by Brendan Foley
Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
“What a lovely day for a Two Cents.”
There are films that frighten us, and then there are the films that terrorize mass audiences, stealth bombs of fear that rattle through cinemagoers for years. And then there is The Exorcist.
Debuting to unsuspecting audiences in 1973, The Exorcist so traumatized attendees that evangelists preached that Satan himself was residing within the celluloid. Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair)’s sudden descent into obscenity-spitting, vomit-spewing, head-spinning Satanic mania had even the non-religious types throwing fits in their seats, turning the film into a cultural phenomenon that remains the ninth highest grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation).
Directed by William Friedkin and adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty (inspired by accounts of a ‘real’ exorcism), The Exorcist left such a dent on mass culture that virtually every single subsequent depiction of demonic possession on screen has been indebted to (if not flat out stolen from) it.
Exorcisms and demonic (or ghostly) possessions still fascinate and terrify people. Just this past week, Robert The Walking Dead Kirkman and Cinemax launched Outcast, a show with possession and exorcism as its subject (debuting to big numbers) and theatergoers are expected to flock to see The Conjuring 2, a film about a little girl who becomes violent and foul-mouthed when an angry spirit takes control of her. Meanwhile, Fox is in the process of developing The Exorcist into a TV series.
With an entire genre still living in the shadow of The Exorcist, we decided to go all the way back to the beginning and see if this film retains its astonishing power the terrify and mesmerize.
Next Week’s Pick:
Next Sunday is Father’s Day and we’re celebrating with one of the most offbeat Dad stories in recent memory. The French-Canadian comedy Starbuck stars Patrick Huard as a dopey sperm donor who is shocked to discover he has indirectly seeded over 500 children, about a quarter of whom have launched a campaign to learn the identity of their biological father “Starbuck”. I’ve seen this and it’s easily one of my favorite movies of the last few years — both hilarious and incredibly moving, and I can’t wait to share it with you all. Catch it streaming on Netflix!
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co!
Tentative Projected Schedule (Deadlines) of Upcoming Picks:
6/15 — Starbuck — https://www.netflix.com/title/70209149
6/22 — Goosebumps — https://www.netflix.com/title/80049939
6/29 — Terminator 2: Judgment Day — No “free” streaming option — please plan ahead
1/06 — Chuck Norris vs Communism — https://www.netflix.com/title/80039422
Brendan Agnew:Here’s a controversial statement — The Exorcist is a pretty scary movie. There’s all kinds of reasons for that, but one that I keyed in on most recently is how the film absolutely strands the viewer and leaves them adrift. There’s an enforced distance to most of the scenes that don’t involve something horrible happening to a child, with framing and long shots that make the audience feel removed at best, and a voyeur or intruder at worst.
This extends to the “movie-ness” of the film, which is stripped down even for a 70’s film. There’s very little exposition to make the viewer feel like they have a handle on, well, ANYTHING (noticing a theme?), and even the film’s texture is off, with a highly minimalist score that isolates every horrifying scratch, growl, and scream and allows them to linger. And yet, for all the ways in which The Exorcist is a massively uncomfortable film to sit through, it’s kinda impossible NOT to sit through it. The movie moves like a finely-tuned machine, ratcheting up the tension and compelling a harrowed audience to sit through every moment.
At least the film doesn’t actually strap you to the bed while it makes you watch. (@BLCAgnew)
Brett Gallman:No genre relies on reputation quite like horror, and few films have garnered the sort of reputation that The Exorcist still carries today, over forty years since its release. It’s practically Hollywood mythmaking by way of a comic book origin story that’s been recounted ad infinitum: conspicuously armed at Christmastime in 1973, here’s the film that exploded like an unsettling, faith-shaking bomb on an unsuspecting audience that would be among the first to canonize its place as a nerve-shattering endurance test. In the decades since, its reputation has been entrenched by its famous imagery: Reagan MacNeil’s unholy body contortions, pea-soup vomit, and profane outbursts. Even forty years of familiarity has done little to diminish just how bone-chilling The Exorcistremains.
And yet, that reputation is a smokescreen concealing the dogged humanity lurking at the film’s core. The Exorcist is headlined by a demonic influence, but it’s anchored by decent people and their various crises of faith. A Bergman-esque tableau of drama that just happens to unfold in the context of a horror movie, it captures the ultimate battle of good vs. evil: it’s humanity’s dark night of the soul, an oddly faith-affirming parable that insists we need to endure hell to know of heaven. Once you cut through the pea soup, the film’s enduring image is Father Damian Karras — now resolute in his once-shaken faith — plunging headlong into a self-sacrifice that provides a brief glimpse at a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that is The Exorcist. (@BrettGallman)
Trey Lawson:I was probably too young when I saw The Exorcist for the first time (in secret and without permission from my parents), but even as I covered my eyes at the film’s most grotesque scenes I knew I was watching something special. The Exorcist is a horror film, with all the prerequisite jump scares, creepy makeup/special effects, and supernatural goings on. But what elevates the film above the many similar films that followed and borrowed from it is that thematically it’s a meditation on the conflict between faith and modernity. Regan’s mother, the various doctors, Father Karras, and Detective Kinderman all search for proof to explain in some rational way the events of the film; with the arrival of Father Merrin comes the counter-argument that such a search is futile because proof denies faith. And that is ultimately what the demon wants — “to make us despair,” as Father Merrin says, and to lose sight of the hope that can accompany faith. The utter corruption of a child into an instrument of evil might suggest that the film’s approach is cynical, but the ending (while bittersweet) implies something far more optimistic. That, I think, is the power of the film. The ending doesn’t avoid the trauma of the film’s events or try to convince us that the status quo has been restored; rather, it offers hope by offering a glimpse at how the surviving characters will process that trauma and pick up the pieces. I can go on about this film for pages and pages, but I will leave it at this: The Exorcist is very nearly a perfect film, and one of my all-time favorites. (@T_Lawson)
Justin:The collision of faith and art is something that interests me a great deal, in fact I initially started my website and podcast (farsightedblog.com) with the exploration of these intersections in mind. The Exorcistis, of course, one of mainstream cinema’s best explorations of these themes.
The original novel was written by William Peter Blatty to be a story of faith. He once called it his attempt at a sermon no one could fall asleep through. Through all of its twists and turns, Blatty’s novel and, in turn, Friedkin’s film are about an existential crisis where faith is challenged. Every character in the story wrestles with faith and belief in their own way.
Blatty didn’t set out to make a horror novel and Friedkin didn’t set out to make a horror film, but The Exorcist scares the shit out of people, myself included. My faith, like that of Father Karras at the start of the story, has been stagnant and in crisis at times. I empathize with his struggles. And when the story progresses, I feel everything he does and go through all of his emotions.
What’s more is that people of various faiths (and non-faiths) are as affected as I am… which speaks to this being a masterful work exploring the human condition at large. (@thepaintedman)
Frank:I don’t care how many times it’s been parodied or how its sequels have torn away at its legacy. For my money, The Exorcist is still one of the scariest films of all time. But as I watch the film many years after my first viewing, there are different aspects of it which now strike me as monumental to the film’s continued success. The biggest of these is Ellen Burstyn’s truly brilliant work. I think the reason many actors aren’t credited for being able to deliver quality work in films of this genre is because the horror element of the picture usually ends up dominating. Not so here. Burstyn is so in charge of her character that any chance of the more horrific scenes outshining her is never in question. Her work is matched by some truly remarkable direction by Friedkin, who wisely doesn’t overplay the more terrifying moments of the film for shock, but treats all aspects of it with care and respect.
Everybody has their favorite (or at least most memorable) moment from the film, no question. It may not be everyone’s go to, but for me, the moment that sticks with me is in the closing scene when Chris and Sharon embrace before departing. It’s a moment which strips them of their class roles of boss and employee and sees them acknowledging this newfound bond that exists between the pair after having shared and survived this unspeakable ordeal together. It remains an emotional and moving moment in an otherwise still-iconic film. (@frankfilmgeek)
Brendan:William Friedkin made his name with the exacting procedural format in films in like The French Connection, and he brings that same nerve-wracking sense of specificity to the supernatural with The Exorcist. Friedkin’s cold, detached view only highlights the emotional and mental suffering endured by every character, rendering the film a discomforting feeling even before you reach the third act’s Dick Smith-designed body horror and supernatural mayhem. Decades later, those images retain every bit of their sickening power (I may have cried “Oh Jesus!” out loud when the crucifix masturbation scene arrived) and that’s due in large part to the cast, each of whom make this larger-than-life story feel believable with the wear and woe on their face (emotions not too hard to conjure, given that the set was apparently rife with accidents and problems before factoring in Friedkin’s ‘methods’ which included firing guns in the air or slapping an actor before a take). Often copied, never equaled, The Exorcist remains the high-water mark for studio horror, and it seems unlikely we will ever again see a film that so immediately redefines a genre and shapes its direction for decades. (@TheTrueBrendanF)
Austin:By now if you read Two Cents regularly you may know I sometimes selfishly wield it as a way to catch up on movies I haven’t seen, and that happens to be the case this week. The Exorcist has long occupied a top spot on my list of shame. I’ve always heard, of course, that it’s frequently cited as the scariest film of all time, and that certainly inspired a certain fear — more reverence, maybe — of watching it.
Well, here’s yet another shameful admission. The Exorcist felt considerably less scary than I anticipated. Having just seen the spook-filled The Conjuring 2, a film full of both a sense of impending dread and incredibly effective jump scares, well, I just wasn’t feeling it. But I clearly do need to watch this again — it caught me at a time when I was mentally exhausted, and I think it deserves my full attention.
That’s not to say I disliked the film — on the contrary, I found it pretty incredible, and tasteful (in context) with its extreme subject matter. What shocked me much more than the “scary” parts was Regan’s horrible blasphemies. Most of all, the examination of faith and the supernatural resonated with me as a Christian. Friedkin maintains that he has always considered The Exorcist a faith story rather than a horror film, so maybe I’m just on his level with it. (@VforVashaw)
Did you all get a chance to watch along with us? Share your thoughts with us here in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook!