Themes of demonic possession and underworld interference were nothing new in the film world, as Rosemary’s Baby proved in 1968 with a chilling psychological horror about a woman who gives birth to the son of Satan. The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now played on this with their unique spin on religious influence cutting waves from the Hebridean islands to the Gothic cobbled streets of Italy. Yet one film above all conquered multiplexes, critics and the psychological stability of its audience with a harrowing portrayal of demonic possession and inner turmoil. The Exorcist, released in 1973 adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, took the film world by storm and despite its criticism for subliminal messaging and profane language it garnered 10 Academy Award nods, winning two for Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay – a rare accolade for an outright horror film.
The Exorcist tells the story of Regan McNeil, a young girl possessed by the demon Pazuzu – a demon that Father Merrin exorcised some years ago. Pazuzu has returned and has taken possession of Regan through a Ouija board, assuming the identity of her imaginary friend Captain Pugwash. As Regan deteriorates with her foul language, inhuman strength and animalistic behaviour, her Mother takes it upon herself to get professional help. No amount of scientific intervention can seek to understand the extent of Regan’s issues, and as the actions of Regan begin to blur into the supernatural, her Mother seeks advice from a local Father – Father Karras.
The Exorcist is as much about Regan as it is Father Karras, a man who has lost his faith since the death of his Mother. Father Karras is both a man of science and a man of faith, being a Jesuit psychiatrist and involved with psychiatry within the church. His character is the audiences journey as we witness through him the transformation of Regan from sick girl to possessed puppet. His loss of faith is re-instated through the need to save this innocent girl, and with the assistance of Father Merrin – an expert in exorcism and Pazuzu – they combat the demon that almost destroys Regan but to the detriment of them both.
The film is quite controversial considering the time it was made, not least the fact that it was nominated for Academy Awards. Scenes of violent masturbation with a crucifix, forced cunnilingus, obscene language and religious mockery are rife throughout the film – despite the 40 year gap since its release, it is still shocking now. There is a theme that runs through a big chunk of horror history from the late 1960’s onwards that features women as the focal point of devastation and destruction – the targets of evil. Though some interpretation has been lent to this theory stating that it is due to the persecution of women for the most part of the 20th Century, there is something oft-overlooked when looking at such films as The Exorcist, Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street which is that though the women are targeted they overcome the persecution and survive, where as the men fall very short. What is interesting about The Exorcist, however, is the sacrifice given by Father Karras to save Regan’s life. Father Karras is a faithless priest, having lost his path after the death of his Mother. His guilt is evident in his face and is played on by Pazuzu with taunts of her eternal suffering. With Father Merrin at his side he is able to conquer his own demons and in doing so he takes on one with detrimental results – a martyrdom sacrifice.
The Exorcist never really guides you down the ‘this child is definitely possessed’ path like most do these days. Rather, we watch Regan’s demise and begin to wonder whether it might just be psychological as opposed to otherworldy, especially considering the hints that are made about Regan and her parents’ separation. When we finally see the true extent of her possession and know that no known science can explain this, her vulnerability becomes the key indicator for how such an innocent girl could become possessed. As stated, the film never really highlights the point of possession or tells it from Regan’s point of view from the moment she pisses on the carpet in front of her Mother’s distinguished guests. Rather, what we see is the gradual decline of this girl into full blown flesh suit for a demon as her appearance and voice change dramatically. When the masturbation with crucifix and spinning head scene occur, we know where we stand – as does Father Karras.
Armed with the tools with which to exorcise Pazuzu, Father Merrin & Karras enter the freezing cold room to do battle with the demon. This scene is genuinely chilling and terrifying (second only to the previously unreleased ‘Spider Crawl’ scene) as there is a distinct lack of music in the scene. There is nothing aside from the demonic growls of Regan and the biblical chants of Father Merrin as they seek to remove Pazuzu from the innocent vessel that is Regan – you can see why it won an Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing. This scene is long, wearing on the audience just as much as it wears on those in it. This final act is superb as the psychological and physical impact on those involved is felt by the view who pray for a happy ending. The happy ending never really comes, and just like every great horror film we are left afterwards with a sense of unease as we struggle to see the success of good versus evil.
There’s not been anything quite like The Exorcist since its release in 1973. In fact, it’s one of few that haven’t been remade in the last decade. The Exorcist was re-released into cinemas uncut in 2000, proving its worth as a film to be seen rather than remade. However, it’s not been shy of spawning a couple of sequels, none of which could match the ingenuity of the original. Exorcism films have become a feature of the horror scene in recent years with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, The Possession and The Rite have undoubtedly been inspired by this classic, but as proven by these recent releases, there is something inherently innocent about Regan and the era she is brought up in as opposed to how such a story would translate in this modern world.
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