The Unbearable Frightness of Being

The Unbearable Frightness of Being

The Exorcist turns 40.
Patrick Coffin

The shaking bed. The frantic mother. The faithless priest duking it out with the demon upstairs—and oh, that spinning head. These and other iconic images from The Exorcist (1973) are burned into our collective movie-going consciousness.

The film is reckoned invariably as the scariest film ever made and the first of the horror genre to be nominated for Best Picture. Directed by William Friedkin based on William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own hair-raising novel, The Exorcist:

  • Opened the day after Christmas 1973 to mixed reviews and long, snaking queues to became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, hauling in over $441 million worldwide.
  • Laid intelligence into a genre that, with the possible exception of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), had drifted into the campier territory of Britain’s Hammer Films and low budget American sci-fi B movies.
  • Kick started the Evil Kid sub-genre, typified by The Omen(s), the Child’s Play/Chucky franchise, Children of the Corn(s), Pet Sematary, and Orphan.

There have been many subsequent attempts at imitation, but none really compares to The Exorcist, the Platonic ideal of them all. How to account for the enduring popularity of a film that features blasphemy, profanity, and scenes that still shock viewers 40 years later?

The first and most important reason why the film is etched into the canon of classics is that it’s a ripping good yarn. As stories go, The Exorcist is stripped down to the barest of bones: Good vs Evil, Heaven vs Hell going mano a mano in the soul of an innocent young girl.

Apart from its technical and artistic merits (discussion of which follows below), The Exorcist is provocative in a double sense. First, in the everyday sense of shocking. But also in the sense that it provokes the viewer, grabs him by the label, demanding answers: Do you believe in God and the devil, or not? Can science and medicine account for the mystery of evil? Is this life all there is?

And like all good stories, the good guys start off weak as kittens while the enemy starts strong and grows stronger. Our introduction to Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) at an archeological dig in Northern Iraq shows him popping nitroglycerin pills to ward off some cardiac condition. The ancient Merrin could almost pass for one of the artifacts he dusts off. Merrin is enlisted by Church authorities to mentor the movie’s titular exorcist, Georgetown psychiatrist priest Damian Karras, SJ, (Jason Miller). Karras himself is slowly sliding down a well of despair and the total loss of his faith.

The invisible antagonist, although not named in the film version, is the demon Pazuzu. By means of a basement Ouija board, Pazuzu infiltrates the mind and soul of an apple-cheeked, dew-eyed 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). The Exorcist, to borrow from Bl. Mother Teresa, is about the unmasking of the devil of his distressing disguise of the purest of the pure.

The drama unfolds amid the dueling agnosticisms of the girl’s mother, movie actress Chris (Ellen Burstyn), and of Father Karras, who is plagued by guilt-tinged nightmares related to neglect of his terminally ill mother. The film’s central irony is that an unbelieving mother (staunchly atheist in Blatty’s novel) jolts a doubting Jesuit into accepting that his role as a priest—his office—is the only answer to the entity that has overtaken her daughter.

For Chris sees what we see: the futility of the phalanx of doctors and psychiatrists with their Ritalin and their frightening array of medical tests. The dreaded arteriogram scene is a wince-fest if there ever was one.

No, for secular Chris, Holy Orders “takes.” And at her maternal urging, ex-boxer Karras is able to go the distance in the epic battle upstairs and finally learns at the elbow of Father Merrin that it’s not “the power of Karras that compels” the demon—but Christ.

The triad comes full circle. Chris MacNeil is a surrogate mother to the motherless Karras who, in turn, is a surrogate father to Regan, whose biological father has abandoned mother and child. Indeed, The Exorcist suggests that the trauma of divorce has intensified Regan’s vulnerability to the demon’s ministrations. In recovering his sacerdotal footing, Father Karras is not only present to a child he has never met, but he “loves her to the end” (Jn. 13:1).

In a fascinating commentary accompanying the DVD, director Friedkin admits the story is, very consciously, a parable of Christianity. He doesn’t hide his great admiration for the doctrine of transubstantiation and for the Catholic priesthood. Each entrance of Father Karras is shot as a rising—a walking up into frame, presaging his own rising from the dead at the end. Give Hollywood credit. When the devil shows up, no one calls the local mega-church pastor. The big guns always wear Roman collars.

The other Oscar win was for Best Sound, and for good reason. There is some controversy over how much subliminal sound layering went into the production. There are, for instance, almost no purely silent scenes. An eerie low-level buzz (enraged bees? screeching pigs?) pervades just beneath the surface, producing a sense of uneasy anticipation.

The Exorcist is often identified with the creepy Tubular Bells setting by Mike Oldfield. But the bulk of the soundtrack is the work of Krzysztof Penderecki, hailed by The Guardian as “the greatest living Polish composer.” Penderecki’s contribution gives the body of the film its atmospheric, ethereal soul.

Speaking of sound, the vocal performance of Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon is a much under-appreciated contribution to the visceral impact of the film. The smoky-voiced McCambridge was a successful radio actress who eventually won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for All the Kings’ Men (1949). Very few actors can combine rage, irony—even levity, as when Pazuzu taunts Karras, “What an excellent day for an exorcism.”

Which brings us to that magical elixir known as casting. Ponder how different a film it would have been had the following real-life casting considerations come about: Marlon Brando as Father Lankester Merrin. How about Stacy Keach or Jack Nicholson as Karras? But when Friedkin caught Jason Miller on Broadway in Miller’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season, he gave him the part—Miller’s first film role. It’s hard to imagine any other actor than the flash-eyed, smoldering presence of Miller bringing to life the doubting Jesuit.

Ellen Burstyn’s tour de force performance as Chris visits the extremities of maternal tenderness, angst, and fury, and earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. We’ll never know whether Shirley Maclean, Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft or Jane Fonda would have brought the same fire to the role.

Everyone remembers Max Von Sydow’s elderly, dignified Father Merrin, but almost no one knows he was only 44-years old at the time—thanks to the work of make up artist Dick Smith, who also created the effects for Regan’s demonic transformation.

The event that inspired Blatty’s novel was the 1949 exorcism of 14-year-old boy from a Lutheran family who turned to some St. Louis Jesuits to perform the Rituale Romanum. Known in the literature as Roland Doe, he is still alive although has no memory of the events that led eventually to the film.

Storied Italian exorcist Father Gabriel Amorth has said that The Exorcist is his favorite movie. So how close is The Exorcist to a real exorcism? According to Father Gary Thomas, pretty close. Father Thomas is the mandated exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, CA, and the real life priest behind the Anthony Hopkins movie The Rite. “It’s all there, the basic tools, the prayers of the Roman Rite,” he told Catholic World Report. “I suppose the pea soup and head-spinning are required for Hollywood’s needs, but many of the other elements depicted are in line with an actual exorcism, absolutely.”

The fright effect is there, to say the least. What about the faith effect? I asked novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty whether anyone ever contacted him with evidence that his film evangelized them. “A few times directly and very many times indirectly,” the spritely 85-year-old Oscar winner says. “For example, Billy Friedkin tells me that after release of the film he went to his favorite barber shop where he found Jimmy Cagney seated beside him. Recognizing him, Cagney said the equivalent of, ‘You dirty rat! You’re the guy who caused me to lose my favorite barber. He saw that movie and decided to become a priest!’”

Unlike the schlock and awe of its legion of imitators, The Exorcist defined the careers of all the lead actors. Created before the rise of computer generated images (CGI), the film still stands up. It may not be everyone’s cuppa, but an example of a more explicitly pro-faith, pro-priesthood film is, like a good man, hard to find.

This article was first published for Catholic World Report www.catholicworldreport.com

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