Friday, August 21, 2015

The Exorcist: Iconography and Iconoclasm

I have a confession to make: I have never seen The Exorcist before now.

I know, I know, it’s one of those “what do you mean you haven’t seen it?” movies. It’s so indelibly embedded in popular culture that it’d almost take a conscious act of avoidance to not see it. You’d have to work at that shit. And yet, here we are. I read the novel on which it was based when I was younger (probably too young, come to think of it), so it’s not like I’m totally unfamiliar with the story, it just always fell into that category of “oh yeah, I should watch that someday.” For better or worse, it’s part of the canon, and sometimes when things are part of the canon, it’s harder to muster the enthusiasm for them that you can for newer, more potentially surprising material. But in the process of writing my last post on Asmodexia, I started thinking about my general experiences with demonic possession movies (mostly positive, all told), and part of that was “oh shit, I’ve never seen The Exorcist.” It seemed like it was time.

If by some chance you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of actress Chris MacNeil and her preteen daughter Regan. Chris is in Washington DC shooting some sort of student-protest movie that has her, as a teacher, exhorting students to “change the system from within,” and it’s as cringeworthy as it sounds. The director’s a drunken prick named Burke Dennings, and Chris juggles his lack of boundaries, planning something nice for Regan’s upcoming birthday, and trying to reach Regan’s perpetually absent father. But it’s a pretty sweet gig otherwise - they have a nice house in Georgetown, servants, a driver, it’s all going well otherwise. Until Regan gets sick - fever, nausea, muscle spasms...

...coming downstairs in the middle of a party, telling one of the guests “you’re going to die up there” and then peeing on the rug.

No prizes for guessing what’s happening to Regan, because this film laid the blueprint for an entire subgenre the way Night of the Living Dead did for zombie films. This is where the connection between possession and illness began, the priest grappling with the strength of his faith, the idea that the demon knows everyone’s darkest secrets. And for me, watching it for the first time, this was a bit of a problem. It’s a difficult film to discuss, because it’s so part and parcel of everything that’s come after it. Pretty much any standard story beat we associate with demonic possession movies really began here, and for me at least, that took the bite out of the film. Horror, I think, works best in terms of the unknown, or the process of making the unknown known, and The Exorcist is so well-known that, at least for me, it has very few surprises left. Every moment from this film has become a classic moment - Regan’s head twisting all the way around, Regan puking all over the priest, Regan screaming “your mother sucks cocks in hell!”, it’s all familiar even to someone who hasn’t actually seen the film because it’s been referenced and parodied and emulated over and over and over again. It’s so much a part of our consciousness that there aren’t that many mysteries left. There’s no unknown to fear. So I came away from it feeling kind of cold on the whole experience. Nothing I saw really grabbed me (except maybe Dennings’ casual assholery or the tone-deafness of the film in which Chris is starring) or invested me because I knew what was coming and how it was going to turn out. It’s yielded up all its mystery to the culture, and for me at least that robbed the film of a lot of its power. Now that it’s an icon, it doesn’t shock anymore. It is a monument to itself, instead of itself, if that makes sense. That said, it didn’t end up one of the most successful and critically recognized horror films ever made for no reason - I’m just saying that for whatever reason, the qualities that have brought it so much attention didn’t, for me, survive its induction into the collective pop culture consciousness. 

So what are those qualities? If I wasn’t moved by the film itself, I can still at least try to understand what gives it the power that it wielded over so many viewers over the decades. I think a lot of it is in the pacing. As horror films go, The Exorcist is…surprisingly deliberate, almost meditative, for its first half. I think this was effective because it makes the events of the back half of the film all the more shocking for the naive viewer. There are little hints here and there that things are not right - we open on an archeological dig in Iraq, where a weary-looking man (Father Merrin, the titular exorcist) has located a sinister-looking idol. Back in DC, a statue of the Virgin Mary is found obscenely vandalized. No explanation is offered to connect them, either to each other or to the main story. It’s just there, lurking in the background, this sense that something is wrong. Quiet scenes with Father Damien Karras - a priest/psychiatrist called in to consult on Regan’s case - smash cut to noisy subway trains rushing toward the camera, as if Karras doesn’t know what’s coming for him. Merrin’s discovery of the idol is soundtracked with snarling dogs fighting off-camera, suggesting awful violence contained by the idol’s implacable stillness. As much as the main story seems like the plot to a drama about a woman and her daughter trying to make it without a man in the house (this was 1973, after all) or a romantic comedy about an actress and single mother trying to find love, these small touches curdle the edges of the film with unease until the other shoe drops.

And it’s how the other shoe drops that I think is the other important component to this film’s success, Given that I have to talk about this film in the context of the time in which it was made, what I think made it so powerful then was its iconoclasm - few things are sacred in this film. Chris MacNeil is a single mother - wealthy and famous, yes, but still a single mother during a time well before divorce was considered appropriate subject matter in films - and Regan doesn’t seem especially precocious or willful as we would expect a child (especially one from a “broken home”) in film to be. She’s just a kid, and kids have imaginary friends and play with Ouija boards and we think nothing of it. She doesn’t call attention to herself. There’s no love interest (Dennings is highly unsympathetic by any measure), and our other major figures of authority - Fathers Karras and Merrin - are frail, vulnerable men, wracked by illness and doubt. In fact, men in this film don’t really come off too well in general. They’re largely ineffectual at best and selfish and venal at worst, not a traditional hero in the bunch.

Things really start to spin up with the vandalized statue in the church, a briefly-glimpsed but still pretty startling act of blasphemy to put on screen, and this begins a series of events that ultimately escalates to a 12-year-old girl raping herself with a crucifix, screaming obscenities, and vomiting on priests. Contrast this with the graphic suffering Regan experiences during a battery of medical tests and her obvious physical decline and we’re left with a film that has a casual disregard for rules about the sanctity of religion, childhood, and traditional family values. The law (as represented by the single detective) cannot make it right, mothers are on their own and cannot keep their children from suffering, priests cannot stop evil except through the costliest, most desperate measures, and children say and do horrible, horrible things to themselves and other people. This must have been a lot to take in when this film first aired, in what was still a fairly conservative climate. There must have been a sense that all bets were off, and anything could happen next, and it’s that casual disregard for taboo that I think drives home what the pacing sets up - you are lulled into a false sense of security, and then shit goes sideways to a degree with scant precedent up to that point. It’s an approach that would serve horror films made during the 1970s well, and I think it’s sorely missed today. I have to wonder if that sort of iconoclasm is worth it, though, if it only serves to desiccate the film that indulges it into an icon without its power and vitality intact.


  1. hell of a post, man - thank you!

  2. I've never seen it either. I should; I like a lot of William Friedkin's other movies.