Today I watched William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973)
Opening on an archaeological dig in Iraq and Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin. Merrin is a man of both priestly and archaeological persuasion, a man of deep faith and also a man of history and knowledge. In the ruins he is excavating him and his team find a small trinket of the ancient Babylonian demon Pazuzu which is more than a myth, it is a very real and very evil force. Further omens and portents tell Merrin that this demon is back with a vengeance and he departs the dig to combat this maleficence. Cut to Georgetown U.S.A. and the MacNeil family, the mother, a famous actress shooting a film in the area, and her young daughter Regan played by Linda Blair. Regan starts playing with a Ouija board which is never a good idea because it opens a link between this world and another through which the fiend Pazuzu can come through. After seeking psychological aid to no avail, Regan’s mother turns to the church, unfortunately she has had a rocky relationship with belief and Catholicism and the priest who takes her case, Father Karras, is having his own problems with faith. This is when Father Merrin re-enters the picture, he knows the stakes and he knows what it is going to take to save Regan, it’s going to take an Exorcism.
At first glance, Friedkin, as a film maker partially defined by both realism and lack of moral absolutes, seems like an inappropriate choice for a film that deals not only with the supernatural but in the metaphysical battle of good against evil. Yet in retrospect he was not just a good choice, he was a perfect choice. He presents the subject matter with the utmost seriousness and by doing so he raised horror out of the camp and into a larger sphere of critical acceptance. The re-appraisal it launched led to many other great, high budget, and serious horror films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and a significant broadening of themes and content in the genre. In terms of the morality, Friedkin does right by keeping the black and white aspects to the metaphysical beings, the humans are much more complex. The way this film weaves the realistic complexities of it’s human characters with the fantastical christian myth elements is one of the best examples of magical realism in film.
This film is considered by many to be one of if not the single most frightening of all time and it is easy to see why. The realism of the deranged and disturbing content makes it all the more impactful and the themes all the more dark and grounded. While the most obvious theme is one of overcoming the evil inside us all, it’s presentation of possession could be representative of a family coping with a mentally or physically ill child. It is a masterpiece of suspense and darkness that delivers pure, undiluted horror in it’s extreme finale. Now do I think it is the best ever? no, but I have strange tastes when it comes to picking favorites, I can admit that it could very well be the most important horror film though. This film didn’t just inspire a new breed of heady horror, it enlightened many eyes to the philosophies of the genre that had been there all along. 5/5