I love the story my mom tells about the first time she encountered The Exorcist. She went to see it at a drive-in with a few friends. My mom is not a scary movie person. Not at all. So she was terrified the entire time, cowering in the back seat, but around her, her friends were cracking jokes and laughing the entire time. She said, “I don’t know how they could find any of that funny, I thought it was horrifying.” My guess was that they were at least a little scared, but making jokes is a good way to fight back and keep cool.
The sixties up to the mid seventies was where I believe horror films hit their prime. Argue all you want, but that’s where I stand. A keystone in there is The Exorcist, bringing a new kind or horror that few had ever heard of. Demonic possession is one of those satanic things that only the Catholics really believe in, and even they try to sweep it under the rug, like an embarrassment. The only other place you could culturally find this idea before the film was in a few primitive cultures. Of course, once The Exorcist hit theaters, people had a new fear to add to the list. Right next to zombies.
In the film, Chris MacNiel (Ellen Burstyn) is a movie star filming in D.C. and her twelve year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair) starts acting very odd. It’s not full blown demonic voices, heads turning backward spewing pea soup at first, it starts slow. So Chris takes her to the doctor, where they perform tests after test and come up with nothing, which leaves two options: she’s crazy or possessed. That second one doesn’t come up for a while, doctors usually try to avoid that path as long as possible.
While all that is going on, Father Karras (Jason Miller) is having some faith issues. He’s an ex boxer with his frail mother is in a psych ward and lately the church just isn’t answering his prayers. He’s also a psychiatrist, and is sought out by Chris for both his vocations. After a few very creepy encounters with possessed Regan, he decides an exorcism is needed.
But he’s not experienced enough to perform it, in fact there’s a whole song and dance that needs to go through the Catholic church before one can be performed. Thankfully, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) has just returned from Iraq. He’s handled an exorcism before, we hear that it nearly killed him.
Today, demonic possession movies are popping up faster than you can find a pair of priests, but they’re nowhere near the caliber of The Exorcist. They’re all about the demonic parts and over explaining the Catholic rituals. They start to feel more like really creepy documentaries rather than horror films. The Exorcist feels mysterious for a good portion of the film and it’s only in the last quarter that the exorcism is performed, really bringing the green goo to the fan.
So, with all these cookie-cutter exorcism movies today would your average person still enjoy The Exorcist? I really hope so, but I know some will just laugh. In the right light, hearing Regan’s demonic voice saying all those horrible things is laughable. And that green slime can add some twisted comedy value. But The Exorcist has a solid plot, engaging characters and is just overall better film making than today’s demon flicks. Have yourself an exorcism marathon and you’ll have to agree, that is, if you can handle it.
“The Power of Christ compels you!”