Maybe it’s because I was less than impressed by the William Peter Blatty novel. Maybe my existing familiarity with the various notorious scenes (which have become ingrained in pop culture) doused my interest. Maybe my reticence stemmed from deep-seated dread (had all those years as a Catholic schoolboy put the fear of the Devil in me?). Maybe all–or none–of the above. For whatever reason, I had never seen The Exorcist (a film nearly as old as I am) until yesterday. Now, this may sound like heresy to many, but I have to say: I don’t see what I was missing.
The film moves at a ponderous pace, beginning with an overlong opening in northern Iraq. Ellen Burstyn–who, ironically, portrays a movie actress–overacts throughout. While I am a huge fan of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, I found his work here to be too over the top: Linda Blair as the Pazuzu-possessed Regan looks like some eczematous Orc escaped from Middle Earth (her transformation is so extreme, it’s easy to forget the fresh-faced young girl that is being subjected to such diabolic abuse). Frustratingly, the plot defies logic: when Regan comes spider-walking down the staircase, that should be sign enough that it’s high time to give up the search for medical/psychological/ pharmacological causes and call in a Christ-loving exorcist! Incredulity (the suspension of “Dis belief”?) also arises when Regan’s head is forced to spin around 180 degrees: surely such a maneuver would have broken the girl’s neck, killing her (just as Burke was apparently dispatched by Pazuzu before being hurled through the bedroom window) and thereby putting a prompt end to the demon’s possessive shenanigans. Director William Friedkin seems to value shock over narrative sense, to the point where these periodic outbursts of outrageousness (e.g. pea-soup projectile vomiting) become almost laughable. And that’s probably my biggest issue here: the film–often touted as the scariest ever made–just didn’t seem all that frightening. I would argue that Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism (two modern films undoubtedly influenced by The Exorcist) work much more effectively in establishing a dread-saturated atmosphere, in making the supernatural feel like a natural threat.
I understand that it’s not really fair to judge a film from 1973 by the standards of this day and age, when obscenity/grotesquerie has become a familiar part of the pop-cultural landscape. Experiencing The Exorcist fresh in theaters four-and-a-half decades ago must have been a genuinely jarring experience. Like the best works of American Gothic horror, The Exorcist taps into the anxieties bedeviling the national psyche (as David J. Skal writes in The Monster Show: “The film became a highly publicized cultural ritual exorcising not the devil, but rather the confused parental feelings of guilt and responsibility in the Vietnam era, when–at least from a certain conservative perspective–filthy-mouthed children were taking personality-transforming drugs, violently acting out, and generally making life unpleasant for their elders.”). Yet just because the film has succeeded in touching a societal nerve does not mean that its makers pushed all the right artistic buttons along the way.