Forty years ago this year, a film was released on an unprepared public that would forever re-define the boundaries of scale and style that a horror film could be. Upon opening, the wave of hysteria it left in its wake was something the world of the silver screen had never experienced before, or arguably, since. Sensational stories of people vomiting, passing out and suffering heart attacks in the aisles added yet further to the hype, combined with a huge rise in the number of church attendees alongside priest and nuns blessing the lines of people entering a screening, this was a horror film so scary that it was literally putting the fear of God into its audience.
Can you imagine a modern day horror having as much reaction as ‘The Exorcist’ did? I would love to say yes and that one day soon we will see yet more spectacular OTT reactions such as the ones you can find on youtube from the time and we will all hail a new milestone of horror. Here’s the sticky point, however, we live in a world now where remakes of films even less than 20 years old are churned out by big studios who are doing their best to convince modern audiences that classic horror films are rubbish and deserve to be redone with much more money and up to the minute CGI special effects. Taking this into account and remembering that the film itself is exactly forty years old and any special effects, acting styles or story will surely be placed under scrutiny, can the ‘The Exorcist’ still be classified as scary?
On a personal note, ‘The Exorcist’, for me was the epitome of fear, so much so that it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I sat down to watch it all the way through for the first time. The power of suggestion held sway as I would tremblingly read descriptions of crucifix masturbation and heads spinning 360 degrees and of course the eerie Tubular Bells that gave me many a sleepless night. After seeing it through to the end I was suitably blown away, received the delicious chill down the spine ecstasy of fear and would happily cite it as one of my favourite horror films.
It was only after a few days that I released a great problem for myself. I had gotten over my crippling fear of ‘The Scariest Film Of All Time’ and thoroughly enjoyed it…where did that leave me? There were no longer any boundaries for me in the world of horror, anything was fair game and ‘The Exorcist’ had lost its chilling mystique. Upon multiple viewings (every Halloween, naturally), I’m putting my previously esteemed fear enforcing film under close scrutiny, to see if it still deserves its title as ‘The Scariest Film Of All Time’.
An incredibly basic plot summary, would tell you that the film is centred on the struggle of a young priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) to help a young girl named Regan (Linda Blair) who has been possessed by a malevolent force. Is it the Devil? Pazuzu? Captain Howdy? Who knows and crucially, this is to my mind at least, the one of the film’s most chilling weapons in its arsenal of scare tactics.
A great deal of ‘The Exorcist’ is completely unexplained, you could literally fill an A4 sheet of paper with all the stones left unturned and provided you stayed away from the luke-warm prequel, remain blissfully happy in your ignorance. I understand that this is not something that works for all audiences, many get irritated by not having all things spelt out for them and as such, lose out on experiencing man’s greatest fear, the unknown. Why is Regan singled out? How did the demon head from Iraq end up in Washington D.C? Did Regan push Burke Dennings?These questions remain unanswered and it suits the film’s trick of keeping its audience at a vulnerable disadvantage by leaving them in the dark.
Naturally, the film is remembered for its out and out in your face scares that still remain shocking and controversial. Top of the list is of course the crucifix masturbation scene, in which a possessed Regan is forced by the demon to stab herself repeatedly whilst roaring “Let Jesus Fuck You!” Shortly after this, we see a 180 head turn and chillingly, the voice of Burke Dennings delivers some rather filthy dialogue. Now throwing the harsh light of day on the special effects, it is very obviously a dummy that does the head spin but it must be remembered that, at the time, this was the height of special effects. After being spoilt by advances in technology, it may stick out like a sore thumb, however, just imagine for a minute if it was done in CGI and not practically. It would look even more artificial. Practical effects may age but as they are psychically ‘there’, for many, the illusion still works and is the cherry on top of a deliciously terrifying iconic moment.
Despite the aforementioned ‘shock scares’, ‘The Exorcist’ is still packed full of supremely unsettling subtle scares for which it still does not get enough credit for. One of the most iconic of these is the use of subliminal flashes of a strange demonic face that plagues the dreams of Father Karras. Subliminal flashes seems like a cheap trick and yet somehow, very rarely do they not achieve their goal of getting under the skin of the audience and yet again, what it is or what it represents remains unexplained and therefore that much scarier. Interestingly, however, the director’s cut would go into complete overkill use of the demon face and sadly, would lose all its frightening impact.
Writer and ‘The League of Gentleman’ star, Mark Gatiss, singles out the ‘Could you help an old altar boy father?’ line as being the most unsettling moment for him, as this cleverly puts an icy-cold shard down the audience’s back, implying that the Devil is everywhere and always watching, meaning that you are never safe. This is also seen in one of my own personal favourite moments in the film that happens incredibly early on. When studying the demon head in Iraq, the pendulum in the clock behind Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) suddenly stops moving. Simple but brilliantly establishing a constant blanket of fear that envelops the whole film. It is examples such as these that lift the film above its ‘shock horror’ status to something far more psychologically disturbing and is all the better for it.
There are of course, those for whom ‘The Exorcist’ is not a horror film, but a rib-tickling comedy. Respectfully, it is not too hard to see why it has this effect on certain audiences. When chatting to a friend who feels this way, he felt that it goes so over the top but keeps a straight face whilst doing so that it just looks completely silly. It is true to say that, at times, the film could be viewed as a tad ‘haughty’, with its emphasis on the psychological and its greater focus on story and character internal turmoil. Director, William Friedkin, has always been adamant that it was his intension to make a horror film that was ‘above’ the genre, but for many, this grandiose idea is severely undercut by lines of dialogue such as “Your Mother Sucks Cocks In Hell Karras!” and of course, the projectile vomiting.
Perhaps the film is now considered by many to be an easily risible target is due to the fact that it has been parodied so so many times. Famous examples include a French and Saunders version, a spoof starring Linda Blair called ‘Re-Possessed’ and of course in ‘Scary Movie 2’, in which the film’s climax is mirrored so closely it could make fans of the film worry that everyone else is now so accustomed to treating it as a joke, no one would believe it was ever meant to be scary. Recent footage has emerged of Linda Blair performing all the lines of dialogue as opposed to being dubbed over by the creepy man/woman growl of Mercedes McCambrige, and believe me, if you were ever terrified of the film as I was, watch this. It’s not scary in the slightest and despite her terrific performance, Blair’s voice is just adorable and the film would never have had the impact it did if this had been kept in.
One of the most interesting things to ponder when it comes to evaluating the lasting impact of a horror film, is to imagine what the reaction would be if it was released to today on a ‘modern horror’ audience. With only one onscreen death, a sprawling epic narrative that deals with weighty issues over crisis of faith, the ultimate battle of God vs the Devil and a side order of domestic family struggles, your average gorehound or Friday Night Shrieker would most likely be bored senseless. Subtly in horror films has nearly all but died out and it is a great shame that few filmmakers want to take the risk of having grand themes and lofty ambitions of films such as ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘The Shining’ for fear of being made fun of. Indicative of the cynical, instant gratification world we live in, it is a genuine shame that we may never see a film like ‘The Exorcist’ again…until the remake which Captain Howdy tells me is just around the corner.
In conclusion, is ‘The Exorcist’ still scary? Absolutely, it’s a 100% genuine horror classic that remains at the summit for levels to which all future horror films should aspire to. Only those of a cynical nature could mock the special effects in the light of modern day advances and arguably only those without much imagination could possibly find it ‘funny’. My appreciation for it is undying and even though it has since lost its dominion of terror over me, I still get the perfect level of thrills and chills each time I watch it. Now ‘The Shining’ on the other hand…