Saturday, April 16, 2011

1973 - The Exorcist

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...

The Exorcist
William Friedkin
William Peter Blatty
(based on his novel)
Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
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.

Director William Friedkin has worked hard at imbuing the story with a sense of realism despite its supernatural themes. (In fact, on the DVD, Friedkin introduces the film by rather laughably claiming it is loosely based on true events.) For the most part, this realism enhances the terror. However, I have to take issue with the utter ineptitude of the character of Lt. Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb. He appears to be the least thorough police detective on the force. During his investigation of a suspicious death, he dismisses natural causes out of hand despite admitting the albeit tiny possibility. When he asks Chris whether there may have been any visitors to the house, such as tradesmen, she explains that her housekeeper Karl takes care of those things. Rather than investigate further, Kinderman merely laments that the theory was a remote idea and not worth seeing through. To top it all off, before he leaves, he very unprofessionally asks Chris for an autograph. That's meticulous detective work right there.

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.

1 comment:

  1. This project of yours, Matt, has given me ample opportunity to tax my memory of my original viewing experiences with the nominated film. As I am old enough to have seen a good percentage of them in their original theatrical release, I’ve found I can recall the circumstances of quite a few viewings.

    In the case of The Exorcist, I remember the theater I saw it in and actually where I sat (but don’t ask me what I had for dinner two nights ago). It was a packed house and I can say, one of my more memorable movie experiences. While no one actually passed out as reported at some venues, there were plenty of screams, and much after-show buzz going on. As I mentioned in another post, I went into the Academy Awards presentation hoping that The Exorcist would take the big prize. While I had a few quibbles at the time, it is only through the years and subsequent viewings that my appreciation of the film has diminished somewhat.

    First off, I never quite cared for Linda Blair’s performance. I feel that she played the pre-possessed girl more as a 7 year old than as a 12 year old. Her work while possessed certainly was exhaustive, but frankly much of it was done with dummies and as you pointed out, it was actually Mercedes McCambridge providing the great vocal work. Blair did have some good scenes scattered throughout. I particularly liked her final scene with the priest.

    On the other hand, I liked Lee J. Cobb’s character. I felt he was more cagey than inept. He was sort of a Jewish Colombo (which had debuted the previous year). They should have named him Lt. Shapiro:)

    Over time, I guess I see the shock mechanics horning in too much on the story. I ahd rad the book prior to first seeing the movie. I would have preferred a few less medical procedures (let’s give the audience a spinal tap sequence to soften them up for the possession effects), and more dialogue and verbal sparring between the devil and Father Karras. That was my favorite part of the book.
    The effects are still quite potent today, and the atmosphere and location shooting were outstanding.

    The horror film certainly made a comeback in 1973 with Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man and The Exorcist. It would remain in the forefront for quite a while afterwards.