Paranormal & Supernatural In Review : The Exorcist (1973)
What can I really say about a movie that has had so much expressed about it already? It’s a classic film, regardless of how much of a horror fan you are and there have been countless films and books inspired by it.
I came to this movie at some point during college in the late nineties. I’m not old enough to have seen it upon its original release but I did see it in the theater in 1998 when the remastered, extended version was released to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of its creation. It’s a monumental film, one that has been deeply influential for me.
I think one aspect that rings so loudly for me is the tragic implacability of the thing. In a similar fashion to Jaws, once you’ve found yourself in the crosshairs of the monster, there’s very little you can do to save yourself and more importantly, there was very little you did to put yourself there in the first place. Having this horrific string of events happening to this sweet, innocent-looking girl heightens the overall tragedy.
And on this point, I really have to pass along my compliments to the parents of star,
Linda Blair. For as much drive as there must be to find roles for your working-actor child, I have to think there must have been a great deal of hesitation and stress over their daughter being in this film. And also credit to the production team as well as director William Friedkin for coming up with ways to do the heavier scenes without having to involve Blair but also for bringing the material to a more simple level that she could understand and engage with. It’s difficult to get the frightening performance out of a child that you need without at the same time setting that kid up for some future therapy bills.
This was also one of the first films I was aware of that really flexed its marketing muscle to its full potential. Some early trailers for the film utilize a string of animated still shots along with some heavily accented strobe effects, the point being to heighten the discomfort of the viewer. This feeling can of course only serve to keep the film present in the mind until the inevitable moment when you finally break down and watch the movie. There were also a lot of news reports detailing how people were fleeing the theater in search of the nearest chapel. Add to this all the stories of the production being cursed and the number of people involved with the film that died. I don’t know how much, if any of this is credible. But what I do know is that it all lends a disturbing atmosphere to the film before you’ve even watched the opening scene.
Speaking more to the urban legends around the film, I’ve never really believed that the production was cursed, although it does make for a good story. Frankly, I’ve always suspected this was created as another facet of the guerrilla marketing of the film. Max von Sydow has spoken on the issue and I agree 100% with his take, that any time you have a production that drags out as long as the Exorcist, there are bound to be more deaths and mishaps.
I do believe this film is an example, not unlike Apocalypse Now, of a director becoming consumed by a project. I have no idea if Friedkin had a Coppola level breakdown, but from what the cast has had to say, he became quite invested in the success of the film. In one heightened incident, after extensive takes of not getting the emotional performance he wanted from an actor, he proceeded to slap him before a take. In the scene, as the priest delivers the last rites, you can see his hand shaking. This wasn’t a result of just his acting craft.
Say what you will about Friedkin’s tactics and behavior, but he managed to take this book and turn it into one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It is a tour de force that employs brilliant suggestion and foreshadowing that leads up to a terrifying confrontation.
I think what I love the most about the Exorcist is that it refuses to comply with easy explanations and it doesn’t simply feed you backstory or information. Somehow, this young girl finds herself possessed by some kind of an entity and over the course of the film, the heroes wage a battle against it on several different philosophical fronts. Why does it happen? What does it want? We don’t know. The movie lends itself to your speculation. I am in total agreement with Friedkin that the Exorcist is the kind of film where you take from it what you bring in. If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place, then you’ll get confirmation of this. But the movie also supports the notion that there are forces for good that struggle on our behalf. It’s a movie that, despite all the horrific things that happen, there is also some good for you to take hold of.
I read Blatty’s novel recently and found it excellent as well. There isn’t a ton that strays from the film and I think it pays testament to how effective of an adaptation Friedkin managed to put together. The Exorcist fires on all levels and if by some chance you haven’t seen it, you should make all efforts to rectify that oversight as soon as possible.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page