The Exorcist: Actually Not That Scary

Hello, all! Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted, but I’ve been quite busy with school and college applications and boring things like that. Unfortunately (or very fortunately depending on how little you like the show), I’ve fallen very far behind on American Horror Story: Hotel reviews so I’m still considering whether I’ll pick that up again. Either away, I’m sure no one comes here breathlessly the minute they finish the episode to see my recap.

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This blog has only one staffer and that’s me

Fresh off our first horror movie (the 2008 remake of Prom Night), my best friend and I decided that we would set some horror movie parameters. We wouldn’t watch torture porn, the Human Centipede, or The Exorcist. It had been crowned the scariest movie in history from several different websites, and we certainly didn’t think that we were ready to see such a frightening film.  Flash forward six years later and with plenty of horror fodder under our belt, we took a chance and watched the movie that was supposed to shock us forever. And it was…

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What can I say? I’m surprised at how surprisingly tame it was. Now, I understand that this movie came out in 1973 and was revolutionary for the time. The special effects, the content, the apparent “curse” that surrounded the film-making; all of it created a tense atmosphere of horror that would elevate audience’s reactions and create some great publicity.

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It’s all about that cash

If you just woke up from a coma that began in 1973, I’ll acquaint you with the basic plot points of the film.  Spoilers ahead, wimps.

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A famous movie star named Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) are living temporarily in Georgetown while Chris films a movie. After Regan messes around with a ouija board (stupid girl), she becomes inhabited by a demon who turns the sweet girl into a violent and self-destructive monster. Chris sends her to several doctors, who diagnose her with mental illness, but when all of their treatments fail, Chris sends for Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to perform an exorcism. The exorcism goes badly, with both Karras and Merrin ending up dead, but Regan is cured and everything ends pretty much happily-ever-after…at least until the sequel.

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Content

The Exorcist shocked viewers so badly when it was first released that audience members vomited in the theater and some had to be escorted out by paramedics. It’s a little difficult to believe seeing as these audience members had seen real atrocities on the television ever day. They’d watched JFK get assassinated  and seen Lee Harvey Oswald get shot by Jack Ruby. They’d watched the live execution of a South Vietnamese officer on the news and seen shots of real-life carnage from the Vietnam war every evening. But they were scared of fake vomit and a child saying the F-Bomb? How is that possible?

William Friedkin relied heavily on physical horror for his scares. The most notable scenes (Regan urinating during a party,  levitating from her bed, turning her head 360 degrees, and masturbating with the cross ) all rely on the fear of humans doing unnatural things with their bodies. But when when we separate the fear from the shock, how scary were these scenes? Rotating heads and projectile vomiting don’t hold a candle to body-horror nowadays. I’ve seen better body horror in far worse movies (the leg breaking scene in Insidious 3 for instance).

I can understand why audiences would be disturbed by the content; no one wants to see a 12-year-old girl abusing herself or talking so violently to her mother. But those aspects aren’t scary, they simply buck convention. The grossest part of the whole film was when the doctors performed a routine surgical procedure on Regan. I don’t even know whether that scene was meant to be creepy or informative, but I did not need to see blood spurting from a little girl’s carotid artery while she screams in pain.

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I can say of one or two scenes that were actually frightening. The one where Chris walks alone into the attic and the very brief scene where Father Farras thinks that Regan is his dead mother. Neither relied on shock or body-horror. The first was suspenseful, though it ended up innocuously, and the second was unexpected.

Special Effects

For the time, the make-up and special effects are very well-crafted. But again, they don’t stand the test of the time. The more transformed Regan becomes, the more comical she looks. By the end, her face looks like it’s been covered with crust and grey paint and she appears to be wearing cat-eyes for contacts. The best make-up was the one I didn’t realize was there. Apparently, Max von Sydow was only in his forties when he was cast as Father Merrin, so he was wearing copious amounts of make-up to appear as if he was in his seventies. Why didn’t they just cast a seventy-year-old instead? Seems far easier to me.

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Some of the effects, such as the levitating and the physical contortion, look good by today’s standards. But other aspects, such as the visible frozen breath in Regan’s room, are a tad overdone. William Friedkin shot the scenes in Regan’s room in an actual freezer to make the actors feel colder. He also did other crazy things such as shooting a gun off by an actor’s ear to shock them and slapping the priest who played Father Dryer to get a genuine reaction during filming. This brings to mind the quote (perhaps invented) when Dustin Hoffman had gone to extreme lengths to prepare for his role in Marathon Man and Laurence Olivier supposedly quipped that instead of these preparations, he should try acting. That’s all I can ever think of when I hear of director’s terrorizing their actors to get “genuine” responses. Instead of spending so much time creating real-world conditions, why don’t they hire a better actor?

Plot 

As demonic possession stories go, The Exorcist is kinda mediocre. The demon appears from nowhere, has little purpose, and is easily vanquished. The first scenes show Max von Sydow discovering what I infer to be a demonically-possessed relic in Iraq, but that was never fully explained. Then we jump to Georgetown where Regan contacts someone named Captain Howdy through the ouija board. Chris starts hearing scrapings in the attic which she believes are rats, but which are supposed to be from the demon. Is Captain Howdy the same demon that Max von Sydow found in Iraq? If so, how did Regan become possessed by him and if not, then who is possessing Regan and why were we shown a scene of Max von Sydow discovering an ancient relic? The book from which the movie was based explains that the statue Max von Sydow discovers was evidence of a demon named Pazazu who he had battled in the past. But this still doesn’t explain who possessed Regan and why they did it.

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The demon itself wasn’t very frightening. Sure, it made Regan spit out F-bombs and harm herself, but besides pushing a man out the window, it wasn’t very sinister. That sounds callous, but compared to demons in other movies whose sole purposes seem to be wreaking havoc, this demon was relatively chill. Why was it destroying its vessel, the human body that would keep it alive, instead of using that vessel for various evil purposes?To me, a licensed demonologist, the demon possessing Regan failed on a major scale. It did little damage and majorly screwed up its vessel. It barely even fought against its exorcism!

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Licensed demonologist speaking

Status

So does The Exorcist still deserve to be called the scariest movie of all time? I think no. It is certainly the most influential horror movie of all time, as you can see its influences in countless modern films in the genre. There’s an homage to the title card and the attic scene in Insidious and almost every demonic possession film since the 1970s owes their existence to The Exorcist. But there’s no denying that essential elements of the film such as the content and special effects are no longer shocking or scary. Other films like The Nightmare on Elm Street retain their elements of horror, even after 40 years have passed, but I don’t think that The Exorcist does.

However, I’m probably in the minority opinion about this film. Maybe I’m too cynical. According to my college applications, all Americans are too cynical. That just makes me feel even more cynical. Welp, the Tubular Bells theme from the film is still amazing.

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Let me know if I’m totally off base about this issue. I feel like I’m really missing something great here and that makes me sad. I really, really, wanted to be scared by the film, but I couldn’t fake it. Maybe I’m a robot?

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P.S

What happened to WordPress and why is everything so odd now? I’ve only been off a couple weeks and the entire format changed. I think I prefer the old one better. This version doesn’t seem to permit embedding Youtube videos. But I could also be inept. 50 % chance either way.

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