Friday, October 2, 2015

Freaky Friday: "The Exorcist" (1973)

The season is upon us, and it's time to get in the mood for Halloween. Every Friday in October, The Oscar Buzz will be highlighting the films that The Academy recognized that likely chilled you to your bone. While there have been several genres more prevalent than horror, there's been a fair share that have popped up and proven themselves among the more prestigious competition. What is it about these films that stand out? Are they just scary, or is there something more to their charm? Join in the journey of recognizing the award nominated scares that you may or may not have known about.

The Exorcist (1973)

Directed By: William Friedkin
Written By: William Peter Blatty (book and screenplay)
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow

Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Sound
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 8
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn)
-Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller)
-Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Film Editing

A lot of praise has been lobbied on The Exorcist. To a certain population, it is considered the scariest movie of all time. This was for good reason, especially since it follows the story of a little innocent girl named Regan (Linda Blair), who becomes possessed by a devilish figure and slowly deteriorates into a foul creature. It's a mix of religious endurance and horrifying images the likes of which have been imitated since to varying degrees of success. While this film spawned several sequels and a parody movie with Blair and Leslie Nielson called Repossessed, the first film is undoubtedly the best of them all for a variety of reasons. For starters, it is the most condensed take on demon possessions that has ever been filmed. Also, it is the most nominated horror film in Oscar history with an astounding 10 nominations. While it didn't win any major awards, its placement in the Best Picture race proved that among other things, it was a film that was here to stay.

To understand the film is to understand where the director William Friedkin was in 1973. While this film has eclipsed his previous film in popularity, The French Connection quickly became one of the best crime films of the 1970's. Among other things, it won five Oscars and updated the car chase. Its Best Picture win is something that could have lobbied Friedkin with success or failure the next time out. After all, many directors have back-to-back Best Picture nominations. It's just that the rare few end up like The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino and make a passion project like Heaven's Gate that ruins careers. That is the sense that surrounded Friedkin at the time of his follow-up after a string of acclaimed films such as The Boys in the Band.

Still, the director had kinetic energy and was ruthless in style. You became immersed in The French Connection because of the suspense and danger. Its protagonist Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) was only slightly less corrupt than the villain. Even if Friedkin would go on to have a very impressive, much talked about career, there was no chance of him capturing the energy again. Then, along came The Exorcist - a film that challenged him in more ways than one. His credentials in horror films were not that well established. In a lot of cases, the production was shot on freezing sets while using some very intricate practical effects. Add in the presence of a child, often dubbed and played by another actor, the film would be probably is most complicated project to that date.

The payoff was exceptional in every sense. The film grossed $232 million and revolutionized the demon pictures. A large part of it had to do with the uncertainty of the era. Starting with Rosemary's Baby a few years prior and continuing with The Omen, cinema was obsessed with making films about the fears of raising children in the Nixon era. The films also were depiction of the decaying religious values of the current generation, as evident by the glaring Christianity symbolism. The only reason that this wasn't a problem was because the films were definitely terrifying and captured the audience in ways that monster movies had in the 1930's and 1940's. However, The Exorcist lingered over every other film not only because the scares were bigger, but because the overall production was more ambitious and controversial. Scenes of Regan stabbing herself with a crucifix likely won't sit well with most audience members. In fact, there's a lot of grotesque imagery that makes this, at very least, the nastiest Best Picture nominee likely ever.

There is one other trend that The Exorcist popularized that has been forgotten by mainstream audiences. Nowadays, it is commonly believed that the Ouija Board is a board game that is used to contact evil spirits. This is, by nature, a scary idea. However, the concept of the Ouija Board was over a millennium old by the time The Exorcist got a hold of it. The original concept was believed to be created in China back in 1100 AD. In the scene above, Regan contacts the dead in a manner that is disturbing and powerful. How powerful? This film is responsible for shifting how the Ouija Board was publicly perceived - causing sales to plummet and leading to one of horror's biggest tropes as well as a 2014 film. It could just be that everything else in this film is more nerve rattling, but if one film deserves blame for demonizing the boards, it's this one.

The Exorcist is a film that has been lobbied with a lot of praise. But why this one and not any of the various other horror films? While it likely benefited from following The French Connection, it could just be that Friedkin sought out to make the horror into art. While directors like Roman Polanski had been playing around with the production elements of horror for awhile now, this was one of the few that built towards a singular horror instead of throwing in jump scares and graphic imagery. True, it is all there, but there's plenty that is indicative of a different era of film making in Friedkin's vision. Most of the film's most popular exorcism scenes are saved towards the final half hour.

That's the thing that must be understood about The Exorcist. While it has plenty of shocking moments, the first half is comparatively tame as Regan has medical work done on her and the demonic actions are reduced to minimal asides. There's character development that allows us to appreciate Regan's relationship with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and get a deeper, conflicting nature of the priests - specifically Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who is called upon to do some questionable actions later on. Everyone has character development under their belt so that by the time the famous "Power of Christ compels you" scene happens, we feel the tragedy of losing Regan and the overbearing nature of Damien's selflessness. Everything is at play in classic film making fashion. It may be continually eerie tonally, but the film cribs more from classic dramas early on. Even if the ending is one of the most powerful moments in horror, Friedkin earns it by building slowly.

It's a film that seems a little peculiar and dated by today's standards. Even then, there are few films like The Babadook (a film that Friedkin later endorsed as the scariest film he'd seen) that suggest that horror is in good hands. Even then, it's interesting to see how things could have gone differently for this film. Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was scheduled to play Regan until her parents found the material too upsetting. The studio wanted Marlon Brando, fresh off of The Godfather, for the role of Father Merrin (which went to Max von Sydow), but Friedkin felt that it would be too much of a Brando movie. Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson were also considered for the role of Damien. Among the stranger selections was Audrey Hepburn as Regan's mother - a role that likely would've shattered her previous fashion icon persona, even though Hepburn had previously starred in the horror film Wait Until Dark. To imagine this film with any other cast is itself a rather shocking prospect, especially since it panned out with an impressive three acting Oscar nominations.

There's plenty to dissect about why The Exorcist continues to work and why it had such an initial impact. It could be that it was just a very scary film that encapsulated the fears of the era so vividly. It could also be that the production was inherently less horror than other directors of the time, choosing to borrow character development concepts from drama. It also helps that the cast is particularly strong and that Linda Blair remained an endearing screen presence until the transformation in what is probably one of the most memorable child actor performances in history. This is not an easy film to watch, and that's why it is likely too scary for some. However, its intensity mixed an amazing production design and drama makes for a powerful film that has dated rather well. By being the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture, it set a bar that very few films have since passed. If that's not a testament to craft, then nothing is.

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