There only a handful of films that I can watch over and over again, Citizen Kane, The Doors and the film I would like to talk about here… The Exorcist.
I have been a fan of Horror films for as long as I can remember. My mum was an advocate of treating my brother and I like humans and not little things to be programmed. She allowed us to experience films that ordinary 9 and 10-year-olds would usually be exposed to. She let us know that they were just films and someone with a weird imagination had created something out of the ordinary. We accepted this and Leatherface and Freddy Krueger became people I would re-enact in the school playground; teachers probably didn’t understand, but hey… it was the early 80s and progressive teaching hadn’t really kicked in yet.
The one film that was inaccessible to me was The Exorcist. Up until I was 17 or so, the film was banned in this country and I didn’t have the Internet to download it, or for that matter, friends who had a bootleg copy on VHS. When the film was finally given a Cinema release, I had just come into possession (no pun intended) of a bootleg copy (it was so bad it was virtually impossible to watch). I, along with my Mum went to see it at my local theatre and to be frank, I found the first 10 minutes (the Iraq sequence) confusing and much of what came after was, to me, laughable. I am not sure that that first viewing was in the right setting. The film, even though it had been legally cleared for release, still lacked all of the “best bits” and in parts, it was so disjointed, it was hard to follow.
Fast forward to the DVD years and as soon as the film was released on DVD I bought my first legit copy that I could watch at my own pace. My first viewing was one winters night after dark on my own and, quite honestly, this time it scared the bejesus out of me. This time I still didn’t get the first 10 minutes, but the rest of the film, whilst still disjointed in a few places made a huge impact on me as I started to see more and more of the intimate and intricate parts that seeing the film on a big screen had passed me by.
I have NEVER gone back to try and watch the film on the big screen again, I am firm of the view that The Exorcist is best seen on the small screen with the opportunity to pause and rewind the film to catch the scary bits and the bits you don’t think you really saw in the first place.
As I sit and watch the film for the Pazuzu knows time, I find myself still coming to a realisation that the film is more than just a horror film, in fact I could say that The Exorcist is a cautionary Thriller of a girl who played with her toys and got carried away in the fantasy land that came afterwards. I see parallels today of people who watch too much Pokemon and end up walking miles and miles playing Pokemon Go! Looking for a Charmander. Obviously this “can” all time and probably “is” classed as one all-time great Horror films made, but it is much more than that.
The basic Regan story is the nuts and bolts of the film. That is the horror story that draws the film along. Then you have the “death” of Burt Denning’s. This is the Thriller side of the of the film which for me adds another layer of depth and, I can imagine back in the late 70s when this came out would have had people looking at the death at a different angle than many who see the film now would.
For me, I would like to think that Regan/Capt.Howdy taunted that Alcoholic/Rude/Anti-Semite into taking a running jump through the window. However, knowing what we do about what happens at the end of the film, it does make it more likely that Mr. Denning’s (un)timely end came at the hand of Regan. The main question is how does it happen if Regan does do it, she has been firmly tied to the bed for the time leading up to the incident, but she would have to have been free to make contact with him. If we look at the TV series The Exorcist in the scene on the train where a daughter goes full on Rambo on a drunk frat guy, this could signal a way for her to have done this. Alternatively, she could have used her “powers” to undo the straps and attack Denning’s and then used self some “powers” to strap herself up again to set the plot of Denning’s death.
There are so many things that modern films could learn from The Exorcist, and I don’t just mean the Horror genre. The Exorcist tells a whole story that can and does stand on its own without the need or prompting of a sequel. Whilst there has been 2 sequels and 2 prequels (1 was originally made and the studio didn’t like it, so they shelved the movie and got someone else in to remake the film how THEY wanted it made). The Exorcist is complete at the end of the film, there are no loose ends that need to be brought up in another two-hour film, there is no big cliffhanger that needs to be concluded in the sequel. If today’s studios took a leaf from the studios back then, then I am pretty sure that films that churn out endless sequels (read Disney) would never have happened. Whilst the Horror genre is the suckiest genre for lame sequels the same goes for them. There is only so many times one can see Michael Myers gut and pound some innocent babysitter or how many times do we really need to see Freddy Krueger slice, dice, and filet some poor insomniac who finally gets some sleep only to come face to face with Pizza Head.
I can’t put my finger on what actually brings me back to this film over and over again. I honestly don’t think there is anything new that I will find from yet another viewing, I know the dialogue so well that I can do a sing-a-long version whenever I get the urge. There are no new jumps that will surprise me for the first time. Watching the film now is like putting on a comfy pair of jeans, they fit just right and don’t dig into my mid-life spread. They just fit and they feel good to wear. Each repeat viewing I will probably see something that I didn’t see on the last viewing and with a bit of a stretch I can say “oh that’s new…no, it’s not, I saw that before, but hey, that’s bloody good”
When I look at the cast of this film, Linda Blair is almost perfect as Regan, she has the whiter than white big toothy grin and isn’t so saccharine that she raises your blood sugar levels. The monstrous change that she undertakes to become the Possessed Regan shows up as being even more of a raging change; from all American girl to a beast from the nether-realm. The language that the young child come out with throughout the devilish transformation jars and pulls you from the linear stroll the film takes you along. The film is not pedestrian in any way, but it does a great job of luring you into the narrative and then slamming your senses and emotions against a brick wall time and again.
Jason Miller as Father Karras, a weary and a quickly losing his faith, priest shows a strained side that only gets more obvious as the film goes on. The final “battle” with Pazuzu has a shocking end with the only possible way out for Regan. His sacrifice is the only logical way out for everyone involved. Karras would never be able to live with himself if he couldn’t finish the work Father Merrin began and the problem that he himself had instigated within the church. For him, Regan was the final piece of his questioning of his faith. His wavering in the early part of the film is resolved when he is given incontrovertible answers that for Evil like this to exist there has to be a Good to counter balance it.
I don’t think in all the years since The Exorcist was released has there been another more complete and shocking horror film. There are others that will shock and surprise with hooks and catches that will spark a light in the public realm, but none will resonate for 40 years on. Where films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween will both be considered greats in their genre, neither will be held up in my opinion as a truly GREAT film in the way The Exorcist has done.