Ah Linda Blair, you crucifix defiling little hussy…if only you knew the sleepless nights you were responsible for.
Well, to be fair, I think my mother was more to blame for the fear induced insomnia that plagued me during the tail end of 1992. After all, Linda Blair had no say as to who watched her film, my mother on the other hand, probably should have known better.
If anyone out there still exists who doesn’t already know the plot to The Exorcist, allow me to elucidate. The story centers around 12 year old Regan, who after playing with a Ouija and communing with a spirit she calls Captain Howdy, begins exhibiting signs of demonic possession. The medical community is at a loss, so her mother enlists the aid of two Catholic priests, the young father Damien (crisis of faith intact) and the extremely old father Merrin (a stellar Max Von Sydow), who incidentally has faced this demonic foe before (natch).
As one may imagine, hilarity ensues.
In retrospect, I haven’t a clue as to what I was thinking on October the 31st of that year, but I found myself begging my mom to rent me “the scariest horror movie ever” to watch for Halloween. For some unfathomable reason, my mother did just that, and that one film experience changed everything for me.
Now, as many of you may know, The Exorcist starts off kinda slow. There’s a whole lot of talking and atmosphere, father Damien Karras (Justin Miller) spends a lot of time jogging and walking and eating and speaking horrible Greek. A fully awesome Ellen Burstyn frowns a lot and says “For God’s sake” 47 times and Linda Blair plays with a Ouija and pisses on the rug. The 1st half can be called heartily unimpressive to a young kid with no concept of “build up.”
At this point, picture the 11 year old me being cocky as all hell and whining that this movie is sooooooooo not scary and that I was sooooooooo bored. Holy bejeezus I was a bit of a shit that night.
One hour and two minutes into it, Linda puts her game face on and shit gets real, and by the time she’s stabbing her lady bits with the crucifix I’m speechless and shaking. As the last 10 minutes of the film roll around, I have attached myself to my mother’s side and am weeping from fear…but still, I won’t let her turn it off.
That inability to look away, even when terrified, has never left me…as a result I have seen a lot of really weird, really fucked up stuff I wish I could forget…but that’s a story for another time.
I’m watching The Exorcist now, as I type this, and as an adult I can appreciate the calculated build-up, the pitch perfect performances and the brilliantly executed script. All of which are so flawlessly captured by William Friedkin that he has yet to duplicate it in any future films. Moreover, I notice now that The Exorcist is not only a perfect horror film, but also a pretty fantastic movie in general; not only for what it does have, but also, for what it doesn’t.
The sets are minimal, neutral tones and soft lighting set the scene, and although furniture and the like may begin flying around, the background remain the same. It’s almost unbearable to have the events of the film unfold without rot or decay eating away at the very walls that surround them; modern horror films very rarely have the restraint necessary to maintain a sense of suffocating normalcy that encloses horror within while remaining free of visible corruption.
The same minimalist qualities apply to the soundtrack, which is all but absent during the pivotal scenes. I can’t speak for everyone, but the lack of music, the lack of the proverbial “Dum Dum Duuuuuuum” so to speak, which so often serves to emphasize the gravity of a given situation, heightened the tension immensely for me. Even today, I feel a deep sense of dread watching these scenes, absent of musical reminders that this is indeed just a movie. Even the actors speak in mostly calm, hushed tones, free of dramatic emphasis; it’s almost like listening in on someone’s conversation, and as such, it feels like what you are watching is unfolding in our own real world rather than that of the cinema.
And lastly, the one thing that has not lost the ability to unnerve me since the first time I heard her, Ms. Mercedes McCambridge; the voice of the devil herself. And what a voice it is. Unlike most demonic voices in cinema, this one lacks the growls and grunts and emphatically evil snarling that are commonplace when dramatizing an evil entity. Although undoubtedly raspy (and in need of an oxygen mask), the voice is calm, eloquent (even when snapping about oral sex being performed by people’s mom’s in hell) and mildly amused when toying with father Karras; like a jaded, near androgynous old fiend with a three pack a day habit. As good as The Exorcist is (and it is really fucking good), I doubt it would have had the same impact with another voice at the helm (so to speak).
For all these reasons, and so many more, The Exorcist marked a defining moment in my youth. It introduced me to the intense pleasure of being scared and kick-started my love affair with all the varied and perverse thrills of the world horror movies. Although to be honest, I have never since felt that degree of fear during a movie…maybe that’s what I’ve been looking for, chasing the fear so to speak…hmmm, might be worth exploring in future (by trained professionals no doubt). Impending psych assessment aside, this truly is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, so I suppose it’s not surprising, having cut my teeth on it, that I emerged frightened but ravenously starved for more.