Even more from the Screem Magazine archives…

Feature Article

The Exorcist (1973)
First published in Screem Magazine, USA, 2009

Warning: This article contains strong language that may offend some readers.

“Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter.”

That’s not so much a direct question as a shocking piece of rhetoric posed by the Devil (AKA. Captain Howdy) in William Friedkin’s masterstroke of 1973, The Exorcist.

Imagine an 11 year-old girl – unsupervised and attracted to the ‘high’ of fear, as most children are inclined – slipping a VHS cassette into the player and hearing such an evocative expletive fly. At that time in my life, I’d only just been introduced to ‘motherfucker’ courtesy of Bette Midler in The Rose, let alone such adjectives as ‘cunting’, which remains under-used even to this day.

In the back cover blurb of my book Monster Movies, there is a personal confession (written in the third person): “Her first clandestine viewing of The Exorcist at age 11 kicked off a love affair with the horror genre that has placed her in good stead to write Monster Movies.”

As an only child, I was brought up the daughter of roadside motel proprietors (just like Bates Motel, but without the obvious parallels). For 18 hours or so a day, my parents slaved over a hot restaurant stove, running the front desk and even cleaning rooms, which meant my time was my own and the video collection of our teenage boarder ripe for my picking.

The year was 1983, a decade after the release of The Exorcist, and therefore, a point in time when the said film had already reached legendary status. Even for a young girl – especially one absorbed in cinematic worlds – its notoriety did not go unrecognised, so to tread on such hallowed ground – to boldly go where very few young girls had gone before – was too exciting a prospect to pass up.

It’s hard to recall the blow-by-blow experience of watching the movie, given the passing of years, but once the closing credits commenced, the tape was rewound and played for a second time, my morbid fascination upped to extreme levels. It is important to note, I was watching the original release of The Exorcist, although the more contemporary director’s cut supervised by William Friedkin with extra footage and special effects is even superior.

Considering my child’s mind would have possessed the attention span of a gnat, it’s intriguing as to what I found intriguing… The pace of The Exorcist is considered and judicious, hardly that of the ‘cut-cut-cut’ MTV generation. It opens with a subtitled archaeological dig in Northern Iraq, the first extreme manifestation of demonic possession only occurs approximately 51 minutes into the narrative, Father Karras meets Regan (Linda Blair) at about one hour 15 minutes, Father Merrin ‘The Exorcist’ (Max von Sydow) doesn’t arrive until one hour 37 minutes, and then the film concludes around the two-hour-ten-minute mark.

Hardly a cracking pace

So what did I see in the film, apart from the dumbfound allure of a possessed girl who spins her head 360-degrees, spits projectile bile on men of the cloth and masturbates with a crucifix? Strangely enough, I think it was the bringing of the unreal into reality that had me glued to my chair not once but twice in a row. The fact that this 12 year-old girl – only one year more mature of my own age at the time – could be transformed by the wizardry of Dick Smith’s makeup and some contorted audio samples into one of the most unsightly beasts ever committed to the screen was the stuff of extreme fascination.

I’d also like to think the over-arching premise of good triumphing over evil, which is consequently Friedkin’s view of the film although he’d like to leave interpretation up to the individual, contributed to my subconscious attraction to the film.

Something similar had happened the same year with ET: The Extra Terrestrial, obviously a formative year for this creative mind. Being aged the same as Elliott – the lucky boy who makes friends with the alien life form dubbed ‘ET’ – propelled ‘yours truly’ into the realm of ‘that could be me’. Considering I saw the film three times at the cinema, cried every time as soon as the spaceship left ET on Earth (ie. five minutes or so into the movie) and purchased enough merchandise to single-handedly float the Spielberg conglomeration, you could say that ET scarred me for life too.

If I could have bought a Linda Blair doll, though, I would have.

What The Exorcist succeeded in doing was create a bar from which all cinema must rise. Disappointingly, it seemed at times as though the high mark had been set in 1973 and very few would surpass it. It’s hard to fathom such a confrontational film steeped in darkness and religious blasphemy could ever be nominated for an Academy Award, let alone win (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound). Without stepping into a treatise on exemplary cinema, let’s just say The Exorcist draws few peers, except for the likes of Alien, Jaws and John Carpenter’s The Thing, among the collective elite.

As I say in my book, “watching The Exorcist is somehow dirty business – it really does get under your skin”. Despite – and maybe because of – the controversy (it was based on the true life exorcism of a young boy in the 1940s, and there were a number of ‘strange happenings’ with the cast and crew linked to the film), it has become the highest grossing R-rated film in history. And so say all of us.

Some people may point an accusatory finger at my ‘neglectful’ parents and rant, “do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?”. Yes, well, my mother and father eventually discovered what I did, but they ‘aint complaining now. After all, how many people keep their guilty indulgences in the closet and live with the shame until their dying day? Instead, I use mine to pay the rent. I love horror – nay, I love cinema that is powerful and evocative – and, I say it loud, ‘I love horror and I am proud’.

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