William Friedkin | 2hr 12min
Though it is the scarred, pale face of a possessed Regan MacNeil which has culturally persisted as the image most closely associated with The Exorcist, the film reveals its most central concern right there in its title – this is about Father Karras, a priest tasked with saving the soul of a 12-year-old girl, and his disturbing confrontation with his own lack of faith. He is not alone in his efforts, as late in the film he is joined by Father Merrin, an older priest whose past with the demon Pazuzu offers a bolstering of spiritual conviction, and the full-frontal revulsion with which the fiend provokes them is similarly contained mostly within that final act. Up until this unleashing of supernatural horror, William Friedkin builds a creeping slow-burn of a narrative, quietly drawing together Karras’ spiritual crisis and its formal counterpoint in Regan’s gradual possession.
As Regan’s mother, Chris, walks through the suburban streets of Georgetown early on, The Exorcist’s famous tubular bells theme rings throughout, imbuing this seemingly benign location with a threatening eeriness. No longer do we have to venture into Gothic castles and creepy motels to find terrifying monsters, as the catalyst for Regan’s possession remains largely ambiguous. All we can gage is that this is an ancient spirit which humanity has wrestled with for millennia, as indicated by the opening scene set in an Iraqi archaeological dig site, and that it has invaded a corner of our modern society presumed to be a safe place for our children. The paranoia of 1970s America is well and truly alive in The Exorcist.
As Regan’s mother, Chris, passes by the local church, we smoothly latch from her storyline onto the parallel plot thread of Father Karras, whose disconnection to his faith is mirrored in the physical distance between him and his elderly mother. As a devout Catholic woman, she is one of the few remaining links holding him to his religious belief, and the guilt he harbours over living too far to care for her properly is thereby associated closely with his own personal spiritual crisis. When she passes away, his shame and doubt only intensifies, further feeding his personal demons and thus putting him at an immediate disadvantage when he is enlisted to exorcise someone else’s.
When he finally arrives at the MacNeils’ house, these once-dainty, wallpapered bedrooms and corridors have been overtaken by the unholy force inhabiting Regan’s body. Rather than turning it into a red-hot, torturous hellscape, it instead manifests as an icy-cold wasteland, void of life or anything sacred. The demonic being which Karras is confronted with is intelligent and psychologically invasive, recognising and playing on his crisis of faith by deliberately failing his tests intended to determine whether Regan’s spiritual sickness is truly supernatural. Through vulgar acts of sex, violence, and blasphemy, it continues to force upon him questions of how this thing, whether it be paranormal or not, could exist in a world with a loving God.
As Karras’ strength dwindles, the arrival of Father Merrin heralds some little bit of hope. Silently anticipating the coming of its old foe, the demon’s eyes narrow, and we slowly dissolve from this extreme close-up to the street outside, where the elderly priest’s taxi pulls up. Chillingly silhouetted in the pale blue mist that has now spilled out from Regan’s bedroom and onto the footpath, Merrin finally enters this godless space.
It is an exhausting ten minutes that we spend watching the two face off – Pazuzu spewing green bile, cursing, levitating, flicking out its long, black tongue, all the while Merrin remains steadfast in his devotion, barely reacting to its provocations. No music is needed to emphasise this frightening battle of faith and corruption. Instead, it is simply underscored by Pazuzu’s rough, grating voice, Merrin’s prayers of conviction, and the violent rattling of furniture. Much of the repulsive imagery which The Exorcist is remembered for takes place here, but it is easy to forget how just about every other element of this scene, from its stark lighting to performances, is designed to wear its audience down into a state of hopelessness not unlike Karras’.
The restoration of faith for this lost believer eventually comes not in his victory over fear, but in his literal absorption of another’s sins and subsequent sacrifice, thus destroying this evil once and for all. Friedkin paints the allusion to Christ’s redemptive death in broad strokes, but after the brutally unapologetic confrontation we have witnessed, an equally unapologetic metaphor of absolution serves to bring about a perfect balance. It is in the patient narrative progression towards this shocking test of faith that Friedkin accomplishes something remarkable, bit by bit letting his demented, expressionistic imagery seep into the quiet suburbs of America, and thereby crafting not just a controversial cultural touchstone, but a masterwork of cinematic horror.
The Exorcist as available to stream on Netflix Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.