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