Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Shortcomings of THE EXORCIST (1973)

THE EXORCIST (1973) was a massive crossover hit in its day, drawing in big bucks from large audiences of people who would ordinarily have never watched a horror flick and it became a legend based largely upon their impression of it as one of the most frightening things they'd ever seen. When lists are assembled of "greatest horror movies" or "best horror movies" or whatever variation is preferred by those who go about assembling lists of that nature, it's exceedingly rare to see one without a prominent slot for THE EXORCIST.

But I'm not fond of THE EXORCIST. It's not a great movie. For the most part, I don't even think it's particularly good.

From a technical standpoint, of course, it's absolutely outstanding in pretty much every respect. The direction is first-rate. The performances are top-notch. The cinematography, the make-up effects, the sound editing--all superb. It's a well-paced film as well and not for a moment "boring," as is so often charged by some contemporary viewers. To those who have been crippled with a lack of attention span as a consequence of too heavy a diet of today's quick edits and cheap, corny jump-scares and other shock-effects every three seconds, it can apparently seem to run a bit long.

That isn't to say it lacks those things, particularly shock effects. We aren't pelted with shocks with the same regularity we get from some of the horror cinema of more recent years (which is why some are bored by the film) but THE EXORCIST is fairly bursting with them. Virtually built around them, in fact. We're assaulted by spinning heads, pea-soup puke, inhuman growls (and other sensory displacement), single-frame jump-scares, bloody cross masturbation--the entire film is a catalog of over-the-top shock tactics.[1]

Therein lies the beginning of my problems with THE EXORCIST. Shock effects are cheap and superficial. To note the obvious, they can only work if they're shocking. When it comes to jolting an audience, they can sometimes work the first time around, sometimes even the second, but continued exposure to them does kill their effectiveness in all but the dimmest of bulbs and quite rapidly. Here, director William Friedkin's efforts to assault the audience with outrageousness rise to the level of unintentional self-parody well before the film is over. The first time we see the possessed Regan's head turn around just a little too far, it can be shocking. Later in the movie when it makes a complete circular rotation, it's just stupid. Perhaps worse, it makes us reflect on the fact that it was already pretty stupid the first time around. The shock effects in THE EXORCIST are like that--so over the top as to become ludicrous. And as silly as they are on their own merits, they're even more silly in the cold glare of history, as such ludicrous excess has come to be played for laughs in more recent decades. It's not uncommon these days to see people on message boards saying they find THE EXORCIST quite funny and in fact the beating heart of the film--the scenes with the possessed Regan--could probably be animated into an episode of SOUTH PARK with barely any changes.[2]

The "secret" of the film's success though--not really secret--isn't its wall-to-wall shock tactics. There are two ingredients that made it a crossover hit in its time and that have made it endure.

The first is the religious angle. The film isn't just a basic good-vs.-evil story, it's a very Christian god-vs.-devil story, with a human soul as the prize. It's immensely appealing to a Christian audience and its downbeat ending, its ruminations on the nature of evil and its subplot about Father Karras questioning his faith make it appear more sophisticated than the usual fare in this vein.[3] And while the over-the-top shocks are a constant assault on the suspension of disbelief necessary to make any film of this sort work, many in a mainstream Christian audience will cut it a lot more slack when it's being done in this context. Not only from approbation of its intentions but because many actually believe such things to be real or at least plausible. The film's Christian character also serves to immunize it, to an extent, from criticism. To the more extreme among the devout, trashing the film, particularly by ridiculing its excesses, can come to be seen as something akin to blasphemy.[4] In a sense (though this isn't its intention), the film attempts several end-runs around our critical faculties, plays that utterly fail against those of us not--forgive me--possessed of the faith to which the film is appealing.[5]

The other key ingredient in the recipe--even more important, in my view--is its metaphorization of the onset of adolescence, the rough, natural, necessary process of growing up converted into a malignant caricature attributed to demonic infestation. I confess this is the part of the film I find outright reprehensible. Puberty is hard on everyone. To parents, their doting, dependent, loving babies suddenly become back-talking, opinionated individuals, challenging all they hold to be sacred. As hard as that can be for them though, that's nothing compared to how hard it can be on the adolescent trying to weather the harrowing hormonal hellstorms of That Age.[6] A big part of the reason THE EXORCIST was such a runaway success is that everyone who has ever had children found their own anxieties reflected in the film. More darkly, many no doubt found their most excessive efforts to suppress their children's growing individuality rationalized by it. In THE EXORCIST, "evil" isn't, to use a then-contemporary example, the U.S. government sewing chaos in Chile, overthrowing democracy there, bringing Pinochet to power and supporting his extermination of thousands of human beings. Engineering chaos, wars, famines and economic collapses isn't the sort of thing a demon--evil incarnate--would stage-manage if unleashed upon the world. No, "evil" is adolescent girls masturbating and cursing and being rebellious and showing contempt for religion and disrespect for authority. What on earth could be worse, right? The film plays to the most thoughtless, reactionary impulses in its viewers, perfectly reflecting some of their most personal--and myopic--anxieties.[7] That's why those viewers have been eating it up like popcorn for more than 30 years.

These two elements stand behind the film's success. For someone like myself who finds nothing appealing in them, the movie has very little to offer. All that's left is an offensive premise and increasingly silly efforts to shock--unintentional humor wrapped in such an overblown effort at seriousness that the effort itself becomes part of the joke.[8]

I dislike the reputation the film has, in some quarters, acquired as some sort of seminal horror film. It isn't one. In spite of its vigorous push against various content barriers, it is, in fact, a very traditional, very conservative horror story. Regan is clearly an innocent. The mother and the priests are clearly on the side of the angels and that is offered literally in the film. The "evil" is an entirely external force. The universe in which the film occurs is the traditional Christian one and operates entirely by those rules. Regardless of its pretensions of greater sophistication, it breaks no new ground where it counts.

In context, it was released in the midst of a very important cycle of superior horror films that were taking the genre in new and interesting directions. This cycle began in the late 1960s with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and ran throughout the 1970s, items like THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, RABID and DAWN OF THE DEAD. The Europeans were part of the same explosion and this was the prime time of Jesus Franco, Jean Rollin and more Italians than can be easily counted. The movies produced as part of this cycle were wildly experimental in terms of storytelling and were openly and mercilessly subversive of just about every element of the traditional horror story represented by THE EXORCIST. They packed it where it counted.[9] That's why there is the present mad scramble to dig them up, dust them off and release them on DVD then re-release them in a string of increasingly special special editions. It's why new films of which they were the inspiration are constantly appearing and why Hollywood seems to be devoted to remaking every one of them.

The cinematic legacy of THE EXORCIST, by contrast, is rather sparse. Beyond its challenge to certain content restrictions in "mainstream" films (always admirable), its influence was three-fold. It spawned a cycle of direct (and mostly awful) rip-offs. These had pretty much played out within a few years, though a stray one does still appear from time to time (the dreadful EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE being a prime recent example). It also helped continue a series of similarly slickly-produced, bigger-budget Hollywood horrors that aimed for mainstream approval. The first of this cycle had actually been ROSEMARY'S BABY and it continued, after THE EXORCIST, with items like the OMEN series, AUDREY ROSE, THE LEGACY, etc.. Its major influence, though, is probably one that would make its creators least happy: a long series of films that, though often great, satirized the sorts of excesses it introduced. Things like the EVIL DEAD movies, RE-ANIMATOR or the early work of Peter Jackson. Excess played for laughs. That's pretty much as far as it goes insofar as a cinematic legacy is concerned--awful, direct replicas, some Hollywood trash and people making fun of it or better repurposing its excess.

A lot of fans want to elect THE EXORCIST to the pantheon. I think it's more at home in the footnotes of film history.



[1] I've frequently encountered, from various admirers of the film, the bizarre notion that this big, noisy exercise in sound and fury and blood and thunder--and thud and blunder--is some sort of understated psychological thriller. My advice to those who proffer this view is always the same: Next time, try actually watching THE EXORCIST before commenting upon it.

[2] That so many receive it in that way can generate a lot of perplexed looks (and grumbles from the film's fans) but that was always a risk with a film in which demonic infestation is presented as an exaggerated caricature of budding adolescence. There's a very thin line between that and outright parody and once the film crosses that line in a viewer's perception, the fact that the film takes itself so terribly seriously begins to seem like camp. THE EXORCIST, to its detriment, doesn't really do nuance.

[3] The film is quite sophisticated for a Christian god-vs.-demon film but "sophisticated" is, in that context, distinctly relative. Among other things, the over-the-top-of-the-top nature of the film makes Karras' struggle with his faith completely ridiculous. He's sitting in the same room with a girl that is obviously possessed. One needn't do anything more than look at her to know it--she barely even looks human by the time he's on the scene. And if anyone could possibly manage any doubts after a glance, they melt as soon as she opens her mouth.

[4] Admittedly, that's an extreme view. I've encountered it more than once though.

[5] Its Christian character also means the film is set in a morally ordered universe, which is something I've always seen as a bit of a buzz-kill when it comes to horror pictures. In the Christian version of a morally ordered universe, good is not only more powerful than evil, it's far more powerful, can save you from the worst fate and even if there is a price to be paid for it, is destined to win in the end. Put simply, a vampire is much more effective when you can't make him fold up his tent by merely brandishing a cross in his direction. When nothing can save you. The better horror films of the era of THE EXORCIST understood this. In them, the evil wasn't some exterior force, it was in ourselves, and the horror was that we could recognize the truth in that.

[6] I once read the suggestion that Reagan's inhuman, post-possession face was like an exaggerated version of acne, that scourge of teen countenances everywhere, and that makes perfect sense. I don't remember where I read the observation though, or who wrote it.

[7] The film is reactionary in other ways. It makes a big show of the fact that Reagan is from a broken home with absent father. When there's trouble, single mom can't handle the problem and the patriarchy, represented by the priests, has to step in and deal with it. There's the usual treatment of female sexuality ("Your mother sucks cocks in hell"). Reagan ends up stuck with the demon by heretically participating in pop occultism (playing with a Ouija board). Lots not to like.

[8] On its own terms, THE EXORCIST takes itself very seriously and to be sure, that's a commendable thing indeed in a field in which such genre productions are so often treated as low-brow trash for undemanding audiences. It just doesn't earn that seriousness.

[9] Prior to them, horror films had primarily been focused outward, playing on our anxieties about those who were outside of us and different from us. Look, for example, at the rash of Cold War metaphor horror flicks from the '50s. We were always given rock-solid heroes, whose motives we weren't to question as they were representations of us, and we didn't question ourselves. The bad guys were always "out there" somewhere--the red menace in the form of alien invaders. This is reactionary horror, which is, in my view, almost inevitably the poorest brand of horror. Things that try to rationalize fears that are often completely irrational. When, on the other hand, the mirror is turned upon us, and the fears and anxieties upon which a film is playing is really something we fear about ourselves, there's nowhere to run. The horror is not external, and there's no heroic military man to smack down the appeaser scientists and put the voltage to the Commie Carrot Man who wants our blood. The horror is in our own hearts. That's when a horror film really works. That's why those '70s horrors packed it where it counts. They turned the mirror on us.