Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Exorcist (1973)

Dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow

The Exorcist is the first film I can remember watching that lists in its credits three religious consultants and the same number of scientific consultants. But that is only fitting. One of the themes touched on in The Exorcist is the difference between science and faith – as well as the overlap between them.

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress, shooting a film at Washington’s Georgetown University. For the duration of the shoot she and her twelve-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) have moved into a nearby house. Regan starts to enter trance-like states, speaking involuntarily and suffering seizures. Chris desperately takes her daughter to see doctors and specialists, psychiatrists and hypnotists. No identifiable ailment can be found; meanwhile Regan’s affliction gets worse. Her bed bucks, she speaks in a horrific otherworldly voice, the temperature in her bedroom drops. Her mother is forced to restrain her. In desperation she contacts Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) and pleads with him to perform an exorcism. His superiors decide to bring in the venerable Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) instead, who recognises that he is dealing with an old enemy of his, the demon Pazuzu.

The world of the rational is shown through the doctors that the MacNeils first deal with. This ‘rationality’ involves subjecting Regan to excruciating medical testing. Only after their search for a ‘somatic’ explanation for her ailments fails – and they witness the possessed Regan – do they suggest that a psychiatric remedy should be sort. The psychiatric specialists are less empirical, and it is one of their number (played by Peter Masterson from The Stepford Wives) who first suggests that they should consider – purely to shock Regan out of her delusions – a rite of exorcism. He describes it as “a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest try to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It’s been pretty much discredited these days except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of an embarrassment, but it has worked. Although not for the reasons they think, of course. It’s purely a force of suggestion. The victim’s belief in possession is what helped cause it, so in that same way a belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear.” This leads to Father Karras, who is a priest but also a psychiatrist. He states at one point that he fears he has lost his faith. Finally on the spectrum we come to Father Merrin. His faith in God – and in His demonic opposition – is resolute. On each step the atheist Chris is forced to go further and further away from science and more towards faith. At the same time the audience travels with her; despite knowing that I was watching a horror movie, despite the foreshadowings of Pazuzu from the film’s opening at an Iraqi archaeological site, and despite the fact that the exorcism scenes are so famous I found myself wondering at first whether an ‘exorcism’ could in fact be diagnosed or explained scientifically.

No time for levity:
Fathers Merrin and Karras battle for Regan's soul

Yet at the same time science and faith overlap. The doctors repeat over and over again like a mantra that Regan must be suffering from a lesion on her temporal lobe, even when investigations fail to produce any evidence for this. Meanwhile the priests approach the exorcism scientifically. Karras conducts an investigation to see whether the case meets the requirements for an exorcism – taping his conversations with Regan and trying a ‘trick’ involving fake holy water. Merrin knows precisely what is needed for the ritual. He essentially gives Karras a shopping list of necessary items and his exorcism follows a prescribed procedure.

These days the film is regarded as a classic – notably it was the first horror movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Perhaps because of this I expected to be left disappointed. It is a victim of its success. When the film was first released Warner Bros refused to allow photographs of the possessed Regan to be reproduced. This was wise. From my vantage point in 2012 the swollen-faced child, levitating off the bed, growling obscenities, has become a familiar image. There was a danger that the “Your mother cooks socks in Hull!” and pea soup pastiches (pea soup was actually used on set for Regan’s ectoplasmic vomiting) would leave the entire thing looking just a little bit silly. The direction of William Friedkin, and in particular the pacing of the film, saves it from this fate. The film takes its time to get where it wants to go, allowing a sense of dread to emerge as rational explanations are ruled out and Regan’s symptoms get worse and worse. Father Merrin does not even arrive in Georgetown until ninety minutes into the film. The priests get their back story, Merrin in the sandstorms of Iraq and Karras laden with guilt over the death of his mother. These provide the routes that allow Pazuzu to attack them. And plus there are plenty of jumps and scares and quite a few horrific images and scenes to contend with along the way. There are a couple of moments that spoil the show: the willingness of Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) to assume that a snapped neck on a body that has fallen down 74 stairs is clear evidence of black magic for example, or Jack MacGowran’s fey, drunken, German-hating director. But overall The Exorcist  works for both the horror of the demonic possession and also for the human reactions of those around it.

What have I learnt about Washington, D.C.?
D.C. has more than just politics. It has residential areas – rather grand residential areas to be honest – too. Georgetown and its university are set away from the hubbub of the political world. Having said that, all the great and the good are neighbours here. Chris’s party hosts actors alongside priests and astronauts, and she receives an invitation to dinner at the White House. The people who live here really are the top of the social elite.

Can we go there?
Georgetown, where the film is set, is easily reachable from central D.C. and you can find a number of the movie's key locations. When I was staying in Washington in 2010 we had an evening out in Georgetown – I recall that we walked past the Watergate Complex en route. Georgetown has a fun, prosperous air, with plenty of eateries and shops along its main corridor, M Street. Or you can drop down to the towpaths alongside the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Both these locations are shown in the film. Chris first meets Father Karras on a footbridge over the canal. The MacNeil residence was just up from M Street, at 3600 Prospect Street, near the junction of 36th Street NW. Opposite at the junction of 36th and Prospect Streets is the stairway down. It is officially called ‘the Hitchcock Steps’, but is more popularly known these days as  "the Exorcist Steps". Unfortunately I was unable to find them when I visited (I didn’t want Rebecca to know what I was looking for). A false wing was built on the MacNeil’s home to bring it closer to the top of the steps. Other scenes were shot at Georgetown University, which was indeed founded by the Jesuits. The ‘film shoot’ scene took place outside Healy Hall, the archbishop’s office was actually that of the president of the university, and the defiled statue of the Virgin Mary was filmed in the Dahlgren Chapel there. A bar scene was shot in  The Tombs at 1226 36thStreet; later the bar featured quite prominently in St Elmo’s Fire.

Interior scenes were filmed in New York. This enabled Regan’s bedroom to be refrigerated so that the actors’ breaths would steam. Further location filming took place even further away, in Iraq. I’m not sure whether I would recommend a visit there quite yet, but the archaeological dig took place at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of  Hatra, 180 miles northwest of Baghdad and 68 miles southwest of Mosul.

Overall Rating 3/5

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