Cream presents a fresh column that highlights the films you really ought to have seen by now. From cinema’s early days of flickering silent pictures to contemporary CGI-packed blockbusters, and plenty of low-budget indie flicks in between, this is the column to turn to before ogling your movie streaming options.
Bit of a freaky one this week: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Text by Rohan Stephens
THE EXORCIST, 1973. Dir., William Friedkin.
What is it?
The self-proclaimed “scariest movie of all time” and still fairly bang on the mark, The Exorcist is nothing short of a masterpiece when it comes to storytelling and filmmaking. It’s the film with the head spin. The film with the green vomit. The one with the girl levitating from the bed. The girl who fucks herself with a crucifix. It’s the film that started it all, really. And it’s still scary as hell.
People fainting, vomiting, rushing out screaming, convulsing in their seats, all contributed to what was already a fairly robust cultural mythology around what was referred to as ‘The Exorcist Effect’.
Based on the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, the plot follows the demonic possession of a 12-year-young girl as she is tortured close to death in front of her mother by a force claiming to be the Devil himself. Staring Ellen Burnstyn and Linda Blair as mother and daughter, the film went on to become one of the first horror movies ever nominated for Best Picture at the 1974 Academy Awards, along with having earned nine other nominations.
The story of the film’s initial release is riddled with anecdotes of people needing all kinds of medical attention in theatres due to its terrifying content. People fainting, vomiting, rushing out screaming, convulsing in their seats, all contributed to what was already a fairly robust cultural mythology around what was referred to as ‘The Exorcist Effect’. Whole documentaries have been produced about the astounding interest and fear the film generated at the time, garnering the attention and eventual condemnation from most of the world’s major Catholic institutions. Even The Exorcist‘s original theatrical trailer is worth a look, having been banned from cinemas for being ‘too terrifying’.
‘The Exorcist’ is attributed as having paved the way for a slew of equally classy and successful projects such as ‘The Omen’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, where complex and physiological narratives delved deeper than before, providing longer, more disturbing reactions than simply short, cheap or gory scares.
The film’s most obvious disturbing quality is the slow and inexplicable torture of a young girl, however on a deeper level it’s also the narrative of watching a priest questioning his own faith even in the face of what is clearly a demonic force. After being hauled before a series of doctors and therapists all with inconclusive results, Regan (Blair) and her mother (Burstyn) turn to the church as a last resort to deal with her increasingly disturbing behaviour. It’s almost not until the film’s climax do we see Father Karras (Jason Miller) really buy into the severity of the issue despite the graphic events unfolding before him. Watching him observe Regan literally rotting away in her own body but not having the belief in himself, or his faith to help, really is one of the film’s more poignant moments.
Just to make things a little freakier, Friedkin employs one of best known uses of subliminal messages in cinema. Several times throughout the story and more so in subsequently extended editions released on DVD, we see the horrific face of the demon that is lurking inside of Regan, with its bulging eyes and sharpened teeth – but only fleetingly. It passes across the screen almost like a mistake in the editing booth but it is burned into our eyelids so that we cannot ‘look away’ even if we wanted to.
Why should I have already seen it?
The Exorcist was a pivotal moment in movie history: a superbly produced gem of a movie in a genre consistently delivering atrocious product. With its backlog riddled with camp monsters, poor production values and equally poor acting, horror historically (with some exceptions) wasn’t a category of film to be taken seriously, either critically or commercially. The Exorcist is attributed as having paved the way for a slew of equally classy and successful projects such as The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, where complex and physiological narratives delved deeper than before, providing longer, more disturbing reactions than simply short, cheap or gory scares. Evidently, it seemed to do for Catholicism what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean. It carried the effect outside the theatre and into real life, which in the end is the trapping of a brilliant movie.
Where do I find it?