Then The Exorcist happened, and everything changed.
The impact of The Exorcist on modern horror cannot be overstated. Indeed, The Exorcist was the moment that modern horror became modern. At a stroke, the film resolved all tensions within the genre between art and exploitation: Why not both?
The Exorcist was mature, sophisticated, and just plain grown-up in a way few horror efforts attempted. Parts of it were even a little pretentious. But this was not some urbane ghost story designed to make readers of The New Yorker cringe tastefully. The Exorcist was perhaps the most visceral horror film ever made. The casual viewer had never seen anything like it…but neither had the most jaded gorehound. For all his ingenuity, for all his delight in the human body’s gruesome contents and his burning desire to show them to you, Herschell Gordon Lewis lacked something Exorcist director William Friedkin did not: massive, monstrous amounts of money. Never before had a huge Hollywood effects budget been thrown at the stuff of the grindhouse. Chasing respectability, a more timid filmmaker might have toned down the material. Friedkin was not that filmmaker.
His previous feature, The French Connection (1971), was a thriller noted for the exciting realism of its car chase. It nearly wasn’t. Friedkin had staged plenty of vehicular action for the film, but reached the end of his location shoot disappointed. So, on his last morning filming in New York, he picked up a camera and rode shotgun while a stunt driver — without official authorization of any kind — tore across twenty-six blocks of traffic at ninety miles an hour, blasting through red lights, a police siren mounted on the roof. Friedkin would write of the event in his 2013 autobiography: “I have not, and would not again, risk the lives of others as we did, but the best [footage]…came from [that morning]…pedestrians and cars dashed out of the way, warned only by the oncoming siren. …The next day I saw the rushes, and I knew the sequence was going to kill…”
Friedkin may not have jeopardized any lives working on The Exorcist, but his willingness to go there wasn’t limited to gross-out scenes or placing a child actor in situations that, to put it delicately, might have made some directors uncomfortable. Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn would relate (in a 2014 HuffPost interview) that Friedkin ordered multiple takes of a stunt that was causing her physical pain. His rationale, when Burstyn objected, was that the action had to “look real.” The actress attributes a permanent spinal injury to this event. Friedkin himself tells the story of Bill O’Malley, the Catholic priest who played Father Dyer. When O’Malley (not a professional actor) failed to convincingly deliver last rites to his dying best friend — and kept failing after twenty takes — Friedkin pulled the man aside. Friedkin assured O’Malley that he believed in him and loved him, then slapped him as hard as he could. The trembling visible in O’Malley’s hands was, it would seem, quite genuine.
Whether Friedkin’s methods are justified by his results is a question without an easy answer. But it’s hard to see how else he could have made a film so powerful. The Exorcist depicts the battle of good and evil, God and Satan, as a clash of titans almost too big for the material world to contain. In this struggle, the existential place of humanity is that of an ant in a cyclone. The world of The Exorcist is our world. And if it looks real, that’s because it is.
Horror in 1973
It’s sometimes said horror is an inherently conservative genre, one that reinforces the idea that those who stray outside society’s norms will be punished for it. There may be some truth to this. But in 1973, horror showed little love for the establishment. The establishment was itself often the problem.
High Plains Drifter, an example of the “weird western” subgenre, begins conventionally enough with a black-hatted gunslinger (Clint Eastwood, credited as “the Stranger”) breezing into the tiny town of Lago. In short order, the Stranger takes it over, subjecting its people to a whimsically cruel reign of terror in exchange for his protection against bandits. Villainous though he seems, we soon realize the Stranger is the resurrected spirit of the sheriff that the town murdered. Let down by the law he upheld, the Stranger is now no more than a vicious criminal himself, seeking not justice, but revenge. The westerns of this period tended to strip away the heroic veneer of the cowboy mythos, but High Plains Drifter is uglier than most: mean-spirited, misogynistic, sadistic. It is nonetheless a remarkably strong film, equal parts Sergio Leone and EC Comics.
Ostensibly a retread of his Night of the Living Dead (1968), George A. Romero’s The Crazies swaps out a plague of zombie-ism for one of senseless violence. Its cause is the accidental release of a government-developed bio-weapon (code-named “Trixie”) into the water supply of semi-rural Evans City, PA. Martial law is quickly declared and a perimeter placed around the town in an attempt to quarantine the epidemic. Trixie turns its victims into dangerous lunatics, but (as in Romero’s Dead series) the real threat is everyday people. Heroes emerge — an expectant couple who try to escape the town, a scientist racing to cure Trixie before the feds just nuke the place — but more common are the self-involved souls whose callous indifference might as well be malice.
Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess stars Duane Jones (best known as Ben in Night of the Living Dead) as Hess Green, an anthropologist who becomes a vampire when his emotionally disturbed assistant stabs him with a cursed African dagger. Green needs victims, but his wealth means he’s the only black resident of an otherwise white community. To hunt undetected, he begins visiting the inner city. Complications arise when his assistant’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), shows up looking for her husband, who committed suicide after his attempt on Green’s life. Green and Ganja become romantically involved, and soon share an addiction. Green begins to believe Christianity may rid him of his burden, but at a terrible cost.
Like Ganja & Hess, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man includes several extended musical sequences (!) — highly unusual for the genre — and showcases a battle between Christian beliefs and other, older religious traditions. Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), an urban policeman, receives an anonymous tip that a little girl has gone missing from the nearby island community of Summerisle. When he gets there, the staunchly Christian Howie (so upstanding that, we realize, he has never had sex) is appalled to find that Summerisle’s people are all pagans.
To Howie’s anger, no one takes his inquiry seriously, even under threat of arrest. In fact, he is told the missing child never existed at all. We share Howie’s confusion and his concern for the girl, but grow to dislike him. Righteous or not, he comes to seem priggish and inflexible in his exchanges with the free-spirited townspeople. Their patriarch, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) — a suave, Byronic dandy — can barely contain his merriment at the policeman’s plight. Can we be forgiven for laughing at Howie a little, too…even if nervously? Whose side are we on? Whose side are we supposed to be on?
Though Howie represents the modern in The Wicker Man, it’s Howie who seems old before his time, unable to live life. Unwilling to surrender to the pleasures of the flesh, Howie reaches for a God outside himself, and comes up wanting. The islanders are always in touch with their God; their God is the world all around. For all that they exult in being alive, though, theirs is a materialistic philosophy, perhaps shallow, certainly amoral. There may be room in their belief system for the soul, but no mechanism for the soul to survive after death — and so their lives are precious. To the islanders, death is pure annihilation. And so their sacrifices must ever be selfish ones.
Our Feature Presentation
Christianity promises immortality, of a kind. The soul, it claims, carries on forever, long past the expiration of the mortal shell. We incarnate briefly, move through the physical realm, then dwell for all time in paradise or torment. But even the possibility of Hell is a comfort. If we must suffer for our sins, at least we do so in the confidence that we serve a balance — that there is a balance to be served. Life so often feels like a formless, chaotic whirlwind of pointless pain that just knowing a Judge exists would be a relief, even if the final judgment were against us. If Hell is real, then there is a design to creation. There is meaning. Even if that meaning remains an enigma.
The Exorcist establishes a sense of foreboding from its opening moments, with a spellbinding prologue filmed on location in Iraq. Elderly Catholic priest Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) is on an archaeological dig when he finds a relic that represents a native demon. Shaken, he says a cryptic goodbye to a friend. That evening, Merrin ventures out to a solitary part of the desert, where a large statue of the demon is waiting. Wild dogs snap at each other and fight at the statue’s feet. An eerie buzzing is heard. Merrin faces the statue down, as a wind from nowhere begins to stir.
The narrative import of this sequence isn’t immediately evident. We meet Merrin again, but not until much later; we meet the demon, Pazuzu, much sooner than that. But the ambiance of Iraq stays with us. The ruins Merrin visits are real, and it’s impossible to imagine this sense of place could have been conjured on a set in Hollywood. Old places have a power.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that The Exorcist is set mostly in Washington, DC. The affluent Georgetown neighborhood where actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) lives with her twelve-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), is a bold expression of the modern world — and yet a Washingtonian is always in the midst of history. Most well-to-do DC people don’t notice; like Chris, they’re too self-absorbed, too wrapped up in the crisis of the moment. That must have been especially true in 1973, as the Nixon administration was building to a crash-and-burn crescendo unlike anything American politics had ever witnessed. To those who look, though, the spirits of the past are everywhere. Americans are particularly ill-inclined to see them — it’s in our character to honor our heritage without examining it too closely, to face a brilliant future and never glance back — but the ghosts are there. This land, too, is haunted.
Chris is a single mother, and seems like a good one. Any parenting she’s too busy to administer personally, Chris can buy; there’s a household staff of three, which ought to be enough for one kid. For some things, though, there is no substitute. Regan has no friends in Georgetown her own age, and her father doesn’t call on her birthday. In the first hint of what’s to come, Chris finds Regan playing with a Ouija board alone in the basement, communicating with an entity Regan calls “Captain Howdy.” We know Captain Howdy is very real, which gives the scene a spooky frisson. But subtract the occult element, and what you have is a normally outgoing child who…spends all day in a basement talking to an imaginary friend. The notion doesn’t seem to trouble Chris at all.
Soon enough, however, Regan begins acting out in ways that do disturb Chris — and everybody else. A “sleepwalking” episode that ends with Regan urinating on the floor (during one of Chris’ dinner parties, no less) is just the beginning. Regan shows a violent streak, lashing out at her caretakers with superhuman strength. At times, Regan speaks in deep, guttural tones (the dubbed-in voice of Mercedes McCambridge) that sound unlike anything that could possibly come out of her mouth. (Later, of course, plenty of other things come out of there, too.)
The audience is primed to accept the reality of demonic possession, at least for two hours, because that’s the movie we came to see. So it’s interesting how much of The Exorcist is devoted to its players’ efforts to determine what exactly is wrong with Regan. The film tips its hand by including, in Regan’s early outbursts, events that can only be explained as telekinesis: her bed shakes of its own accord, her record albums fly across the room. Chris sees these objects move on their own, and tells people, but it’s clear everyone prefers to assume she imagined it. Chris may halfway assume so herself. It’s simpler that way, if no less reassuring, because everything Regan has done — no matter how outlandish — can be explained by psychosis and adrenaline. (The “spider walk,” included in some versions of the film, may stretch credibility, but it isn’t impossible.) Regan suffers through agonizing medical examinations in an attempt to find a physiological cause for her episodes; one especially torturous procedure involves driving a needle into her carotid artery, which releases a spigot of pumping blood. The tests yield nothing.
Ironically, it’s the doctors who finally propose exorcism. They don’t believe in it, but suggest it could have a placebo effect on Regan. Chris, however, isn’t quite there yet.
What it takes is murder, and something more vile. Regan comes to the attention of the police when one of Chris’ associates falls out of Regan’s bedroom window to his death. That it could have been an accident isn’t far-fetched; the man did have a history of heavy drinking. However, Regan was the only other person in the room at the time, and…well. Columbo-esque Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) isn’t accusing anybody of anything, but he’ll be around. As he exits, Chris hears a commotion coming from Regan’s room, and runs to find her daughter’s most awful act yet: The girl is masturbating herself bloody with a crucifix. When Chris tries to stop her, Regan forcefully shoves her mother’s face into her crotch. Regan then turns her head around backward and says in the dead man’s voice: “Do you know what she did?!”
With no room left for ambiguity, Chris turns to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and licensed psychiatrist. Karras is troubled by the recent death of his mother, and is questioning his beliefs. But even if he weren’t in such a precarious spiritual state, he probably wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Regan was possessed. Karras, too, is a modern person. He agrees to meet with Regan, but is not prepared for what he finds.
Regan at this point seems hardly human. Her skin is discolored, her features disfigured, presumably by Regan’s own fingernails. Yet there is still a child inside — literally trying to claw her way out. Karras is soon committed to the exorcism. He will not perform it alone.
The exorcism is an act of faith. To love Regan, as a person in Karras’ position must, one has to see past the grotesquerie the demon has made of her body — the stinking, swearing, vomiting, deadly thing the exorcist is locking himself in a room with. One must acknowledge the soul inside, and love it just because it’s a child of God. Karras, as a mental health professional, has likely been down similar roads before. But possession is not madness. The demon is sane. It can kill — that’s been shown — but more than that, it can torment. The exorcist is placing his own body and soul at risk. He is operating from the belief that God will catch him if he falls. When he falls.
There are several cuts of The Exorcist out there, and as usual in such cases, there isn’t an absolutely perfect version. Great things fall into and out of the movie, as do less ideal ones. The original theatrical cut is stripped down and unsentimental, edited with the tight rhythm of a thriller. Friedkin omitted a terrific scene where Karras and Merrin discuss the meaning of demonic possession, which strikes me as a loss. But he also took out a coda with Detective Kinderman and Karras’ best friend, Father Dyer, that comes as a soothing sigh of relief. He was right to. It’s in the wrong movie.
In the original version, mere minutes elapse between the climax and the ending. A freed Regan, pale and scarred, lunges for a visiting Father Dyer — and we can’t help but jump in our seats. She kisses him goodbye, and then she and Chris are in their car, and gone. And Father Dyer is left behind, just him, and Georgetown, and the ghosts. If there are any; if we aren’t lying to ourselves; if we aren’t really all alone.
Whew! I’m trying to hold these to a readable length, so there were a few of ‘73’s finest I didn’t mention. Scream Blacula Scream, the sequel and (arguably) the equal to ‘72’s Blacula, introduces a voodoo element and Pam Grier (!); if Mamuwalde himself is a little lost in the mix, it’s unfortunate, but understandable. The Legend of Hell House is an intense story of paranormal investigation, notable for its frighteningly bizarre electronic score and sound design, co-credited to Delia Derbyshire (best known as the composer of the theme to “Doctor Who”). Japanese animated feature Belladonna of Sadness tells a darkly erotic story of an innocent woman who is, after a series of horrific abuses, compelled to commit herself to Satan and become a witch. Strangest of all, The Baby…you know what? You can find out about The Baby all on your own. You’ll thank me later. Maybe you won’t.
One last thing: As I write this, Fox just announced it’s renewing its series, “The Exorcist,” for a second season. I saw basically zero buzz about the first when it was airing, which is too bad; I came to it with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. The series is set in the world of the original film, but is neither a direct sequel nor a remake. I have my quibbles with the show — it occasionally gets too “X-Files”-meets-The Da Vinci Code for my tastes — but it’s at its best when it sticks to the small, human story of all-too-fallible men (and women!) of God wrestling with the inner demons of themselves and others, which is most of the time. Ben Daniels’ star turn as a gay, gun-toting rebel exorcist is worth watching all on its own, but there’s ever so much more. If you’ve read this far, I’m pretty sure this show’s for you.
Next Time: It’s zombies vs. gangsters in the fantastic Sugar Hill, Blacula‘s William Marshall in the blaxploitation Exorcist knockoff, Abby, and — oh, yeah — The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Be here!