Saturday, October 23, 2010

2010 Geek Fright Fest: The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)
Rated R (for violence, language, and disturbing images)

Directed by William Friedkin

Linda Blair
Ellen Burstyn
Max Von Sydow
Jason Miller

The Exorcist is based on the 1971 novel of the same name, written by William Peter Blatty. The film is a very faithful adaptation of the novel and considered by many to be the scariest film of all time.

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a popular actress, is filming a movie in Georgetown, near Washington, D.C. While filming, she and her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), have rented a house in town. Regan is a regular girl who deals well with her mother's fame. Her mother finds it strange, then, when she begins to act out, swearing and exhibiting bad behavior. After trying everything science has to offer, Chris is at her wit's end and Regan's behavior becomes frightening. Chris turns to local Jesuit priest, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) for help. Father Karras is having a crisis of faith and dismisses the idea that Regan might be possessed . . . until she starts showing the classic signs. A priest experienced with possession, Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), is brought in to conduct the exorcism - an event that will change the lives of all involved, including the audience.

It is easy to see why this film shocked and terrified audiences in 1973. The special effects were unlike anything anyone had ever scene and the obscenities that Regan spewed were unheard of. People fainted in the theaters, became sick to their stomachs, and suffered serious medical symptoms as a direct result of the film. They also lined up around the block for over two years to see the film, some multiple times.

Friedkin created one of the most beautiful horror films ever shot with The Exorcist. The iconic image of Father Merrin standing outside of the MacNeil house is a prime example of this. The lighting, which looks natural, was actually a complicated lighting effect inspired by the Rene Magritte painting, "Empire of Light". Another beautiful sequence is Chris's walk home from the movie set, which occurs near the beginning of the film. It is close to Halloween and Chris passes laughing trick or treaters and two nuns wearing white, billowing habits. These lovely scenes offset the horrifying exorcism sequences that follow. Friedkin was rumored to be a tyrant on set, however. He kept the set ice cold while filming the exorcism scenes and both Burstyn and Blair suffered back injuries from the director violently pulling them back in their harnesses during stunt scenes. When Father William O'Malley, who portrayed Father Dyer, didn't give the emotional performance Friedkin wanted, the director slapped him hard in the face to make him more upset.

That veteran special effects artist Dick Smith was not nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup is a travesty. Beyond the fabulous demon makeup, Smith was able to transform the 44 year old Von Sydow into an old man. So convincingly so, in fact, Von Sydow had trouble getting work for awhile because filmmakers assumed that he was much older than he really was.

All of the actors give fine performances in this film, but a few deserve special mention. Von Sydow, an accomplished actor most known for his role in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, did a fantastic job as Father Merrin and Miller, a stage actor in his first film, looked and acted exactly as I imagined Father Karras from the novel. Of course, Blair and Burstyn get credit for their emotionally and physically demanding roles, but the unsung hero of the film is Mercedes McCambridge, the actress who provided the unedited voice of the demon. McCambridge went unrecognized for her role in the film for several years and had to sue to get her name in the credits. She put herself through physical rigors to achieve the deep, rough pitch of one of the scariest voices ever recorded.

To truly appreciate this film, I suggest seeing it in the theaters your first time around. Many local theaters with "Midnite Movies" show it around Halloween, and occasionally Fathom Events will screen it in theaters across the nation. Few films evoke a different experience in the theater, but this is definitely one of them. If you have the opportunity to see this film on the big screen (and you think you can handle it), go. This flick is iconic for a reason, so if you haven't seen it, you should, even if it's just on TV.

Fright Rating: 4 1/2 gasps out of a possible five

There are several disturbing sequences in this film and it is NOT for the easily frightened. If you get scared easily, I suggest reading the novel first (so you'll know what to expect) or watching the film with someone who has seen it (and watch it in a well-lit room during the daylight).

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