The first time I saw ‘The Exorcist’, I was eighteen. It was 1990 and the film was still a good few years away from its video-ban repeal. One of the cinemas in Nottingham held a midnight screening – the Odeon or the ABC, I can’t remember which. Both closed in the last decade.
At eighteen, my interest in horror movies was at its height. Of late, and I know exactly why (it was called ‘Hostel’ and left me wondering why I’d wasted an hour and a half of my life on it), there has been something of a parting of the ways between me and the horror genre, particularly its vicious offspring the ‘torture porn’ film.
Thus the likes of ‘Captivity’, ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Eden Lake’ have come and gone without tempting me into my local multiplex.
Looking back through over 130 entries on The Agitation of the Mind, horror film write-ups only barely edge into the double figures: Romero’s ‘Dead’ sequence, a handful of gialli, ‘Freaks’, ‘The Orphanage’, ‘Tremors’ … that’s about it.
But I still enjoy a scary movie – there’s at least half a dozen on the personal faves list – it’s just that gore as a raison d’etre doesn’t interest me anymore. In context, as in John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, viscera is a powerful aesthetic tool (oops, I’m straying into the kind of pseudy pontificating I started The Agitation of the Mind to get away from!). But it needs to be backed up by character and atmosphere or by the kind of psychologically-based terror that is so much more effective than any of Eli Roth’s graphic blood-lettings.
‘The Exorcist’ is a gore-free film. Sure, it has projectile pea-soup vomiting and the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) doing something rather irreligious with a crucifix, but the horror comes from its intelligent study of the nature of – and conflict between – good and evil.
And it delivers some memorably creepy scenes that aren’t supernatural:
* The wild dogs in frenzy as Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) gazes at the statue of Pazuzu in the Iraq-set opening sequence.
* Father Karras (Jason Miller) visiting his mother in hospital, lunatics grabbing at him as he enters the ward.
* A group of nuns walking along a suburban street as the wind blows leaves around them and Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ plays on the soundtrack (a combination of atmosphere, music and a sense of impending dread that always creeps me out).
* Regan – her mother still searching for a medical solution to her ‘condition’ – hospitalised for a brain scan. Not a hint of the otherworldly, but the harsh, clinical way William Friedkin films this scene leaves me feeling queasy every time I watch it.
* Merrin stepping out of a cab and pausing momentarily, silhouetted by a streetlight, before approaching the McNeil residence: a deliberately painterly image (the use of light is inspired by the canvasses of Rene Magritte), but hugely iconic.
This is perhaps the key to Friedkin’s genius*: this is a film about possession and exorcism, about the testing of faith by satanic evil, that is shot through with such documentary clarity that you can easily forget it’s a horror film. Perhaps, ultimately, it isn’t. But, importantly, it scared the crap out of me at eighteen, and it continues to scare the crap out of me now.
*Caveat: when I use the words ‘Friedkin’ and ‘genuis’ in the same sentence, it’s in reference to this film or ‘The French Connection’. Catch me doing it anywhere else in the Friedkin filmography and you’re more than welcome to leave a very vehement comment.