#35 — The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
William Friedkin often insisted, and perhaps still maintains, that The Exorcist isn’t a horror movie. It’s perhaps understandable that the director would prefer avoiding having any sort of reductive label attached to a film that’s robustly infused with passion, creativity and ambition. He may have been coming off of major Oscar wins for his prior picture The French Connection, including Best Picture and a Best Director trophy for his own shelf, but there’s always a chance of becoming overly associated with a single genre, especially horror. Alfred Hitchcock may have been a nearly unparalleled master of the vocabulary of cinema, but he was tagged as a director of suspense and was rarely viewed outside of that lens. Of course, when Friedkin says he didn’t make a horror movie–maybe the most fiercely intense horror movie in the history of cinema–the temptation is to judge that he’s being either disingenuous or daft. While anyone who’s ever seen his film Jade might believe the latter to be true, it’s far more likely that Friedkin’s admiring self-evaluation of his grander artistic aspirations makes him overlook the visceral kick to the psyche that came from sticking to and then wisely expanding upon the conventions of the genre.
The stripped-bones description of The Exorcist centers on the demonic possession of a twelve-year-old girl named Regan, played by Linda Blair with a major assist from Mercedes McCambridge, who provided much of the vocal work once the devil inside fully flared to the surface. From that infected seed, Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty (adapting his own novel) explore matters of faith butting up against doubt, the heavy burden a parent faces when a child falls ill and even the roiling impact of emergent puberty. The film simmers with enough challenging subtext to make anyone’s head spin. For anyone willing to dig in, there’s an almost endless amount of material to unpack. And yet what’s most memorable for most viewers is the incredible brutality of the scenes in which Regan’s problems have manifested most forcefully and her mother, played with appropriately exhausting verisimilitude by Ellen Burstyn, has brought in religious figures to try and cast the evil out. Regan’s bedroom becomes a battleground staged in a wind tunnel, and the pummeling every last character endures represents the filmmakers’ incredible commitment to honoring the integrity of the harrowing situation they’ve created. There’s no attempt to soften the conflicts or make it a little palatable for audiences.
One of the most striking elements of the film is the incredible patience in the storytelling, especially when considered from the perspective of our current era, in which audiences often aren’t even expected to get through an opening credits sequence before the clamor begins. While Regan begins having trouble early on in the film, almost a full hour elapses before her behavior unquestionably exhibits supernatural influence. That allows Friedkin to continue gradually, mercilessly building up the dread. The film is a rising tide viewed by someone buried to their neck in the sand. Even before the levitating and spewed pea soup starts, Friedkin shows how terrifying it would be for a child (hell, for anyone) to simply be run through a battery of intrusive tests in the hospital, monolithic machines bearing down and piercing pain delivered in the name of getting a bit of biological data that will allow for little more than slightly more informed guesswork.
The Exorcist is defined by complexity, thoughtfulness and tight, deep performances, no matter what label is affixed to it. Friedkin may have been protecting the work by trying to keep observers from putting it into a genre box. There was no need, though, particularly once the film became a sensation on the way to earning ten Oscar nominations. There weren’t a lot of people who needed extra convincing that the film was exceptional, no matter what designation it was given. Besides, there’s no shame in making a horror movie. Especially when it’s this damn scary.