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 . 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. Georgetown University
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
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
until ninety minutes into the film. The priests get their back story, Merrin in
the sandstorms of Georgetown
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. Iraq
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.
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. Georgetown
Can we go there?
Interior scenes were filmed in
. This enabled
Regan’s bedroom to be refrigerated so that the actors’ breaths would steam.
Further location filming took place even further away, in New York . 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 Iraq Baghdad and 68 miles southwest of . Mosul
Overall Rating 3/5