The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It #1 - The Exorcist (1973)
The above quote is from today's film, and it comes in answer to Father Karras' question, "Why the girl?" In many ways Merrin's words explain why I was able to come up with 13 great devil movies, why the reader lists were filled with titles I didn't picks, and why more Satanic cinema is right around the corner. Nearly each of these films features a "real" devil or demon, but they speak to the real evil that lurks in man's heart. As Merrin calls it, "Animal and ugly." They also intend to inspire faith, to make people stronger in their beliefs, just as the cinematic demons would diminish it. After all, if an evil like Satan could exist and possess a little girl or summon forth his minions to do his bidding, an equal force of good and right must also exist. Even as a devoted Atheist, I found that watching these films, especially today's, made me very hopeful there was such a thing in the universe. (In fact, I told my wife that two minutes in the room with a verified possessed person, and I might well leave behind my heathen ways.) In many ways, #1 on the Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It is where the conversation about the devil on film begins and ends, and so what better way to end this countdown and begin celebrating Halloween in earnest than with 1973's The Exorcist.
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is a normal little girl, but her mother, actress, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), starts noticing changes in her behavior and speech. She takes Regan to a string of doctors and psychologists looking for some answer to why her daughter is experiencing such strange behavior. When she runs out of places to look for answers, one doctor suggests an exorcism. If the possession is all in the child's mind, then perhaps the ritual would clear it up. Desperate for help, Chis seeks out Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and psychologist suffering a crisis of faith. He doesn't believe there's anything he can do, but when confronted with the reality of Regan, the voices she makes, her strength, and personal details of his own life, tKarras begins to take the matter seriously. After catching a recording of the demon sounding fearful, Karras enlists the help of the priest mentioned on the tape, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). The young priest and the old priest band together to rid the demon from Regan's body no matter what the cost may be.
The Exorcist was first published in 1971 by William Peter Blatty, who would eventually win an Oscar for this adapted screenplay, and it remained on the best seller list for 51 weeks including seventeen weeks in the top slot. With a built in audience,Warner Brothers was quick to option the film, and in the end they were rewarded with ten Academy Award nominations, winning two, Blatty's and for Sound, and seven Golden Globes with wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Blair), and Best Screenplay. Over the years, The Exorcist has become one of the best known horror films topping best of lists from the American Film Institute and eventually marked for film preservation by the National Film Registry. It also is one of the most debated horror films of all time. When it was released opinion ranged from Variety who called the film, "an expert telling of a supernatural horror story…The climactic sequences assault the senses and the intellect with pure cinematic terror." to Rolling Stone which said it was, "Nothing more than a religious porn film, the gaudiest piece of shlock this side of Cecil B. DeMille." The Exorcist would become the second most popular film of 1973, behind The Sting (which beat out The Exorcist for the Oscar), and would go on to become one of the best selling catalog titles of all time. This is partially because it has gone through more cuts than any film I know of this side of Bladerunner.
William Friedkin was riding high off the success of The French Connection when William Peter Blatty, exhibiting enormous influence for a writer, leveraged the studio to hire Friedkin for the Exorcist. Like the Gene Hackman cop classic, The Exorcist is a film that moves on its own energy and tone. Throughout, Friedkin used camera work and gentle use of sound atmospherics and music to enhance the mood. Some of the most effective moments are the silences that punctuate the exorcism sequence. These breaks into the quiet of the house from the cold, vile world of Regan's bedroom help to ramp up the tension as the film comes to its epic conclusion. Friedkin was also not afraid to go the extra mile to get the performance he wanted out of his actors. Many of Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn's effects shots were violently handled to provoke a reaction, and Jason Miller even recalled the director discharging a firearm behind him before a scene was filmed. (Perhaps he went to the Werner Herzog school of directing.) While the director was on a roll in the early 70's, he never regained his footing after The Exorcist, his next film Sorcerer was a box office flop and wildly over budget. However it cannot be denied that he helmed one of the best and most influential horror films of all time.
While Blatty's script and Friedkin's direction are paramount in The Exorcist, I can't ignore the contribution of the actors. Linda Blair really went through the ringer playing Regan. She had to endure freezing temperatures on the bed room set, a director who was cavalier about her physical safety, and a script full of incredibly adult content. None of the strife shows up on film, her performance is alternately harrowing and heartbreaking, exactly as it should have been. Ellen Burstyn brought depth to Regan's suffering mother, and her scene with Jason Miller's Father Karras when she begs for his help is astoundingly emotional. As for Miller, the stage actor had no experience on screen (Jack Nicholson and Ryan O'Neal were considered for his role.), but he perfectly embodied the doubting priest. In the early '70's, many young people in America felt lost, and Miller brought that unmoored feeling into his character perfectly. Max von Sydow, who was more well known in European cinema, brought a great deal of gravitas to Father Merrin, and with only a handful of scenes and few lines that are not liturgy, he makes the old priest a fully realized character. The last actor I must mention, Elaine Deitz, is never heard from and rarely seen, but the flashes of her face as the avatar of Panzuzu are pivotal to the film's unsettling feeling.
After a full month thinking about the devil on film and almost two weeks writing about Satan's cinema, I'm starting to feel like I might need an exorcism, but the power of Christ compels me to finish up The Halloween Top 13 first. While The Exorcist might be an expected choice to top this list, that doesn't take away from the fact that it deserves it. While each of the films on this list attempts to address the issues of faith and evil, The Exorcist handles both of these themes perfectly, and it became such a part of pop culture nearly every devilish movie that followed it owes a debt. No matter what version you watch (for the record I watched the spider walk inclusive "Cut You've Never Seen"), no matter how many years pass, the core of The Exorcist will remain the same. There is something out there, something bigger than us that means to do us harm. This need to feel like there is something beyond, good or evil, will never leave mankind, and neither will films like The Exorcist.
Before I sign off today for the last time in October, I want to thank everyone who read any or all of The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It, all those who sent in a list to participate in the reader lists, and once more Daniel Leslie for his incredible work on the banner. Once again, I can't thank you all enough for making this 4th year of Halloween madness wonderful, and I'm sure I'll be ready to do it all over again in a year. Join me back here in a day or two for more new reviews and nonsense, and don't forget, before you go scroll on down and check out the final submitted list, this time from my wife Kathy "The Lady Bugg" Kelley.
Without the love and support of "The Lady Bugg", Kathy Kelley, none of this would be possible. She inspires me, helps me keep focused, and encourages me to be all the Bugg I can be. For the fourth year in a row, I close out The Halloween Top 13 with her list of Satanic delights.
1.The Exorcist - #1 on the Bugg's list and on mine as well.
2.The Witches of Eastwick - Jack plays the devil. Possibly the role he was born to play.
3.Rosemary's Baby -The Bugg omited this one, make sure to give him crap about it.
4.Phantom of the Paradise - A musician sells his soul to the devil, Paul Williams songs ensue.
5. The Devil's Advocate - The devil needs a lawyer. I thought he was a lawyer.
6. The Amityville Horror - a good reason to ask the right questions about your new home.
7. The Omen - a.k.a birth control
8. Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's Son in Law - Dolomite meets Lucifer, need I say more.
9. Crossroads - Ralph Macchio goes the Robert Johnson route.
10. Needful Things. - It's never said that the shop owner is the devil, but, yeah, it's the devil.