My first viewing of The Exorcist was at age twelve, which, coincidentally, was Regan McNeil’s age when her possession occurred.
My older sister told me the plot of the film, minus of course the really ugly shocking bits such as the crucifix rape scene. My sister was great at relating horror movie plots – she gave me a fascinating rundown of Halloween as well. And she’ll tell you she hates horror movies! I’m not even sure that she had seen it – she may have just been recounting what she heard from others who saw it. At that point it didn’t sound like something I couldn’t handle.
She knew it was playing on CBS that night, and so, we clicked over. We watched fascinated as little Linda Blair growled “Keep away! The sow is mine!” And we had a nervous laugh as, during the second interrogation by Father Karras, we decided she was belching as Mercedes McCambridge’s whiskey, egg and nicotine drenched voice answered his questions in rasps and growls.
We didn’t watch the whole thing through. But needless to say, my nervous system was modified that night.
I had to sleep in my sister’s room, and when she mumbled something in her sleep, I sat up and screamed at the top of my lungs. And she woke up screaming. And we hung on to each other for dear life. And then our parents ran downstairs to see what was going on, and broke up the electrifying current of fear running between us.
And so, for the rest of 1983, I had to sleep with the full lights on in my room. I had only to think of the film in order to go into fits of goosebumps. I could watch no commercials for it, had to avoid all rebroadcasts at all costs (while sneaking a look here and there). ‘Tubular Bells‘ set me on edge. In fact, when clips or TV ads for Maria Bava’s rip-off, Beyond The Door, would run on the Channel 9 midnight movie, I’d end up traumatized as well.
There’s little that I can add in a discussion of what’s one of American cinema’s greatest films. I still maintain that The Exorcist works very well as a Christian film not because it features a literal demonic possession, but because of Father Karras’s Christ-like sacrifice. And I think it’s ‘realism’ – i.e. cinematography, story progression, normal family life depictions – things that modern horror movies describe as “boring” – heighten the horror.
I will comment that I didn’t care for the remastered re-released version subtitled The Version You’ve Never Seen Before. For one thing, there were many cheap insertions of that horrific Captain Howdy face, used so effectively and sparingly in the original cut.
You see it pop up at the psychiatrist’s office in plain daylight, upon Chris McNeil’s return to her home (a frighteningly tense scene in itself that didn’t require such a schlocky gimmick). Too, I didn’t care for the insertion of the “spider-walk”, especially since they added a rather ridiculous bloody mouth effect. Here you can see the original cut of that cut scene, which, given the demon’s perversions, is more disturbing than mere gory blood dripping.
And while it was good to hear the cut conversation between Fthrs. Karras and Merrin discussing the why’s of this happening to an innocent little girl, I agree with William Friedkin’s assessment that it told rather than showed the audience what the movie was about.
To that last point, the blog I mentioned previously, Just Playing: Tensions in Exorcism Cinema, is doing an analysis gender roles within the genre. I think this is worth considering, particularly when the bodies of girls and women and being used as vehicles for divine tests of faith. I recommend checking it out.
I also recommend this terrific BBC radio drama adaptation of The Exorcist, penned and conceived of by Robert Forrest. Among the things of note [SPOILERS FOR THE RADIO DRAMA] are 1) a Mercedes McCambridge-free demon voice, and no less chilling for that; 2) a pure Father Karras point of view; 3) a decidedly different final confrontation between the demon and Father Karras – and it’s quite interesting; 4) the demon teasing Father Merrin with gay incidents in his past.