This week, I was fortunate enough to be working at an event at which Steve Martin was in attendance. I managed to serve him a plate of salmon while fighting the urge to hand him my headshot and resume. Along with last week's sighting of Alec Baldwin at a similar event, I have now rubbed shoulders with both of the hosts of last year's Oscars ceremony. (See? I managed to bring it back to the topic at hand.)
Yesterday, for the very first time, I closed the curtains to watch a modern horror classic that was nominated for Best Picture for 1973...
William Peter Blatty
(based on his novel)
Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
2 wins, including Best Adapted Screenplay
In keeping with previous decisions regarding which version of a nominee to review when there is more than one available, I snubbed the extended edition of The Exorcist - subtitled The Version You've Never Seen - in favour of the 25th Anniversary DVD, which appears to be the closest to the original theatrical release. Alas, I missed out on the famed spider-walk, a deleted scene that was restored for the 2000 re-release.
Film actress Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) has her hands full when her typically sweet 12-year-old daughter Regan (Blair) experiences occasional bouts of profane and violent behaviour. A team of psychiatrists offer mostly unhelpful solutions, dismissing Chris' insistent suggestion that her daughter may be possessed by an evil spirit. After the suspicious death of the director (MacGowran) of her latest movie, Chris suspects that her daughter's newfound demonic strength may be responsible. As Regan's condition worsens, Chris calls in the help of Father Karras (Miller), the Catholic church's resident psychiatrist, who, in turn, calls in a specialist, Father Merrin (von Sydow).
The Exorcist certainly takes its jolly time setting the scene. There is a rather extended period at the beginning of the film that is without a great deal of action. It's all important back story and character development, but since Regan's possession is such a gradual process, the film lacks the usual catalyst that kicks a story into gear... And that is almost definitely not an accident. As in all good horror movies, this long set-up provides the perfect amount of suspense, slowly building the tension so that when we finally glimpse Regan in all her possessed glory, it is that much more effective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not a picture for the faint of heart. 'Disturbing' only begins to describe the creepy and disgusting things that appear on screen. In fact, Cries and Whispers is not the only 1973 nominee to feature the self-mutilation of female private parts. However, in this instance, it is a 13-year-old girl and the weapon of choice is a crucifix. Kudos to the special effects team who very effectively augment the distastefulness in this scene and several others. Nor is this a picture for the faint of ear. Some of the things that come out of that little girl's mouth would make Melissa Leo blush.
The cast successfully do their part with naturalistic performances. In particular, young Linda Blair shows a flair for the natural in her pre-possessed scenes. She is then suitably freaky when called for, earning herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Jason Miller's brooding turn as the priest/psychiatrist is very impressive, worthy of his Supporting Actor nod. The third acting nomination went to a committed Ellen Burstyn as the highly distressed mother whose constant irritability, although completely justified given the circumstances, is a little ... well, irritating. Nonetheless, Burstyn is, as always, magnificent. Previous Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge provides the voice of the possessing demon. And look out for the writer himself, William Peter Blatty, in a cameo as the producer of the film that Chris is shooting.