Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Exorcist (1973)

"You`re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?'

I can`t quite believe that I`m nearly thirty-seven and I hadn`t seen this superlative film until now. I suppose we all have a list of seminal cinematic masterpieces that we`ve never quite got round to seeing, but I really had no excuses; I like my horror, and this is one of that select group of auteur-led films made in the early Seventies that pretty much constitute a Hollywood golden age. It`s interesting to watch in the light of its influence on popular culture; this is where we establish the trope of words recorded backwards being Satanic, hence that stupid court case for Judas Priest the following decade. And it`s weird, in the light of The Omen being three years later, that the flawed, doubting priest should be called Damien.

The film is gorgeously shot throughout, as we would expect, and we spend some time establishing that Regan is a nice, normal girl before anything happened,the daughter of a film star, rich, living in a large house with staff. We also establish Father Damien as a troubled man, losing his faith ad having to make difficult decisions about his mother. It`s also fascinating to get some footage of northern Iraq, six years before Saddam Hussein.

I`ve no idea how this relates to the original novel, but the storytelling is elegantly done and the characters, even minor ones such as William Kindeman, the detective, are multi-dimensional. The ending, quick though it is, is nicely foreshadowed; Merrin arrogantly refuses to hear about the history of the case from Damien, and this hubris leads to the old man`s nemesis. Damien is established early on as losing his faith, feels guilt about his treatment of his elderly mother and (as the demon later mentions) fails to stop and help a beggar. His death is ambiguous; is it martyrdom or suicide? Does he die unshriven.

A quick note; this film, while controversial with many, is famously approved of by the Vatican, for obvious reasons; its portrayal of the Roman Catholic hierarchy is extremely positive. But it never, for me, crosses the line into proselytising. The purpose of the film is to entertain and frighten, nothing more.

The film`s justified selling point is the depiction of the possessed Regan; the voice, make-up and special effects are indeed extraordinary, but it is the direction that truly elevates these scenes. The very quick glimpse of the demon early on, just a few frames, is enormously powerful. These scenes are rationed until the end of the film; each individual glimpse of the superlative make-up, the head turning 360 degrees, and the moving bed are allowed to have maximum impact.

I can`t praise this film enough. There are many imitations but this is the real deal, through sheer film-making ability. Undoubtedly one of the greatest horror films ever.

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