Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Exorcist (1973)

Speaking of movies with backlashes, here's another one, although the backlash against this movie is less about commercial hype than it is about political correctness, so let's get this out of the way: yes, The Exorcist is ultimately a movie with a regressive attitude towards gender roles (two priests must do battle against an unruly female) and towards morality (stark medieval good vs. evil).

All that said, The Exorcist still stands for me as one of the all-time great horror movies, simply on the basis of its ability to create tension and scares and on the basis of sheer storytelling. There's hardly a wasted second in William Friedkin's original cut, with a relentless build towards the final showdown between Max Von Sydow and the demon inhabiting Linda Blair; indeed, this movie is a good example of how a focussed, energetic director's work can transcend a mediocre screenplay - just look at the opening sequence, which introduces Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin, a character who will then disappear until the last half hour of the movie. It's a sequence loaded with an overpowering, foreboding mood, but with virtually zero narrative connection, either to the rest of the movie, or really, within itself. But because Friedkin knows what he's doing, the mood and editing propulsiveness carry us through this sequence and into the main body of the movie.

And the performances are almost uniformly great; We all know that Max Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn are great actors, but where did Jason Miller come from and why wasn't he in more films? And Linda Blair's performance, natural and easy-going as a normal girl, genuinely diabolical when possessed, is easy to attribute to special effects, but has to be seen as one of the best performances by a teenager, ever.

I need to add, however, that the version I watched on Friday night wasn't Friedkin's original director's cut, but the 2000 'special edition' which is basically William Peter Blatty's preferred Producer's Cut, which adds in a bunch of redundantly superimposed demon faces and a dumb 'happy ending' scene at the very end of the movie, among other details. Now, I think William Friedkin has about as much interest in convincing his audience of the existence of demons as Sam Raimi did in Drag Me to Hell; Friedkin's career shows that he's more interested in telling stories for the sake of telling stories. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Blatty actually believed in his own shaggy dog tale, since pretty much every choice in his cut of the movie makes it more strained and pretentious.



Joel E said...

You're absolutely right about the 2000 cut being inferior to the original except for the restored spider-crawl down the stairs, which literally launched a few people out of their seats when I saw it in a theater back upon original release.

This is one of those rare movies that truly terrified me when I finally saw it (as an adult no less). I could not sleep that night, and I credit all of that to Linda Blair. She was absolutely disturbing in this film.

Jeff McMahon said...

I'm actually not crazy about the spider-walk either - it's effective as a freak-out 'boo!' moment, but it also feels like it belongs in a more modern, gorier movie.

There was some controversy regarding Linda Blair's performance, with both Mercedes McCambridge (as the demon voice) and Eileen Dietz (Blair's stunt double, and the subliminal demon face) claiming credit for some of the performance. Fair enough, but just looking at what Blair herself did and it's still an undeniably strong piece of work - and one that I'd bet happened because Blair was simply too young to have the kind of restraints that most adults would in those circumstances.

tenderloinstew said...

Testing, 1,2,3...

tenderloinstew said...

Weird, I got a bX-3vgjl8 code the last time I tried to comment.

I see you're back, with vengeance.

I agree about the theatrical cut. Maybe it's just because I grew up with it, but I honestly think it works better. All those stupid faces on the backs of's overkill. The use of not-quite-subliminal images in the original is perfectly calibrated.

I find the famed spider-walk to be goofy. It's a contortionist trick combined with obvious sped-up photography, and the blood-puking at the end is cheap. Pazuzu du Soleil.

By the way, you can still find a used DVD of the un-fucked-with 25th Anniversary Edition on Amazon, for a very reasonable price.

Jeff McMahon said...

I think Blogger was having trouble for a couple of days, I couldn't log in to make an entry myself.

I have a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition, and double-checked it before writing this one. It's leaner, it's simpler, and it's less pretentious. Another '70s movie screwed up by the filmmakers for a Special Edition DVD - Walter Hill's The Warriors.