it. I need evidence that the church would accept as signs of possession."
Chris: "Like what?"
Damien: "Like her speaking in a language she's never known or studied."
Chris: "What else?"
Damien: "I don't know. I'd have to look it up."
Chris: "I thought you were supposed to be an expert."
Damien: "There are no experts. You probably know as much about possession than most priests. Look, your daughter doesn't say she's a demon. She says she's the Devil himself. Now if you've seen as many psychotics as I have, you'd know it's like saying you're Napoleon Bonaparte. You asked me what I think is best for your daughter. Six months under observation in the best hospital you can find."
Chris: "You show me Regan's double, same face, same voice, everything. And I'd know it wasn't Regan. I'd know in my gut. And I'm telling you that thing upstairs isn't my daughter. Now, I want you to tell me that you know for a fact that there's nothing wrong with my daughter, except in her mind! You tell me for a fact that an exorcism wouldn't do any good! You tell me that!"


  1. Every thing was real. This was not a monster movie, this was a living nightmare. It was psychologically disturbing like you can't imagine. Every time they start up those stairs to the bedroom, you clenched your whole body. There were great performances everywhere, I especially liked Lee J. Cobb as Lt. Kinderhook. When he jokes with Father Karras that he lied, he doesn't look like John Garfield but rather Sal Mineo, it was extra funny because Cobb had worked with both of them. One of the few moments of humor in an otherwise grim, and frightening story. All the things you heard about audience reaction at the time were true. This movie freaked people out. I also remember the congratulatory ad in the LA Times after the movie lost out on the Academy Awards, to The Sting. It was a pretty classy move for a movie that today is seen as having far greater impact than the winner that year.

  2. Father Karras also asks Cobb if anyone's ever told him he looks like Paul Newman. Cobb also worked with Newman in EXODUS.

    One particular fact about THE EXORCIST that I always remember is that at one time it plaed at the Paris Theater next to the Plaza Hotel in New York City. This is the sort of single movie house (one of the few remaining in NYC) that usually only shows foreign art films and the like. Very interesting that they would one time feature a horror film. Just goes to show you what a smash hit THE EXORCIST was back in the day. I didn't get to see it on screen until 1997 at a special screening at Radio City Music Hall (a really HUGE screen!) and then again in 2001 for the very inferior "version you've never seen".

  3. As much as I loved THE STING, I always considered AMERICAN GRAFFITTI the best film of 1973.

  4. We are of like minds on this. I went back and looked at your Graffiti Post and nodded my head a lot. Here are my words on the subject if you are interested.