[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
The situation is hopeless. The film became a box-office phenomenon the day it opened. The public said Yes and the candyass critics said No and the frothing-at-the-mouth daily reviewers scuttled to assure the public it was right. You just know what those snits at the little film magazines are going to say. They’re going to say No. Big deal. If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich? All right, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I thought it wasn’t a very good movie.
I read The Exorcist during a summer more disengaged than most, a time when I didn’t have very much to do and felt guilty about not doing it. A discerning friend later observed that the book seemed to him “one of the finest trash novels ever,” and while it had never occurred to me to invoke the stern god of Literature, I knew he was quite right. As narrative, it belonged firmly in the couldn’t-put-it-down class, and no one had to feel ashamed of succumbing to its spell. The film, written for the screen and produced by the man who’d so cozily chilled the summertime reader’s blood, had every right to exert the same spell. But it doesn’t.
I think it might have if Blatty and his recently Oscared young director, William Friedkin (The French Connection), had committed themselves to, say, a three-and-a-half-hour running time. In going for a trim though not especially tidy length in the vicinity of two hours, they have left the door open for fortune to come calling in the form of more audiences, more full houses per diem, plus midnight shows on the weekends. And fortune came calling with a bullhorn. But the decision meant undercutting some of the book’s strengths. The characters were never what you could call fleshed-out, the language of description and dialogue never rose above the level of efficient (though it avoided the computer-printout nullity of, for instance, Michael Crichton), and the thumbscrew suspense techniques could be recognized—in retrospect—as precisely that. There’s no question of Art having been undone here, crassly commercialized. But Entertainment has been undone here—the opportunity for rich, vulgar, luxurious wallowing in the best of taste, for a non-Pantheon monument on the highly priced order of Gone With the Wind that everyone might accurately have termed “a great picture” but only press agents and a producer and the semantically careless would have considered “a great film.”
The opening sequences come closest to working (and Billy Williams’s cinematography is atmospheric enough that I wished he’d been retained to shoot the Stateside episodes as well). An old Roman Catholic priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), is present at an archaeological site in Iraq when a small, leprously ugly idol is turned up in the rubble. For Merrin, something changes. Without explaining why, he abandons the expedition—but not before driving out to the excavation site one last time and locking gazes with a larger-sized version of the same statue. Friedkin’s elaborate location work here is curiously less effective than, say, the largely stock-shot realization of a similarly momentous excavation in Karl Freund’s 1932 The Mummy; but the statue is shrewdly judged (how much of its blunt grotesquerie is due to erosion, and how much to the nature of the Thing it celebrates?), and there is a nicely abstract sinister quality to a drifting camera movement that discovers Father Merrin in a claustrophobically narrow alleyway just before he is almost run down by a carriage bearing a black-clad hag. After these sequences—about ten minutes’ worth—Iraq is replaced by Georgetown, U.S.A., and Merrin just disappears—never, as far as some viewers of the movie seemed to be aware, to return again.
The main body of the film deals with what gets loose in the world again. It finds a home in the attic of a Georgetown house being rented by a movie star shooting a picture on the campus nearby, and soon it has taken possession of the star’s ruby-cheeked 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Bad things happen: furniture shakes, foul sounds, evil vapors, and ghastly mold pervade the house, along with a torrent of nasty language, sacrilege is committed in a local vestry, a man dies hideously, and Regan herself seems to be pitching toward extinction. Medical science puts forth an explanation or three that don’t really suffice. The mother (Ellen Burstyn) isn’t a religious type, but someone suggests exorcism, allowing that it might be psychologically effective, and, well, maybe….
The Catholic Church is medieval enough to have kept exorcism on the books but respectful enough of rationality to insist that all other possible explanations be explored and discounted before exorcism can be countenanced. In the book the rite is a long time coming; in the film, Friedkin is content to indulge in some roaring, grinding pornography-of-medical-violence scenes with Regan strapped to a freaky operating table, then get on with the real show. Again in the book, Father Karras, the backstop exorcist with a waning sense of vocation, was a psychiatrist, a man of science as well as crumbling faith, and it frequently fell to him to say, “Well, this looks bad, I admit, and weird as all get out, but there’s a possible scientific explanation for this phenomenon….” In the film Karras (Jason Miller) is still a token psychiatrist-priest, but the few scientific demurs permitted do not come from him; instead, they are delivered by the most fatuous, insular, Madison Ave.–type cretins Central Casting could come up with. It’s cheap. The audience is encouraged to jeer their complacent rejection of any hypothesis tinged with the supernatural. Hell’s bells, we know even if those med school rejects don’t! I mean, didn’t we lay out three bills for a horror movie fercrissake!
Amputation shows up in other ways. We know that Jack McGowran died while filming was still going on, so perhaps there was nothing to do but get on with the rest of the show; sadly, McGowran’s role is almost nonexistent in the film, and the barbed, swishy wit of the novel’s Burke Dennings has been reduced to an incoherent embarrassment, as the whole subplot about the “ex-Nazi” Karl has been discarded. The last was no doubt tactically necessary to keep the film on track, but one bout of utterly gratuitous malevolence between Denning and Karl remains to confuse the non-reader, with only the most trivial red-herring relevance when Denning is murdered. Detective Kinderman, whose sinister comic sparring and affected shambling interview style Lee J. Cobb catches beautifully in his two real scenes, just stops mattering after awhile and reappears only to bewilder the audience: why aren’t we seeing more of him, or of Kitty Winn as the actress’s secretary?—both are misleadingly billed high in the credits. Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair play the pre-affliction mother and daughter winningly (the very part of films in this genre that is usually intolerable!) but neither is very inventive at conveying torment or ferocity. Max von Sydow keeps his dignity but hasn’t a chance to do more in the scrappy exorcism scenes themselves. Only Jason Miller and the actor (is it William O’Malley, S.J., toplisted in the credits after the name stars?) cast as Father Dyer bring any special feeling to their roles—which, yet again, are drastically reduced in size and in complexity. Mercedes McCambridge is in good voice as the demon but she frightened me more in a more corporeal and more demonic performance in Johnny Guitar.
The most damning thing to say about The Exorcist is that when it’s finished it’s over. There is nothing to carry away from the theatre. I don’t mean deep thoughts or moral lessons—I mean the sort of emotional, psychological, and aesthetic reverberations any legitimate film experience ought to generate. The film is a series of shock effects; they come slamming at you, and some of them make you flinch and some of them are as grossly and ludicrously contrived as the sub-nudie-flick effect of the demon momentarily materializing alongside Regan’s bed. Some throwaways are nice: the soft rumbling and growling of a steam iron with which Burstyn presses Karras’s sweater after the green barf has hit the fan. Some are textbooky, as when Friedkin progressively reduces the visual field of a scene and then lays on an Oscarworthy echo that could only be produced in a vast chamber; it disorients for a moment but so, after the moment has passed, what?! In contrast, a film like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now engenders confusion, promotes disorientation, propounds a genuine metaphysical mystery and evokes real, resonating terror because it deals in and alters the quality of experience itself. The film of The Exorcist is precisely as notable and as significant as a green french-fry in an order of fish ‘n’ chips.
Direction: William Friedkin. Screenplay: William Peter Blatty, after his novel. Cinematography: Owen Roizman; second-unit: Billy Williams. Makeup: Dick Smith. Production: Blatty.
The players: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Lee J. Cobb, Jack McGowran, William O’Malley S.J., Mercedes McCambridge (voice).
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson