The Exorcist William Friedkin (1973;USA;) Ellen Bustyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; 31 Oct 2023; ticket: £7
evil is as evil does
Viewing Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ I felt it had similarities with contemporary conspiracy theories, most pertinently QAnon (which started life as the claim that USA is run by a cabal of paedophiles and satanists). Once you buy into QAnon any and every event can be interpreted so as to conform and elaborate the thesis. Likewise with ‘The Exorcist’ once you buy into the core idea of ‘demonic possession’ each development and elaboration of the special effects in the scenario pulls the viewer deeper into the film’s belief matrix. Contrariwise as with QAnon so with ‘The Exorcist’ if the foundational proposition fails to convince, then the whole belief artifice collapses like house of cards, and the proceedings just seem monstrously silly.
Taking a broad view of horror/supernatural movies the genre seems to broadly swing between two different kinds of settings: those which locate the story line in contemporary normalised settings, usually urban; and those whose settings (such as outer space or remote places) are grounded in isolated psychic domains primed to induce in the characters extreme emotive states, most usually fear/terror, provoked by unknown forces. There is not an absolute distinction between these types and both use standard trick camera and sound manipulations to try to shake up the audience. But whereas scenarios based on worlds enveloped in ever intensifying psychic events can play out their plot lines either straight or with latent humour, scripts wanting to assimilate the paranormal or fantastical into the everyday, have to toe the line with the po-faced players instructed to react to the overburgeoning narrative as if for real.
Playing it real means that the script is grounded in a sort of tokenism of the ordinary: people go to work, indulge in leisure activities, chat and live in regular abodes. The task is then to insinuate into the vistas of the ordinary the extraordinary. Directors such as Polanski in both ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ have produced films that massage conviction by cueing the audience with ambivalent rather then extravagant visual and audio anomalies; further many of the critical sequences in Polanski’s films (ie the shots disturbing the flow of the everyday) are shot from Point of View of the protagonist. This again invokes in the audience an indeterminacy as to whether what has happened is actual or imagined. The entanglement of certainties and uncertainties is exploited by Polanski to build up the tensions in his scripts which are all the more paroxysmal in their resolution.
In contrast, Friedkin’s movie, is characterised by literalism. ‘The Exorcist’ is dominated by its special effects, rendering it as a series of increasingly histrionic spectacles that peak in the extravaganza of the final confrontation: Regan/the evil one levitating from the bed, with two grown men waving crucifixes and commanding the devil to depart. Films structured about spectacle are usually trapped in a crescendo of effects where the logic is that each effect has to top out the preceding one. Meanwhile ‘The Exorcist’ script links each ‘devil effect sequence’ with a sort of arch science versus superstition dialogue in which ‘superstition’ finally wins over Father Karras, who plays the part of the reluctant hero.
‘The Exorcist’ was a huge box office success. Friedkin’s assemblage of special effects put together in 1973 was an effective audience pleaser. However after the digital FX developments of the last 20 years, they don’t pass muster in relation to the test of the passage of time. Friedkin’s effects overall look clumsy, the models masks and caked make up obviously faked. For the film to work today as it did on release today’s viewer has to buy even more heavily than the original audience, into the film’s belief matrix, to believe in magic and that metaphysical tech works.
We live in a socio-cultural carapace within which there is no magic. ‘The Exorcist’ answers to the wish fulfilment that a domain that exists outside the rigours of science might also provide an effective means to remedy our troubles. Friedkin’s movie feeds a compelling fantasy that there might be a magico-religious cure for evil or a cure for cancer. Cures such that ritualised prayers, crucifixes, holding crystals or the repetition of liturgical mumbo-jumbo, if used properly might be the solution to the ills of our world. In a world troubled by evil – the Nazi death camps, Stalin’s gulags – and of course the Vietnam war with its mass causalities – there was and still is a yearning in many people that there might be a fix for all these troubles. The issue that is evaded as per Vietnam Iraq Syria etc is that the evils are structured into the fabrics of society, rather than located within the individual.