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THE EXORCIST (1973)

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"I think it might be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, I’d say there seem to be three---"
"There’s only one."
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The ExorcistDirector: William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley, Barton Heyman, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Pete, Masterson, Ron Faber, Mercedes McCambridge
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty, based upon his novel

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Synopsis: During an archaeological dig in northern Iraq, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) finds a Christian symbol amongst pre-Christian artifacts. He also discovers a small, carved head. His memory stirred, he travels to a guarded ruin and there confronts another carving with the same head: a huge, demonic figure.… In Georgetown, Washington D.C., actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is disturbed by strange noises in her house. Chris checks on her daughter, twelve-year-old Regan (Linda Blair). The child is sleeping, but her bedroom window is wide open, and her room very cold. Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travels from Georgetown to New York to visit his sick, elderly mother; he is wracked with guilt for having left her alone for so long. Chris finds that Regan has been playing with a ouija board. The girl tells her that someone named "Captain Howdy" answers the questions she puts to the board. Chris tries to play too, but the planchette seems to move by itself. That night, as Chris and Regan make plans for the girl’s birthday, Regan asks her mother whether she intends marrying her director, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). Chris assures her that she does not. Father Karras meets with his supervisor and tells him that he does not feel that he can do his job, that of psychological counselor, much longer; worse, that he feels that he is losing his faith. On Regan’s birthday, Chris tries to contact her ex-husband, who has not called his daughter. Unable to do so, she curses violently, not realising that Regan is listening. The next morning, Chris receives an early wake-up call, and finds Regan sleeping beside her. The girl complains that she could not sleep in her own room, as the bed was shaking. Chris hears noises in the attic again. She investigates, but finds nothing. Father Karras is called to New York when his mother is hospitalised. To his horror, he finds that she has been placed in a psychiatric ward. During a party held a few days afterwards, Chris learns from Father Dyer (William O’Malley) that Karras’s mother has just died. Later the same evening, Regan enters the room. She tells an astronaut that "You’re going to die up there", then urinates on the carpet. Chris bathes her daughter and puts her to bed, reassuring her, but as she walks away she hears a shriek from Regan’s room. To her horror, the girl’s bed is rocking violently. Regan is placed under medical supervision, screaming and swearing as she is sedated. She then undergoes a battery of medical tests, all negative. Dr Klein (Barton Heyman) is discussing the situation with his colleagues when he is summoned to the MacNeil house. Regan is in convulsion, her body slamming back and forth. As Dr Taney (Robert Symonds) approaches her, she strikes him to the ground and begins screaming obscenities. Chris’s secretary, Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), drags Chris from the room as Regan is subdued. Chris reacts with horror when still more tests are advised. These too prove negative, and psychiatric help is suggested. Chris drives home past police cars and a gathering crowd. Again, she finds Regan’s window open and her room freezing. When Sharon returns, she tells Chris that she left Burke Dennings with Regan. Chuck (Ron Faber), the film’s assistant director, arrives with the news of Dennings’ death: he fell down the steep flight of stairs behind the MacNeil house and broke his neck. Regan is put under hypnosis. When the doctor (Arthur Storch) tries to contact "the person inside Regan", the girl reaches out a hand and crushes his genitals. Dr Barringer (Pete Masterson) tells Chris that Regan is suffering from a rare condition known as "somnambular possession", and that her one hope of cure might be an exorcism….

Comments: "The Ultimate Conflict Between Good And Evil". "The Story Of One Man’s Struggle To Regain His Faith". "The Most Terrifying Motion Picture Of All Time". Oh, yes: The Exorcist is a "phrase-film", all right; one more commonly pronounced about than merely talked about. As such, it is remarkably difficult to review. You tend to find yourself falling into the same trap, discussing the film’s implications rather than its mechanics. Perhaps, then, the best way of beginning to come to grips with The Exorcist is by examining why this should be so.

The Exorcist is, in my opinion, the most extraordinary example ever of film-makers managing to have their cake and eat it, too. Theological matters aside for the moment, consider the film’s content. Gross obscenities. Vomiting. Blasphemy. Public urination. If you were to take any of these terms and play movie word association with them these days, the answer you’d probably get is "the Farrelly Brothers". However, whereas the Farrellys and their even lower brow imitators have been met with almost universal critical opprobrium, in making The Exorcist, William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty succeeded in putting some of most exploitative subject matter imaginable up on the big screen, yet saw their creation hailed as a masterpiece by the critics and the public alike. Part of this, no doubt, stems from the production team’s success in roping the Catholic Church in to play on their team. With ecclesiastic endorsement of both project and screenplay, the enlistment of various churchmen as "technical advisors", and two or three reverend gentlemen playing roles in the film, you can almost hear Friedkin and Blatty daring anyone to disapprove of what they’ve done. (Whether this was a complete snow-job, or whether the church hierarchy viewed the project as an opportunity for some major positive publicity, remains moot. I favour the latter possibility.) The end result of all of this clerical input was to produce an atmosphere in which The Exorcist could no longer be viewed simply as a film – a situation that lingers to this day. Try this test: ask anyone you like what they think of the film, and whether it scares them. I’ll lay you healthy odds that the response will be, not a simple yes or no, but rather a lengthy explanation of how the film does/does not scare them because they are/are not religious/Christian/Catholic. Once the film ceased to be merely a film, and became instead a phenomenon, its success was assured. People who normally wouldn’t be caught dead watching "just a horror film" eagerly crossed that all-important demographic line to take in what was perceived to be (or at least, marketed as) a meditation upon Life, Faith, and What It All Means. (We are left to decide for ourselves whether or not the film-makers themselves actually bought into all of this. My guess? – Blatty did, Friedkin didn’t.) And, once trapped in the darkened cinema, I think it’s safe to say that those novice horror watchers saw a great many things that they’d never dreamed they’d see upon the silver screen; material that, had it not carried with it the extenuating aura of church approval, would perhaps have never made it past the censor.

The air of religious approbation surrounding The Exorcist does, however, only go a part of the way towards explaining the film’s impact. Another major aspect was the timing of its release. Coming after the conclusion of the violent and turbulent sixties, which saw the breakdown of many of the conventional aspects of society, and released in the era of Watergate and the final phase of the Vietnam War, it is easy to imagine The Exorcist striking a profound chord with moviegoers unable to understand how their world could have turned upside-down in such a brief period of time. This was a time when the distance between the generations was not just a gap, but a yawning abyss. Many parents may well have seen in Regan’s behaviour echoes of the rebellion their own children (if only that could be ascribed to demonic influences!); while the younger generation itself may have considered her possession as the ultimate act of insurgence. Given the way that the story plays out, however, the former interpretation is by far the more likely. Thematically, The Exorcist lends itself to – even begs for - a deeply conservative reading. The great unanswered question of the film is, of course, why Regan? Looked at superficially, the answer would appear to be simple. Regan is the child of a broken home; the daughter of, God forbid, an actress; and still worse (although only just, one feels), of a mother who not only professes no religious belief of her own, but has instilled none in her child. On top of this, we have scenes such as Chris cursing her ex-husband, which is overheard by Regan, making Chris a Bad Mother on two more counts. (That Chris never considers that she herself may be the source of her daughter’s colourful vocabulary is, I think, one of the film’s most realistic touches.) It is tempting to point the finger and say, there, that is the answer; the child has been left unguarded. However, I believe that to argue on this level only is to overlook the other evidence with which the screenplay presents us; a plot thread that, perversely, manages to be one of the most interesting things about the film, as well as one of the most off-putting.

Regan’s situation certainly did not cause her possession, but it made her vulnerable to it. We cannot doubt that the girl’s solitary games with the ouija board were the demon’s first contact with her, nor that it was via these means that the idea of her mother marrying Burke Dennings was first implanted in her mind – which eventually leads to the director’s death. But why was Regan targeted? In order to initiate a chain of events that would ultimately bring Lankester Merrin to her bedside. In touch after touch, the screenplay makes it clear that it is not Regan, nor even the doubting Father Karras, who is the object of the demon’s rage (although Karras is undoubtedly icing on the demonic cake), but Merrin himself. Regan, in fact, is no more than a pawn, a victim caught in the crossfire of a spiritual war that has been waged over many years. One of the most intriguing clues offered is Chris MacNeil’s initial reaction to the notion of exorcism: "You’re telling me I should take my daughter to a witchdoctor?" The spiritual significance of the rite is still beyond her; you feel that she may well refuse to proceed. That the demon inhabiting Regan wants the exorcism to occur becomes evident when immediately after Chris’s implied rejection of the idea, "possessed Regan" not only attacks her mother, but tells her that Regan killed Burke Dennings. It is this revelation that drives Chris to Father Karras, and his involvement in turn ensures Merrin’s. The inference is that this demon is the same one that Merrin fought in Africa, during an exorcism that lasted "many months" and "damn near killed him". In the film’s beautiful, almost dialogueless prologue, we see the unearthing of a Christian medallion along with pre-Christian artifacts. The matching of the grinning stone head with the huge, carved demon, and later Merrin’s vision of that idol in Regan’s room, leads us to the conclusion that, in a terrible irony, Merrin himself has loosed his old enemy upon the world. Against this background, the demon’s repeated howls of "MERRIN!" become as inevitable as they are frightening. The two must confront each other once again, and this time the battleground is the body and soul of Regan MacNeil.

In this context, it can be seen that Regan herself is not important – and in this we have perhaps the film’s most disturbing theme, both internally and externally; for Regan is not the film’s subject, but merely its object. From one perspective, this was, I suppose, to be expected. After all, the film is called The Exorcist, not The Exorcism, let alone The Exorcised. It is about Merrin’s continuing battle with evil, and Karras’s struggle to regain his faith, not about Regan; she is merely the means to an end. Certainly Merrin shows little interest in her as a human being; he twice dismisses Karras’s offer of "background", and speaks only of the inhabiting spirit, not the girl. It is not until Karras thinks to check her heart (and this, medical graduate though he is, is not for some considerable time) that Merrin actually speaks of Regan. This professional indifference is piled on top of what we have already witnessed from the numerous doctors consulted about Regan’s condition, who similarly treat the girl as a fascinating, difficult, frustrating case. (Modern audiences are likely to get a nasty snigger out of one of the medicos’ recommendation of a new drug – Ritalin.) Their callousness is further emphasised by the way in which the barrage of medical tests is presented, with Regan seeming to undergo as much of an ordeal at the hands of her doctors as she does as a result of her possession. (For all the big, splashy special effects scenes, there is nothing in The Exorcist more viscerally disturbing than the sight of Regan undergoing her spinal tap.) Even Chris is finally brought to refer to her daughter as "that thing upstairs". Regan’s tragedy is not the possession itself, but the concomitant loss of her humanity.

One of the main problems with The Exorcist is that this attitude towards Regan is present behind the camera as well as in front of it. William Friedkin is a technical director rather than a humanist, and this attitude infects the film with an icy undertone that is deeply disturbing. No sense of compassion for the girl tinges the horrors that Friedkin piles upon her; you feel that to him, too, Regan is less than human. By the film’s conclusion, there is a sense that Regan is far less her demon’s victim than she is her director’s.

I have never had any difficulty viewing The Exorcist as "just a horror film", chiefly because I find most of its purportedly Deep And Meaningful theological content to be fairly shallow. If the film’s main theme is supposed to be Karras’s regaining of his faith, it can hardly be said to be a success. "Faith", after all, connotes belief in the absence of proof; Karras regains his in the face of proof of a distinctly concrete nature. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone who, if confronted with a howling, puking, levitating demon, wouldn’t undergo conversion in remarkably quick order. So let’s put all of that aside for the moment, and try to deal with The Exorcist simply as cinema. Does it work as a horror film? Is it still disturbing? Is it, in fact, "The Most Terrifying Motion Picture Of All Time"? My answers would be yes, yes, and we-ee-ell, probably not. To me, The Exorcist is two different movies, one infinitely more successful than the other. On one level, this is easily one of the least subtle horror films of all time. Friedkin sets out to shock and disturb his audience, and does so with a sledgehammer approach that almost defeats its own purpose. Granted, there is stuff here – Regan’s attack upon herself with the crucifix, most obviously – that can hardly fail to shock. (Allow me to interrupt myself for a moment. If I hear one more person refer to what Regan does to herself as "masturbation", I swear I am going to scream. What, exactly, is generally understood by "masturbation"!? The expression is self-mutilation, people! The two terms are hardly interchangeable! [Well – unless you’re watching a Michael Haneke film….]) The other "big scenes", however, just don’t work for me. The puking, the levitation and the head-turning looked silly and fake to me the first time I ever saw this film, and they still look silly and fake. (Infinitely more disturbing than the actual head-turning is an earlier moment when Regan simply looks a little too far over her left shoulder.) The shocks themselves are not nearly so effective as the way in which Friedkin deploys them. Two of the film’s biggest jolts are produced so unexpectedly, and with such an abrupt escalation of the horror, that the viewer is thrown completely off-guard. Perhaps the most effective of these, in terms of overall impact, is our first glimpse of "possessed Regan" when the doctors enter her bedroom - those horrid white eyes, which we see, not the doctors. The second such shock is the "crucifix scene", which follows hard upon the deliberately soothing interlude of Chris’s conversation with Kinderman. After that, all bets are off; and when the exorcism actually begins, the horrific possibilities seem limitless.

Both of the scenes discussed above are built around someone entering Regan’s room. This is a ploy used repeatedly by Friedkin: sooner or later, every character is seen opening the door to that room, and each time we see their reaction to what is in the room before we see what is actually in there. Simple though this tactic is, it is astonishingly effective. One of the film’s great achievements is how skillfully it manages to instill in the viewer a dread not just of what you do see, but of what you might see. For me, one of the film’s most disturbing moments comes when you truly see nothing at all – when Chris enters Regan’s room after the (offscreen) murder of Burke Dennings. As Regan lies there, unmoving, face downwards, it feels as if anything could happen; the imagination starts running riot. It is upon this level, with this engagement of the viewer’s own fears, that The Exorcist works best. Loud, crude and distressingly blunt as it often is, the film has a second level, an infinitely more delicate and effective one. Beneath its confronting material, this is a mood film. From its tone-setting prologue onwards, the story unfolds with a leisurely pace and an attention to detail unthinkable in these days of instant gratification. In fact, it is over an hour into the film before the word "exorcism" is even spoken! Personally, this is one of the things I enjoy most about The Exorcist – although I imagine that the modern generation of horror watchers, weaned on pre-credit sequence disembowellings, might well be bored to tears by it. Another wonderful aspect of the film is its visual richness: the beautiful, muted cinematography of Owen Roizman, its clever and frightening use of light and shadow, and the recurrent appearance of unexplained but unmistakably significant physical clues. Throughout, seemingly disparate parts of the plot are linked via the presence of these paired symbols. For instance, Merrin’s stone demon is echoed by Regan’s sculpture of a strange bird; the grinning head by the clay animal that Kinderman finds at the base of the stairs. Similarly, possessed Regan’s white eyes are foreshadowed by the blindness of an Iraqi workman, Karras’s conflict over his mother by Merrin’s encounter with the old woman in the carriage. Then we have the reoccurrence throughout the film of the silver medallion. Is it the same one? A different one? The screenplay is ambiguous. (Another fascinating visual pairing: Karras having his collar torn away by a patient in the psychiatric ward, as he later has his medallion – inherited from his mother? – torn away by Regan, the former signifying the priest’s loss of faith, the latter leaving him open to possession – and salvation.) There is a simple elegance about all of this that does more to create an atmosphere of interconnectedness and hidden meaning than all of the film’s overtly theological content. And there are other clever touches, like Chris’s walk home from work through the chilly autumn evening (accompanied by the film’s first use of Mike Oldfield’s "Tubular Bells", a piece of music now impossible to detach from this context), in which she encounters priests and nuns on one hand, and kids in Halloween costume on the other. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the image that made it onto all of the film’s poster art: the unforgettable shot of the exorcist himself approaching the MacNeil house, a shadowy figure in the light thrown from the possessed girl’s bedroom, this reversal of the usual light/dark dichotomy strangely unsettling.

The film’s greatest triumph, however, is its sound design. The Exorcist is perhaps the most aurally frightening film ever made. The distorted mixture of howling, animal cries and electronic noises issuing from the possessed girl has an absolutely chilling effect, working on the viewer – the listener, I should say – right down deep in the gut. (It’s always been a surprise and a disappointment to me that so few horror directors seem to understand the power of sound.) And once again, as with the film’s visual clues, there are aural pairings as well: the sound of excavation at the Iraqi diggings with the scratching sounds in the MacNeils’ attic, for instance. In addition, many of the film’s other sound effects also find their echoes in possessed Regan’s unearthly howls: the fighting dogs near the stone demon, the roar of the subway train, even the groaning and pounding of the medical equipment that we hear as Regan undergoes her tests. Another interesting aspect of this is the way the film overlaps its effects, with sounds tending to bleed from one scene into the next. Again, the end result is a deep sense of linkage, of connections between the film’s events that we sense but cannot see.

The one aspect of The Exorcist that is perhaps the most difficult to judge is the performance of Linda Blair. Possessed Regan is unquestionably a terrifying figure: visually, aurally, spiritually. How much of this is due to Blair herself, however, is contentious; undoubtedly, her voice double, Mercedes McCambridge, and her body double, Eileen Dietz, made major contributions, along with Dick Smith’s makeup effects. Blair herself – as herself – is called upon chiefly to establish Regan’s initial normality, which she does via some nice interaction with Ellen Burstyn. (I have to say, though, that I have always found "normal Regan" a tad too sugary, but that’s probably just my cynicism talking.) Still, the fact that it is Blair onscreen for much of the time is one of the most remarkable things about this film. The Exorcist, along with other such serious works as A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver, is in the paradoxical position of being hailed as a classic and a masterpiece by a society that would go into shrieking hysterics at the mere thought of such a film being made today. The problem, of course, is not just the subject matter, but that the film is about a twelve-year-old who is played by a twelve-year-old. It is this factor, perhaps more than any other, that explains The Exorcist’s continuing ability to shock. Violent, foul-mouthed children may not be the rarity today that they were in 1973, but still, seeing these things done to – done by – someone who is just a kid remains incredibly disturbing. It is inconceivable that such a piece of casting would be permitted in today’s social climate. Which is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of concern over the possible long-term effects of Linda Blair’s involvement in the film at the time of its production. My favourite story is that of the journalist who, while interviewing Blair, blathered on about the "trauma" and "emotional scarring" she must have suffered until the girl leant forward, patted the woman on the knee, and said soothingly, "It’s only a movie, you know." (A similar scene occurred on the set of The Sixth Sense, with Haley Joel Osment having to point out, "They aren’t really dead, you know….")

Many "big names" were considered for roles in The Exorcist, but in the end the production team went for character actors, a correct decision that contributes immeasurably to the film’s unnerving "documentary" feel. Ellen Burstyn spends most of the film in a state of barely controlled hysteria, her fear and confusion something that far too many parents can probably empathise with. Burstyn gets a number of indelible moments, including her abrupt fury when, having been advised by a psychiatrist to consult a priest, the priest consulted tries to send her back to a psychiatrist; and her near-inaudible confession to Karras of Regan’s role in Burke Dennings’ death. This last point also underlies what I have always found to be one of the film’s most intriguing scenes, Chris’s conversation with Kinderman. An oasis of quietude amongst the film’s spiralling horrors, this scene is fascinating for the visible struggle that occurs within the two characters as the question of Regan’s guilt occurs to each of them in turn, Kinderman wrestling with a fact seemingly beyond the realms of possibility ("There was no-one there but your daughter, so how could this be…?"), Chris clearly refusing to allow the idea to take shape in her mind. As Kinderman, Lee J. Cobb spends much of the story marginalised, yet convincingly conveys the bewilderment of a hard-headed man slowly accepting that something unnatural is happening. Kinderman’s conversations with Karras also allow the viewer to get a firmer grip on the character of the priest. In particular, I’ve always the loved the "I mention this just in passing" exchange: for all the priest’s doubts and fears, we see that he is no pushover. Jason Miller, of course, has the wholly unenviable task of carrying the film’s theological pretensions. Karras’s torments are actually sketched very lightly – perhaps a trifle too lightly, considering the plot weight that rests upon them. The audience is asked (I wish I could think of another way of putting this) to take a bit too much on faith. In addition, after such a deliberate build-up, the demon’s exploitation of Karras’s guilt over his mother never seems to quite pay off. The priest’s continual distraction from the performance of the rite as a consequence of the demon’s taunting doesn’t impact upon the proceedings as negatively as it should (although it is Merrin’s concern for Karras that makes the exorcist send him out of the room, which in turn contributes, we assume, to the older man’s death). Still, as Karras, Miller – pale, hunched and miserable – successfully communicates his character’s suffering; we sense a man consumed by his desperate need to do the right thing – if only he could be sure what the right thing is. Karras is perhaps most interesting when he is still in doubt: when he tries to deflect Chris’s request for an exorcism; when he begins the investigation of Regan, trying to reconcile his findings with his lack of belief; and when he takes the gathered evidence to the church hierarchy to request an exorcism in spite of that lack. "You’re convinced that it’s genuine?" questions Karras’s superior. "I don’t know. No, of course not, I suppose. But…." is the incoherent answer; the scales are beginning to tip. (Here, as elsewhere, the Catholic hierarchy is presented as level-headed, trustworthy, fully in control; a stark contrast to the negative depiction of the Church found in almost every Exorcist copy that followed, and one of the main reasons, I suspect, why the production received such unmatched co-operation.) When, upon further consultation, the church superiors decide that Karras is not the man for the job, Jason Miller’s face is unreadable. Is Karras disappointed or relieved? It is impossible to say. In any case, this decision summons Lankester Merrin to Georgetown, and the story reaches its climax. Though in reality far too young for the part (and his makeup is distracting, upon occasion), Max von Sydow was an excellent choice for Merrin, projecting an effortless authority, and carrying with him all the weight of his previous screen roles (which include both the knight who plays chess with Death and Jesus Christ, lest we forget). Merrin’s combination of spiritual strength and physical frailty makes the exorcism a riveting contest. Who – what – will give way first? Merrin’s death is a shocking moment, all the more so because of the low-key way in which it is handled (not to mention possessed Regan’s endlessly creepy giggling – brrr!). And it is this, of course, that inspires the redemption of Damien Karras, and his final act of heroic self-sacrifice. (It is perhaps the story’s most audacious stroke that Karras finds his redemption through suicide. And how anyone could have misinterpreted this section of the film, I’m sure I don’t know.) The ending of The Exorcist is a strange mixture of the downbeat and the hopeful. We see that Regan is saved (and that she, too, has gained faith through her ordeal), and get one more glimpse of that silver medallion, as it is passed from hand to hand for one last time. We are then left with Father Dyer who, like the viewer, can only contemplate what has happened and count the bitter cost.

The Exorcist is a serious horror film - perhaps the most serious of all horror films – and at times, this solemnity tips over into pretension and self-importance. Still, given the dismally high number of horror films produced during the past thirty years that simply refuse to take their subject matter seriously, I find myself disinclined to criticise The Exorcist for straying a bit too far in the opposite direction. Perhaps it is this very gravity that accounts for the fact that the film’s cinematic legacy has been far more diffuse than that of the other works I am currently examining. While the influence of The Exorcist upon the Omen and Amityville films (which use "religion" in a purely cynical and exploitative manner) and the direct-to-video Witchboard series could not be more apparent, there have been surprisingly few outright copies of it. Most of those that did appear were produced (not surprisingly, perhaps) in Italy, with pea-soup flying copiously in films such as Chi Sei?, L’Anticristo and La Casa dell’Esorcismo, the latter a ghastly re-cutting of Mario Bava’s surreal Lisa E Il Diavolo. In the US, only William Girdler dared to copy his inspiration directly, in the jaw-dropping blaxploitation effort, Abby. (Girdler was sued by Warners, of course, which probably explains the reluctance of others to follow in his footsteps.) Another twenty-five years would pass before there was a sudden eruption of Exorcist-inspired horror movies, the end of the Millennium seeing the rapid-fire release of Stigmata, Lost Souls, End Of Days and Bless The Child, amongst others. (Most of these were actually year-before-the-end-of-the-Millennium films, but never mind….) None of these efforts come within a country mile of achieving the gravitas of their model, and generally come across as nothing more than hollow and unmoving exercises in special effects technology.

And speaking of special effects---- The Exorcist’s other legacy, for better or worse, was the bringing of gross-out effects into the mainstream cinema. The late sixties and early seventies was a time of furious debate on the subject of realistic, explicit violence in the movies, with films such as Bonnie And Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and The Godfather provoking everything from outrage to exultation. The Exorcist then upped the ante even further with scenes not necessarily violent, but physically repugnant. Urination, vomiting, literal self-abuse – who would ever have imagined that such things could be an attraction? Yet undoubtedly it was the astonished word-of-mouth that followed the limited early screenings of The Exorcist (it’s hard to believe now, but Warners were so uncertain of the film that they opened it in only thirty cinemas!) that turned it into a blockbuster; it remains one of the highest grossing horror movies ever made. Now, as at the time of its initial release, the mere mention of its title conjures up a series of indelible mental images. And yet…. Personally, I’m not convinced that the secret of The Exorcist’s success is "the big stuff". To me, the power of the film lies in the way it stays with you. This is one of those rare films that has the ability to induce a sensation of lingering discomfort. It is the perverse lure of the horror film, of course, that we love them in proportion to the degree to which they upset us, and my admiration for The Exorcist stems from the way it scares me after I’ve watched it. For example (time to play true confession), my bedroom is also at the top of the house. I went up there after I’d watched the film. The door was closed, and it was several moments before I could bring myself to push it open.…. And now, as I write this, it’s three days later and late at night, and I find myself very deliberately not glancing towards the darkened window by my right elbow. What do I expect to see there? I don’t know. The subliminal face of "Captain Howdy", perhaps, or possessed Regan’s eyes…. I’ve never had a nightmare from watching The Exorcist, but I know people who have, and others who admit to being too scared by it to go to sleep. It is a great horror film not because it explores (or claims to explore) The Mysteries Of Life, but because it reaches out, finds our personal pressure points, and then squeezes…. In achieving this, The Exorcist manages to become greater than the sum of its parts.

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