Exorcist, The (1973)

The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin.

It still works.

The dreadful taint of spiritual loathsomeness. The unseen world erupting into this reality. The mystery of the demon: it seems so childishly vulgar in its taunts, yet has such a keen insight of the weak points of the mortals. We suspect it is playing a long game, with Fr Merrin as the ultimate target; or is there more?

In a great moment we see dark and troubled Fr Karras regain his lost faith: it's during the exorcism when Regan is levitating. He can't speak for several moments and when he does resume he says the ritual with new conviction and understanding. The tangible presence of Evil has renewed his faith.

Maybe that's why people like theologically-themed horror: it's an affirmation. I wonder if those who pursue satanism and such aren't trying to back into faith without admitting it.

I'd forgotten a lot of details: Captain Howdy and the ouija board, the real settings, how many characters and how much city life is shown, the fine details.

The clues build steadily during the first half, but we spend a long time on the inadequacy of the rationalists to cope with the possession. Mom rants and screams a lot, perhaps not unreasonably. I'm not quite following the hospital bits where Regan seems tortured by the doctors; is science just as bad as the demon? Is the devil using medicine for its own purposes? The director said it was just another type of ritual.

Some of the physical effects are a bit distracting. Wouldn't Regan be dead if her head turned 180 degrees? The solution, where Karras takes the demon from Regan, always seemed like a gimmick to me. Why would the demon cooperate? It must be that it has no choice: the priest's sacrifice completes the exorcism, saving both his soul and Regan's. Or so I presume, and the author agrees. He was disappointed that many people left the theater thinking the demon had won. That wasn't the point at all.

Available on Blu-ray with one disc each for the theatrical and director's cuts. I watched the theatrical cut this time. All I remember of the longer version are flashes of the demon face and excessively light-hearted repartee with the police detective in the last scene.

Two commentary tracks. The director rambles but has some good info. The Mom role was originally offered to Audrey Hepburn (who would have done it if they had filmed in Rome where she lived), Anne Bancroft (but she was pregnant) and Jane Fonda (who turned it down flat). He was happy with Ellen Burstyn.

They auditioned hundreds of girls before finding Linda Blair, who had little acting experience. It's hard to imagine a better choice. The director in the film was based on real director J. Lee Thompson; he was offered the role and almost did it. Max von Sydow was 43, playing a much older man.

Jason Miller as Fr Karras was a playwright who had never been in a movie before, but who had studied for the priesthood. Again, he seems just perfect.

Friedkin points out some mysteries of the movie:

According to accounts in the wikipedia article it sounds like it was a wild production, and Friedkin a difficult and dangerous guy to work with.

The second commentary is only about half the playing time of the disc. William Peter Blatty thoughtfully reflects on the story and production. It is not entirely fiction for him; he is willing to believe in supernatural evil.

He is definite that Regan is not the demon's target, but rather those around her, particularly Karras, who are at risk.

He wanted Shirley MacLaine for the Mom and bullied and bluffed the studio into hiring Friedkin. Seven directors, including Kubrick, turned it down. He also claims the Columbo TV character was swiped from his manuscript while it was circulating at the publishers. I remember thinking the resemblance to Detective Kinderman in the book was striking.

Then the track has some demon vocalizations by Mercedes McCambridge. Don't listen to this while eating lunch. "Like a sick thing in heat" -- Norman Spinrad, different context.

The Blu-ray is not available from Netflix.