Sinister Summer: “The Exorcist” Retrospective Review

Pea soup anyone? Not only one of the most profitable horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains timeless. Celebrating its 45th anniversary last year, this truly is the definitive possession horror film. Thematically, it takes the concept of the external “monster” and moves it into the mind and body (of a little girl). In many ways, Linda Blair’s Regan takes the psycho-social horror of Psycho and combines it with a classic monster and adds in a Rosemary’s Baby spin. This trifecta of excellence works together in order to provide the plot and characters of The Exorcist with substance. Much like Psycho was the first modern horror film and proto-slasher, The Exorcist is widely regarded as the first modern possession film. There are elements of possession in Rosemary’s Baby, but I don’t technically consider it a possession film. This film also takes the idea of the “home invasion” to the next level by having the innocent Regan’s body invaded. There are many past horror films that were once viewed as terrifying, but over the course of time, do not evoke the same degree of fear in contemporary times; however, this is a film that remains nightmare-inducing for many who are brave enough to watch it. Furthermore, adjusted for inflation, it remains among the top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

For more than 40 years, this was highest grossing horror film of all time (until 2017’s IT), this is the one that started the possession film sub genre of horror. A visiting actress (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C., notices dramatic and dangerous changes in the behavior and physical make-up of her 12-year-old daughter 9Linda Blair). Meanwhile, a young priest (Jason Miller) at nearby Georgetown University begins to doubt his faith while dealing with his mother’s terminal sickness. When the little girl begins to spiral violently out of control, lashing out at her mother and everyone in the Georgetown manner, and even levitating, her worried mother seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. The young priest, however, thinks the girl may be possessed by a demon. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert (Max von Sydow) to help with the difficult job.

While many films prior to The Exorcist depicted the occult, few (if any) have endured like this icon of horror has. Perhaps what frightens us most about this film is the fact of how close to home it hits. The MacNeil family could be our own or our neighbors. By default, the very setting and atmosphere of the film is relatable and realistic. There is a high degree of vulnerability on display. Not only can our homes be invaded, but our bodies can too. Whereas some may only see the effects of the demonic possession and focus on them (the vomiting, masochistic behaviors, or focussed vulgar profanity), these are all incidental. The point of The Exorcist is to provide social commentary on dehumanization and how evil forces and behaviors can affect us in such a way that we feel like animals unworthy of God’s love. But no matter how dark times get, redemption is possible. Whereas demonic possessions are not a daily part of our lives, by extension, this can be explored as a metaphor for the dehumanization witnessed today such as sexual assault, physical/emotional abuse, and other ways in which people are devalued.

There are few films that I would say this about–The Exorcist is a perfect film. Other examples are AlienPsycho, Sunset Boulevard, and The Shining. Compared to the schlock-fest horror movies that we often get today (until more recently with films such as Hereditary, Midsommar, and Us), this is a beautiful, bold work of cinema that pushed the envelop then, and even pushes the boundaries by today’s standards. There is a sense of prestige about this film; and not just a classy for the sake of pretense–there is a sense of purpose in this motion picture. Do all horror films need to mean something deep or provocative? Certainly not. Some have the purpose to simply entertain, frighten us, or even make us laugh. But The Exorcist is a special horror film in that there is immense depth to the story that takes us to incredibly dark places–to the point of no return if you will. Then in a brilliant fashion, turns it into a story of sacrifice and redemption. Not only was this one of the most frightening movies of all time when it was release din 1973–commonplace as possession movies may seem now–this was groundbreaking back then, it was also nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture! This was the first time that a horror film had ever been nominated for this most prestigious award. Furthermore, there are few other films that come with such an infamous status inspiring legends, curses, and more. Much like with Poltergeist, this film has also spawned macabre rumors. Everything about this film: direction, screenwriting, cinematography, cast, set design, score, and the editing work flawlessly to combine to become one of the greatest films ever made.

In screenwriting, there are two types of plots: action-driven and character-driven. That isn’t to suggest that an action movies don’t have great characters (Die Hard certainly has great characters) nor does a character movie lack gripping action (Nightcrawler has great action sequences), but the principle focus is on one or the other. Look to see wherefrom the conflict is derived. In a character-driven film, the conflict is derived primarily from characters, whereas in an action-driven movie, the conflict is primarily derived from the action. The characters of The Exorcist are utterly fascinating and relatable. We might remember Regan the most from the movie, but the other lead and supporting characters are also incredibly interesting. Part of the reason why this film resonates with us so, and is the material of nightmares, is because of how realistic it is, despite the supernatural element; this realism is brought to life by the incomparable performances. There is so much more to this movie besides the spinning head, spiderwalk (in the director’s cut), and the famous pea soup scene. Those scenes, and others, contribute to the overall experience of the film, but it’s the character-driven conflict and relationships that keep us coming back. Not only do we come back to the film over and over for the character, but we were able to experience memorable scenes and action sequences for ourselves at Halloween Horror Nights 26 at Universal Orlando.

Before we talk about the most famous character from the film Regan, let’s analyze the other two leads and chief supporting character: Regan’s mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the young priest Damian Karras (Jason Miller), and the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). Both Burstyn and Miller were nominated for Academy Awards for their respective performances.

Chris MacNeil is first and foremost a mother, but her acting career is also important to her. But when her daughter needs her, she is willing to put her career to the side to go to great lengths to help her. Beyond her role as a mother, she represents a person whom does not have faith in God. She is also faced with the life crisis of growing frustrated with her divorce and career as a mainstream actress. Father Karras is a highly educated man of faith, but his faith is strained because of his mom’s illness and death, causing a crisis. He is struggling with what many of us struggle with: if God is love, then why do bad things happen to good people? Furthermore, he represents the qualities of self-sacrifice and redemption, as well as personifies the empathy of psychiatry and a pragmatic priesthood. By extension, Father Karras can also be read as someone whom exemplifies that “science” and “faith” are not independent of nor negate one another. Lastly, Father Merrin is not only the very silhouetted image that is engrained in your mind when you think of this movie, but he is the inverse of Father Karras in that–whereas Karras is a pragmatic priest, Father Merrin is a zealous priest. Because Merrin was unable to defeat the demon Pazuzu (the one that possesses Regan), he is faced with his own redemption story. He is also going through the life crisis of failing health.

All three adults are each faced with their own respective crises that are explored through the possession of this little girl whom is also facing her own biological life crisis of puberty. Without knowing much about any of these characters during the first act of the film, we know that each one is vulnerable and doubts their own abilities and the direction they are going in life.

Central to The Exorcist is Regan (played by Linda Blair). Regan is both our central character and our character of opposition. Technically the character of opposition is Pazuzu, but the demon is manifested in Regan. Much like with her adult counterparts, Regan is also facing a crisis. She is experiencing what every young person goes through (to a greater physiological extent, girls)–puberty. As we know, at that stage in life, the human body undergoes what can be equated to psychological and physiological trauma. This trauma is manifested in the behaviors that we witness on screen from Regan’s explicit language and masochistic sexual assault. Regan can also be read as a home that has been invaded by an external monster, but this monster has not only defiled a home but has gone further, and more intimate to defile an innocent girl. Essentially, we’ve taken the idea of the external monster and placed it in the mind and body to exponentially increase the level of trauma and terror. Through another lens, we can witness the conflict that exists between parents and adolescents in which parents may view their kid(s) as a monster that has taken over the previously agreeable, obedient child, and how both parties must work through the conflict in order to emerge healthier and closer.

From page to screen, the cinematic excellent continues. The Exorcist is full of nightmare-inducing special effects that stick with you for the rest of your life. Not only does the very image of the transformation terrify the eyes of the audience, the minds of the audience are also confronted with the frightening realization of what the demon is doing to Regan’s body. From swearing at the central characters every chance it gets to displaying severe traumatizing masochistic behavior, the brutality is intense as you have sympathy for this young girl that you established a connection with from the beginning of the movie. One of the elements that I find particularly interesting, given the extent to which special effects are used, is just how real the movie feels. The supernatural elements of the story could have very easily pushed the film into the unbelievable category (like many others), but William Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece stays grounded in reality. Looking to the characters themselves, the performances are so genuine that you feel that you are going through the very same crises that are on display. For those whom believe possession is real, it hits scarily close to home; and for those whom are skeptical, it is an equally terrifying possibility.

The showdown and realization of the film are just as deep as the first and second acts by playing around with the externalization of that which was internalized and the physical and mental journeys of the characters. Not only is duality and possession shown through the context of demon possession, but the film also comments that internalized physical and psychological trauma can be a powerful force that ostensibly takes control on ones body. And that is another reason why it still terrifies audiences to this day.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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A24’s “Hereditary” (2018) horror film review

Arthouse meets mainstream in this outstanding horror film! This terrifyingly good nightmare will haunt you long after you leave the theatre. After all the hype A24’s latest generated out of the Overlook Film Festival, many were wondering if it could live up to the accolades. Suffice it to say, it did all that and more. It’s been characterized by many as The Exorcist for a new generation, and rightly so. In fact, elements of the plot, setting, and characters can be likened to not only The Exorcist, but The Shining and The Witch as well. When you have a film that’s being compared to two of the pioneering films in supernatural horror and a popular modern one, then you know the film is exceptional. Relying chiefly upon an overwhelming sense of dread from the onset and intense emotional agony, Hereditary will assault your mind and eyes with that which cannot be unseen or unfelt. Wrier-director Ari Aster’s thrilling masterpiece will likely join the canon along side other great horror films as it is one that pushes the boundaries of what a horror film can do. Unsettling beyond measure, this is the type of film that leaves a lasting impression upon the minds and eyes of the audience. Furthermore, the danger of describing this film in too much detail can mitigate the phenomenal experience that should be this film. Not for the faint of heart, I suggest taking someone along with you to watch this amazing horror film unless you want to brave the disturbing narrative alone.

Following the death of not so beloved Ellen Leigh, her daughter Annie Graham’s family begins to uncover cryptic secrets of a bizarre and terrifying nature. Annie’s ancestry contains generations of psycho-social disorders that begin to point to a sinister family heritage. When a tragic death befalls the Graham family, the beautiful mountain home turns into a house of nightmares. The deeper Annie goes into the grim history of her family, the more she unravels a sinister secret that will test the limits of human psychology and just how far one will go to protect loved ones while remaining sane. When the search for answers peals back the vein between the physical and supernatural worlds, Annie learns that her family’s inherited an insidious fate of the darkest of natures.

Hereditary delivers a new kind of horror, or should I say a classical approach to the post-modern horror experience. Classical in the sense that it relies upon the auteurist craft of visual storytelling, complex characters, and an overwhelming sense of dread brought on my the score and cinematography to assault your mind, ears, and eyes instead of simply terrifying the eyes. Instead of including cheap jump scares, prolific gore, blood soaked murders, or terrifying images, Hereditary transfers the horror from the screen into the minds of the audience. When a horror film gets into the mind of the audience, that is truly where the horror lies. What isn’t said, heard, or seen is far more powerful than what can be seen with the naked eye. Clearly the suspenseful nature of the film is taken out of the Hitchcock playbook while the horror craft is inspired by the Kubrick (The Shining) and Friedkin (The Exorcist) approaches. Audience are kept on edge and pleasurably uncomfortable  (Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure theory) by sequences of events that cannot be completely discerned as being real or figments of the Graham family imagination, given the heritage of mental illness. You will be terrified by, not only the uncanny events and sinister secrets of the film, but the dark family psychodrama with characters suffering from internal torment.

Toni Collette’s captivating, terrifying performance as Annie Graham is one that screams Oscar contender. We will be hard-pressed to encounter another more compelling and gritty performance the rest of the year. Although horror has always been popular and bankable, it has largely been passed over by The Academy until recent years with major wins by Get OutThe Shape of Water, and even Ex Machina’s visual effects. The genre that can trace its cinematic roots back to the dawn of indie and commercial motion pictures is finally being embraced at the Academy and Golden Globe awards. There are no shortage of reasons why critics and fans are praising everything about Hereditary. What’s there not to like??? There is little doubt that Collette’s portrayal of a tortured daughter and reluctant mother will be the most most exceptional performances of a female actor this year. Whether talking horror or other genres, the role of Annie Graham will go down in the record books as one of the most gut-wrenching characters of contemporary cinema. Her command performance is spellbinding as you get forcibly sucked into this twisted world of a family-heirloom evil that is showered by outstanding remarks by critics and fans across the spectrum. With landmark wins for the horror genre for actor, actress, picture, and more, it’s entirely possible that we got a look at one of the films that will earn many nominations and even some wins at the next award season.

It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a “scary movie.” Scary horror is simple to achieve; sheer terror, nightmare-inducing horror is difficult to create. The former is mostly concerned with the moment; include a jump scare, some violent gore, or a creepy figure. Whereas with the latter, the writer/director is pre-occupied with creating a simple plot, complex characters, and an atmosphere filled with dread to successfully carry the film from beginning to end. Hereditary is frightening on every level. To Hereditary’s credit, it delivers what audiences want plus subverting the expectations of the genre to generate true primal fear in the experience of this horror masterpiece. It’s far too easy for for a writer/director of a horror film to give audiences what they want to see. The danger in that approach is delivering a film that only has temporary value. Like getting a sugar-rush for energy versus proper nutrition. The effects of the “scare” provide nothing after the shallow energy has been used. Shallow versus depth. On the opposite end of the spectrum. a horror film that is too deep often fails to deliver what general audiences want to see and only cinephiles, like yours truly, find appreciation in the story. Hereditary contains the kind of masterfully crafted visceral imagery, emotional agony, and psychological trauma that creates a powerful, penetrating horrific experience that will give this film an evergreen life.

Not for the timid, this film will test the limits of your imagination and ability to sleep without fear of nightmares. Brilliantly frightening, this motion picture harnesses the power of how to effectively impact the mind and body of the audience. From moments of sheer terror to tormented souls caught in a dark family psychodrama, throw in a healthy dose of ominous evil and you have a don’t-miss cinematic experience. Exceptional characters, plot, a nightmarish score and more, give this film reachability and material to discuss in future film studies classes.