Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Movie Review: "The Exorcist" by David Pretty

I know that parody should be considered flattering, but if it happens too frequently or if it's overly effective it can end up tarnishing the original source material.  Seriously, can anyone out there think of Michael Jackson's "Bad" or "Beat It" without being reminded of "Weird Al" Yankovic's genuinely funny re-interpretations? 

So it is with The Exorcist.  Starting with the infamous Richard Pryor Saturday Night Live skit, to the horror spoofs Repossessed and Scary Movie 2, all the way up to episodes of The Simpsons, Supernatural and Angel a lot of shots have been taken at this venerable horror classic.  But I think that's only because people want to take the piss out of a film that really scared the shit out of them as kids.  Indeed, even after abusing viewers for close to forty years, The Exorcist is still an unrivaled horror masterpiece.

As soon as we experience Friedkin's creative use of sound we know that we're in the hands of a master at the height of his powers.  Starting with the evocative use of the Athan during the film's title card, he goes on to employ a loud, electronic buzzing on the soundtrack for the scene in which Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) discovers a small demonic headpiece.  This technique is employed again when Merrin later squares off against the full-sized statue of Pazuzu.

Friedkin continues to use an arsenal of auditory weapons to keep the audience ill-at-ease.  Even when the film segues into more familiar environs, we're kept off kilter by the weird, unnatural noises coming from the well-appointed attic of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).  Then we're treated to the subtly unnerving strains of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" as Chris walks through the windy, leaf-strewn streets of Georgetown in late October.  The only other piece of music that's comparably evocative is John Carpenter's score for Halloween.

The matter-of-fact sensibilities employed by Friedkin in the Iraq scenes are carried over here.  We're soon introduced to affluent actress and single mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her sunny and gregarious daughter Regan (Linda Blair).  Their scenes together are completely convincing, devoid of any illusion, conceit or pretension.  Their candid performances and the film's documentary-like approach really sell the film's realism.

During all of this, Friedkin is dropping subtle, throwaway hints that something may be afoot.  The noises in the attic start not long after Regan leaves her bedroom window wide open overnight.  There's a scene where she innocently talks to her mother about communicating with her invisible friend "Captain Howdy" via a Ouija Board.  During all of this, Friedkin keeps serving up the mundane in order to lull us into complacency.    

This includes the nondescript introduction of Father Damien Karras, a sad-sack Jesuit priest played brilliantly by Jason Miller.  After a seemingly pointless scene in which a street derelict asks him for spare change ("Could you help an old altar boy, Father?  I'm a Catlick."), Damien heads back to the old neighborhood giving audiences a time-capsule glimpse of how scummy New York City used to be in the Seventies.  Karras tends to his ailing Greek mother who stubbornly refuses to leave "her home", despite the fact that her apartment is dark, claustrophobic and incredibly oppressive.

In an all-too-real moment of terrestrial horror, Damien's mother takes a turn for the worse and she's confined to the sort of place that 60 Minutes used to try and sneak cameras into.  As Karras tries to make his way to her, he's swarmed by a clutch of dementia-ravaged zombies desperate for acknowledgement.  Even after he finds her, she's inconsolable, blaming him for her current state.

It's the sort of painfully genuine real-life moment that seems completely incongruous in a so-called horror film.  Up to this point in time, most fright flicks contained a comforting element of fantasy; the cinematic equivalent of spotting a zipper in a monster suit.  Unfortunately, Friedkin isn't willing to let us off quite so easily.

The character of Damien Karras is a fascinating and tragic one.  As a fully-accredited therapist, he would have made a fortune in private practice, giving him plenty of resources to help his ailing mom.  Instead, he chose the priesthood where he's finding it virtually impossible to council folks who are experiencing a crisis of faith.  "There isn't a day in my life when I haven't felt like a fraud," he tells a compatriot at one point.  A lot of credit has to go to Jason Miller for inhabiting a character so burdened by guilt and defeat that he seems physically impaired by it.

Up to this point in time, no-one could possibly describe the film as a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride. In fact, by modern standards, the first thirty minutes of The Exorcist are downright mundane.  But as I was re-watching the film a few nights ago, I was really impressed by William Friedkin's patience.  In exhibiting so much restraint and treating the audience like adults, he has time to develop full-blooded characters all the while lulling us into a false sense of security.

Simultaneously, he's also dropping plenty of subtle indications that things are about to go completely bat-shit nuts.  At the thirty-one minute mark, he begins to make good on this promise.  As she's searching for the source of the odd noises in the attic, Chris's candle suddenly explodes like a flame-thrower.  Meanwhile, Regan lies awake in her bed downstairs, her disconcertingly vacant expression hinting at malice.

The following morning a priest discovers an obscenely desecrated statue of the Virgin Mary.  As a kid weaned on Catholic dogma, the first time I saw this image I thought that it was irredeemably tasteless.  Immediately I began to fear that Friedkin was one of those directors, willing to annihilate any taboo in his mad quest to shock and horrify his audience. 

Evidence to support my hypothesis quickly piled up.  In a display sure to kill a party quicker then playing "Hotel California" on repeat, Regan barges into her mother's high-class social, predicts doom for one of the guests and then promptly pees on the carpet.  Although Chris tries to re-assure Regan (and herself, presumably) that it's "just nerves", nothing can prepare her when her daughter's bed starts clattering around on the floor.

Friedkin then conjures up a bad dream for Karras, peppered with subliminal demonic faces and images of his now-deceased mother wailing mutely.  He then contrasts this with Regan's material- world medical nightmare.  Her spinal tap is documented in such agonizing detail that it feels like a  wince-inducing instructional video.  No film has ever been more effective in blending real-world fears with traditional supernatural horror.  Eventually they blend together so seamlessly that fantasy and reality are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Powerful and nefarious forces continue to manifest, first thrashing Regan around and then speaking through her.  I think it's safe to say that no-one in 1973 was prepared to hear such a nasty and guttural voice come out of a hitherto-angelic little girl.  "Keep away!  The sow is mine!" the demonic voice bellows at the gathered physicians seconds before uttering the terrible invitation to "Fuck me!"  After this charming homily, we know that the kid gloves are off and we could be subjected to any depravity imaginable.  It's like being a passenger on a low-flying bush plane and discovering that your pilot is an escaped mental patient.

Of course, the doctors try to convince Chris that her daughter is experiencing fits, seizures and elevated levels of strength due to her heightened mental state.  It's not until a shrink's family jewels get crushed before a small team of psychologists finally broach the subject of exorcism. "The victim's belief in possession helped cause it and just in the same way, this belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear," the clinic director gamely tells Chris, perhaps hoping to be done with of her.

But what reason could screenwriter William Peter Blatty possibly devise that would make a staunch atheist like Chris MacNeil so desperate that she'd be willing to consult with a bunch of "witch doctors"?  Well, the scene he came up with not only solved this little snafu it also single-handedly drove church attendance through the roof in the early months of 1974.  Chris comes home after yet another pointless meeting with the eggheads only to find that the everything in her daughter's room is spinning around like ingredients in a Cuisinart.  She also notices that Regan has found a rather unconventional use for an errant crucifix. 

Accompanying this shocking sight is a still-convincing, one-hundred-and-eighty-degree head spin gag and the sort of language that would make Bill Burr wince.  The resulting amalgam of distorted screams bleed into the following scene of Karras cresting a hill in silhouette, surrounded by skeletal trees and fall leaves.  It's a chilling introduction for a a chilly-looking tableau. 

The film gets more and more intense as it moves towards endgame.  Friedkin eliminates every noise on the soundtrack save a horrible wheezing sound which grows more pronounced as Karras approaches Regan's room.  By this time, the vocal talents of veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge is put to great effect, giving the demon the sort of authenticity that a synthesized voice could never provide.  When Karras plays back his recordings of the interview, the effect is startling.  There are multiple voices, animal sounds, foreign languages and more backward messages then in the entire Styx catalog.  

Combined with this is Linda Blair's startling physical transformation, realized by make-up maestro Dick Smith.  Under Friedkin's guidance, Smith goes for realism, treating the possession almost as a physical disease.  His designs suggest that Regan has been using her fingernails (or the previously-seen crucifix) to engage in self-scarification and the resulting wounds are becoming gangrenous.  The notorious vomit effect, rigged up by technician Marcel Vercoutere, was supposed to strike Jason Miller right in the sweater-vest.  Unfortunately, the trajectory was slightly off and it hit him flush in the face, resulting in a candid reaction akin to the chestburster sequence in Alien

All of this would normally add up to plenty of scares for the average horror movie, but Friedkin just keeps throwing one shock after another at us.  Accompanied by Jack Nitzsche's spine-tingling musical notes, an eerie plea of "help me" pokes up through Regan's abdomen.  In conversation with Karras, the demon suddenly impersonates the subway derelict who asked the priest for money earlier.  When I first witnessed this, I'm pretty sure it permanently burnt out a synapse in my brain.  The connotation was simple yet awful: evil is everywhere, all-pervasive and omnipotent.

Fortunately, Father Merrin finally arrives in that iconic scene of a cab pulling up to the fog-shrouded MacNeil house.  A lone figure steps out, silhouetted by a corona of light shining down from Regan's bedroom.  As soon as Merrin steps foot inside the house you quickly realize that this is a guy who doesn't fuck around, as evidenced by this early exchange:

Karras: Do you want to hear the background of the case first?
Merrin: Why?

A major part of the character's appeal is Max Von Sydow.  Although he was only forty-four at the time, he plays eighty better then any actor I've seen before or since.  His performance is augmented by Dick Smith's flawless aging makeup, which I'm also pretty confident has never been rivaled.

Despite Merrin's cool exterior, their trek up to Regan's bedroom is leaden with a feeling of certain doom.  In the ordeal that follows, the two priests manage to sustain rivers of day-glo vomit, shaking beds, flying furniture, low-level earthquakes, levitating bodies, creatively repellent language and the re-appearance of our old buddy, Pazuzu.  Throughout it all, Merrin remains unflappable.  Even as his body begins to falter, his spirit seems resolute.

Which leads us to the most powerful scene in the entire film.  After being broken by the demon, Karras finally returns to the room only to discover that Merrin is unconscious.  Regan, still possessed, sits off to the side, watching him with the sort of slack-jawed interest a child would exhibit while frying bugs underneath a magnifying glass.

Knowing that their only hope is slipping away, Karras desperately attempts CPR on the elderly priest and Regan promptly starts giggling.  Damien snaps (Hmmm, that tendency must come with the name), throws Regan to the floor and literally pounds the demon out of her.  He invites the entity to come into him but quickly realizes that he has no hope of controlling it.  His next action is inconceivably shocking.  

By the end of the film, my wits feel as if they've been thrown down a vertical flight of steps.  Notwithstanding the film's capacity to scare, you can't help but admire its impeccable level of craftsmanship.  The casting is flawless, the direction is tight, the performances are organic, the dialogue is solid, the effects are seamless and the script is one of the most well-calibrated engines of high-octane suspense ever committed to celluloid. 

In spite of all the parodies, The Exorcist continues to resonate with me, even after almost forty years.  For a film that does unimaginably awful things to its characters and the audience, it's more significant today then a slew of its high-brow contemporaries.  Honestly do people still talk about The Sting (the movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year) with the same level of passion and vested interest?

But that's not to denigrate the pedigree of The Exorcist.  It isn't just the scariest film ever made, it's also one of the most artistic.

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