Sunday, October 01, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Exorcist

In honor of October - the month that all the cable channels go apestuff running B-movie horror and lame sequels to the real horror classics - I'm going to do a post a day on some of my favorite horror movies. Actually, not all of them are what I technically categorize as horror, but they're all hella scary in their own unique ways.

And I'm going to start at the top. The cream of the crop. The film that, in my opinion, is the scariest movie I've ever seen. The Exorcist.

The Exorcist is obviously legendary. When it came out in 1973, there were all kinds of tales about people claiming to have gone insane from watching it. This, of course, increases the appeal for many viewers, who see the film as a "test." I first saw this film on late night cable, and let me say right now that if you've only ever seen it chopped up for basic cable, with commercials and edits for contents ... you haven't really seen it. This is not one of those fun scary movies. It's actually quite a serious film, despite a somewhat absurd premise. There's only one scene in the film where I've ever heard anyone laugh or feel comfortable laughing myself.

A quick recap of the plot... Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress shooting a film on location in Washington D.C. She is living in a townhouse with her daughter Reagan (Linda Blair). Reagan begins to act strangely, and the mother goes through several avenues to figure out what is wrong - first doctors, then a psychiatrist and a hypnotist. Eventually the team of doctors suggest that Chris request a rite of exorcism be performed by a Catholic priest. The idea is that Reagan has convinced herself that she has been possessed by a foreign spirit, and that the same power of suggestion that has led her to believe this can convince her that the exorcism ritual is actually curing her. Chris is extremely skeptical; she is not religious at all, and she seems to feel that the doctors are sort of giving up on her daughter. Until... something happens with Reagan that convinces her to consult a priest. I won't say what it is, but it's the most shocking thing I've ever seen in a film - and it has to be, in order for us to believe that this woman is so desperate that she literally believes that her daughter is possessed by the devil.

The story of the priest (Jason Miller) - who is not the eponymous Exorcist, but the local priest (and psychologist) who evaluates Reagan - runs parallel to Reagan's story. In a lot of ways, he is the real main character of the movie, and the film spends a lot of time on his character, his loss of faith, and his own (metaphorical) demons. Because of his fallabilities, his superiors decide that he should not be the one to perform the exorcism. They contact the only man they know of who has actually performed one - Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).

I don't really consider this a "horror" movie. It's more of an emotional drama that just happens to deal with the supernatural and just happens to be very scary. It's certainly not a gimmicky horror movie. For example, I can't think of a single cheap chair-jumper style scare in the entire movie. It's a story that's more about pressure, and the exorcism itself is one of the more intense half-hours you'll ever spend in front of a screen. There are some really shocking images, even more shocking dialogue, and Mercedes McCambridge (who does the voice of the demon) will make your blood freeze.

In addition to the shock factor, though, I think the movie also has a striking perspective of faith. Father Karras is a deeply flawed character who no longer knows if he believes in God. He doesn't even really believe that Reagan is actually possessed. Yet it is his faith and sacrifice that ends up saving Reagan.

This is a brutal, awful film. But it's also incredibly impressive. It was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), and Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair). And it won three Oscars - including Best Adapted Screenplay. It's still a shocker, even now, and I can't begin to fathom what a 1973 audience must have thought of it.

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