A few weeks ago in this Writer Loves series exploring our favourite movies, David Shreve posed a question: can loveable movies ever be considered truly great? Can only serious films earn the ultimate cinematic accolade and be labelled a genuine ‘classic’? Now Sean Fallon, from the eclectic writing blog The Equiatic Bind, approaches the question from a different angle. In his exploration of The Exorcist, Sean examines the hard sell of slow-burning movies, asking whether what makes a movie ‘boring’ can actually be its greatest strength.
Sean Fallon on The Exorcist (1973)
I love procedural movies. Anything that takes you through the nitty-gritty of a murder investigation or a well-planned heist is like catnip to me. A big reason why I love The Exorcist is because it isn’t the film that we think it is. People who have never watched it assume it’s a gory, jumpy, fast-paced horror film about a possessed girl doing crazy things for two hours. All of the marketing and all of the iconic images of the film focus upon Regan’s transformation from sweet little girl into foul-mouthed monster. If someone quotes a line from The Exorcist to you it will probably come from Regan (or it will simply be “The power of Christ compels you!”). In reality the movie is actually very slow and almost boring at times as it painstakingly shows, on one side, the agony of a mother helplessly watching her daughter succumb to some kind of illness/madness and on the other, the torments of a priest experiencing a crisis of faith following the death of his mother.
The Exorcist was directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, adapting his own excellent novel. It tells the story of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) who are staying in Georgetown while Chris shoots a movie. While they are there, Regan begins to show erratic behaviour and eventually becomes possessed by some kind of demon. At the same time Father Karras (Jason Miller) is dealing with a crisis of faith as his impoverished mother rots away in a tenement apartment, while he is helpless to do anything about it.
“The Exorcist is not the film we think it is”
The gory, jumpy-ness that people expect is barely present for long spells of the film. In fact the most famous image of the movie, that of Regan strapped to her bed covered in lime-green vomit with red cracks and fissures lining her face, does not appear until ninety minutes into the movie, the full running length of some other films. Up until that point the movie has been about Chris’ endless search for someone to help Regan. We have seen the poor girl go through examinations and tests and hypnosis with no relief until finally one psychiatrist suggests, because of how strongly Regan seems to believe she’s possessed, that they go through the motions of performing an Exorcism in the hopes of breaking Regan’s psychosis. These scenes with the tests feature the scene that a lot of people find most disturbing in the movie, my wife included. The scene occurs when Regan’s doctors, searching for a brain tumour, subject her to a pneumoencephalograph. This procedure involves a long needle being pushed into carotid artery, the drawing out of which causes a spout of blood to geyser out across Regan’s blue, medical smock. A machine is moved over her head and then rotates around her making a dull, clunking sound over and over. The scene is shot in meticulous slowness and focuses upon Regan’s face showing obvious pain and discomfort.
The temptation for a director/writer would be to rush through these scenes. People don’t want to see lengthy medical exams and doctors looking at x-rays when they go to the movies, unless they are x-ray enthusiasts in which case they would love parts of this film. I have watched The Exorcist with people who have found it cripplingly boring until the last hour when they have perked up to watch the climatic exorcism. I would be tempted to see what those people would think if we re-cut the film to put all of Regan’s medical scenes together in a montage set to Robert Palmer’s Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News. Maybe they would love it, who knows?
“This is true horror, like being home alone and hearing a floorboard creak upstairs”
On the other side of the narrative we have Father Karras, a Jesuit priest/counsellor/psychiatrist, who begins to love his faith after his mother, abandoned in a seedy apartment block, dies. I watch The Exorcist every Halloween and have always thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I was reading an interview with William Peter Blatty and he said that people were wrong when they believed the main story arc belonged to Regan and Chris. His actual intent was that Karras should be been as the main character and The Exorcist is actually his story. The next Halloween I watched the movie with that view in mind and it was a whole different experience. Karras’ story is so rich and so tragic that it overshadows the other stories until they simply become moving parts in the story of one man trying to regain his faith and find some goodness in the world. Again, Friedkin takes him time. He shows us Karras’ long commute to his mother’s house and careful dressing of her injured leg, letting us share Karras’ despair at his mother’s living conditions. Eventually, his mother is admitted to the freakiest mental hospital in cinema and the scene of Karras walking through the hospital with its dirty floors and zombie-fied patients is an especially chilling one. It is particularly spooky when he reaches his mother and she is strapped to the bed, foreshadowing Karras’ interaction with the possessed Regan that has yet to come.
My newfound focus on Karras’ story greatly affected the ending of The Exorcist for me as well. The ending, spoilers, of Karras taking the demon into himself and, before it consumes him, wresting control of himself back before throwing himself from the window in a final sacrifice went from being an excellent ending to the movie to something more profound. When I watched it, tears streaming down my face, it suddenly became very important to me that Karras gets to receive the last rites at the foot of those infinite stairs.
The exorcism scene that precedes Karras’ suicide is made stronger by the film’s deliberate pace. When Merrin (Max von Sydow) comes into the movie to assist with the exorcism he tells Karras not to engage the demon in conversation as it will lie and try to tempt him and trick him. Inevitably the demon does just that. It mocks Karras and impersonates his mother to keep him off guard and enrage him. The little lines of dialogue spoken by Regan in her chilling, cracked voice about Karras’ mother being in hell, etc. pack a huge emotional punch because we have watched Karras try and fail to save his mother. We have joined him in his helplessness much like we have had to visit the doctors alongside Regan’s mother and seen how helpless she is as well.
That scene, which is only about ten minutes long, is the accumulation of two hours of painstaking set up. If you are following the movie for the story of Chris and Regan then this is what you bought your ticket for. You want to see Regan exorcised and mother and daughter reunited. If you are following Karras’ story you want to see the priest regain some sense of faith and earn a victory to drag him out of the darkness.
It is a hard sell to tell people to watch a movie because of how boring it is, but for me that is The Exorcist’s greatest strength. It lets the terror build and build. There are no cheap scares or cats jumping out of cupboards, this is true horror like being home alone and hearing a floorboard creak upstairs. It is the scariest film I can think of and I love it dearly. Now I just have to wait until Halloween to watch it again.
If you would like to contribute a post to this series and share some of the reasons you love your favourite film, please take a look at my launch post here and get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.
You can find all of the posts in this series here. As this series grows I hope it will work as an homage to everything the blogging community loves about cinema.