Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Exorcist Movie Review

36 years ago this week, the world was introduced to “The Exorcist,” a film that is considered to be arguably the scariest movie of all time.

The film (directed by William Friedkin) is adapted from the novel, written by William Peter Blatty when he was a college student at Georgetown University in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He had been reading in the local newspapers about a young boy from Mount Rainier, Maryland who was allegedly “haunted” and “held in Satan’s grip.” The family of the boy enlisted the help of Jesuit priests to cure him of his possession.

Blatty’s fascination for the story became an idea for the movie.

The Exorcist plot centers on three different stories involving the characters. The first is that of Father Lankester Merrin (played by Max Von Sydow) who we meet in the opening of the film. He is digging at an archaeological site in Iraq when he uncovers a statue of a demon.

Next we are introduced to Chris and Regan MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair) a mother and daughter who are currently living in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. (Notice the connection Blatty made with the location) Regan, 12, plays with a Ouija board and soon after exhibits bizarre and aggressively violent behavior. Her mother takes her to countless doctors, all of whom cannot conclusively diagnose Regan.

The doctors tell the MacNeils to seek a priest for help, since they obviously have no answers to Regan’s health problem. They meet with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) the University’s psychiatrist and a man who is questioning his own faith and belief in the Church after his mother passed away.

Merrin and Karras are summoned to perform the exorcism on Regan to rid her of the demon inhabiting her body. This powerful scene is probably the most nerve-racking and terrifying act in movie history. As the priests proclaim the words of God from the Roman Ritual in order to cast out the evil spirit, Regan shouts obscenities while screaming in pain as she demands the priests to stop.

I saw “The Exorcist” for the first time in September of 2000, when it was re-released into theaters with scenes cut from the original version. No pun intended, it scared the hell out of me. When you think about demons and possession, and the fact that the film is based on a true story, it’s enough to scare anybody.

The one scene (aside from the exorcism) that made me absolutely cringe was the infamous, sacrilegious, “crucifix scene.” Regan, in her possessed state, takes the most holy icon of the Catholic faith and abuses herself with it while screaming obscenities directed at the Son of God.

“Let Jesus (expletive) you! Let Him (expletive) you!” she screams as she mercilessly shoves the crucifix into her private area.

Blatty and Friedkin were at the receiving end of a lot of criticism for leaving this particular footage in the finished product of the film. Despite being under heavy fire for keeping the scene in the movie, they defended its nature.

“When I was writing the novel, I decided that I had come to the point where this woman (MacNeil), this non-believer, in desperation is going to go to priests,” Blatty stated in a documentary. “What on earth could drive her to that? What is the worst possible thing I could think of?”

The answer: have her possessed, 12 year-old daughter masturbate with a crucifix.

Father William O’Malley, a real-life Jesuit priest and actor in “The Exorcist,” also defended the scene. O’Malley said that the scene served a purpose, but was also one of the most vicious things he had ever seen.

As for me: I was never a huge fan of the crucifix scene. I agree with Blatty and O’Malley that it served a purpose and it was meant to be powerful. It showed what kind of power the devil can have over mankind. But I also feel it was done for shock value and to scare audiences into belief in Heaven and Hell, which is certainly understandable and logical.

Along with being terrified of that one certain scene in the film, I can safely say it took a long time for me to fully comprehend what was actually happening in the movie. When Regan first meets Father Karras, she tells him that she is the devil. Karras then pulls out a small vile of water and tells Regan that it contains holy water.

He sprinkles it on her and she reacts very violently. Karras leaves the room and tells Mrs. MacNeil of his experiment; he did not sprinkle holy water on her, in reality it was tap water. Her reaction did not help support a case for an exorcism, and neither did her introduction.

Generally when a person becomes possessed, they are inhabited by an evil spirit, not the devil. Regan introduced herself to the priest as the devil. Karras explained that her admitting she is the devil would be the same as him admitting he is Napoleon Bonaparte. His argument was that Regan was simply out of her mind, not possessed.

Karras even suggested that Regan be institutionalized in a mental hospital.

Keep in mind Karras was questioning his own faith at the time, so in reality he did not want to believe Regan was possessed. Yet also bear in mind the demon was toying with Karras, psychologically attacking him to the point where he did not believe the possession was authentic. Even when he approached the Bishop to request an exorcism, he was not totally convinced the case was authentic.

Karras’s struggle was such a strong, internal conflict.

It turns out Regan was possessed by the same demon Father Merrin encountered at the beginning of the film, an ancient king of wind demons in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology known as Pazuzu. Merrin is called upon to do battle with Pazuzu, as (we later find out) he had earlier in his life when he studied in Africa.

Unlike Karras, Merrin’s conflict is visibly external. His mission is to once and for all crush the demon that has tormented him for years and years.

When it was originally released in 1973, “The Exorcist” had audiences in tears and some of those who went to the theaters to see it even fainted in shock before the film’s end. I didn’t faint as a result of the film’s nature, but I can say I was stupefied by its aura. It is one of those films you have to see at least once in your life, even if you are not a fan of the horror genre.

It was once said that it did so much good, because it scared Catholics and other non-believers into belief; those who had not been to Church in years suddenly found themselves praying to God once again in the comfort of His house.

In that regard, the film did a lot of good, although depicting some of the most evil actions ever captured on film to date.

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