Demon (body of Linda Blair, voice of Mercedes McCambridge): “Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I'll see that she gets it.”—The Exorcist (1973), screenplay by William Peter Blatty, adapted from his novel, directed by William Friedkin
When I first caught this blockbuster supernatural shocker on the big screen nearly 40 years ago, my small group staggered out of the theater, weak-kneed after the spectacle of suddenly spewed, greenish pea soup, a head turning completely around, an adolescent girl using a crucifix in a way none of us Catholic school grads ever thought of, and God knows what else. It was all we could do not to clout on the head a joker among us who suggested a post-show stop at a pizzeria (as if we could keep down any food after all that).
This past weekend, I saw bits and pieces of this film of my youth on IFC. The rough bits remained intact, but what stayed in my mind this time was how novelist-screenwriter William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin lifted the suspense through subtler means than the more remarked-upon aspects mentioned above—i.e., through a contemporary psychological study and a parable about family.
I’m afraid that horror movies following The Exorcist picked up on its more sensational elements while ignoring its artistry: what Roger Ebert rightly called “the craft of the film--how it embeds the sensational material in an everyday world of misty nights, boozy parties and housekeeping details, chats in a laundry room and the personal lives of the priests. The movie is more horrifying because it does not seem to want to be. The horror creeps into the lives of characters preoccupied with their lives.” (The documentary-style look that Friedkin wanted--and got, courtesy of cinematographer Owen Roizman--did much to achieve this necessary realism.)
Blatty's Oscar-winning Best Adapted Screenplay provides an excellent blueprint. The film is at its best when it suggests horror rather than shows it (e.g., the terrible fate of hard-drinking director Burke Dennings is described by a detective rather than shown), when it spotlights the struggle for faith rather than special effects. Actor Jason Miller was right years later when he pointed to the movie's real strength: "I think The Exorcist in some way is not a genre horror film. It's something else. It's more of a philosophical horror film."
The call for the exorcist is a last-ditch resort, after every means of modern psychiatry has been unsuccessfully employed to determine the source of increasingly violent language and attacks seemingly perpetrated by a young girl. Yet, for a film that squarely sets out the limits of modern medical care, it is at great pains to set out the psychological elements that open them to the snares of the Devil.
In his introduction to the fine Library of America anthology American Fantastic Tales, horror writer Peter Straub writes of “the universal sense of loss, grief, and terror produced by the gradual replacement of the Enlightenment’s orderly, rational, reassuring world view with the unstable and untrustworthy universe that came into being during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’’ That “orderly, rational, reassuring world view” reached an apotheosis with psychology. The sense of “loss, grief, and terror,” a product of our age, goes far to undermine the secularly constituted modern sense of self, especially for this movie's mother, daughter, and “father” called in to save them.
An article from 2000 in the British magazine History Today by Nick Cull usefully summarized elements in the zeitgeist that the film touched on, including gender politics, evil touching Hollywood (the Tate-LaBianca murders), American violence in Vietnam, genocide, and unrest in the Middle East (Merrin’s initial encounter with the demon in Iraq serves as a foreign source for the longstanding fear of an “enemy within” the United States). But nothing feels more grounded here than the examination of the strains on the American family. Its resonance only deepens today for adults wondering how to save both their children and elderly parents from the worst life can throw at them.
When I was growing up in the late Sixties and early Seventies (the same time Blatty was writing his novel of demonic possession), the culture was consumed with talk about the “generation gap.” The question in the mind of so many parents then was, “What the hell is happening to my kids?” The novelist’s answer, one that struck a chord with all too many readers, was, “Hell is happening to your kids.” Literally.
The plot vector of The Exorcist depicts the heart of the generational dilemma in the bond between mother and child, with two adults--a mother and a son—at different ends of the relationship, yet each rendered vulnerable by their unease over how they’ve deal with their respective situations. Actress Chris MacNeil (reportedly based on Blatty’s friend Shirley MacLaine) wonders if her absent, divorced husband and her frequent absences because of film work have left her 12-year-old daughter (because of her mother's atheistic beliefs, with no grounding in religion, either) subject to wracking psychological disturbances—and, as events unfold, something even worse.
No sooner has Chris, following a series of disturbing incidents (in a wonderful, slowly uncoiling release of repressed tension and sorrow of tension, by Ellen Burstyn), closed the door behind the kind, inquiring Lt. Kinderman than all hell breaks loose upstairs. As the daughter finally turns violently on her, following an escalating series of disturbing incidents, the girl fully seems to merit her name: “Regan,” the youngest (and arguably most viperish) daughter in King Lear.
Fr. Damien Karras may be even more racked by guilt: already alert because of his calling to issues of sin, he blames himself for being financially unable to afford the mental care his aging mother desperately needs. The “Quote of the Day” comes from his first meeting with the demon, who immediately lays out the marker for his struggle with the haunted priest: Karras’ guilt, so all-consuming that the Jesuit believes he might be losing his faith. (The mounting understanding of Chris and Karras that they face something beyond the rational comes in the scene immediately following, when the actress tells the priest that Regan did not know beforehand that Karras' mother had died.)
The veteran exorcist of the title, Fr. Lankester Merrin, implicitly warns Karras about these very snares: “Avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant, but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don't listen to him. Remember that—do not listen.”
Of course, humans being humans (and Hollywood being Hollywood), that is not going to happen. In an exquisitely calibrated performance, Jason Miller (then having a career year, following his Tony and Pulitzer awards for his play That Championship Season) traces the journey of a wounded spiritual healer, as undermined by his realization of the limits of the science of mental health as he is by his own frailty. (At this juncture, it's impossible to think of anyone else--particularly two other actors reportedly in the running, Jack Nicholson and Ryan O'Neal--doing a better job with the role, and Miller deservedly won an Oscar nomination for his performance.)
Karras’ first name, Damien, is not merely a saint’s name that a priest might be expected to assume, but in this case a foreshadowing of the sacrifice he’ll make for another human being. In this case, the guilt-ridden “father” makes common cause with the guilt-ridden mother. “Is she [Regan] going to die?” Chris asks Karras toward the end. “No,” he answers, less out of desperate reassurance and more out of grim resolution. And almost immediately, in this unlikely battleground for a soul, the modern home—the modern American home, at that—the man unable to save his mother goes upstairs to save a child, from far worse.