First of all, let’s be straight up and say that The Exorcist is not an easy film to watch. It’s not, in any way, an end-of-the-day-to-unwind type of film. It’s not even a film to scare you for ‘fun’, as so many horror films before and after it have aspired to do. This is a serious film: and in its scope and magnitude, it does have the power to haunt you. We’re watching it this week on ‘Rogue Cinema’, because – for so many reasons – it’s a film that you can’t ignore.
When it was first released 37 years ago, The Exorcist instantly became a cultural phenomenon. The stories that surrounded the film’s production and performances elevated it to the level of worldwide front page news, and assured its lasting impression on the popular imagination. It divided opinion from critics, religious bodies and the public, and to this day it remains one of the top twenty grossing films of all time. How did this adaptation from William Peter Blatty’s novel, directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection), achieve such success?
Strangely, the answer to this question seems to both support and further mystify both the original production vision for the film, and the aspects of it that have become most widely known in popular culture. In 1973 Warner Brothers studio was ready to produce a horror film that showed the audience things it could never have imagined possible before on screen. The infamous 360-degree head rotation, and ‘spider walk’ tricks were – for their time, and even now – shocking depictions. Other scenes from Regan’s descent into demonic possession challenge the viewer to the limit of what they can bear to watch: and so they should. The Exorcist is a film that channels the extremities of inhumanity into the human form of an innocent child, and audiences came out in their millions to see it.
At the heart of the film’s success, then, is the spectacle of a child’s suffering. Yet, the film can’t be equated to the spectacle, which was copied and parodied to such poor effect in so many sequels and spin-offs. The Exorcist presents – in archetypal figures – the components of the battle between good and evil that lies at the heart of the myths and stories that infuse Western religious and moral consciousness. What’s more, the shocking visual assault that the film directs out towards the viewer brings you into that conflict: suddenly, face to face with the devil. If you can’t bear to look, then you’re going to have to live with that.
Some of the film’s most disturbing moments are ones that might pass by the casual or first-time viewer. Father Karras (the boxer/psychologist/failing priest) struggles with his desire to provide for his ailing mother, and is haunted by guilt after her death. In his dream, he watches her descend from the street into an unseen subway. The purity of his pain is echoed in later scenes, as we witness the anguish of Regan’s mother, a loving parent who has to watch her daughter undergo repeated invasive tests in machines that are more horrible than the unseen terrors they seek to defeat. As the needles squirt blood from a child’s vein, you may want to look away. But if you do, be aware that you’re disconnecting, you’re sealing yourself off. And you’re going to have to live with that.
Perhaps you’re also going to have to live with the fact that, sealed-off in the sanitised Western society whose capital city the film is set within, you’re also not witnessing the starvation of – literally – millions of African children who are suffering at the same time as you live with (historically and by virtually any other standard) fabulous excess. You’re going to have to live with the insular comfort only possible through a convenient blinkering from all the genocide, torture and countless other inhuman things that human beings do to each other every day. We, first-class citizens of the globalised capitalist empire, get rich from, but will not look towards the forgotten corners of our world where evil is brought down on the innocent, brutally and relentlessly…Or the corners of our hearts, where evil also lives and breathes.
The Exorcist is a film that challenges us to look – and then, to shrieve. It’s a film made during a time when America was sick: from the constant threat of obliteration from cold war, from deceit at the highest levels of government, and from widespread mistrust of its rising generation. The film closes with Regan’s demon being exorcised: but at the ultimate cost, a price that affirms that justice accepts no shortcuts. Today, the relevance of this extraordinary movie lies in its powerful depiction of the myths that our society was built from and must answer to. Neither reason nor superstition alone can heal our sickness, or cast out our demons. We must face the devil: only in doing so, can we be made free, to see God.