by Bill Van Wert
Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp. 4-5
If you go to see THE EXORCIST expecting to scream, forget it. There’s more screaming going on between mother (Ellen Burstyn) and daughter (Linda Blair) in the film than in the audience. If you go expecting to be shocked, you will be, but not by what you had thought. The explicit ordeals of possession and exorcism, which fill up the last forty-five minutes of the film, seem tame in retrospect when compared with the scenes involving doctors mechanically desecrating the little girl’s body in their exploratory probing. And if, by chance, you are one of those who wants to go expecting to throw up, you will be consummately disappointed, unless, of course, you've had something green to eat before the film. All of this is by way of introduction in order to counteract the scare-sensationalism the film has gotten from promoters and press alike. It’s the worst sort of capitalism that desensitizes a film this way . Each year the process goes on, creating a phony mythology about certain films, saying these films will destroy your innocence forevermore, will change your way of viewing film forevermore, will cut you off from your sheltered past forevermore. I'd like to say like Poe’s raven: Nevermore! Such promotions, which seem to have begun in the modern era with THE GRADUATE (does anyone still think Benjamin was really “where it’s at” with Mrs. Robinson?) and which continued with LOVE STORY, THE GODFATHER and LAST TANGO IN PARIS, assume that the film will not draw audiences on its own merit when they hard-sell sensationalism outside the film.
Will you go to see THE EXORCIST because you know everyone else will be going and because you don't want to feel left out of any conversations that just might touch on the film? There’s a sick but slick theorem at work here: If you tell people there are ideas in the film, they won't go. But if you tell them that it’s action packed, driving, relentless, and that the film is guaranteed to make them throw up (absolutely no one under thirty allowed without parental guidance; certified doctors will be in attendance and defrocked priests will hear confessions after the film), then they'll go. In droves. All of this is to say that THE EXORCIST doesn't need the publicity that it’s gotten. Despite some glaring flaws, the film can stand very comfortably on its own.
The film opens with a flaw. I am speaking of the northern Iraq sequence, beautifully photographed by Billy Williams, in which we are introduced to Father Lancaster Merrin (Max Von Sydow), a Jesuit priest on an archeological dig. His workers find a small, sculpted demon’s head and a religious medal with an inscription in Latin. The demon’s head has sexual parts to it (which are paralleled later in the film by the sexual parts placed on the statue in the church). Merrin takes the find, leaves the dig site and goes to a cafe where he takes pills for a weak heart. The sequence ends with Merrin on top of one rock and a lifesize figure of the demon on an opposite rock. The two stare at each other, while fog and sand rise from the earth to envelop them.
The sequence is flawed, because its length is not proportionate to its thematic importance. What we are supposed to learn from the sequence is that Merrin is not just an archeologist but also an exorcist, a priest whose physically weak heart is counterbalanced by his strength of will: his faith. We are supposed to learn that he has squared off with the devil before, that he recognizes that he will again have to confront the devil, and that this next time will likely be his last, because of his weak heart. If you have not read the novel by William Peter Blatty before seeing the film, you will not find any of this information in the Iraq sequence. The sequence fails, because Merrin has not been set up as the equal of the devil. He wins our sympathy, but not until the actual exorcism does he win our respect.
If we can artificially divide the Georgetown shooting into sections, then the next section is one of parallelism, one of expository intercutting to reveal and develop the characters of Chris MacNeil, film actress and mother, and Father Karras, Jesuit priest and clinical psychiatrist for the other priests at Georgetown. Karras, significantly, comes from the working class. He is now an intellectual (he went to Harvard, Johns Hopkins, etc.) but also an athlete (he boxes and jogs to work out his frustrations). Karras’s psychological tension as a character in the film stems from two things: his relationship with his elderly mother and his gradual loss of faith. Chris MacNeil is living temporarily in Georgetown to do a film (about college protests). She is exceptionally close to her twelve-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) and inexplicably estranged from her husband, who is never present in the film but who is supposedly in Rome.
Director William Friedkin excels at this kind of intercutting, which simultaneously develops both characters while building suspense. For instance, we Karras first as an observer on the set in which Chris is acting. Later, we see her walk by his gate and observe him counseling a fellow priest. Karras’ growing preoccupation with the problem of his mother is paralled by Chris’ growing concern over her daughter. And just as Karras’ mother is taken to a mental asylum instead of to a hospital, so too Regan is taken to a hospital instead of to an exorcist in the beginning. Chris and Karras are both confronted with the limits of reason and faith. They are both going crazy separately but with the same intensity. Secondary characters, like Father Dyer and the detective, Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), by moving back and forth between Chris and Karras, further link them, until they finally do meet, which comes relatively late in the film.
By then, Karras’s mother has died and Chris’s daughter as “died” in the sense that the devil has taken full control of her body. By then, both are feeling sufficiently guilty (Karras for having failed his mother, since if he hadn't been a priest, he could have been a very wealthy secular psychiatrist; Chris for having failed Regan, since, if she hadn't been a busy film actress and involved with men other than her husband, the estrangement with her daughter might not have happened). Friedkin’s sense of pace in these developmental scenes is skillful and sensitive. While he gradually increases the duration of the scenes involving Karras, he gradually decreases the duration of the scenes involving Chris and Regan. Bat since there are quantitatively fewer scenes involving Karras than scenes involving Chris and Regan, the divergence in tempo is very well balanced, and the cutting thus remains “invisible.”
It is significant that a scene involving Father Karras being helped into bed by another priest is paralleled with a scene involving Regan going to bed, for the bed shaking is the first visible clue of “unnatural” phenomena in the film.
At this point, the film splits in two parts. The first involves Chris’ attempts to get answers from the medical profession. The second traces her more desperate attempts to get answers from psychiatrists and priests. The process is clear. First, Regan’s body is tapped, then her mind, then her soul, which leads us back to the body again. Friedkin’s technical control here is again superb, but his thematic control is somewhat flawed. He succumbs to what can only be described as “typage” portrayal of the medical profession.
The surgical tests are excruciating to watch, much more so than the later exorcism scenes, because they are more “authentic” (in the sense that most audiences can more easily imagine themselves being cut open by doctors than being possessed by devils). The doctors very impersonally extract blood from Regan’s throat, then very mechanically subject her to monstrous, vibrating machines, as if she were undergoing shock treatments. These doctors, who multiply from the family physician to a grand staff of eighty-eight, all lack feelings, all look stupid, all insist on rationality until they have exhausted all their tests without finding any answers. They are thus“typed” in that they serve only as a backdrop for Chris and her growing loss of patience, loss of belief, loss of control. As the doctors increase in numbers and as each new bout with the devil leaves Regan more drastically transformed, Chris screams more and swears more. It is difficult for me to comprehend why so many doctors allowed their names to be put in the credits, since THE EXORCIST is the most biting indictment of the medical profession since Arthur Hiller’s THE HOSPITAL. The doctors’ probing of Regan’s body appears ultimately to be as crude and as barbaric as medieval bloodletting, especially when paralleled with exorcism, which reached its height of popularity in the middle ages.
Once Chris has placed her trust in Karras, she quietly fades as a character. Occasionally still visible, she ceases to function as an active “presence.” The ordeal of exorcism is sustained by the complex psychological differences between Merrin and Karras and the differences in their approaches to dealing with the devil. The old and otherworldly Merrin can be physically beaten by the devil but not psychologically or spiritually beaten. He refuses to listen to Karras’s psychiatric explanation of Regan’s split personalities, insisting that there is only one personality inside her. He refuses to listen to the devil’s taunts and insults. We gradually realize that Merrin’s pending death is a martyrdom, a voluntary sacrifice of self. We also realize that the devil has possessed Regan in order to get to Merrin, in order to do battle with him one more time in the hope of winning his soul. I said before that Merrin’s stature as an exorcist does not come through in the opening Iraq sequence. Yet his stature does come through for extracinematic reasons. Merrin is played by Max Von Sydow, and so his spiritual presence has already been prepared for us by all the Bergman films that he has been in.
From the outset, the Merrin-devil struggle is mystical, other worldly, ritualistic. The Karras-devil relationship, on the other hand, is more terrestrial, more psychologically complex, more transformational, and thus more interesting. Karras cannot help but ignore Merrin’s warning not to listen to the devil, not to dialogue with the devil. Karras’s relationship with the devil is intimately tied up with his guilt feelings about his mother and her death. The devil plays on this, transforming Regan into Karras’ mother in front of Karras. His decision to sacrifice himself is also related to his mother’s death. Weakened by having entered into dialogue with the devil, Karras sits downstairs, while Merrin goes alone to his inevitable heart attack. Chris comes in and asks Karras if Regan will die. His answer is also his decision. “No, she won't die” in this case means, “Yes, I will die.” Karras thus merges with Merrin as a Christ figure (for exorcism is in itself a black mass that becomes white again through the sacrifice of an innocent).
Friedkin has skillfully prepared us for Karras’ leap of faith (both figuratively and literally), not only through the mother-relationship but also through a brief sequence in the Mass, in which we saw Karras almost physically choking on the words of the consecration that say: “Take ye and eat of this, for this is my body; take ye and drink ... for this is my blood.” Karras leaps on the devil-Regan and before the devil can fully possess Karras, Karras leaps through the window to his death. Even this ritualistic sacrifice is an ironic comment on the parallelism that exists between exorcism and the Mass, for Karras commits suicide (a mortal sin, which means automatic excommunication and eternal damnation in the Catholic Church). In a larger context, then, since Christ was all-knowing, his crucifixion can also be viewed as a suicide, an exorcism.
I have purposely waited until now to treat the psychology of the Regan character. Rather than explain her possession by her age or her susceptibility to the fantasy of the ouija board, I would like to propose a secular explanation, again in terms of ritual. There are two scenes in the film which are essential for understanding the character of Regan. The first is her tête-a-tête with her mother in Regan’s bed. The subject of the conversation is Barke Dennings, the director of Chris’s film. Regan suggests that Dennings is Chris’ lover. Significantly, Chris does not deny this allegation. The suggestion of guilt is perfect in Burstyn’s voice in this scene. It is Chris herself who gives Regan the key to Regan’s later behavior when, instead of dealing with the question of Dennings as lover, she deals with him as father substitute. Chris admits that she’s been lonely and that she likes Dennings, but that she loves Regan’s father. I am suggesting here that the film can be viewed as an elaborate ritual on the part of Regan, and that she, not the devil, kills Dennings, just as she kills Merrin and Karras: all of them are father figures. Thus, Regan plays upon her mother’s guilt just as she plays upon Karras's' guilt about his mother.
If Chris suggests the reason for possession ritual, she also suggests the methodology in the second scene of importance mentioned earlier. It is Regan’s birthday. Chris is furious, because the father has not called nor has he sent a card or letter or present. Chris tries to call him in Rome (it is fitting that he should be in Rome, the physical center of the Roman Catholic Church). Chris frantically curses both him (off-phone) and the operator (on-phone), just as she curses the doctors and all adults in the film who do not immediately understand her or who seem to oppose her. In the foreground of the frame is Regan, listening to everything her mother says. It is the last time that we see Regan not possessed until the very end of the film. Regan’s possession, thus, stems as much from Chris as from any devil. Her possessions become both ritualistic and stereotyped.
It should be noted here the extremely important part that language plays in the film. Chris and Regan-possessed distinguish themselves from all other characters in the film, not only by their tantrums but also by their language. If there were no special effects in the film, no blood and gore and visual violence, the film would still shock audiences, because the language Chris uses would shock (because she is a woman and women aren't supposed to swear like that, are they?), and because the language Regan uses would shock (because she is only a girl—both sex and age are involved here; she’s also prepubescent, so the sex words shock too). The only other character who enters into this ritual is Karras (shocking because he’s a priest). Significantly, he invites possession by the curses he uses when he beats up on Regan’s body. Possessions thus are ritualistic (Regan always throws up green bile, always uses language that relates to sex, always attacks herself or others in the genital area). I must admit that my hypothesis that Regan is not possessed but possesses and even kills other characters as her own kind of radical therapy is a much more chilling thought than the hypothesis that she is taken over by the devil, in which case she is a victim and an innocent. While contradictory, both hypotheses are probable and thus true.
If Friedkin evokes character typage extremely well through the use of language, he dissipates the power of this language through his horribly unsubtle use of sound in the film. All sound is several decibels higher than the visuals call for, a device guaranteed to grate on any audience and augment the audience tension. When we see, for example, Regan in the foreground listening to her mother on the phone in the background, the volume of Chris’s voice is as shrill and as piercing as scenes in which Chris is seen in close up while acting out similar swearing tantrums. In other words, image size does not determine sound volume. Twice, Friedkin goes in for a close up of characters’ faces, only to zoom away quickly with the overly shrill sound of a telephone ringing. Even if you attached your phone to a quadraphonic speaker system, it would still not ring as loud as it does in THE EXORCIST. I understand now why I thought Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION was such a “loud” film. What baffles me is how a director who is obviously sophisticated in his image track can be so blatantly unsubtle with his sound track. THE EXORCIST is too good a film to be cheapened by such predictable false scares as the telephone over-ringing.
The popularity of THE EXORCIST goes beyond, I think, the thrills and chills of the horror film genre. The phenomenon is too complex to deal with adequately here, but I think it is related to the death-of-God philosophy and its impact in the sixties, to the move from drugs to Jesus in the late sixties and early seventies, to the current widespread interest in witchcraft, the occult, UFO’s, ESP, mind control, herbal medicines and radical therapy (bioenergetics, gestalt, primal, etc.). The names change, but the vocabulary doesn't. They all read like a litany. The idea of exorcism is so compelling, because, while the content is random and irrational, the form is rigid, controlled, stylized, ritualistic. Exorcism may even be viewed, then, as Catholicism’s answer to radical therapy, just as confession can be seen as Catholicism’s answer to traditional analysis.
Therein lies the key to understanding the film metaphor within the film. Chris is a film actress, which means that she plays roles: she acts out rituals. Lt. Kinderman distinguishes himself from all other film detectives by his very stylized way of seeing everything (often falsely) in terms of film. He acknowledges Karras first as John Garfield and finally as Sal Mineo. Their “sparring” matches are conducted almost totally in terms of film history. Likewise, Kinderman (“child-man” ) cannot separate the real Chris from the Chris he’s seen in film: Significantly, he “invents” a daughter who wants Chris’s autograph when in reality the autograph is for him. It is also significant, in terms of the film’s theme, that the one film Chris made which impressed him most was called ANGEL.
I'm sure that other critics will give Linda Blair more than ample praise for her portrayal of Regan, which I thought was weak. These same critics will give the special effects people and the makeup people credit for what it, to me, perhaps too obvious and overworked in the film. I personally think that the film will endure, not because of the shock scenes surrounding the possessions, but because of the fascinating psychology in the Chris and Karras characters and the exceptional acting of Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller as these characters. Of the two, the role of Chris is the more difficult and thus the more rewarding. Whether THE EXORCIST retains its power over the years hinges, I think, on the acting of Ellen Burstyn.
I was very moved by THE LAST PICTURE SHOW when I saw it. I say that in order to confess that when Burstyn threw her first tantrum as Chris, I wondered what Cloris Leachman would have been like in the part. Burstyn walks the thin line between “not enough” and “too much” in her outbursts. She blends the right mixture of anger and frustration needed in her role. Her portrayal of Chris makes us angry with her at the same time that it engages our sympathy for her. She achieves this perfect balance, because her facial expressions and her body movements suggest the subtle ambiguities that her voice, of necessity, loses when she wails and screams.
I am personally sorry that Kitty Winn, a fine actress (THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK) had such a small and undemanding role in the film as Sharon, Chris’s personal secretary. I am equally sorry that Lee J. Cobb, who is so fine as Kinderman, did not have more time on screen.
Finally, I am impressed with the Friedkin of THE EXORCIST, where I was not impressed with the FRENCH CONNECTION. I can only hope that his rate of maturity and sophistication from the latter film to the former will be matched in his next film (especially in terms of the sound track), which is sure to be a box office success by the mere fact that his name will be in the credits.