The Exorcist (1973)

TheExorcist

The Exorcist – 1973

Director – William Friedkin

Starring – Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller

As far as controversial movies go, I can think of no more infamous movie than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Often cited as the “scariest movie of all time”, or at the very least one of the scariest, banned across the United Kingdom from it’s release until fairly recently in the 90s, and condemned by prominant religious figures and organizations as vile and evil, it’s safe to say that The Exorcist had quite a lot to live up to. I even encountered some trouble when trying to watch it, as it’s reputation was a bit daunting.  Ultimately I just bit the bullet, sat down, and watched it. But the big question is, “was it worth all the hype?” I’d have to say, resoundingly, yes.

To start with, the story. A young girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by a demon, and in the process, frightens her mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her foul behavior, filthy language, and her severe, self-inflicted wounds. After exhausting the options available to them through science and medicine, they turn to the church in an attempt to rid Regan of the demon. Sound original? Not really. The story isn’t a new one, stories similar to this one have been told before and since the release of the Exorcist. It is in the execution of this story, however, that the real difference comes in and where the magic lies.

The pacing of the film is huge. Without anything obviously scary happening, Friedkin still takes every opportunity to build the tension and create an atmosphere of un-ease, and anxiety. Every minute that goes by, we are slowly drawn in to the characters, the story, and the setting. The film is roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. It could have been double that, and I still would have been caught up in it. Not one frame was wasted in moving us towards the climax, flickering lights, ambient sound, negative space, everything was used effectivly to create the mood. Without the time taken to get us into the minds of the characters, this could have very easily become a sensationalist monster movie, or a horror movie that was dependent upon shock value.

Sound. One very important method of ramping up the tension is through sound. It can be used to add an almost subliminal layer to the film, something like the rhythmic pounding of some machinery in the hospital, or the raspy breathing of Regan as she is possessed by the demon. The sound design is, when necessary, a bit more overt too. For example, the priests, fathers Merrin and Karras (von Sydow, and Miller respectively) walk up the stairs to start the exorcism and leave the girl’s miter Arther foot of the stairs watching. The camera pulls in slowly on the mother, and suddenly out of the blue, the phone rings causing her, and the audience, to jump out of our collective skins. These little, seemingly innocuous noises, like a phone ringing, or a floor creaking, or a soft scrabbling sound, go a long way towards building the tension for the inevitable climax of the movie.

Friedkin utilizes a lot of contrasting imagery to amplify the good versus evil theme of the story. One of the best examples of the use of this technique is the image used for the poster. Max von Sydow’s character (father Merrin) has just arrived at the house, and surrounded by a glowing white light he steps towards the darkly lit house. He is surrounded by darkness (evil), but brings with him light (good) and hope (still good). The light that surrounds him draws our eyes to the upstairs window of the house, where Regan and the demon are waiting, not only does this image characterize the themes of the story, but it visually connects the fate of the two opposing sides. This use of pregnant negative space occurs throughout the film. A darkly lit scene often times is immediately contrasted with a bright one, flip flopping to heighten the conflict, and draw the characters closer together. The imagery is at war with itself, vying for the audiences attention, while undermining and simultaniously accentuating the scenes that came before it. The positioning of the characters in The Exorcist speaks a lot about the battles and conflicts they face in the story. Often times characters are either ascending or descending into or from the scene (a buddy of mine actually wrote a bit about these contrasting visual qualities, you can read that here.). The staccato nature of the imagery builds to a frenzied pace, never letting up until the conclusion.

Tying all these elements together is the subdued yet distinctive musical score. It never overwealms the film, it instead helps to glue everything together. The score is instantly recognizable, and conjures up instantaneous images from the film (just ask who’s been terrorized by it).

If it isn’t clear up until this point, I loved this film. Depite my lack of religion based fear, The Exorcist kept me on the edge of my seat, enthralled every step of the way. This is what horror and suspense films should aspire to. Completely and totally recommended!

“Hilarious!” – Ashley

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabeMrsMiller

McCabe and Mrs. Miller – 1971

Director – Robert Altman

Starring – Warren Beatty and Julie Christie

So we come to yet another Robert Altman movie. This time Altman subverts the western genre, transforming a series of characters from cookie cutter black and whites into more realistic grays and earth tones. Warren Beatty plays the McCabe of the title, arriving in a new frontier town in the Pacific Northwest with his sights set on jump starting the gambling and whore house industries. His reputation in town precedes him as the bartender bolsters his reputation by telling stories of his “gunfighting past” (it’s not revealed till later whether or not this account of his past is rumor or authentic). The town folk, rapt with attention, line up to hear his stories, play poker with him, and to sample his wares. His operation is going well, and McCabe grows more and more full of himself until Mrs. Miller, another entrepreneur new arrival in town, shoots holes in his rather short-sighted and limited plans.

She knows the true potential for this sort of business in town, and more importantly she knows how to run it. She convinces McCabe to put up the cash and soon enough they are in business. Together, their business flourishes as does the rather one sided affection that McCabe feels for Miller. Her desire to legitimize the spot she has cut out for herself, serves as a blockade to McCabe’s attempts to sweep her off of her feet. The greater their success, the more amorous he tries to be, and the more distant she becomes.

When a large conglomerate business makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to purchase the business, McCabe refuses in a bluff, attempting to squeeze a larger sum from the buyers. Mrs. Miller knows how ruthless these men can be, and does what she can to warn McCabe of the danger of playing with fire. Beatty’s “gunslinger” is full of the glory of his own legend, claims to know how to play the game. Unlike the rest of the townsfolk however, Mrs. Miller can see right through his posturing.

Altman’s tendency to turn archetypes on their heads, results in McCabe having the ego and confidence of a Hollywood cowboy, but without the skills or experience to back it up. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but up until now he’s been lucky. Despite her addiction to opium, Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller can see that plain as day, and resigns herself to what is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. What follows at the end of the film is brutish and inevitable.

When the shunned offer results in the conglomerate company sending a couple of fearsome, hired guns to forcibly relieve McCabe of his enterprise, his pomp and ego turns into bargaining and cowardice. The three men sent to kill McCabe are a scary bunch of outlaws who seem to fear nothing, or no-one. They run roughshod over the town, and the townspeople, taking what they want and killing indiscriminately. Rather than stepping out on the street and having a showdown, Altman’s characters fight it out like they would in real life, by hiding and through ambush. The bad guys fight dirty, and in order to stay alive, the good guys have to fight dirty too.

Altman’s change of venue from the arid southwest of the United States, to the chilly and bleak northwest provides just the right tone for the film. Bleak and foreboding, harsh and unforgiving. Altman had his cinematographer purposefully flash expose the film to light before developing to get that hazy 1800’s photo quality. Before learning this, I thought it was a bad transfer on my DVD, and it annoyed me to no end. Just like each of his other movies, I grew to appreciate it. While I never ended up loving how it looked, I could at least appreciate that the film itself was used as a tool through which the story was being told. Altman isn’t necessarily afraid of making the finished look of the film weathered and used, if it helps along the story.

The town’s sets in this movie, reminded me a lot of the apartment complex set from Rear Window. At first the flood of visual information seems overwhelming, but as the story progresses and the sets are used again and again, we become at home in them. They start to take on a reality, a three dimensionality, and a familiarity, that transcends the 2 hours or so that we inhabit them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this place is still standing somewhere (I guess I actually would be surprised, but the feeling of it being a real functioning place is no less diminished for it being gone in today’s world.)

Like each of Altman’s films that I’ve seen (and I suspect the ones I haven’t seen as well), The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short-Cuts, and M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a product made up of carefully laid out elements that form the cohesive whole. Film stock, film-developing, editing, direction, acting, sets, and costumes all work with one another towards a common goal. I started out not liking this movie, ready to write it off as a dud, but as I kept watching, I felt more invested in this little nook of the world. I felt like I grew with each of the characters as they went through the story.