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DVD SAVANT

The Exorcist
Extended Director's Cut & Original Theatrical Version
Savant Blu-ray Review


The Exorcist
Blu-ray
Warner Home Video
1973 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 122 132 min. / Extended Director's Cut & Original Theatrical Version / Street Date October 5, 2010 / 34.99
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Reverend William O'Malley S.J..
Cinematography
Owen Roizman
Written and Produced by William Peter Blatty from his novel
Directed by William Friedkin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Let's all go back to the Middle Ages!
Or, an overly opinionated DVD reviewer blows a fuse.

I've long avoided writing directly about The Exorcist. The horror blockbuster was for a time the most successful moneymaker in Hollywood history. It still has a reputation for being scary. Warner Bros. new Blu-ray contains two versions of the film, the original theatrical cut, and a longer Extended Director's Cut that restores a few minutes of material dropped before the picture was locked in editorial.

I've intensely disliked The Exorcist since the night it opened, just after Christmas in 1973. I had worked as an usher at the National Westwood until a few weeks before and saw studio men discussing publicity ideas with the theater manager. Sure enough, when the TV news covered the long lines around the block, 24 hours a day, there was my boss the manager looking sheepish as he reported that people were screaming and running out of the theater. "Gee, I guess maybe there really is a devil in there!" I was not happy when the L.A. Times reported the filmmakers' claim of an actual curse on the movie, which went so far as to imply that the death of actor Jack MacGowran was related. Promoting a movie this way was a really crass thing to do.

The filmmakers denied that The Exorcist was "just a horror film"; they instead pushed the notion that True Evil was on the screen. Like a well-primed carnival audience ("Step right up to see the Devil!"), audiences were already rattled before the movie started. What they got was an intimidating Hellfire and Brimstone spectacle that uses every cinematic trick available to beat them into psychological submission. The film is conservative propaganda: It insists that The Church is the only way, and everything secular, especially science, is heretical.

William Friedkin's film marks a major change of tactics for the horror film, which previously might have used atmospherics and suggestive imagery to tease us into a sense of unease. The Exorcist hammers the audience with ugly sensations until our mental defenses are exhausted. Friedkin has often remarked on his strategy of alternating quiet scenes with loud scenes, a manipulative pattern that we immediately noticed. Frightened people discuss the plight of little Regan (Linda Blair) in between massive jolts of noise. Many of these are completely artificial. Every time we see Regan "tortured" by what are actually benign medical procedures, we're hit by an avalanche of brain-rattling noise. The most absurd is the deafening blast of a scanning machine (which just makes a hum, normally). Friedkin evokes a Pavlovian jolt when he shock-cuts to X-rays being displayed on a light box. HUGE NOISES of electric motors moving the photos into position knock us back in our seats, as if Friedkin had cut to a close-up of a jet engine. These shocks are a wholly mechanical assault on the nervous system. It's like being startled by loud noises when you're already worried about something ... over and over again. This is a legit strategy for breaking people down in an interrogation, or to soften them up for brainwashing.

The movie delivers a perverse Sunday School lesson in fundamentalist fire and brimstone without a shred of irony or humor. Author William Peter Blatty's idea of The Devil's minor mischief comes straight from conservatives' guilty conscience list -- "bad taste" things that make superstitious people uncomfortable. I place Regan's urinating on the nice new rug as one of these. So is the idea of rats in the attic (nice people don't have them) and your kid telling an important guest that he's going to die -- these social embarrassments put us on edge more than we admit. We're made to feel uneasy about Karras' lapse of faith, and to feel shame and guilt for Chris MacNeil because she's a non-practicing modern woman "cursed" by divorce and sexual freedom. It is suggested that Satan has targeted Regan because her mother is too indulgent, that by not imposing Christian values on her daughter, Chris has abandoned her soul to Evil Influences.  1

Then we get to the film's "this means war" turning point, the scene of the desecration of the church. The Exorcist presents the Catholic Church as the only source of truth, moral strength and sanity. The movie insists that the Church's symbols and rituals are the literal Power of God, and the might of the Church is the only thing keeping Hellfire and Chaos from consuming humanity. Nothing abstract is going on. We're expected to believe that a priest can vex The Devil by throwing holy water at him. The Priest's raiment is a suit of armor for doing battle with demons. The Exorcist expects its view of a Good church warring with Satan to be accepted as something completely real.

This insistence on absolute truth is felt in The Exorcist's all-out assault on secular institutions. Public health care will let our sweet old mothers rot in Bedlam-like hospitals. A police detective (Lee. J. Cobb) bumbles about to no purpose whatsoever. Scientists are incompetent charlatans because they promote medicine and psychology (evolution and sex education are next). Regan's doctors are a bunch of clinical noodlers that show little compassion for their patient and refuse to acknowledge "what everyone knows", that supernatural demons are at work. Like Nazi interrogators (or Catholic Inquisitors), the doctors submit the wailing Regan to round after round of superfluous medical torture.

It's not good when an enormously popular movie promotes such reactionary, socially destructive attitudes. The Exorcist dismisses rational investigation as a useful approach to Regan's problem. Confronted with supernatural phenomena like levitating furniture and flying objects, all the main doctor can say to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is, "The problem is not your daughter's bed, it's her brain". Medical bozos should throw away their diplomas and enroll in a seminary; the film's solution for mankind's ills is a return to the Dark Ages.   2

Just when all seems lost The Exorcist cuts to the stately interior of a Bishop's chamber. Two high-level church officials attend to the Regan MacNeil Affair as if they were Churchill and Eisenhower mulling over D-Day plans. These pros know just what to do. They call in Agent 007 Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), the intensely devout priest-archeologist. Merrin's faith is so strong, he can confront Beezelbub mano a mano. Father Merrin can ward off the demon-in-Regan even while carrying the relative dead weight of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a soulful priest who doubts his own faith.

After worrying about Regan through two hours of profanity, brutality and projectile vomit, we're finally told that Regan is irrelevant, that the real battle is between Merrin and Pazuzu. Existence is a supernatural Cold War between The Church and Satan in which ordinary people are meaningless pawns. Regan is just another Vietnam in The Devil's domino strategy. Merrin realized that Pazuzu's power was mounting back in Iraq, when the demon Pazuzu "called Merrin out". Pazuzu first manifests itself as a colossal winged statue. Despite all of this primitive hocus-pocus and Catholic propagnda, in the latest round of Exorcist extras the film's director and writer-producer assure us that the movie's intent is to make a positive statement about faith. Baloney.

The Exorcist contradicts its own message, that the Church protects its own. Its crude manipulations of sacred symbols and concepts brutalize sensitive Catholics. The film's strongest moments reveal the filmmaker's lack of artistic restraint. Is this the extent of their imagination? Why did they stop at vomit ... why not have Regan inundate the priests with excrement? The filmmakers point to dubious "actual accounts" of "real" exorcisms as backup research, but I just think they're doing their darnedest to assault the audience. More than a lack of subtlety or scruples is involved. It's a basic contempt for the audience. The effect of the movie on sensitive viewers can be compared to sitting the mother of a kidnap victim down and shoving photos of the mutilated body in her face.

Amid all this exploitative brutality, the anti-scientific The Exorcist contradicts itself by applying cinema science with admirable precision. Friedkin's editors time sequences beautifully. They make excellent use of disturbing subliminal cuts to demon masks that zoom straight to our inbred fears. But when the film is not on the attack, the ragged underpinnings show. The underdeveloped criminal investigation just marks time between horror scenes. One exchange between Lee J. Cobb's Lt. Kinderman and Chris MacNeil consists of meaningless small talk. Friedkin's camera slowly zooms in until the halfway point is reached, and then slowly zooms out again. ZZZZZ. The Extended Director's Cut includes a couple of new scenes with Kinderman and the pleasant Father Dyer, played (very well) by the actual Reverend William O'Malley. Director Friedkin claims that he's reinstated this footage to return the film to author Blatty's preferred cut. This extra material is just plain awful, especially the incredibly lame idea of making Kinderman and Father Dyer film fans. They walk into the sunset together mimicking the end of Casablanca. If Blatty thinks these bits make The Exorcist a lighter, more faith-affirming movie, he's delusional. Friedkin's omission of this mush was astute.  4

The aura of importance surrounding The Exorcist has obliterated many attempts to call it by its true name. That makes me somewhat relieved to read Roger Ebert's original review as I think it agrees with some of my arguments. Even if you think this essay is nuts, maybe you'll look at The Exorcist a little differently next time. Seeing it again has caused me to respect William Friedkin's command of filmmaking much more than before -- his movie's ugliness has not diminished over time.   6


Warners' Blu-ray of The Exorcist contains two carefully mastered cuts of the movie on two separate discs, giving each a healthy bit rate. Even the flash frames come through strong and sharp. A choice of high-end stereo audio mixes reproduces the original experience of being blasted with sound with every new shock scene. The film's blacks are even inkier. The movie's color has not been subjected to the transfer experiment used on the Blu-ray of Friedkin's The French Connection, which attracted few fans. I was very impressed with Friedkin's technical achievement while watching this Blu-ray.

The two discs replicate the bountiful extras from earlier extended cuts, including the commentary with William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty. Mark Kermode's long docu The Fear of God from 1998 contains a wealth of fascinating technical detail, especially the amazing work of Dick Smith and others on the film's special effects and makeup innovations. Some newer material including Friedkin's intro stresses his new view of The Exorcist as a positive film about faith. Fans of the film will not be let down by this HD release.

The extras continue with an interesting selection of art and still galleries, etc. One nicely transferred item takes me back to the summer of 1973, when I was ushering at the National in Westwood and Warners publicity people were dropping by to test out various campaign ideas. I heard screamingly loud music coming from the auditorium and thought it was by Bernard Herrmann. Running inside I saw all but the first few moments of a test trailer that was really, really powerful. It's included here among the extras, listed as "Flash Image". Maybe the trailer was too much for the campaign, but it really got my adrenalin going.

Fans will also enjoy Warners' elaborate souvenir booklet, with filmmaker bios and comments and a nice assortment of glossy images.

The Exorcist is an important movie historically and a real game-changer in regard to the blitzkrieg promotion of major event movies. I've harbored ill will against it for 37 years now and it feels good to air it on this obvious online soapbox. My personal favorite movie about the occult is Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon. It counters superstition with rational skepticism and plays fair with both sides. And although it asks us to think about what we do and don't believe, it doesn't claim to have the one true answer for The Human Condition.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Exorcist Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Abstain
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, feature-length documentary, trailers, stills,
Packaging: Book packaging with insert color booklet.
Reviewed: October 15, 2010

Footnotes:

1. The National Lampoon magazine once carried a cartoon called "Presbyterian Hell" that depicted the whole gamut of banal middle-class miseries that nice people try to deny ... kids misbehaving in obscene ways, etc. It's very similar to The Exorcist's initial disturbances.
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2. The Exorcist marks a 180-degree shift from the relative rationalism of 1950s. If William Peter Blatty wrote The War of the Worlds, the scene with the pacifist priest would come at the end. He'd raise his cross and recite the Lord's Prayer, and the Martian war machines would be struck down dead. Germs? Only Godless atheists believe that germs have anything to do with sickness ... prayer alone can heal.
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4. The new "spiderwalk" scene -- two very fast cuts -- isn't as silly as I thought it might be. The Regan-Demon seems to be mocking Chris's concern over Burke Dennings, with a facetious lampoon of the man's death fall on the stone stairway. And it's genuinely jolting.
Return

6. A parting shot: The melodramatic final confrontation of The Exorcist (spoiler) sees Father Karras making the ultimate sacrifice. Friedkin's expertly aligned jump cuts show the priest inviting the demon to leave Regan and possess him instead: ("Take me! Take Me!") The moment that Pazuzu has been tricked into "coming aboard", Karras throws himself out Regan's window and plunges headlong to the famous steps below. A Christ-like anti-demon warrior, Karras has committed suicide to take Pazuzu out of the game. This great scene reminds me of some memorable literary precedent, but what? Dante Alighieri?

No, it's Charles Barton's excellent comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which resolves the fates of two classic Universal monsters in one wonderful image. The Wolfman (remember, he's a victim of demonic possession, more or less) fights off his curse long enough to act not as a monster but as the sympathetic, beloved Larry Talbot. The heroic Wolfman chooses to sacrifice himself for a profoundly noble cause, the eradication of Dracula, the closest thing in traditional monsterdom to Satan himself. Dracula assumes his susceptible bat form to fly to safety from a castle window. The Wolfman leaps to the attack, falling to his death but dragging Drac down with him. Kids cheer this inspired ending, which might help to cheer up people appalled by The Exorcist. If the sledgehammer polemics become too much for you, just think of Karras screaming as he plummets downward: "Hey Abbo-o-o-o-ott!"
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Some Reader Responses to
Savant's review of THE EXORCIST, unedited:

10/16/10

Correspondent "B":
Dear Glenn, This was a Pantheon Savant review. Best, Always. -- B.

Correspondent George Delmerico:
Glenn, you could guess from previous emails from me that I LOVED your Exorcist review. I am completely relieved, though I always thought you'd, uh, give the devil his due and speak also to the film's expertise. But I wasn't prepared for the vehemence of your rejection of the religious clap-trap. I'd amend Mencken and say that no one ever went broke pandering to the superstitious fears of the American people. Take heart, You Are Not Alone. Are you going to help us to a sample of the reaction of your more credulous readers? -- George


Correspondent Marco DuBose:
Wow! You've been holding that in for a long time, haven't you? It never occurred to me to think that deeply about it. I remember my father took me to see the movie (I must have begged him to because it's not a movie he would choose to see). We left early because it scared the heck out of me. To talk me down my Father recounted how ridiculous it was that the Devil would be interested in some little girl. Now Watergate, that's something the Devil would do! I didn't worry about the Devil much after that. I was much more scared that I would wake up with a horse's head in my bed. Thanks for the review, -- Marco


Correspondent George Godwin:
Hi Glenn. I enjoyed your comments about The Exorcist -- a movie I've also long had conflicted feelings about. I recall standing in line for over an hour on a freezing cold, snowy day here in Winnipeg to catch the first matinee screening. The theatre was packed with people who had worked themselves up into a state of hyper-anticipation before the lights even went down (and I admit that I was pumped as I was anticipating "the greatest horror movie of all time"). It wasn't long before I found myself beginning to chuckle, an effect which only increased as others in the audience began to jump and scream at every sudden noise and abrupt cut. When it was over, I could only shake my head. Here in the middle of a century marked by the horrific excesses of Stalinism and Nazism and any number of other atrocities large and small, we were being asked to see the ultimate expression of evil in an adolescent girl with a serious case of potty mouth, to have out "faith" undermined by projectile vomit and public urination ... I couldn't help but wonder how it was that Hitler's death camps hadn't managed to do the job ... It was only years later, when I took another look that, like you, I found myself appreciating Friedkin's craft. The movie is very well put together, but it is nonetheless nonsense. As entertainment, I've always prefered some of the cheesier Italian Exorcist rip-offs, or even the Omen movies, because Blatty & Friedkin's straight-faced seriousness makes the nonsense harder to swallow. Cheers, -- George


10/17/10

Correspondent Bill Oppenheim:
I once saw an interview with Blatty where he casually mentioned that The Exorcist was based "on an incident between Shirley Maclaine and her daughter"(!). Blatty used to write terrible comedies for her. This would explain why the character is an actress, has a "moptop" (remember Artists and Models?), and a last name that's sort of "Maclaine" transposed. She went all New Age-y shortly after. Even did her own exorcism movie....

Correspondent Edward Holub, Jr.:
Hi Glenn, Wow!! What an eye-opener of a review. I've never seen you take such an angry stand against a film before, especially when I thought you were being too lenient on other movies that I've positively HATED (but never told you about). Yes, I was one of those that were scared out of their wits by the film. However, on subsequent viewings I realized that Father Karras is the main focus of the movie and not Regan. And, what do you know, I can actually chuckle at some of the stuff it depicts. It is refreshing to see you get red in the face and disembowel a movie with a swift Exacto knife. I just didn't think this would be the film to get you dander up. And, again, no offense, but in my opinion you have been too lenient on some pretty bad stuff in the past. I'll never get tired of reading your reviews. -- Eddie


Correspondent Jon Robertson:
Dear Glenn, your Blu-ray review of The Exorcist is the best deconstruction of the film I've seen since Pauline Kael's similarly appalled notice upon its original release. As with so many recent "torture-porn" movies, the built-in concept of many of the film's "high points" is so brutal, the audience reaction will be got any-which-way with the bare minimum of technical competence . The formal considerations of filmmaking slip into irrelevance; for example, the scene that is usually euphemistically reported as Regan "masturbating with a crucifix" (if you think that's masturbation, you're doing it wrong). What we're looking at is a child mutilating her own genitals, then rubbing her panicking mother's face in the wound. It's such a barrel-scrapingly nasty scenario to put before an audience. We're supposed to take this as the work - the labours and inspirations - of a major artist?

The film overall is pretty ragged as a work of craftsmanship -- there are no real structured scenes, just lots of nuggets of plot or quick scene-setting exchanges strung together. I don't think there's a scene in the film (aside from the final possession sequences) that lasts longer than 90 seconds, and most significantly shorter. The only sequence that seems to display any sense of mystery and pace, the opening in Iraq, is so vaguely tied in to the overall action, it seems like an after-thought reshoot. Still, it's the best scene in the film.

The bluntness of Friedkin's conception - no attempt to lift the material or imbue it with any of the eerie lyricism that was once part and parcel of the genre - has always left me detached from the film and any suspension of disbelief. It stills bothers me that when Regan becomes unpossessed she isn't clinically dead, because, aside from all else, we've seen her head swivel 360 degrees. Pedantic, maybe, but when a film doesn't try and capture your imagination but pound it into submission, what else is there to think about? Yours, Jon Robertson


10/18/10

Correspondent (withheld):
Mr. Erickson, I have read your reviews of films for at least a decade. Often, I value your input about a particular film's content and DVD presentation to decide on a purchase. Thanks ... now you need not read further. The rest of this email is a critique of your rants against any entertainment that does not agree with your "UCLA undergraduate" liberal/socialist world view. I am annoyed by:

Your intolerance of capitalism or, as we wacko crank American conservatives call it, free enterprise. Your review of Michael Moore's Capitalism, A Love Story is a good example of this bias. You trot out the "corporate greed" dogma of all leftists and basically present a valentine of a critique for this smart ass of a film maker who never met a person with a different point of view he couldn't portray as a conservative dupe or an idiot. In my opinion, Moore is an intellectual bully. However, your review makes one start to wonder why East Germany ever built the Berlin Wall. Gee, I guess it was to keep all the victims of capitalism out of East Germany's socialist utopia

Since you work in an industry that represents, in lock step, this liberal intolerance of free markets, I would expect you to at least acknowledge the hypocrisy of the film industry and their economic world view. Has Hollywood ever made a comedy, drama, or romance, that was not set "in the world of corporate greed and corruption" (check out most films starring George Clooney). Maybe you should at least give some thought to the weekly box office ballyhoo about gross receipts for every new studio release. Interesting that even the release of Hugo Chavez' best boy Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is trumpeted as a box office champ! Do you really not see the problem?

The final straw, of course, was you veiled comdemnation of the Catholic Church as an instrument of conservative suppression of the masses in your review(?) of The Exorcist. If the Muslim faith was the subject of such an attack , you would be the first to condemn them as hate mongers.

I won't go into a rant about public health or your misguided belief in it, except to say that the fictional characters treatment and my experience with the system in California (MediCal) is similar and ACCURATE.

I am sorry to say I will miss reading your often insightful column. But enough is enough of the leftist propaganda. (name witheld by Savant pending permission.)


Correspondent Richard McQuillan:

"The Execrable Exorcist."

But what do you really think Glenn? :)

I long thought that I was just being a grouse for hating this flick. I saw it when it was first released and still maintain that gross-out effects are not scary, just disgusting. I do admit that I find one tiny moment a bit effective though. When Regan stands up on her bed and the statue of Pazuza appears in silhouette behind her. But that's it! The Richard Pryor parody on Saturday Night Live was so much better than the movie! Best wishes, -- Richard


Correspondent Kevin Boury:
Glenn: It's just a movie, not a detailed scientific explanation of the way the universe operates. As you describe yourself in your non-review, it seems you were ready to dislike this movie before you saw it. I mean, invoking Vietnam? It takes real hate for a piece of art to invoke a connection like that.

Reading all this now, there's just now way you were ever going to be able to like this film when it was released! Which is too bad, because it's a hell of a fun roller coaster ride with the right audience. I guess it's OK for a reviewer to come across some films they just are unable to judge impartially, as long as they admit it as you did. What other choice is there?

But just like I don't go to Jaws for accurate information on shark behavior, I don't look to The Exorcist to explain religion or God. These movies really aren't very good at that. They're much better at just being scary movies. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar... and nothing more, no matter how cynically it was marketed. Keep up the great work! Thanks! -- Kevin Boury

P.S. And thanks for turning me on to Greenbriar Picture Shows.


Correspondent Chris Saunders:
Hey Glenn, it was nice to read your thoughts on The Exorcist -- after many negative passing comments in previous reviews I'm glad you got around to a full review. Your review convinced me to finally sit down and watch it. I don't have any strong disagreements with you on the religious content, I just don't find it all that offensive; if anything it's nice to see a demon-themed film where the forces of religion aren't completely impotent.

My problems are more on a technical/cinematic level. I had a bigger problem with the pacing -- I think a lot could have been trimmed from the film without hurting it, especially the Iraq opening and Lee J. Cobb's scenes. And I have to admit, it's not really my kind of horror - I like my scares a bit more subtle than using a crucifix as a dildo and green projectile vomiting. After the first few gross-out moments, such nonsense gets tiresome for me, and a complete lack of ambiguity in what we're seeing doesn't help either.

Still, I found it well-made, well-acted and gripping on some level, so I can't really give it a low score. I think if it had been made in the vein of, say, The Cat People, where ambiguity exists and the scares implied rather than splattered across the screen, it could have been great. But I guess the zeitgeist of 1973 wasn't game for that sort of horror flick.

Just my two cents. Regards, Chris Saunders


Correspondent Gary Teetzel (off topic?):

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN'S TIP OF THE DAY: Handy tip from the movie Devil: If your bread falls and lands jelly-side down, this is a sign that the devil is near. -- Gary


10/19/10

Correspondent Dick Dinman:
The reason why DVD Savant is the only review site I read: your Exorcist review. -- D.D.


Correspondent Bob Lindstrom:
Glenn: Excellent article about The Exorcist. I never saw the film first-run but caught up with it in re-release in the '80s. I was underwhelmed. A conservative religious sermon disguised as an exploitation film. (In contrast to Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which is an exploitation film disguised as a religious experience.)

However, I have to take exception to one point regarding the sound that occurs when Regan gets her brain scan. In fact, they aren't using contemporary technology (obviously). The unit in question required pressure-forced injection of dye into the brain followed by the shooting of a sequence of X-ray plates. As the plates locked into position, they did, in fact, making a pretty loud banging noise.

I know this because I had the procedure performed on me in the '80s, a few months before I saw The Exorcist. It was harrowing: the close quarters, the sharp pain of syringes jabbed into your neck arteries, the feel of heat swelling into your brain as the dye was pumped, and the banging of the mechanism made for a pretty horrific experience. (Although the shot in which Regan's blood spurts across the room when the needles are inserted is pure Friedkin BS.)

As a result, in a moment of Proustian impact, as soon as I heard the banging X-ray machine in the film, I instantly got lightheaded and nearly dropped out under my seat. It was, in fact, the only thing in the whole damned film that frightened me. Best, -- Bob Lindstrom


Correspondent Gregory Layne:
Greetings Mr. Erickson: To get the formalities out of the way, I've been enjoying your reviews . . . I'm pretty sure . . . as long as you've been posting them as the "DVD Savant." In my book, you're up there with Roger Ebert and Tim Lucas as must-read critics.

Anyway, like many of your readers, I enjoyed your 10/18 review of The Exorcist but feel compelled to comment on the vehemence of your vitriol.

As I'm sure you're aware, horror is a fundamentally, deeply conservative genre: with few exceptions (some of Lovecraft's and Clive Barker's better fiction come immediately to mind, Night of the Living Dead and Cronenburg's They Came from Within on the film front), the thrills and chills provided by the anarchic shenanigans of the "transgressive" monster(s) climax with a -- typically violent -- return to normalcy. The beast is dead, and everything is right again on God's green (or black & while) earth. The term "catharsis" is often misused, but in horror it often functions in the true Aristotelian sense. That's not just how, but why the genre works. Consider just about any iconic horror film: the original Frankenstein and Cat People, Black Sunday . . . and The Exorcist.

Friedkin -- and Blatty, whom you rather inexplicably let off the hook for being the original author of the sequences you most object to -- setting sexual revolution-era middle class fears such as women's liberation (Regan's divorced, financially and presumably sexually independent mother) and the effects on America's youth (disrespect for authority, physical/sexual "acting out") against the conservative, and explicitly male, authority of the church was exploitation genius at the time. It's instructive that both you and several of the commentators you've posted mention that audiences for the original release were primed with fear before even they bought their tickets. It was a scary time for conservative society, and someone had to step up.

That person was Father Karras. By the denouement, if not well before, it's clear that the story is not about Regan but him. Can Karras -- a two-dimensional charicature of masculinity and, not quite ironically, a flawed but nonetheless devoted scion of traditional values -- meet the "diabolical" challenges of the new age? Not so surprisingly, the answer is yes. After Father Merrin sacrifices himself, Karras steps up -- and in -- to the role of surrogate authority: the battered but unbeaten father figure. Yeah, maybe he's no longer an active presence in the post-nuclear family, but he's still THE MAN and he'll be there to set things straight when and where the need arises.

All is still more-or-less good on God's green earth. Best Regards, Gregory A. Layne


10/20/10

Correspondent Kathy:
Dear Mr. Erickson: Very fine work in calling this film out on things it needs to be called out on...and giving credit where credit is due.

I used to think that as someone who escaped being raised in an organized religion (see? one's parents divorcing is good for something) the film meant nothing to me. The only thing I ever found creepy about it was the replica of Linda Blair that I saw in person as part of an exhibit from the Smithsonian that stopped in Miami years ago.

(was a lot of fun though...they had wired it so that every thirty seconds or so it's eyes would move from one side to the other...and I'd stand by the case and wait until someone else would come up and I'd say, "Scary, huh?"...they'd agree...and then I'd say "Especially the eyes." and if I timed it right the eyes would move just then and the other person would either jump or immediately walk away...some of them visibly cringing)

I used to think it was that I couldn't suspend my disbelief for The Exorcist because they're asking me to believe in "real" things I didn't believe in the rest of the time. Put Carrie White in that levitating bed and I'll go along with you for the next couple of hours. The Devil? No such thing. I am also a huge fan of Curse of the Demon exactly because it left things open to interpretation.

However, then came Fallen with Denzel Washington and - it might not be the best film - but I was right there with them even though it too was about a Biblical figure.

So, I think your review now finally cleared up some of the REAL problems I have with The Exorcist.

I have to say that Fallen (which I'm not going to assume you've seen - I think I can get my point across without spoiling the ending) reminded me of what I hated about the ending of the other film.

In Fallen, one of the angels that fell with Satan has been taking over people..usually though contact but he can "free float" for short periods to get to other hosts. There was still life in Father Karras at the bottom of the stairs. If jumping from Regan into Father Karras was so easy, why didn't Pazuzu jump into one of the bystanders or into the Priest who gave him last rites? It should have been simple so why doesn't it?

They weren't really trying to get us to believe that Pazuzu died with Karras...were they (forgetting that one sequel, of course)? How could a fall kill an immortal minion of Satan? And if it didn't then what did Karras ultimately achieve? Nothing done that night stopped that demon from just possessing someone else moments later. Or is the message of The Exorcist that Pazuzu won since he got the one Priest - his "mortal enemy" - to croak and the other to kill himself? And Regan was just the tool he used to do it?

Also...we're supposed to believe that Satan is so powerful and yet this is the kind of garbage he spends his time on? Sends his worker off to kill off a man who wasn't long for this world and a guy who was about to hang up his collar anyway? Yeah...they felt that in the Vatican...not. (Sorry...I warned you that I was a heathen).

Also wanted to let you know that I and some people I know actually see this film as a swipe at the Catholic church. Not quite the love letter that you appear to believe it is.

Karras' mother is dying in the public health system....because the Roman Catholic Church that owns millions of dollars of property (tax free) in New York City alone isn't lifting a finger to help the dying relative of one of their Priests. This despite his giving his life in service to them. Seems like every time we see the Priests they're drinking...to excess. That except for the higher ups, for the most part Priests lead miserable lives. Then, Karras comes to his superiors about Regan's case and their first and primary worry is about protocol and how this might make the church look rather than the well being of this girl. In fact, the Church's position in this seems more about downplaying it all....which one would think once it was confirmed they would be in there with every Priest in the diocese fighting along side if for no other reason than to be shouting from the rooftops, "Here...See? We told you! Proof of the Devil.". But Merrin and Karras are clearly on their own no matter what. First the Church is afraid it's a hoax. But if it's true, they wash their hands of it. As an institution they're the "protectors" not of the world against evil but of their own asses.

And as for the lack of solutions from law enforcement or the medical establishment....don't you see the same thing in any decent vampire or werewolf movie? Mortals at a loss to deal with something supernatural. Ironically, in a vampire movie (a classic, non-sparkley type) many of the weapons there are from the Catholic church - holy water, the host - but the Church is never the hero. In fact, in Coppola's Dracula, their policy on suicide is part of the problem....

I'm sorry...my point is in there somewhere.

Again, thanks for the review. It did help me clarify what it is about this film that leaves me cold. Take care, -- Kathy


Correspondent John McElwee:
Thanks a lot, Glenn, for this favorable Greenbriar mention to reader Kevin Boury. I really enjoyed his and other reactions to your review of The Exorcist, a movie I saw first-run at the old Capri Theatre in Charlotte during its initial week there and liked well enough to have studiously avoided since. I remember it as overly loud, dull when characters are downstairs, off-putting when they're upstairs in the kid's room. Upon leaving the theatre, I actually walked down the waiting block-long line for the next show and warned them against wasting their time and money. The Exorcist struck me then as a fad I wanted no part of. Also, the idea of a blockbuster horror movie did not appeal to me. I preferred discovering good ones for myself that everyone else ignored, like for instance, The Devil's Bride, which I thought then (and now) was similar material done much better. The idea of being so manipulated by Warners didn't set well either. Your most enjoyable review is probably the only worthwhile thing to have come of The Exorcist ... Cheers as Always! -- J.


Correspondent Eric Larson:
I guess all our feelings and points of views can affect how we watch and enjoy a film. The question is will we let it?

Sometimes you have to accept the rules in a movie. There are no such things as vampires yet we accept the rules when we watch the films. People can't outrun fireballs but we watch it and enjoy it in countless action films. We accept the rules. Also some films have rules that are grounded in reality. We accept those rules also.

Now if you believe in the rules of The Exorcist or not they are rules nonetheless. The Exorcist really only has one rule. God and the Devil exist. If you can't accept the rule then I can see why you dislike the film so much. I also think that because The Exorcist is done in such a realistic way it becomes harder for you to accept the rules because they seem to go against you belief system, which I will not pretend to know, I am just going by the words in your review. Thus if the film was a little more like a vampire film you could role with it because it would feel more like fantasy. But because the film takes such a serious approach you are offended rather than entertained.

You see science did not work in this film because the girl WAS possessed by a demon. Why would science help. It would be breaking it's own rules. And because of that rule the church was the only place to turn to. Not sure what your whole point was there. Do other films insist on looking to science to explain the supernatural events. Did you get as frustrated while watching Poltergeist?? Again i think it has to do with the fact that The Exorcist feels real no matter how much you may or may not believe. And if you can't sit back and go with the rules. Well you see what happens in your review.

Also just a heads up. I have been in some homes that care for the elderly and the conditions were not much different. I really don't think that this film was trying to take some conservative approach to social issues. It was just telling a story.

Anyways that was a very interesting review. I have no problem with people having different opinions on films. I was just surprised that you allowed your worldview/politics to impact your enjoyment. Regards, -- Eric Larson


Correspondent Richmond Weems:

I've always thought (and still do) that The Exorcist is a great flick. But I loved your review 'cause you bring up a lot of good points that one just can't plain argue about.

The movie is crass manipulation, but aren't a lot of good movies like that? The movie is nothing more than a treatise on Karras, really, and all the shenanigans with Regan are just window dressing so I do buy the inherent "logic" of the film that Catholicism is the only way to go here. This is what it's selling, and it does a helluva job packaging that product. The role-reversal of the doctors and the priests--as you said, the priests (faith) know exactly what to do, while the doctors (science) are unsure and impotent--was in keeping with the logic of the flick.

Again, though, I loved your review 'cause you didn't just go down the path of "it sucked". A lot of times, when discussing movies, reasons of like or dislike seem to be nothing more than "that's how I felt". Good stuff. -- Rich


Correspondent Mark Bourne:

Heya, Glenn, just chiming in with a mere personal 2 cents.

Count me in as another Savant reader who extends to you a hearty fist-bump re your welcome Exorcist take-down. Worse than actively disliking the movie, I've been utterly indifferent to it since I saw it when it opened. (Actually, now that I re-check its release date, I must have caught in in re-release a few years later as I was too young in '73 to be allowed to see it, but not too young to pick up the zeitgeisty vibe around it).

I never found it at all scary, and for a simple reason -- not for a moment did I ever buy into its "reality." I could effortlessly engage with the fantasy universe of, say, Star Wars, but never The Exorcist. And the more the movers-n-shakers behind the movie touted it as "based on a true story" and "it's scary because it's AUTHENTIC", the less I was willing or able to suspend my disbelief in the face of such clearly b.s. tactics. Beyond that, over the years I wouldn't have been able to tell you why the film simply didn't register with me; that is, if I'd given the question a second thought, or even a first. But you nailed it for me, I think. The film tried its damnedest (heh) to keep me at arm's length with its reductive moralizing and comic-book Christianism. Not coincidentally, a contributing factor might also have been the fact that I was living in a small Southern town with a heavy and insular fundamentalist, Southern Baptist strain, so I was surrounded by the true believers who seemed to regard the movie as a documentary or a Chick tract, with the devil at our door right now, etc. In fact, I remember THAT stuff more than the movie itself.

I caught it again years later with the "Director's Cut" and again came away yawning and unmoved.

Among your numerous astute points, the notion that Imminent Manifest Devilry is represented by a little floor-peeing and icky green soup and naughty language, as opposed to the real man-made evil going on in the world ... well, that speaks plenty about the expectations granted to the audience, expectations that proved to be (sigh) dead-on accurate.

Well done, sir. I appreciate some Savant now and then in high dudgeon mode. Damn near soul-satisfying, it is, especially since you are so obviously an anti-capitalist, dirty commie, socialist, Hollywood propaganda stooge. Or something.

Blue skies and keep 'em coming -- Mark


Correspondent Michael Mittelman:

Glenn: In your review of The Exorcist, you mentioned that you worked as an usher at The National Westwood. I presume this is the theatre in Westwood Village in L.A. If that is the case, I along with some friends, did indeed attend my first viewing of The Exorcist at that very theater on Christmas Day while on holidays in California that year (1973). It probably wasn't the first showing of the day, but I surely recall the lineup around the block and the hysteria inside. Now that I know we were there together makes me smile.

With regard to your critique, I think you momentarily lost sight of the fact that it was simply a movie to entertain people, albeit by fear manipulation. It was never intended to be bullet proof on facts or even story line. To Mr. Friedkin's credit - he surely accomplished more than he ever set out to do with this film in terms of its popularity and recognition. Regards, Michael Mittleman


Correspondent Mike LeMaire:

Dear Mr. Erickson, I've been waiting for your full-blown review of this for a long time--I knew from incidental remarks you have made in past reviews that you intensely disliked it, and I appreciate now being able to read exactly why. I'm a Christian, and I find the movie vile, if for no deeper reason than the obscenities it portrays--it truly crosses the line. Your review, although perhaps coming from a different, and certainly more analytical, approach than my mere 'gut reaction,' made me hold it in even lower regard, if that is possible. Nonetheless, and our mutual dislike for this particular film aside, I am curious to know whether, in your view, any movie that asks its audience to accept the supernatural as a reality can be praiseworthy. I ask this because often when reviewing serious-minded religious or supernatural-themed movies, you seem to reserve your praise for those that you find to have inserted a measure of ambiguity (e.g., your review of The Song of Bernadette), in other words a 'rational explanation.'

Anyway, keep up the great work! --Mike LeMaire


Correspondent Randy Johnson:

Hi Glenn, Thanks for sticking your neck out on the Exorcist review. Anytime you have a bone to pick and have been carrying it for so many years, you should get it out of your system.

I cut classes at high school, and convinced three other friends/students to join me, to attend the opening showing at the Shepherd Twin in Oklahoma City. There was a driving force, as an OKC attorney was sending representatives to view the film to decide if it should be shut down.

I viewed the opening presentation with a full house around noon on a Wednesday, and my friends and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Satan got the last laugh as I was suspended from school for three days after that.

Perhaps you are right in many of your assumptions but the movie works on many levels and should not be dismissed as junk. Perhaps the many reasons you give for why the movie fails are exactly how the out-of-the-ordinary story line, and film techniques that appealed to those, like me that were entertained at the time, managed to impress the audience and continue to appeal to new generations. Regards, -- Randy Johnston


Correspondent Frank Wells:

Wow. Glenn, your hatred of the film was really surprising. There are a lot of reasons to hate the Exorcist (I happen to love it) but yours seems to be more rooted in dislike of its premise, yet you grudgingly admire (and despise) the skill used to propel that premise forward.

I wonder if you would have felt the same way about the novel, which is essentially the same but for an additional subplot regarding the servants' daughter. I suspect you would, as it has most of the same "flaws" you cite.

What really seems to bother you aside from the manipulative direction and sound, is the exploration of faith and the admiration for the Catholic Church. I'm not a Catholic but I wonder if you would exhibit the same outrage at other films that embrace faith and its basis as possibly real.

You got some things wrong...at one point the demon erroneously responds violently to tap water it has been told is holy water. And in the end the Church is not the hero of this movie. The Catholic trappings and rituals fail; 007 - I mean the older priest is defeated. Self-sacrifice saves the girl; she is only freed when Karras begs the Demon to come into him instead and then he hurls himself out the window. That is not in the Catholic Exorcism Playbook.

The Exorcist is a shocker but it is also a mediation on faith (maybe not yours or my faith, but that doesn't de legitimize its effectiveness). It rises above the basic horror movie by giving us real characters that we care about and has some terrific performances.

To each his own: I had the same angry reaction to Shutter Island and its preposterous conclusion. But the Exorcist remains, in my estimation, a very powerful film.


10.22.10

Correspondent Ian Whittle:

Hi Glenn. First, what a great review! Passionate, insightful and without being preachy or hypocritical, you prove yet again you can dissect with grace and wit.

Although the film is routinely thought of as being about the Devil (and hence is often noted about the Ultimate Evil stooping to attack a little girl), it emerges in the sequel Exorcist II (what are your thoughts on that one, by the way), and I believe was noted in Blatty's original novel, that the girl is possessed by Pazuzu (who recently popped up in Futurama). The Devil is merely hyperbole on the demon's part (and subsequently the WB publicity department and the hysteria of the general public).

In the UK, the film remained unavaliable on video for many years. Unlike the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House On The Left, this appears to have not been a formal ban by the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors, now Classification) but was due to the personal objections of chief censor James Ferman (the nanny who removed nunchakus from countless martial arts films even if they were just hanging on a wall, and refused to pass Texas Chainsaw Massacre allegedly because he couldn't risk "workers in Manchester" seeing it). Hence the film was avaliable on UK video prior to the compulsory video classification laws in 1984, and it enjoyed a big screen 25th Anniversary release to UK cinemas, but the video release had to wait until 1999, when Ferman left the BBFC (thank heavens!)

I first saw the film in 2001 when it had its UK TV premiere, hyped to the heavens by many, in particular critic Mark Kermode, who is a huge fan of it. And to my eyes (I was 14), it just seemed so contrived, but without being entertaining. The demonic manefestations struck me as so removed from Regan there wasn't the horror of the little girl being transformed. The dubbed on swearing was comical, the emotional content limited. And its not like I was jaded or anything, many other films of that era really give me the shivers.

However, I did re-watch the film a few years later when I bought the DVD and was able to understand and enjoy it much more - I think it helped me to have read the novel in the meantime. I even got a pleasant shock after seeing the film when I thought i saw the "subliminal" white and black face in the window, only to see it was the reflection of a black and white drawing of a pop star my sister had had hanging on the wall for months!

So scariest film ever? No, not by long chalk, but it is more scary and effective then I originally gave it credit.

By the way, there is a great parody in one of the Simpsons comics, where Lisa is possessed by the spirit of Madonna!

And to close things off, The Exorcist as read on tape by Christopher Lee is REALLY creepy! He should have done the voice in the film instead of Mercedes McCambridge! Regards, -- Ian Whittle


Correspondent Adam:

I wanted to comment on the exorcist review I just read. I general I have no particular fondness of the Catholic church nor do I believe the Devil will actually get into people as the movie portrays. I think the reviewer missed the point. The point is to review the film and not get caught up in if the marketing folks were over the top 40 years ago and if this could really happen. Heck if we go on how realistic a films subject matter is 90% of everything most horror fans watch gets a bad review. I feel like the reviewers words, while well thought out took a movie and reviewed it in an unfair way that other movies arent subjected to. Yes the idea of the Devil being evil and the church being good is pretty simplistic but almost all movies boil down to a premise of a good force and a bad force. Also to slam the move for using sharp noises to startle the audience.. well thats been done in almost every horror movie ever made and to slam this one at the level you did seems to not make sense. The reviewer's comments that the film tries to follow a conservative playbook and slam public institutions seems far reaching to me..... Sure the movie represents the priest's mother dying in a home.. but it also has Merrin accepting alcohol and even joking about how his will is weak, as well as giving the impression that the church wasn't all that into the idea of even performing the exorcism and in a sense almost embarrased about the idea of it. Your view that the police detective was portrayed as bumbling isn't correct in my opinion either. Heck, he was the only person other then Reagans mom who suspected that the murder occurred in Reagans room. This was very insightful of him to piece together and he kept snooping around based on his superior intellect. My view is.. every happening in a movie doesnt necessarily have to be some subliminal attempt by the movie maker to win you over to one political or social side or the other. Its like the red scare, and seeing a communist behind every tree or something. The idea of an evil entity getting into a little girl is spooky and the possession idea lends itself to a great story device even if you have no belief in the church. To ridicule the movie as a throwback to the middle ages.. well heck if thats the case you have to throw pretty much every vampire story under the bus. The image of a cross scaring a vampire away? If Jesus had been killed with a sling and a rock would Vampires tremble at the site of a slingshot like they do a cross in most modern vampire movies? How about ghost stories and voodoo based movies in which someone inevitably bumbles around and says some words or pours some potion into a fire and causes some serious event to unfold. Taken just at that point pretty much all occult or supernatural based movies can be ripped apart and it takes the fun out of watching them. Its like saying how could the movie Predator happen because you know the air Force would have seen the spaceship on radar etc...... The point is if you take the super out of the supernatural.. theres not much left and we wouldnt have a movie worth watching. Yes there are some peopel out there thaty believe this stuff is real, but there are people who believe in Ghosts and Voodoo too and we don't teer those movies apart because of it. The review states that movie promotes reactionary, socially destructive attitudes and that the Exorcist dismisses rational investigation as a useful approach to Regan's problem. In reality all scientific options were exhausted before the supernatural was approached and if in fact it turned out she was just a mentally ill little girl there would have been a very boring movie. We would have got to watch a montage of Reagan over a few weeks taking drugs to get better or something. Thats boring and wouldnt even be a horror movie. I also can't see anything in the movie that tries to say Reagan is irrelevent. She was the victim of the story but in no way shown as irrelevant. If the reviewer i s correct that the filmakers are simply trying to assault the audience... well isn't that the point of a horror movie? They arent trying to give us something to fall asleep to but something to startle us and give us a sense of unease. I actually enjoyed reading the different point of view stated in the review but it seems silly to slam a movie's content thru the entirety of the text then turn around and say they are abbstaining on commenting on the film content. All the reviewer did in my opinion was pretend to take the high road and not pass judgement on the film after not only judging it but judging it unfairly for several paragraphs. In general I don't particularly care for the movie but I feel like the review was more about seeing hidden conservative agendas behind every stone then about a true movie review. Lighten up and watch the movie for entertainment or scare value and not look at it on its propaganda vlaues or lack of.

(responses are unedited)



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