31 Favorites #28: The Exorcist
The Exorcist tells the story of young Regan MacNeil, who begins to exhibit odd behavior after playing with a Ouija board. After a battery of medical tests, it's decided that Regan's "illness" is of a spiritual nature, and the Catholic Church is called in to perform an exorcism. On the team of exorcists is a young man named Father Karras, whose mother has just died, causing him to lose his faith. Karras and another priest, Father Merrin, work to remove the demon from Regan's body. And the ordeal will be the biggest struggle of Karras' life.
I hesitated to put this one on the list because, to be honest, I'd be perfectly happy never seeing this film ever again. Twice is enough. However, I've decided to add it because it IS a wonderfully made film. It's also one of the scariest films ever made. And it's probably the horror film that had the largest impact on me, particularly in terms of being SCARED OUT OF MY MIND. This film is, hands down, the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life. And one of the most depressing.
People go on and on about films like Martyrs being nihilistic, and they certainly are. But for my money, The Exorcist is one of the bleakest, darkest things in cinema. It's easy to see Friedkin's masterpiece completely within the confines of religion. But that's incredibly limiting. This film goes beyond the simple binaries of good vs evil. It's about the horror of losing all hope and seeing only a dark path before you, and the things you attempt to do to keep the darkness at bay. Father Karras can no longer find joy within himself. He is tired of struggling against the darkness. He feels he has no reason to live.
This film chills my heart, not because of the obvious religious themes of God and the Devil, but because we've all been where Father Karras is - in The Dark Place where we feel trapped and sad and tired and alone. We all know others who have been there too, and there are plenty who never make it back. When you put the religious and supernatural aspects of the film aside and look at the film from that perspective, it's positively terrifying.
It kind of makes me sad when people say they don't find The Exorcist the least bit scary or worse, find it funny. How cynical must one be? Are we so desensitized to the world's horrors that hope is something to be mocked? But I think the problem lies in the fact that many who see the film are looking at the wrong side of the narrative. They're looking to Regan for their scares because that's the most obvious place to look. But Regan isn't the heart of this film - it was never meant to center around her, even the title tells us as much. This film is solidly about Father Karras, and what can happen when all hope is lost.
Three Things I Love About It (Do I really have to??? Ugh. Okay...):
- The makeup and special effects are incredible.
- There's almost no other film that I can think of that is so heavy in atmosphere. You feel as if you're trapped in that tiny room with the priests.
- The music adds another element of terror to the film. It's very simple and minimal, but very effective.