The Response is, “Amen”: Underdevelopment in THE EXORCIST
23 October 2011
Many would argue William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is one of the scariest films of all time. And, yes, The Exorcist is a frightening film, particularly because of its use of quick, unexpected cuts, generally to the haunting black and white face of a demon.
In addition to the quick-cuts, it is frightening and disarming to see a child behave the way Regan does, and to see her physical transformation from happy, adorable young girl into rotting, menacing, disfigured creature. Yet, beyond these quick-cuts and difficult images, the film makes deliberate decisions to keep the “evil” it is discussing at an arm’s length. There are opportunities for The Exorcist to frighten its audience more, namely by looking closer at the demon present; however, The Exorcist holds back considerably, thus resisting its full potential.
As The Exorcist begins, the audience meets Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an elderly priest on an archeological dig in Northern Iraq. Amid other findings, Merrin discovers a small totem of the demon Pazuzu (although that name is never actually mentioned in the film, clearly this is Pazuzu’s image). Shortly after, at the same dig site, Merrin comes face to face with an enormous and ominous statue of the same demon. Although there is no dialogue in this confrontation between priest and statue, tension is palpable.
After this opening, the film switches gears, and locations, to Georgetown, Virginia, where a famous actress, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), and her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), have recently taken up residence while Chris completes her latest picture. Regan’s begins displaying odd, disoriented behavior, such as peeing on the living room floor during one of Chris’ dinner parties, slewing vulgarities at those around her, and violently molesting herself with a crucifix. In addition to this, Chris’ director and friend, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), looked after Regan alone one evening and was mysteriously murdered. When the doctors’ diagnosis and treatments fail, Chris consults a psychiatrist to get help for her daughter; the psychiatrist also happens to be a local priest, Father Damien Karris (Jason Miller). Chris initially consults the psychiatrist in Karras, but, by the end of their conversation, pleads with Karras to perform an exorcism on her daughter. After visiting Regan for himself, Karras indeed requests permission from his superiors to have Regan exorcised, which they grant, and the superiors send Father Merrin to lead Karras in the exorcism. Although the exorcism fails, by the film’s conclusion, out of the two priests, Regan, and Pazuzu (the demon from the beginning alluded to be possessing Regan), only one survives.
There are several areas to point out that expose The Exorcist’s feigning efforts to confront its subjects matter. First, The Exorcist has a movie within the movie, which alters the audience’s experience while viewing the film. Chris is an actress, and there are scenes of her shooting her film, Crash Course. Theoretically speaking, film represents an altered reality. Logically, when watching a film, such as The Exorcist, the audience knows they are not seeing reality, only something recognizable and understandable stemming from it. Yet, as one watches a film, one becomes engrossed in it and, with a well made film, forgets that what he or she is viewing is not real. Yet, by highlighting Chris as an actress and exposing the filmmaking process directly in the film, The Exorcist reminds viewers what they are seeing isn’t real, which makes the film considerably less frightening.
Moreover, the film does not capture the deaths of Dennings or Father Merrin, which minimizes the demon’s characterization, as the film infers the demon is responsible for both. In the case of Dennings, the audience finds out the details of his death through dialogue. Merrin’s death is more mysterious because the audience hears nothing of it; viewers see Merrin dead, slumped on Regan’s bed. Because his health was failing, it is possible Merrin’s heart stopped; however, at the time of his death, he was in a room alone with a demon, so it is foolish to assume he perished naturally. While there is something frightening about the specifics of these deaths remaining a mystery, the film also misses the opportunity to expand the demon’s characterization by capturing its moods and actions at the time of the deaths. The demon is a static character; in fact, the demon, casually speaking, is like an annoying, immature, teenage boy. Primarily, what it does is swear, make offensive gestures, spout crude sexual comments, knock things down, and desecrate (Regan). Yet, if it murdered Dennings and Merrin, it also has a methodical quality to it, a quality the film neglects to explore.
At one point in the film, the demon refuses to knock something down at Karras’ request. The demon explains, “That would be much too vulgar a display of power.” Yet, if knocking something down is too vulgar, why kill the unsuspecting, uninvolved Dennings? What occurred in Regan’s room between Dennings and the demon that led to Dennings death? In addition, what was the last exchange between Merrin and the demon before Merrin’s death? The answers to these questions are omitted from the film at the expense of characterization. The demon is too simple, too underdeveloped to be frightened of. The suggestion is he kills people, yet he cannot or will not remove the restraints that bind him to Regan’s bed. Why? Without making the demon dynamic, once a viewer gets passed Linda Blair’s disfigured appearance, there is nothing terrifying.
Lastly, the film’s conclusion hastily and recklessly attempts to simplistically rectify the battle between good and evil. Upon reentering the exorcism and deducing the demon killed Merrin, Karras’ emotions overtake him and he grabs Regan’s body by the neck and begins strangling her, knowing the demon will only leave Regan when, according to the demon, “her body lies stinking and rotting in the ground.” Karras demands the demon jump into him and leave the girl, and the demon does just that. As the demon attempts to gain control over Karras, Karras throws himself out Regan’s window and falls down the steep, stone stairs below to his death. Father Dyer, a priest from Karras’ church, runs over to Karras, takes him by the hand, and begins to give him the last rites. Karras’ hand opens and closes twice while being held by Dyer, signaling to the audience Karras is still alive. If the demon jumped from Regan to Karras when Regan’s life was in jeopardy, why didn’t it also jump from Karras’ body to Dyer’s as Karras lay dying?
The film took an unexpected and reckless turn by having the demon jump into Karras. All of a sudden, in the 11th hour of the film, the demon has a new power; it can jump to another person when it is threatened. This late addition took the film too far out and there is no reeling this back in; there is no way and no time for the film to resolve this new twist. If the demon can jump, it should have jumped into Dyer. Instead, Dyer remains unaffected, which is clear in the closing sequence. The film hastily concludes with the demon vanquished and good having valiantly conquered all. It is the safe ending, but not a satisfying or supported one.
At one point in the film, Sharon (Kitty Winn), Chris’ assistant, asks how Chris’ latest picture is going. Chris replies with, “It’s the Disney version of a Ho Chi Minh story.” Considering The Exorcist’s film within the film reassurance, lack of characterization, particularly with the demon, and reckless ending, I think Chris’ comment may resonate just as strongly with The Exorcist as the film her character is making. Without the frightening images, there is little substance to The Exorcist.