6 January 2012

THE EXORCIST (Dir. William Friedkin, 1973, US)

If genres reportedly work in cycles how is it possible to accommodate for the misdeeds of a film such as The Human Centipede. Neither am I convinced by the recent spate of films dubbed torture porn. Is this another vain attempt to account for genre aberration or are such films really saying something ideologically profound? The state of horror cinema in general has ironically stripped itself of any cultural credibility and artistic validity by embracing sensationalism as a postmodern mantra of audience tastes. The absence of ideology is a characteristic long associated with postmodernity and the evolution of the horror genre has meant parody and pastiche are favourable accents with which to extend any critical discourse. Essentially, the appreciation for genre and its possible dynamics has more or less evaporated into a mass of creative redundancy. Recent horror films including Paranormal Activity and Insidious are two just examples of films that grasp little of the intricacies of genre conventions. Both films lack a sincerity which is absolutely necessary for a genre that continues to be ridiculed and contested. My current disillusionment with the horror film genre has drawn me back to classic horror films which I greatly appreciate in the way they have been crafted. Director William Friedkin's The Exorcist was one of the first horror blockbusters, but in many ways, it has also been one of the most widely discussed films of the American new wave. Nevertheless, given its status as a horror film it still never garners the critical praise and reverence afforded to films like Jaws, The Godfather and Taxi Driver, which were also produced in the same era. Perhaps this is largely down to the horror genre's critical reputation. Jaws, another 1970s horror film, escapes such categorisation because of its reputation as a film by Steven Spielberg. Friedkin never achieved the consistency of his contemporaries, damaging the critical reputation of his oeuvre and underlining the discrimination and snobbery inherent in auteur studies. The Exorcist is one of the key films of the American new wave and although we can bring auteur into the question, when appraising the film's many achievements, we must not overlook what is really essential to the film's popular appeal, which is its intelligent understanding of the horror genre. Interestingly, the first wave of American directors in the late 60s and early 70s comprising of Bogdanovich, Coppola and Friedkin all made their names in genre cinema; the western, gangster and horror film. Much has written about The Exorcist, mostly passionately by Mark Kermode, who has also published a riveting monogram (BFI) and a documentary on the cultural impact of the film titled 'The Fear of God'. I want to highlight some visual and ideological points of interest to me:

1). The opening of the film is signposted with the Muslim call to prayer, known as the Azaan. This not only establishes the settings of Iraq but universalises the concept of Satan as common amongst Monotheist religions. Additionally, the call to prayer is sacred in Islam and it's acknowledgment is a recognition of the fear of god. Such a fear is central to the film's convincing and frightening treatment of demonic possession.

2). The lucid dream sequence experienced by father Karras taps into a prescient western guilt with abandoning parents to care homes. The dream imagery is potent, merging the medallion, dog, dead mother, demon and Karras into a truly nightmarish montage.

3). Father Karras is one of the most benign heroes I have come across in a horror film. Not only does he repeatedly question his faith but even when he finally meets the possessed Regan, he does so without any sort of trepidation. It is only later does he become convinced of the demon's powers and makes a decision to intervene. Although Karras meets with a grisly death, the exorcism martyrs him and his soul. Regan is saved yet ideologically Karras has already damned himself by the guilt he harbours about his mother.

4). Lee J. Cobb as lieutenant Kinderman investigating the death of Burke Dennings is a strange anomaly and his sudden appearance in the film, without any kind of formal introduction, positions him as a symbol of old Hollywood. Kinderman is a traditional figure of authority who would show up in old Hollywood thrillers but given the metaphysical nature of the dilemma, his investigative rational thinking is rendered obsolete.

5). The Georgetown Steps is a visual image that for me is the most frightening in the entire film. The steps become the setting for the death of Denning's and more importantly Karras who is violently thrown down the steps in the final climactic sequence. The image of the steps are used sparingly by Friedkin and their eeriest magnifications occurs through the point of view of Kinderman.


  1. Interesting insights into the film and thoughts on contemporary horror.

    I'd like to recommend a film to you I can't promise you'll like, but I certainly found it entertaining and it at least tried to be innovative whilst making nods to a whole host of other horror films - The Last Exorcism. I don't know if it came on your radar when it came out, but it's a pretty decent story which starts in documentary form following a fraudelent preacher who carries out "exorcisms". Eventually - you guessed it - one of his patients, who resembles uncannily the young girl from The Exorcist, is actually possessed. It's well worth a watch, IMO.

    The last few horror films I caught have been pretty bad (Silent House, famous for being filmed in one take...but wasn't), Rec. (found footage survival horror) and Shutter (run-of-the-mill Thai film with a creepy girl). I'll be watching Ken Russell's Altered States at the end of the month with the film society I co-run, so wish me luck with that!

  2. I'm not as fond of the movie as most people are. I don't find the film particularly scary, but yes it did have its share of menacing moments. And I completely agree with you on that from a visual standpoint this was a great work. The screenshot at the top of your review surely ranks as one of the most iconic shots in film history.

  3. Hi Damon - Altered States is one that does look very promising as Russell was somewhat of iconoclast. Will have to check out the Last Exorcism but wasn't that film a remake of a German film Requiem?

    Hi Shubhajit - I think the more I watch the Exorcist, what really scares me as a spectator are the more ordinary and everyday moments like the shot of the steps. Perhaps it is less horror and more melodrama.