The Exorcist

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

The Iraq prologue doesn’t make any sense, nor, really, do the logistics of possession. The sequencing is just all over the place, and not just for disorientation’s or dread’s sake. Kinda reminded me of the uncertain, inconsistent particulars in Angels in America. Could it be that the perpetrators of this movie finally didn’t really know what they were talking about? Then again, with regard to powers and principalities, or the Prince of the Air, neither do I!

While you can absolutely imagine how this would have scared ’em silly in 1973, by now some of the effects are a bit transparent, even threadbare, or plain dumb. Shows how far we’ve come, which might not exactly be a thing to celebrate. Anyway, here’s some of what doesn’t or doesn’t any longer come off for me: the spinning head. There are records of levitations aren’t there? But here the levitation seems kind of inert and purposeless, except perhaps for the demonstrating a special effect. I find the Lt. Kinderman material to be overly, annoyingly ingratiating, as indeed I found it to be in the book. The Chris making a movie material, as well as much of the character dialogue/interaction. (Mind you, here’s a hint at an extra-cinematic insight. What can have possessed these protesting, profane, breaking-out-in-spots kids of ours?) The swingin’ and the counterculture is especially strained. And that long, noisy part when they keep saying “the power of Christ compels you” registers as a lapse of both theological and cinematic imagination. Maybe about what would happen if you were in the same room as the Devil. 

On the other hand, this is some humdinger! Jason Miller/Father Damian’s back story may be a bit too tidy, but it does gives some substance and heft to all of the unseemly spectacle. Also, what a face! That is one terrific, for-the-ages cinematic nightmare. It comes right from Blatty’s book, I’m recalling, but Friedkin and friends adapt it very well. Damian’s skepticism is actually pretty well, pretty sympathetically explored. You’d never want to accuse Friedkin of sensitivity, but maybe Blatty had some feeling on the topic. 

And it’s true: there is more than a hint of theological inquiry here. (Some of the added footage in the special edition actually contributes. Not always the case!) It should be, it has been noted that that inquiry ends very positively. What did they used to say about this movie? It’s a great big ad for the Catholic church! The vaunted sound design absolutely deserves its vaunting, though I still find the famous Michael Oldfield cue to be just a bit of bad needle dropping. The thing I most notice this time around is that the photography is just as good as the sound. It’s partly that V. Zsigmond-type 70’s method, where they combine camera zooms with actual, elaborate camera moves. They’re calling attention to the artificiality of it all, and to their own contributions as well. Look, we’re creative! Well, they are. And that stylish stuff is profitably mixed with more documentary-like footage. It’s a very effective hybrid.

Previous impressions about the film’s sadism remain, but that’s not all there is. We have the (really effective) torture footage in the hospital, and of course all the infamy that follows. (McCambridge!) But there’s some actual tenderness in the expository parts of the mother/daughter, Burstyn/Blair relationship. Ellen Burstyn is a tremendous actress, of course. Miss Blair isn’t so trained, which actually brings a sweet freshness to her performance. Put together, it all means something, though of course that may be the most sadistic thing of all. (By the way, it is clear that that adult gymnast is really the one doing most of the vigourous/objectionable work.)

The Exorcist is an inconsistent film, and in many ways quite reckless. But at the very end, when those men give their lives to save this girl’s soul, at the point where she leaves that house all bruised and apparently restored, there’s an actual salvific frisson. “Help me…” she’d somehow managed to say. (What actually went on in there?! This film isn’t straight on it, of course. And all the annals?) Whether as a line in a play or a fervent hope in one’s extremity, “Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!” is a formidable, powerful expression. They came through.

After all of its brash stridency, the movie’s most effective moment may be the one featuring a dead old man and a half pleased, half curious devil, looking quietly at his body. Again—what just happened?! This is like the terrible episode of the mute, sole surviving soldier in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, or the Mr. August sub-plot in Val Lewton and RKO’s The Seventh Victim (1943). The worst thing is not knowing. And you never know, do you? For all of its missteps and impropriety, The Exorcist has at least one thing right, and it says it right too. It’s a hard world for little things.