Best Picture Nominee 1973: The Exorcist (1973)

ahhh the memories

I’ve mentioned a couple of times in my previous posts about how I was a hardcore horror film fanatic when I was a teenager. I’ve seen really quite a few of them back in the days: Japanese, Korean, Thai, Singaporean, American – you name it. I’m not ashamed of it or anything, to be honest. I mean, people have always thought that me and my entire group of friends were crazy for paying money to scare ourselves. Of course, it all sounds silly but I do have fond memories of those days, where we huddled together on the couch, snacking on biscuits and soft drinks and then screaming together during a jumpscare (kicking each other in the process).

I don’t want to make myself out to be braver than I am-I highly doubt I’d dare to walk through a cemetery (especially the chinese ones, goodness) by myself in the middle of the night. However, the truth is, horror films rarely scare me. There’s this constant awareness on my part that all that I’m seeing is fake, and given how poorly constructed these movies usually are, they also turn out to be more silly than anything. Of course, I will still shout and jump when I see that long-haired freak crawling down the stairs but there’s no denying at the end of the film, I always know that that was nothing more than some actress in makeup making creepy noises.

The Exorcist (1973) is often referred to as the scariest horror movie ever. Even my parents, who basically have close to zero interest in films, have watched it when they were youths and talked to me about it. Naturally, my interest was piqued. I wanted to challenge myself to the “scariest movie ever”, and force myself to sit through the “jumping bed”, the “spider girl” and the “green vomit” that everybody is talking about. I was already 16, and I have watched some of the most “hardcore” and famous horror films – The Ring, Saw, The Texas Chainsaw Messacre, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (ok not really hardcore) etc. How bad could this be?

When I first watched The Exorcist (1973), I remembered the first thing that came to my mind was: Wow. This is so boring. Nothing practically happens in the first one hour. Where is the spinning head girl? Where is the jumping bed? All the action didn’t come until the second half of the film, and by then I was already underwhelmed, ready to denounce the film as super overrated. I thought the film was nothing more than an old-fashioned piece that was perhaps scary for its time, but outdated by today’s standards. I mean, people actually fainted?

However, as I got to think about the film a bit more over the next few days, I realised that I may not have watched the scariest movie ever, but I still watched a damn good movie. William Friedkin’s realistic, gritty style that worked so wonderfully for The French Connection (1971) may seem like an odd choice for a supernatural horror film at first, but miraculously it works, making the film a fantastic horror-drama that is now considered a classic.

Rewatching The Exorcist now made me realise that the movie actually does not aim to scare. Yes, Linda Blair’s makeup is scary as heck, and the whole vagina stabbing, green slime vomiting are typical disgusting elements you see in any horror films. Yet what is it about The Exorcist that makes all these work, while modern horror films nowadays adopting the same effects fail miserably? The answer is how the movie’s emphasis on the story above all. Like I said, the movie does not aim to scare its audience, it aims to tell a story about a teenage girl being possessed. This simple difference in perspective makes all the difference in the world. On a technical level, the film never goes way too over-the-top with its horror effects, despite what you hear about the spinning head etc. Thank goodness CGI wasn’t as advance as it is back then too – the use of excessive CGI in modern horror films are typically the main reason why they suck too. The Exorcist knows when and how to push the boundaries between the known and unknown, and as a result the supernatural scenes end up becoming strangely believable. It also does not rely on the ridiculous use of “suspenseful” music unless needed. In fact, the climax scene didn’t have any music (or not that I remember), and yet this was more than adequate in creating the frightening atmosphere needed for the scene. The film does not go ballistic with the “horror scenes”, unless it is crucial element in the story, and this makes it all the more effective and frightening. I mean, how can anyone forget the possessed Reagan turning her head 180 degrees and speaking in the murdered Burke’s voice? (“Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughter?” Yeap, now we do…)

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Another aspect of The Exorcist that succeeds is its brilliant characterisation. Honestly speaking, I highly doubt you’ll get such well-crafted characters in a horror film ever again. Naturally, when you get Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow to act in your horror film, you know that the characters are going to be doing much more than standing around and screaming. The first half of the film focuses on the introduction of the characters. Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil, the famous actress and worried mother of the possessed girl who becomes increasingly desperate and will do anything to save her daughter. Jason Miller (who should have won the Oscar) plays Damien Karras, the priest who is constantly tormented by his guilt over his mother’s death as well as his lost in faith. Max von Sydow plays Merrin, the elderly priest who knows that he has to face his old enemy again. The buildup of the film may be slow as it introduces the back stories of these characters, but it is all worth it. Unlike the horror films of today, where the characters are nothing more than caricatures waiting to be killed, The Exorcist managed to make the audience care for its characters. Burstyn, one of my favourite actresses, is just heartbreaking here as the desperate mother who becomes increasingly exhausted in search for the cure for her daughter’s perceived “madness”.  Miller is also absolutely fantastic, bringing out the complex emotions and pain of his character. Even minor characters like Lt. William Kinderman (played by Lee J. Cobb) are memorable despite the brevity of these characters’ appearances.

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The stories of these characters are interwoven together extremely well, leading up smoothly to the film’s climax, which is the infamous exorcism scene. Which by the way, I find a lot scarier this time. Strange. Anyway, it is at this point where you realise that The Exorcist is more than a film about a fight against some demon. It is also a human drama about the battle between people and their inner demons, such as Chris’ fear of losing her daughter and Karras’ guilt.

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What more can I say about one my favourite movies of all time? The Exorcist is a classic, and rightfully so. Scariest movie of all time? Maybe. A fantastic, even thought-provoking movie? Definitely. 5/5.

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