Movie Review – The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)
Written by William Peter Blatty
Directed by William Friedkin

There will never be another horror film like The Exorcist, which is in the context of it becoming a cultural phenomenon. I was born eight years after it was released, and I can remember hearing stories about how people passed out in the theater or ran screaming out of the building. I’d glanced at quick clips of the film during shows like Entertainment Tonight when they talked about the movie in retrospect. I think that hype has died down because of the decentralized nature of media in the digital age. There have been much more extreme horror films released since in regards to gore and the depiction of demon possession. However, The Exorcist is a Horror Masterwork, not because it’s unrelenting scary in any capacity, but because it balances both terror and humanity.

Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) lives in Georgetown while filming a movie directed by her good friend Burke Dennings. She’s brought along her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) while Chris’s marriage to her husband has fallen apart weeks prior. Chris and Regan take up residence in a brownstone two-story home attended to by the husband-wife housekeepers. Everything is cozy and typical until Regan begins exhibiting strange behaviors. They are subtle at first and pawned off as hormonal issues or possibly ADHD. Things grow more sinister until it becomes utterly unavoidable that an evil presence has taken hold of Reagan’s body and is tormenting her.

Meanwhile, we follow the parallel story of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who is struggling with his faith while caring for his aging and ailing Greek immigrant mother. We learn through artifacts around her home that Damien was a prizefighter once, and at some point, he abandoned that sport to pursue a degree in psychology. Now he works as a psychiatrist for the church, helping both the congregation and his fellow clergymen. His destiny crosses paths with Chris and Regan and a veteran priest, Father Merrin, who is well-studied on matters of demon possession. This all leads to one dark night where the forces of light confront the monsters that dwell in darkness.

Now that the media hype has died down, decades later, The Exorcist is not a nailbiting jumpscare fest but rather a well-thought-out grounded tragedy with a very optimistic ending. William Friedkin has always played with heightened and grounded senses of reality. His more recent work has been more overtly stylized, but in the 1970s, with pictures like The French Connection, he went for a more documentary filmmaking style. He was interested in the process and the steps a person took in doing their job.

Friedkin approaches Regan’s condition and the exorcism in the same manner. For most of the picture, the young girl is undergoing blood tests, getting brain scans, etc. It’s only the last 30 minutes that we actually watch the exorcism. Even that ritual is seen as a series of neutral, emotionally disconnected steps that purge the demon from the girl’s body. Merrin approaches the task like a plumber would clear out a pipe while Karras has his emotions betray him but ultimately save the day. As the demon taunts the priests, they leave the room to collect their thoughts and Fr. Merrin explains that the devil wants them “to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.” In turn, this implies that adherence to ritual and procedure is what elevates humanity above the beasts. To become possessed is to fall into a place of pure emotion and illogical thinking.

There’s a rich air of mystery throughout The Exorcist, with so many unexplained components left for the audience to contemplate. The entire opening in Iraq, following Fr. Merrin as he leads an archaeological dig and confronts the statue of a demon he seems to recognize, seems disconnected from the rest of the film until Merrin resurfaces at the end of the second act. Regan’s possession is never logically explained. We get hints about it through her use of the ouija board and Chris’s discovery of a stone demon’s head. There’s the crucifix discovered under Regan’s pillow that no adult in the house will admit they gave to her, and they seem honest in their answers. The biggest question in the whole picture is, “Why did the demon possess Regan?” She’s a child who doesn’t even show signs of malice or evil. That is what makes this such an unsettlingly story ultimately, that someone who seems the least like to become a conduit of evil so easily could. Fr. Karras’s crisis of faith coincides with this discovery, how could God create a world where something so evil could exist?

Friedkin refuses to take the easy way out and answer your questions. Sadly, many of the sequels that were to come decided to explicitly try to explain things, which is why they are so terrible. The perfection of the first film is that it just acts as a recordkeeper, showing us what happened without allowing us to understand. In turn, the audience is forced to grapple with the great existential questions these events imply. Is innocence a non-existent concept, a fantasy invented so that we can believe our children are safe from the evils of the world?

There is heavy subtext about the sexual maturation of women present throughout The Exorcist. Regan is a girl just at the age when she might begin menstruation. She violates herself with a crucifix, producing blood and taunting her carers with sexual obscenities. Before things become so ostentatious, she’s just a cranky girl getting a check-up at the doctor, letting a profanity slip when she doesn’t want to be poked or prodded anymore. In many ways, what we see is an adult nightmare of female adolescence played out, particularly in how American Christians perceive sexual maturation. You need only look to the fundamentalist fervor over abortion to see the bizarre relationship between these religious people and sexuality. The unborn, voiceless & powerless are the most precious of all and so innocent, while the minute after they are born, filled with the potential of having a different set of opinions than the conservative Christians, they become unimportant and not worth the time. Regan’s experience is a direct confrontation with this mindset, mocking their Puritanical mores for being naive and intolerant.

There is so much happening in The Exorcist, much more than relegating it to a cultural novelty that spooked audience members in the 1970s. It is an enigmatic film that wants you to actively engage in the ideas it presents. There is no pipe smoking expert, a la Psycho, who will exposit for the audience’s benefit in the final ten minutes to explain to us what just happened. Regan is saved, she and her mom are leaving, and the people who live in Georgetown are left to contemplate what just happened with no easy answers coming any time soon.

Movie Review – Alien

Alien (1979)
Written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Directed by Ridley Scott

It can be hard to see the original Alien movie separate from the bloated franchise it has become in the ensuing four decades. The last entry into the series, Alien: Covenant, is so different that it might as well be set in a brand-new universe and considered a reboot of the entire premise. Before viewing the original Alien, it is recommended that you try and purge all thoughts of what came later and approach the picture as a singular one-and-done experience. By not watching the movie as part of an ongoing series, which at the time it was made, no sequel plans were in the works, it heightens the horror of the overall story.

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Movie Review – Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)
Written by John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Directed by John Carpenter

Few sounds in horror are as iconic as the opening notes of the Halloween theme music. Filmmaker John Carpenter was able to capture the tension of this story with such a seemingly simple score. You literally cannot make a Halloween sequel at this point without including the music; it has become as linked to the franchise as the central antagonist Michael Meyers. Everything about Halloween seems too simple at first glance, tropes that we have come to find yawn-inducing in movies now. But there is just something about how Carpenter deploys them, tongue in cheek at some moments and brutally real in others, that elevates it above the slasher shlock that was to come.

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Movie Review – Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now (1973)
Written by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant
Directed by Nicholas Roeg

I was a child when I first encountered the work of Nicholas Roeg, and I didn’t even know it. That was in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It’s not considered Roeg’s work and near the end of his career when projects weren’t as abundant. In college, I really discovered the magic of his particular style of filmmaking by watching his films from the 1970s (Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth). What drew me to him was this picture, Don’t Look Now, a measured, tense horror film about the inevitability of death and the weight of grief. This is all done through a brilliant editing technique that simulates clairvoyance.

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Movie Review – Stalker

Stalker (1979)
Written by Boris Strugatsky & Arkady Strugatsky
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Today I begin a week-ish long series called Worlds on the Edge of Chaos. My thought behind this series of movies is to look at apocalyptic films that aren’t Mad Max-ian, deep in the primal collapse of mankind. These movies are intended to be more philosophical about collapse, with characters existing on the precipice between the world that was and falling into the oblivion of the end. These pictures will vary wildly in tone and characters, but they will all explore the themes that arise when we confront the end of civilization as we know it. Many of these movies present their collapse with a melancholy quiet proposing the old adage that the world will end with a whisper.

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Movie Review – Deliverance

Deliverance (1972)
Written by James Dickey
Directed by John Boorman

The opening dialogue of Deliverance, based on the novel of the same name by James Dickey, tells us everything we need to know to understand the conflict that underlies the entire film. The quartet of friends talks about a new damn built on the fictional Cahulawassee River and how this effort of modern industrial ingenuity is going to change the landscape. This plays out over scenes of massive earth-moving machinery and explosives clearing away cliffs. This will be a story about modernity clashing with primal forces of nature and how masculinity navigates how a strange old world redefines it.

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Movie Review – Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

I think Stanley Kubrick was one of those rare directors who could dramatically shift tone & aesthetics between films without losing his core themes. On a material level, the differences between A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon is a vast gulf. Sex & violence is still present, but it’s meted out in a much more measured fashion. The goal of Barry Lyndon is to communicate with subtlety, to control the camera to an almost ascetic degree in how it delivers information about the characters & conflict. Kubrick also plays with structure creating two very distinct halves that tell us different things about the same character.

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Movie Review – A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick has no shortage of controversy in his filmmaking career, and probably the most incendiary of his films is this adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 satirical novel about a violently out of control youth culture. In reflecting on my rewatch of this movie in the context of Kubrick’s body of work, I think it is shortsighted by people who are offended by the picture to push it aside so brusquely. The director has composed a movie that sits as a discomforting companion piece to Paths of Glory, asking some tough questions and making sure that our contemplation of these inquiries is not an easy task. The most important aspects of our society should be very hard to address and tackle.

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A Hypothetical Birthday Film Festival

Today is my 39th birthday. Last year, I posted a film for every year I’d been alive, so this year I will present a collection of movies where birthdays play a crucial role in the plot. I’m quite excited about next year, where I will be starting a series on my 40 Favorite Films of All-Time. For now, there are some pictures where getting a year old causes some complications.

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Movie Review – Network

Network (1976)
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Network is a masterpiece. This is true both in the sheer craft of Paddy Chayefsky’s dialogue and structure, but especially for how the themes are blended so perfectly in the narrative. One of my biggest complaints about the film has nothing to do with what we see on screen but with the audience’s popular interpretation. Most people know Network for the famous “I’m Mad As Hell” speech, which leads me to the belief they shut the film off right as the second act starts. The statement has to be viewed in the context of the entire movie and how the words of Howard Beale are used and twisted by institutions in power.

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