“The Unenthusiastic Critic” is a special series in which my highly reluctant girlfriend "N." joins me to watch classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. In a very special series within this very special series, N. has agreed to watch as many horror movies as we can fit in between now and All Saint's Day. That N. really hates horror movies, is easily freaked out, and will almost certainly have nightmares all week long, makes her participation all the more admirable…and dumb…and potentially amusing.
Horror movies are not really my expertise. I love a good scary movie, but I have trouble finding them: more than any other genre, I believe it is extraordinarily difficult to make a good horror movie. It's comparatively easy to make someone laugh, or cry, but it takes a special skill to make a person who is sitting safely at home, or in a crowded theater, actually feel scared. (Not to gross them out—which is easy—or startle them—which is even easier—but to really unsettle them and cause them to experience genuine fear.) These sorts of movies fail for me much more often than they succeed, and so I don't really consider myself a horror buff.
Still, with Halloween fast approaching, I decided at the last minute that we should honor the season here at The Unaffiliated Critic. I considered a number of options, including a Hitchcock retrospective (which I've considered doing for some time), or a marathon of the many, many great horror movies—particularly foreign films—that I myself have never seen. But I realized that the best way to celebrate the season was to scare the crap out of someone I loved: namely, my lovely girlfriend "N," who has already humored me as "The Unenthusiastic Critic" and could perhaps be roped into playing along. To her eternal credit, N. agreed, though not without considerable reservations:
She: I fucking hate horror movies. I typically try not to see them at all if I can help it. I don't like being scared in general. That's not a sensation I choose to have. I don't see the fun in it; I don't enjoy it; I don't find any entertainment value in it. Things tend to stick with me, especially visual things: I need to not see things I can't unsee.
Me: Were you traumatized as a child?
She: No, I don't know where it comes from. My mom is a big horror movie fan, and when scary movies would come out she'd always go see them. But she didn't take me to them. It wasn't in her interest, because I was the kid who would insist on sleeping in her bed when I was scared. And apparently I kicked.
Me: You still do. So did you get nightmares?
She: I had nightmares. When I was a kid, and I got scared, I had to think of the Care Bears.
Me: I'm sorry?
She: I had this trick I used: I would actively think of the Care Bears. I would create a scenario where I was in the Care Bears world, and try to hold onto that visual as I fell asleep, as a buffer against any scary thoughts.
Me: See, to me, that would be more nightmarish. Maybe that was your problem.
She: No, it worked. Still does, actually.
Me: So why don't we watch more horror movies?
She: We don't watch more horror movies because you are an asshole. You like to do what you call "enhancing the experience," to make it more tactile for me.
Me: I have no idea what you're talking about.
She: I'm talking about grabbing me during the movie, or jumping out at me, or speaking in a creepy voice. When we watched The Descent, about those blind albino cave-dwellers, I specifically asked you not to "enhance the experience." But as soon as the credits rolled you were tilting your head at me creepily and crouching in the dark, and you looked just like one of those creepy-ass things because you're already pale and bald.
Me: I have no memory of that.
She: Do you remember stomping slowly and loudly down the hallway after we watched Paranormal Activity, to make it sound like a ghost demon was coming for me?
Me: So I'm not allowed to walk down my own hallway, or tilt my head? Oh, I'm so evil.
She: No, you're a dick, and you don't respect my boundaries. Which is why I don't know why the fuck I'm doing this, because it's going to be all kinds of bad for a long time.
Me: It's going to be great.
She: Just to be clear: you are not allowed to "enhance." You are not allowed to speak in a creepy voice. You are not allowed to tilt your head in that creepy way. You are not allowed to grab me or startle me or try to scare me in any way.
Me: Does that include hiding in your closet and jumping out at you with a knife when you open the door?
She: Yes. Plus, I'll kill you.
Me: And on that note, let's begin.
She: If we survive this as a couple, it will be a miracle.
Film: The Exorcist (Extended Director's Cut), directed by William Friedkin; written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel. Starring Ellyn Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, and Linda Blair.
Why I Chose It: Well, it's a bit obvious, really. The Exorcist frequently tops lists of the best horror movies of all time. (On these types of lists, there are three movies that are ubiquitous in the top five: one of them is Jaws—which is a great movie, but not really a horror movie—and the other one we'll be doing next.)
British film critic Mark Kermode calls The Exorcist his favorite movie of all time, and says he has seen it at least 200 times and finds a different film every single time. Even people who didn't enjoy the movie recognize its craftsmanship: Roger Ebert, for example, reviewing the film on its release in 1973, thought it was "stupefying" that the film didn't receive an X-rating, and said "I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won't be one, because what we get here aren't the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but a raw and painful experience." But he also gave it four stars, and called it "one of the best movies of its type ever made," saying that it "transcends the genre of terror, horror, and the supernatural." The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards—the first horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture—and won two: one for Best Adapted Screenplay, and one for the absolutely gorgeous and terrifying sound design.
Undeniable, also, is the cultural impact of The Exorcist. As Kermode discusses here, the film was a worldwide phenomenon that generated nearly unprecedented news coverage, controversy, and commotion. It is considered a landmark in American cinema, has been imitated countless times, and even today, nearly 40 years later, it is still one of those films that can be referenced with confidence that everyone will get the jokes.
Except my girlfriend.
What My Girlfriend knew About It Going In
She: I may actually have seen The Exorcist once, but if I did it was a long time ago, and possibly on television, and I don't remember much. I know she pukes a lot of green shit. Does she masturbate with a crucifix?
Me: I'm not telling you anything.
She: I think I remember her masturbating with a crucifix. If not, I made that up in my head, which says something really disturbing about me. That's about all I know, actually. Isn't it just, in general, about a woman freaking out on her period? Some vague, symbolic thing about the hysteria of women?
Me: That's one interpretation. Or that, too, may be something you're bringing to the movie, based on your own issues.
She: Because I become Linda Blair…?
Me: I'm just sayin'.
She: If I'd known that, I'd have taken more liberties with my bile.
How It Went: Not bad, actually.
As the film begins, I ask N. if she has any particular sensitivity to religous and Satanic horror—which I already know she does, since one of the few scary movies she likes is the 1999 film Stigmata. "Oh yeah, that makes it worse," she says. "I was the kid who didn't think it was funny to play with Ouija boards. I mean, you don't invite that shit into your space."
The Exorcist begins with an extended, nearly wordless sequence in Iraq, as an archaeological dig is uncovering certain inevitably evil artifacts. (Evil in the movies always starts somewhere else, and then comes to America—except, of course, for those indian burial grounds; that's homegrown badness.) An old man we will come to know as Father Lancaster Merrin (Max Von Sydow) is working on the dig.
Me: Actually, I think they just dug him up from one of the tombs.
(In truth—and I never realized this before—Von Sydow was only 44 when he filmed The Exorcist. It's a lot of makeup—and too many Ingmar Bergman films—that makes him look so ancient.)
Merrin uncovers a small demonic statue that he seems to recognize, a moment the film punctuates with a gust of wind. ("Ominous wind!" N. says. "Put it back!") A few moments later, he discovers a life-size version of the same demon, facing off in an iconic foreshadowing of the battle to come. ("More ominous wind!" N. says.)
Me: So what are you supposed to do when you hear the ominous wind?
She: Put the evil statue back in the ground, turn the fuck around, and go back where you came from.
From Iraq, the movie then shifts to its primary location, the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to the famous theme music, "Tubular Bells," by Mike Oldfield. ("That is not happy music," N. says. "Creepy Casio.")
Here we meet actress Chris MacNeil (Burstyn), and her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Coming home after filming what looks like a really shitty movie about a college sit-in, Chris and her daughter have conversations that are supposed to establish how sweet and innocent little Regan is at this point—but N. is not impressed.
She: She's horrible.
Me: The actress, or the character?
She: Well, if that's the way she's supposed to be, then the character.
Me: I'm pretty sure she's supposed to be angelic.
She: She's annoying. I want to punch her in the face.
Me: Well, you're in luck, you'll get to see someone do just that a little later.
One of the many things The Exorcist does right—that so many movies forget to do—is to take the time to establish its characters. The first act intercuts between the MacNeil household and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a pugilist-psychiatrist-priest. (He's a triple-P-threat, and all three vocations will come in handy over the course of this story.) Father Karras, as he tells his friend Father Dyer (played by Father William O'Malley, an actual priest), fears he's lost his faith. He also has a great deal of guilt over not being able to take better care of his elderly mother (Vasiliki Maliaros), who lives in a run-down New York tenement.
She: The sound of crappy buildings is always the same in movies. Some vaguely Latino music, and a baby crying down the hall, and you know you're in a shitty building.
Me: Do you think it's a standard sound-effects tape?
She: Yeah, "Sounds of the Slums."
The film also gives us a nice, slow build-up of the crazy shit. It starts with some ominous sounds in the attic, which Chris thinks are rats, and goes to investigate with a candle. ("The hell!" N. protests. "Why wouldn't she wait 'til daylight?") While she's in the attic her candle suddenly flares into a flamethrower, providing the first real jump of the film.
Me: It was the wind. Or else a pretty serious gas leak that they should probably be worried about.
Meanwhile, Regan has been playing with a Ouija board ("See!" N. gloats), and communicating with someone "nice" she calls "Captain Howdy." She has also been claiming that her bed has been shaking, and wanders down during a party to say ominous things to the guests and urinate on the carpet. ("Peed on my fucking rug," N. says, predictably. "And that rug really tied the room together.")
And then Regan's bed really starts shaking—like, off the floor—and Regan is screaming uncontrollably. "White bitch gone crazy," N. says.
(Confession: it's right around this point that I decide to gauge N.'s level of engagement with the film, and so begin subtly shaking the couch we're sitting on. "Don't fuck around!" N. screams. "I will cut this shit right now. That's a wrap." So, for the record, she's fairly engaged.)
Chris hauls Regan off to see some doctors, who discover the child has also developed a very colorful vocabulary. "Specifically, Ms. MacNeil," the doctor reports shyly, "she advised me to keep my fingers away from her goddamned cunt." (Chris can't imagine where her angelic daughter picked up such language—despite the fact that Chris herself swears like Al Swearengen having taint surgery.)
The doctors try Regan on Ritalin (to no effect), and then diagnose a brain lesion, as Regan is subjected to some brutal 1970s medical procedures that are among the most horrifying things in the film. (In fact—according to the always reliable Wikipedia—Ellen Burstyn has said that, at the screening of The Exorcist she attended, the person who fainted did so not because of the supernatural scenes, but because of the blood in the hospital scene.) Chris keeps asking the doctors if she should seek a psychiatrist, and they keep telling her no. (She also tells them that Regan's bed shakes off the goddamned floor, a phenomenon that seems extreme for a "tremor.")
"This movie is sexist, and horrible to women," N. points out. "The doctors are ridiculously condescending to her."
Regan's symptoms get more extreme, as she starts speaking in the demon voice of Mercedes McCambridge. "Fuck me! Fuck me!" Regan screams, slapping her mother across the room. "This sow is mine!"
Me: Still want to have kids?
She: That bitch would be put out. We can make another one.
Shortly thereafter, Burke Dennings (Jack McGowran), a family friend, falls to his death outside the MacNeil's house. Oh yeah, and this happens:
"Tell me you don't put that bitch on the fucking curb," N. says. "And move!"
Instead, Chris decides it's time to try psychiatrist (though a chiropractor might have seemed a more immediate need). The shrink tries to hypnotize the girl, but Regan begins growling and nearly castrates the poor guy with her bare hands. "Probably gonna need a new psychiatrist," N. says. "He doesn't get paid enough for that shit."
When funny, film-obsessed Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) investigates Dennings's death, he tells Chris that Dennings probably fell from Regan's window. "Is she going to mention that her daughter has super-strength?" N. asks, but of course Chris doesn't. However, she does begin to suspect that some outside help is needed when she discovers her daughter genitally assaulting herself with a crucifix—“masturbation” is not really the word—and gets her own face shoved in the blood.
"That's fucked up," N. decides, after a moment. "It's not cool to make your mama drink your hymen juice. That is not okay."
So Father Karras is enlisted to help, and the movie cleverly makes him the skeptic. He doesn't believe in exorcism, thinking it went out with the 16th century, but he agrees to see Regan as a psychiatrist. He administers a couple of the official Tests for Demonic Possession, and Regan fails them—despite vomiting copious quantities of pea-soup into his face. (N. is disappointed with the famous vomiting scene: "That's more like Nickelodeon slime than vomit.") Later, when he asks Regan to demonstrate her abilities by opening a drawer, she says that such a trick would be "much too vulgar a display of power." (Oh, really? It would be vulgar? Because fucking yourself raw with the Lord is…what? Classy and refined?) But Karras begins to believe when she starts speaking in tongues, and when scarified writing appears on her stomach.
(Side-note—NOT a confession: Right around this time, my hand accidentally brushes my girlfriend's foot on the couch beside me, and N. screams like a banshee and jumps about four feet into the air. "STOP FUCKING AROUND!" she says, while I protest that this time—for once—it was a total accident. But N. is a little tense. "Don't touch me!" she says. "You're not allowed to touch me until the lights come on!)
Karras gets official church sanction to perform the exorcism, but they decide a more experienced man is needed to lead it, and so summon back Father Lancaster Merrin (remember him?) to duty. The titular character of the film, Merrin actually appears very briefly; after the prologue in Iraq, it's only in the last half hour that he shows up at all. The exorcism—theoretically the main event in the film—lasts about 15 minutes from start to finish. Merrin and Karras chant; Regan writhes and snarls and oozes slime, and says things like "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras!" She also demonstrates the advantages of her Magic Posturepedic Air Matrress:
Karras is finally driven from the room when Regan begins speaking in his late mother's voice—which, for me, is the creepiest moment in the movie, and a psychological attack worthy of the Devil. While he's out of the room, Father Merrin is either killed by Regan or suffers a fatal heart attack. (It's not entirely clear.)
Karras then does what N. has been wanting to do the entire movie: he gives up on both psychiatry and religion, and punches Regan repeatedly in the face. "Come into me," he yells at the demon. "Take me!" The demon takes him up on this offer, leaving the little girl and entering Karras, who then throws himself out the window and falls to his death down the Staircase of Doom. Shortly thereafter—with Regan supposedly having no memory of the events—the MacNeil's finally do the sensible thing and leave town, and the movie ends.
I have to confess, for all of its many obvious strengths, I have some problems with The Exorcist, and N. narrows in quickly on some of the same issues:
She: So…why was the girl possessed?
Me: It's not entirely clear.
She: I mean, I kept expecting the artifacts to come back and mean something. Usually that's the case with these movies: evil artifact ends up in the possession of the girl somehow, and that's why she's possessed. But that doesn't seem to be the case here. So now I'm really not sure what the opening in Iraq had to do with anything.
The truth is, there are several plot points like this in the movie that are very clumsy. Apologists for the film will explain, for example, that the demon who possessed Regan is named Pazuzu—that's him in the statue—and that he was the same demon Merrin fought before in a previous exorcism. They will explain that Pazuzu's entire point in possessing Regan was to lure Merrin back into the fold, and engage him in battle, and kill him. Unfortunately, none of this is actually in the movie: these people are bringing knowledge from Blatty's novel to plaster over the gaps. (And, even if they're right, there are still strange lapses in the movie: wouldn't the demon then taunt Merrin with his previous failure during the exorcism scene?)
My larger problem with the movie, however, N. also zeroes in on:
She: I know this is sacrilegious—no pun intended—but I actually think Stigmata scares me on a deeper level than The Exorcist did. I think it's because Stigmata ties the idea of deep religious belief into physical turmoil, and the idea that you could be so close to a higher power that you were risking attack by your inner demons. So it makes the idea of true, deep belief a very scary thing. In The Exorcist, it just seems random, and it seems like a very superficial battle between good and evil.
Me: I agree. And this is the least imaginative demon ever. Except for the one moment when the demon speaks in the voice of Karras's mother, everything it does is basically a parlor trick.
She: Right, like the kind of thing Beetlejuice would do. It's not a spiritual film, really, it's just a physical confrontation. I mean, there's the whole thing in the beginning about Karras losing his faith, but they never really get into that. Unless that was the point of the end, when he regains his faith and takes the demon into himself.
Me: But I have a problem with this sort of movie where people regain their faith that way. I mean, you've just seen the chick levitate above her bed. That's not faith, because the whole question of doubt has been taken off the table. Argument's over: the bitch is levitating.
Not to get too heavily academic here, but I show N. a passage about The Exorcist from James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work, that makes some of these same arguments. Baldwin basically argues that The Exorcist is not really concerned with evil or damnation or guilt at all—subjects too threatening for America to really consider. "I can only say that Satan was never like that when he crossed my path," Baldwin writes. "His concerns were more various, and his methods more subtle." And:
The mindless and terrifying banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man—and many, many others, including white children—can call them on this lie…
"Yeah," N. says. "Say that. Write that I said that."
She: I also think the movie is terrible towards women. It's just very heavy with hysterical women. That's a running theme: women are hysterical. There's Karras's mother in this institution full of crazy women, and Regan's mother, who is hysterical. And all the doctors are men, and the priests are all men, of course, and the cop. And you have this 12-year-old girl on the verge of becoming a woman, and she basically loses her shit.
Me: Yes, and everything she says is sexual. It's all "Fuck me, fuck him, fuck him up the ass, lick my cunt, your mother sucks cocks in hell." But that's actually the level on which it works a little better for me: forgetting the spirituality, it works as this metaphor for the sexual revolution, and male America's fear of losing control of its children and womenfolk. There's glimpses of that throughout: the movie-within-a-movie about the sit-in, and the unruly kids in the street outside the old woman's apartment, etc. Maybe even the implied criticism of the mother, who is a divorced woman with a career and thus loses control of her child. It's a very conservative movie.
And it is. The Catholic Church loved The Exorcist, both the book and the movie. As Kermode writes:
Earlier this year, Catherine Von Rhuland of the New Christian Herald declared: "The Exorcist is surely an explicitly Christian film [in which] the ministry is presented with dignity as an honourable vocation [who] go the full distance with Utter Darkness—a sleeves rolled up, no-holds-barred fight to the finish between God's earthly representatives and Satan."
Such reactions are unsurprising, since Friedkin's movie was written and produced by the Catholic writer William Peter Blatty whose multi-million selling novel was praised by the Vatican literary journal Civilta Cattolica having been described by the author as "a 350-page thank-you note to the Jesuits."
Indeed, such is the standing of Blatty's novel within the Catholic establishment that last year Cardinal O'Connor read sections from it as part of his Sunday mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
But is it scary?
She: It was a good horror film. I won't say I enjoyed it, because I don't enjoy films like this. As I believe I mentioned.
Me: But did you find it scary?
She: I guess. I mean, the whole idea of possession is scary.
Me: You "guess?" You screamed like a girl and jumped like a stuck pig.
She: When you touched me!
Me: That was an accident.
She: I know you and your "accidents." You can't be trusted. But yes, it had its moments, but I would say that it's disturbing, but not really scary. It didn't necessarily make me nervous about the stakes of my own faith. It was just theatrics. Like Baldwin says, that's not the devil we know.
Next up for The Unenthusiastic Critic: Tomorrow we tackle the film that tops almost every list of the scariest movies of all time: John Carpenter's The Thing.