The Exorcist – 1973 – dir. William Friedkin
Part of the fun of seeing a movie you haven’t seen in years are the memories it triggers of faces and places and names from long ago, forever associated with that film. A mere mention of The Exorcist is all I need to conjure up Rachelann, a girl I “dated” in college back before I was ready to be open about my sexuality to anyone but myself. Back in 1973 when it opened, the world was up in arms that William Friedkin’s The Exorcist had ever reached the screen; in fact, the Catholic Decency League condemned it, forbidding the faithful to see it under pain of eternal flames and damnations so of course, I wanted to rush out to see it, pronto! Rachelann, in those days, was enamoured of me, and she was companionable and everyone (whether they admitted it or not) was dying, just dying, to see this hellish depiction of demonic possession. We had heard about the long, long lines of moviegoers that formed in theaters around the world, but were not prepared for the tempest that hit us when not only were there lines wrapping double and triple for blocks in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood but also a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth mob of picket-carrying anti-Exorcist fiends screaming at us to, “STAY OUT!! CLEAR OUT!!” and “YOU’LL BURN IN HELL LIKE REGAN DOES!!” It was scary but of course, I loved it, and all the extra excitement that added to the thrill of seeing this controversial sensation of forbidden cinema. But Rachelann took one look at the crowd and the frenzy and said, “I’d better call my parents to check if it’s okay to see this.” Her mother, a strict Baptist, as what Baptist isn’t, said, “ABSOLUTELY NOT!!”, and that was the end of that. (Interesting aside — Rachelann and I saw The Paper Chase instead, and its story of beleaguered Harvard law students and the curmudgeonly, old law prof who terrorizes yet mesmerizes them, so captured her that she abandoned her U.S. History studies to become a lawyer and practices, quite successfully, to this very day. I, on the other hand, after seeing her safely home to Lowell, jumped on the very next train back and caught a late showing of “that devil movie”.
The Exorcist is spare, much more spare than I remember it but it is perhaps that very stark quality that gives it such a power to shock — because its story of an innocent, ordinary, little girl who suddenly, and for clearly no reason, becomes possessed by — what? demons? — seems to be happening casually in some kitchen or living room, in real time, which, indeed, it is. It is Hitchcockian in its presentation of evil as something that rises out of a perfectly mundane situation. Here is a family — an actress mother and her daughter, their live-in staff, apparently content, loving, who, out of nowhere, become the target of pure and relentless Satanic invasions.
Ellen Burstyn spendidly underacts in a role that could easily have been dragged into the realm of camp; the crazier the events around her get, the more grounded her performance becomes — yes, she is affected negatively by the terror (as who wouldn’t be?) but she never veers off into Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Land. In fact, every performer (Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Jack McGowan, Lee J. Cobb) follows her lead, and what makes The Exorcist so damned scary is that its excesses — green vomit flying, heads twisting 360 degrees, bodies levitating — are met head-on with level-headedness and common sense; no one hams it up, not even Linda Blair as the child who couldn’t be blamed if she did, so tossed like a dinghy at sea is she that you can’t figure out how she ever maintained her sail. (Blair does such a fine job that her career sank after The Exorcist typecast her forever but her performance as Regan remains no small legacy. It shines!)
The legendary, Swedish actor, Max von Sydow, who gave many great performances in Ingmar Bergman films, plays Father Merrin, the title role. He is joined in his ritualistic duties by the very good-looking Jason Miller (Jason Patric’s dad and Jackie Gleason’s grandson) who went on to write and act in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “That Championship Season”, and who died much too young. Both Miller, with his soulful, tormented eyes and von Sydow, with his world-weary visage, add the needed gravitas to the proceedings as they, quite literally, jump into the ring to mix it up with Beelzebub.
The veteran character actor, Jack McGowan, does a memorable turn as a family friend, and whiskey-throated Mercedes McCambridge dubs the voice of the possessed Regan, a role for which she was roundly given a slap on the hand by her Irish Catholic overseers at which she shot back the Exorcist-like apologia, “Go fuck yourselves!”
The always very fine Lee J. Cobb (he of Death of a Salesman fame) gives a measured but eccentric Columbo-like take as the police detective who can’t quite wrap his head around what he is seeing and hearing but who knows something is mighty rotten in Georgetown.
Director William Friedkin was one of the kings of 1970s filmmaking. This movie and The French Connection placed him squarely on the map of master storytellers and he directs with a sure, skilled balance of both over-the-top excitement and measured reticence.
The big reason The Exorcist is still one, big, scary ride is because its terror sucker punches you when you are looking the other way. It kills in the way it reminds us all that while we are going about our everyday exchanges and errands — shopping for groceries, picking the kids up from school, watering the lawn, the dark can suddenly descend and trap us in a million fears. It is as startling as Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”, or “Don Giovanni” or David and Goliath. It is not the apocalyptic Devil-fest of debauchery its critics warned us against. It is, finally, a film of great faith and the power that faith has to face and vanquish every evil. I dare you not to be moved, and moved deeply, by its final scenes. It is a triumph of storytelling, of acting ability and of belief, and you will not soon forget what you have seen. Poor Rachelann. She still doesn’t know what she missed.