Why It Works: The Exorcist
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
Halloween is upon us, which means many of you have been revisiting some of your favorite scary movies. How many of your favorite horror movies are among your favorite all time films, though? I'm sure there are a few, but it feels too often like the horror genre exists just for cheap scares without much effort being put into also making great films. This brings us to one of my favorite films, THE EXORCIST, which also happens to be considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. William Friedkin's 1973 classic fuses drama, religion, psychology, family, and horror while still maintaining all the facets of a complete, cohesive, quality film. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
The 1970's perfected the art of realism in film. As I mentioned in my Why It Works on ALIEN, the longer you spend with real characters doing real things, the more invested you are in them and believe the unreal situations they eventually encounter. We see Chris MacNeil, an actress filming a movie on location in Washington, D.C., who currently lives in Georgetown with her daughter Regan. Chris and Regan's relationship is straight out of any family drama, with Chris expressing stress at work and loneliness at home, Regan displaying the desires and quirks of any average preteen, the pair discussing the complicated issue of Regan's absent father, and, to maintain an air of lightheartedness, the occasional tickle fight. This is not some flimsy pretext to get the scary stuff going- this is a genuine relationship handled with thought and care. Likewise, we have Father Damien Karras, a priest who doubts his faith and longs for a way to help his aging mother. This relationship is deep and heartbreaking, again making for characters as complex and compelling as in any "normal" film.
Ah, the obligatory ouija board scene.
WHY WE CARE:
One reason films have veered away from taking time to relate to the characters is our constant need for stimulation. More and more, audiences are becoming intolerant of downtime in films and just want to see what happens next. For this reason, many horror movies start with a "here's what you're in for" scene before settling into the primary story line. THE EXORCIST does a version of this, albeit in a less contrived way. Lankester Merrin, the titular exorcist, investigates an archaeological dig in Iraq, uncovering a mysterious amulet. It's an interesting choice to start the film spending almost ten minutes with a character who won't show up again until the third act, but the introduction certainly sets us up for the tense, dark, and bizarre nature of the film. The innocent and endearing relationship between Regan and Chris suddenly becomes shrouded in a cloud of things to come. Finally, as the film progresses, we witness one bizarre occurrence after another: Regan's increasingly disturbing behavior, Chris exploring the attic, the ward where Karras' mother ends up- even innocuous moments like a beggar asking Karras for money are rife with unease, so while we won't see heads spinning and split pea soup fountains until late in the game, we become transfixed by the mystery building in the meantime.
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
Horror movies don't need happy endings. In fact, the genre is famous both for dark endings and ones that seem happy until the last second. THE EXORCIST actually gives us the whole spectrum of resolutions in its final moments. For one, Father Merrin doesn't survive the exorcism; the legendary exorcist has finally been defeated by his enemy. Father Karras shares a similar fate, but his is a classic sacrifice for others, as he commands the demon to enter him and then leaps out of the window to finish the spirit off. Finally, thanks to Karras' sacrifice, Regan and Chris are able to return to some semblance of a normal life. Regardless of the fate of the characters, THE EXORCIST also satisfies by delivering a finale even more incredible than the film promises. I won't go into all of the disturbing scenes the audience is asked to endure before the credits finally roll, but needless to say no one should leave the film feeling like it pulled any punches.
"The power of Christ compels you!"
WHY WE REMEMBER:
If you haven't seen the 2000 director's cut of THE EXORCIST, or "The Version You've Never Seen," you're missing not only one of the creepiest scenes in the film but, more importantly, some key expository moments. The scene I've included below begins with a cut conversation between Fathers Merrin and Karras about why the demon would choose a young girl to possess. While this scene doesn't exist in the original cut, it still illustrates that this is a horror film which is also actually about something. It's no coincidence that many of what are considered to be great horror films have more to say than just "boo." From a filmmaking standpoint, THE EXORCIST boasts a stellar cast (with Oscar nods for Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, and Jason Miller), a haunting score and sound design, direction and cinematography that keep the viewer in a constant state of unease, and a writing/editing combination which knows exactly when to pick up the pace and when to sit with a moment. After seeing the film enough to be immune to the scares and upsets, it's truly a joy to be able to watch THE EXORCIST and just appreciate what a fine film it is.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at email@example.com.