I’ve seen The Excorist perhaps three times in my life. But only once at the cinema, last night. I have now only truly experienced The Exorcist once in my life.
Two years ago, I had the same realisation after watching The Shining in a cinema. Once again I now idolise the words of a director I loathe, Eli Roth; “If you don’t want to be scared in a horror film, don’t close your eyes. Close your ears”. I may despise his movies, but I respect his awareness of the horror genre. However, what makes The Exorcist brilliant is how you’re inescapably screwed either way. If you can’t handle horror, I suggest putting The Exorcist on mute, and the TV on standby. This review is an observation on two aspects I love in William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist.
For William Friedkin sound is a connective tissue. He ends scenes in a crescendo, creating a rollercoaster-like flow, a tool to reset the inertia of fear within each segment of the narrative. Friedkin recognises that every sequence is an opportunity for suspenseful/ominous music to agitate the spectator, providing them a portfolio of information, highlighting the importance of each scene and (by proxy) resetting the immediate suspense, starting each scene afresh, attempting new ways to terrify you. Fact is, when films pair frightening sound with the monster they’re neglecting the potential that visual/audio storytelling can do. Any monster is terrifying enough if you build up enough suspense for it. Audibly create suspense, visually create shock; but this isn’t a rule per se, it’s just another form of intuitive film-making. But Friedkin doesn’t stop there, the monster isn’t developed to be revealed; the face/demon is never even referred to by name. Pazuzu slips into the film, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club (but for different effect). For a long time critics have been bashing flicks for using lazy scare tactics i.e. showing a demon jumping towards the audience for no other purpose than to shock. But for a handful of movies (e.g. The Exorcist) this tactic works perfectly since it’s used so so intelligently. First, you’re completely right to eye roll when tedious jumpscares are mindlessly thrown in to crappy flicks, i.e. loud noise, demon flies towards the camera and screams at the audience etc. But when Pazuzu suddenly flashes on screen it doesn’t scream “horror”, rather it develops fear. Your reaction isn’t “omg, so scary”, it’s subtler, you’re forced to question yourself; “Did I see that?”, “Wait. What was that?”. When you plant a question in the audience, get them questioning their experience, you’ve got them interacting with the text, so on some level, the story is now personal. But, Pazuzu doesn’t exist solely to instil fear to the audience, he creates fear for the characters. The dramatic irony is that he taunts his victims and only we know it. In fact, no one actually addresses him until Father Karras exorcises the girl. Pazuzu isn’t a trope or tool, he’s an extension of fear, uncontrollable and omniscient.
The director’s cut of the movie has a lot more content than the original version. More Pazuzu, quite a few music changes here and there, the spiderwalk scene was added and a couple shots were integrated throughout. One shot in particular struck me as interestingly important; the introductory shot of Regan’s window. If you show too much of a location the audience is going to get really sick of it (I’m looking at you Buried and Locke) but if you introduce your main location and then shift focus elsewhere you create intrigue and prominent foreshadowing, almost a premonition of sorts. Sure, you could let the story just naturally go there, and that’s fine, but I consider it to make more sense that you to make your audience aware of where the story is heading (without revealing the mystery, only building it) , because otherwise your establishing a place like Iraq to then drop it from the story. Iraq is a major part of the story, it’s probably 40 minutes of run time that establishes one character, his knowledge, the demon and Pazuzu’s origins. And if you’ve only seen Iraq for 40+ minutes, you’d be right in assuming that the movie is primarily set there. Using a quick 2 second shot immediately suggests that there’s a forward progression, an evolution and destination for the story. The common criticism for The Exorcist is how the story takes a fair while to get going, for the wheels to start turning, this opening shot excuses that by turning waiting into anticipation/curiosity.
This is one of the scariest cinematic experiences ever made. I’m not a horror fan. I’m not even scared by The Exorcist. But I stand by it because it’s one of the most technically amazing films of all time. I’d love to fully dissect it. I haven’t even even talked about the characters, the aesthetics, the music, the editing, I’ve only scratched the surface of how amazing this masterpiece is. I’d have to watch it a hundred times over, each time focusing on one element. There’s enough skill present in every cinematic element that The Exorcist cannot be fully appreciated on just one viewing. Every sequence has to be individually deconstructed, before investigating its cinematic mechanics and storytelling devices. This is a harsh and gruelling film, an exercise in audience punishment, yet the film isn’t without its reward. To experience this as cinema, and not just a film, is a gift.