Tuesday, December 26, 2023

50 Years Ago: The Exorcist (1973)

Fifty years ago today, The Exorcist (1973) was released in United States theaters, and in many senses, the age of the modern horror film truly began.  

At the time, William Friedkin's film met with tremendous controversy, instead of the universal acclaim many people associate with it today. 

The Nation's Robert Hatch called it an "exceedingly well-made bad picture" and noted that The Exorcist "denigrates medicine and psychiatry, it involves the Catholic Church in mumbo-jumbo and, by grotesque make-up and camera trickery...it turns a 12 year old girl into a spectacle of loathsome ugliness for the sole purpose of mindless entertainment.  It should be scorned." (February 2, 1974, page 157).

Jay Cocks at Time Magazine called The Exorcist "vile and brutalizing," and Film Quarterly termed it "the trash bombshell of 1973, the aesthetic equivalent of being run over by a truck...a gloating, ugly, exploitation picture..."

The Reverend Billy Graham went even further, and accused The Exorcist of causing depression and spiritual angst in 1970s movie audiences.  

He said: "A psychiatrist friend of mine has told me that he is seeing new patients all the time whose troubles can be directly traced to their having seen this film. They report recurring nightmares and problems they never had before.  My friend is concerned, as I am, that there will be more of it, if people continue to flock to the box office."

Other critics were more approving. Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic called it the "most scary" picture he had seen in years and declared that "The Exorcist will scare the hell out of you."

Similarly, Films in Review noted that "the horror film will never be the same," while Roger Ebert called it "one of the best movie of its type ever made; it not only transcends the genre of terror, horror and the supernatural, but it transcends such serious, ambitious efforts in the same direction as Roman Polanski'Rosemary's Baby."

I agree with the critics who detect the artistry in William Friedkin's film.  

I credit the early parts of the film (the scenes set in Iraq, and later in a Georgetown Hospital) for rendering the special-effects-driven last act so damned effective, and so damned scary. Friedkin directs these early sequences as if they are a documentary -- like a cinema-verite travelogue -- and the result is a grounded, gritty sense of reality that completely captures the senses and absorbs attention.  These first two acts are so believably vetted that the third act -- even with the spinning head and split-pea vomit -- still plays, somehow, as realistic.

Novelist William Peter Blatty based his tale of demonic possession on a real-life story he had heard at George Washington University in 1949, but developed it so that it would become the terrifying story of a mother losing a child, and of a child corrupted.  The film isn't exploitative (particularly of Blair), because the point is indeed, childhood destroyed, ravaged by evil. When our children are threatened in movies, all our futures or tomorrows are imperiled.

Also, I often consider The Exorcist a deliberate meditation about the structure of the universe.  Is there such a thing as the Devil, or is what we perceive as the devil really just a mental illness?  

The film’s first act suggests one answer, based in the knowledge of antiquity.  

The second act, set in the hospital (replete with painful-looking spinal tap) suggests the latter. And then the third act goes nuts with violence and graphic effects, but also examples of human heroism and nobility.  The film thus provides two answers about life and the cosmos. The first is that if there is a Devil there must, by implication, be a God too.  

And secondly, that acts of human courage and kindness can, finally, beat the Devil.  

The Exorcist may be brutal, but it is not vile. On the contrary, it suggests that where evil exists, good exists too.  

And that, finally, mankind can make a difference about which force succeeds in our lives.

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