Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Exorcist (1973)

Hit Me With Your Best Shot is a series of interactive posts over at The Film Experience. Nathaniel chooses a film that everyone is invited to watch and choose one image to discuss on their own blog. The Exorcists posts should make for some interesting reading. Here's my deep dark horror secret: I don't like The Exorcist. I don't. I think the last 40 minutes are incredible and the rest is an interminable bore.

Don't get me wrong. I love slow horror. Rosemary's Baby is my favorite film of all time and that's as fast paced as a turtle trying to cross the street. Videodrome takes forever to get going and doesn't even move fast enough to resolve its own story. Cat People is so high-buttoned and slow churning that by the time things actually happen, most modern viewers will have lost interest.

The case with The Exorcist is even stranger. I think the novel is a masterpiece of modern horror. It actually sells the parallel narratives of skepticism and faith between Father Karras and Chris MacNeil to perfection. A lot of the beats should be the same as the film but they aren't.

Linda Blair gives great innocence at the start of The ExorcistI like bits and pieces of The Exorcist film. I think the cinematography and effects are stellar. The score is one of the best the horror genre has ever had. The sound design is killer and drives the film when no one else is willing to.

Perhaps most controversial part of it all is the only element of the film I love without any doubt: Linda Blair's turn as Regan MacNeil. That's right. The Academy Award nominated should have been breakout role of the possessed girl in The Exorcist is the one element of the film I think is perfect.

What Linda Blair managed to do with her eyes is very impressive. For all the makeup, effects, and eventual voice-overs that dominate her work, it is her eyes alone that tell the true story of The Exorcist. She goes from a sweet and innocent little child to a tortured soul to one of the most evil creatures ever seen on the screen.

The key to unlocking The Exorcist is Regan's eyesThe transition period from her first moment of acting out to her first meeting with the priest is, sadly, one of the weaker parts of the movie for me. She's fantastic, but the film runs itself in circles.

The issue is one of audience expectations. Guess what? We know going in that someone is going to be exorcised from the title alone. How much tension is there in having the mother refuse to believe in the supernatural and the priest losing faith in God? Those two perspectives could push the film in interesting directions. They don't. Chris gets wilder and wilder at the doctors' offices until she buckles and calls the priests, while Father Karras literally runs away until he's dragged to the MacNeil household for the exorcism.

The only thing that changes in that time period is young Regan. The first visit to the doctor lets you know what is going to happen. My favorite shot of The Exorcist.

The duality of Regan comes forth through the needle

Regan is shown split in two for the first time. A nurse is prepping her for bloodwork while she turns her head away from the camera. The more she looks away, the more we can see the truth hiding behind her still body. Regan is about the break out in a big way whether she means to or not.

For all the visual fireworks and quick cuts of Pazuzu in the darkness, I find the obscenely white and increasingly elaborate psychiatric facilities to be the visual highlight of the film. There, tension builds through Blair's performance alone. The clinical cocoon of machines and doctors only hastens her transformation into monster.

At these moments, believability comes from Regan alone. If Blair goes too far, you won't believe that a doctor could misdiagnose her as just rebelling or any of the myriad of other false conclusions. If she doesn't go far enough, you view the doctors as the villains of the movie, torturing a poor child with unyielding examinations.

The only real villain in The Exorcist is that internal monologue we all live with. The villain is everything we're afraid to say or do because of what someone else will think. Father Karras doesn't really want to believe in God because believing in God means acknowledging that bad things happen under God's watch. Chris doesn't want to accept possession as an answer because that means her cool liberal demeanor in Hollywood based on contemporary action is misguided.

Even the makeup cannot hide Linda Blair's expressive eyesAnd poor Regan is fighting against the demon inside of her. She* is controlling the poor girl from the inside out, dragging her into the darkest depths of adulthood with no chance of emerging unscathed. She's cut, beaten, penetrated, and treated like a doll in a naughty little girl's toy chest. Regan wants to be good, but something she cannot fight against alone is ripping her apart from the inside out.

*Forget the male domination angle. It's a dead end. That demon, whether the creators want it to be or not, is an embodiment of every danger a young girl faces when she reaches adolescence. Sex, drugs, falling with the wrong crowd, rebelling against authority, refusing innocence just to prove maturation--those are the dominating forces of Regan's possession. Simplifying it to male oppression/domination is far too straight forward for a film that thinks itself as clever as The Exorcist does.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 9 May 2012

The Link Rally: 8 May 2012