[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
by Gregory Dean Way
Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That The Exorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.
The film might have been less frustrating if they had not underscored, through Father Karras and with great emphasis, the fact that Regan’s possessor claims to be The Devil, not merely a demon. Implicit in that designation is the pervasive, supreme Evil that the Devil himself—no substitute or subordinate—represents. That refined, purest of evil is ill served by the filmmakers, who trivialize its cosmic implications. The film’s shocks fail to evoke any fundamental response to universal evil. Instead they rely for the most part on a purely physiological factor: the ear’s intolerance to a sudden, high decibel level. Graphic in its portrayal of the mechanics of exorcism, the film is regrettably vacuous in its treatment of the transcendent element of exorcism: the struggle between good and evil. Friedkin and Blatty are too busy vomiting green slime to worry about that kind of stuff. They are perfectly within their rights to create a film that caters to the mass audience’s appetite for sensory overload. However, as a filmgoer I am within my rights to express my disappointment that the creators of The Exorcist opted for carnival thrills and chills exclusively, instead of putting the raw material to its highest and best use.
Direction: William Friedkin. Screenplay: William Peter Blatty, after his novel. Cinematography: Owen Roizman, Billy Williams. Special Effects: Marcel Vercoutere. Editing: Jordan Leondopolous. Makeup: Dick Smith. Production: Blatty.
The Players: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Lee J. Cobb, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley S.J., Mercedes McCambridge (voice).
Copyright © 1974 Gregory Dean Way