The Exorcist

The Exorcist ★★★★★

The Sacred and the Profane: The Exorcist at 50

In his audio commentary for the extended cut of The Exorcist, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, William Friedkin states that everything in the film is intentional. He’s referring specifically in the moment to the subliminal use of auditory callbacks sprinkled throughout the film, more subtle than the visual flashes of Captain Howdy that were eventually cut into the Version You’ve Never Seen. Regardless, it’s the sort of auteur-adjacent claim that will get any esoteric reader’s blood pumping, a statement that challenges compulsory and repetitive viewings to see what else can be excavated from its mysterious depths. Indeed, rewatch The Exorcist enough and you’ll begin to believe the filmmaker who, among his other charmingly frank qualities, has always been one to print legend rather than truth.

The theatrical — and my preferred — cut of The Exorcist begins with a black-and-white shot of the sun in northern Iraq beating down upon the land. The brief monochromatic image could easily be mistaken as a shot of the moon, until the color scheme slowly melts into the vibrant red and orange hues of the blazing Middle Eastern sun. The binary of good and evil, order and chaos, are contrasted in the opening seconds. The moon and the sun, the opposing spectrums that shadow the perimeter corners of the ouija board later used by Regan, merge together as one in the opening seconds of Friedkin’s film.

This isn’t the only moment of cosmic duality in The Exorcist’s prologue. Max von Sydow’s frail and paranoid Fr. Merrin scurries his way through Mosul in a quiet sulk and, after a series of strange interactions, finds himself a pawn in a larger chess game of black pieces and white pieces, of good and evil. We initially find Merrin at the site of an archeological dig, where he uncovers a long-buried clash of cultures. A St. Joseph medallion of another era is discovered in the same dusty chasm as an apotropaic amulet of Pazuzu. St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers, is of the earth and the dirt, whereas Pazuzu, the Mesopotamian emblem of the southwestern wind, is of the sky, yet they represent an inverse of their cultural ideals. St. Joseph and his Christian brethren seek the heavens, while Pazuzu and the Babylonians seek the earth. This recalls the tension that Camille Paglia refers to when she claims that Christianity never fully defeated Paganism, but merely forced it into an explosive repression that would fragment out over future centuries – with the Renaissance, with the gothicism of the Romantics, and eventually with the Hollywood system that’d come to produce The Exorcist itself.

The theme of repressed cultural elements which will carry through The Exorcist is continually built in the opening chapter through visual motif and sound design. The concerned archeologist priest makes his way through the city, where the aural tutelage of the forging of blades echoes not just through the crumbled street corners, but the film itself. Those same noises — the unrelenting sounds of iron and war — will reverberate later when Regan is stuck within the claustrophobic MRI machine; Friedkin himself confirms this. Merrin makes eye contact with one of the blacksmiths whose one milky-white blind eye counters his other darker, blacker eye. And again, the bipartite contrast of black-and-white continues throughout the prologue when, after coming across the fuller-sized statue carving of Pazuzu, Merrin hears the snarling and discordant whining of two dogs, one black and one white, fighting in the distance. Before the sequence ends, Merrin is startled by the presence of a bearded man seen earlier in the Mosul cafe where we’re introduced to Merrin’s heart condition — another element foreshadowed here and carried to the end. The bearded man, of course, is dressed in black and white robes.

William Friedkin states in his opening to the special edition DVD that The Exorcist “strongly and realistically tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe, both good and evil.” In this film, metaphysical spaces can bleed into the material universe. The boundary of scientific progress, portrayed here as a sort of medical exorcism in and of itself, is almost as horrific as Regan’s actual possession. William Peter Blatty himself once stated that the medical sequences are unwatchable in their clinical discomfort. Indeed, the stretch of the film where Regan is receiving the electroencephalogram and arteriogram through to the infamous crucifix masturbation shock is some of the most intense filmmaking imaginable. Its entire intensity is rooted in the audience’s realization that Regan is truly without help, forcing the divine hand of the impossible, the supernatural, the miraculous — the very thing Jason Miller’s Fr. Karras can’t comprehend.

The Enlightenment, in fact the entire scientific project of modernity itself, seeks to conquer death. This is ultimately what causes Karras’ faith to crumble as he’s faced with the death of his own mother. Medical science here brushes against that which it can’t possibly cure, because it can’t possibly fathom an occurrence outside of the natural laws it seeks to categorize and control. Lt. Kinderman, a character that Blatty would later return to with Legion and The Exorcist III — here Lee J. Cobb, there George C. Scott — is a detective tasked with making sense of the unknowable. In this way, his blossoming friendship with Fr. Karras, the Doubting Thomas that he is, makes perfect sense. It’s a friendship rooted in skepticism and a love of masks (acting). Kinderman’s trek toward enlightenment is a trek toward understanding the problem of evil in The Exorcist III. In The Exorcist, we’re introduced to him and his obsessions through the lens of other characters.

Lt. Kinderman loves cinema, the results of the work of family friend Burke Dennings, a movie director, and Regan’s mother, Chris, a professional actress. Kinderman’s love of cinema is a love of fiction, a love of the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Burke Dennings and Chris are seen early on in The Exorcist making a movie about student protesters, which taps the film directly into the zeitgeist of post-Vietnam America. While Friedkin is hesitant of that political undertone himself, he does note that his favorite scene of the entire movie is when Kinderman visits Chris for the first time. We’re treated in this extended conversation to two master performers empathetically inhabiting their roles as two people with different goals, desperately attempting to figure things out from opposing angles — one reluctantly covering up her daughter’s possible involvement in Burke Dennings’ death, the other trying to peek toward the truth and past the shadows of a mother’s protective performance.

Blatty’s seismic 1971 novel was subtly inspired, among many other sources, by 1962’s The Case Against Satan, a story itself foundational to the exorcism subgenre of literary horror. Ray Russell’s novel is fixated on the contradictions of material rationalism and belief, allowing for everything in the tale of possession to be naturally explained while still leaving the door open to the mystery of faith. The Karras-like priest of waning faith in The Case Against Satan, Fr. Gregory, is perplexed by the potential of performance. The idea of madness as performance is key to understanding Blatty’s later film/novel, The Ninth Configuration (see: The Hamlet Monologue), but it’s also the underlying layer of doubt with regard to any story of possession and exorcism. The materialist when faced with the reality of possession must ask, “How much of this madness could be performance, could be explained rationally?”

Russell himself weaves in Shakespearean references throughout his novel, much like Blatty does in his own work. In an extended dream sequence, Russell’s priest sees himself in his nightmares as Macbeth, not Macduff — as the force of evil, rather than the force of the Holy Spirit. It’s the inversion of good and evil that haunts any self-proclaimed force of virtue and morality. What makes demonic possession even more frightening, aside from this inversion, is the glee with which the opposing forces manipulate their subjects.

What is the point of possession from the perspective of the demonic? When Fr. Karras is questioning Regan earlier in his investigations, the demon recalls the Latin phrase “Mirabile dictu.” This phrase reminds us of the marvelous and the miraculous in Virgil, that poet who’d mythically lead Dante Alighieri into the bowels of hell, who uses the phrase on a number of occasions in The Georgics, as well as The Aeneid, referring usually to events of the supernatural. “Wonderful to relate” is the loose English translation. For the demonic, possession is a pleasure, an inversion of goodness. When Karras is preparing Merrin for the film’s climactic exorcism, he states that he’s noticed three distinct personalities manifesting within Regan. Merrin notes solemnly, “There is only one.” The mystery of the Trinity, three spirits inhabiting one phenomenon, is turned upside down. It’s an instance of collective possession, a legion of demons, in the form of one ideal — evil.

The demonic possession of Regan compels her body to commit atrocious acts, not only upon herself, but on others. The murder of Burke Dennings, who is found at the base of the 36th Street steps with his neck snapped and his head turned around, seems at first to be an odd non sequitur within the scope of the film’s narrative. There is one popular theory that Burke is sexually molesting and exploiting Regan early on, which explains her lashing out in ways that mirror young victims of predatory behavior. It’s simply not the case, however. Burke often gets twisted around as a sexual predator because he is a conundrum to the story at hand; he is a predator to Regan in other ways. Burke is a director — the symbol of masculine control who has no control of himself, due in part to his reckless drinking — who enters the domestic feminine sphere and causes a malicious havoc. He attacks the family butler. He could be seducing Chris, the matriarch. He’s infiltrating and possibly exploiting the familial unit similar to the demon. But he’s not sexually exploiting Regan. Friedkin himself notes in the extended cut commentary that “Regan has animosity toward Burke Dennings and concern that he might replace her father.” Burke, then, represents the death and replacement of God, the father, with a vice. To Regan’s mother, that idea is only a fantasy. To a child, it’s real.

The tension between the fantastical and the realistic, the miraculous and the material, is the crux of The Exorcist, balanced upon the soul of innocence. The film is many things for many of the characters — a tragedy for Merrin, a heroic myth for Karras, a traumatic discovery of faith for Regan — but in the end it’s about, as Friedkin says, the metaphysical forces that move us toward or away from evil. People don’t possess evil, evil possesses people. The spell of humanity’s cyclical trappings are mythologized and symbolized in The Exorcist much as it is in Greek tragedy, as an insidious force upon the familial core. Good and evil are externalized — the individualism and sanctity of the Christian cross compelling the diabolical possession of collective darkness — and also internalized within Fr. Karras and his struggle with faith. Karras’ faith is reaffirmed in the end through the template of the Christological sacrifice. The power of science is lost where only the power of Christ can compel.

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