Today: February 28, 2024

The Exorcist; Good Film, Bad Film

Love it or hate it? There are some movies that we love and some that we love to hate. In the first in a regular series, FilmJuice, takes a look at some of cinema’s biggest name movies and asks: good film or bad film?

We kick off with William Friedkin’s 1973 horror The Exorcist … but which of our regular writers will
you agree with?

For: By Greg Evans

A common occurrence in films
these days is that, if a film is billed as being either incredibly scary or
truly horrific, then everybody immediately has to see it. In the past few
years, we have seen this hype befall the likes of Paranormal Activity and The
Human Centipede
. Both were boring and disgusting pastiches of horror films
and are destined for bargain bin status in the near future. The originator of
this phenomenon was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

Adapted from the infamous
novel by William Peter Blatty, the
story of the possession of a young girl in Washington DC had already gained
notoriety before its release in December 1973. Talks of strange happenings on
set and punishing acting techniques enforced by Friedkin, had fans and critics
at fever pitch of anticipation for what was surely going to be a historic film
event.

The Exorcist didn’t
disappoint. Not only did it deliver an ample amount of genuinely scary moments,
it also rolled out gruesome amounts of gore and body horror, and shocked
audiences like never before. Unashamed of the blasphemous nature of the story,
Friedkin didn’t hold anything back against either God or religion. Yet The
Exorcist is far from anti-religious. In fact, its conclusion is
enthusiastically pro-religion in a way that’s comparable to Dreyers’ Ordet. And this is one of the
beautiful things about The Exorcist. It covers so much ground that it’s open to
no end of interpretation.

On first viewing, you’ll
probably think that this is a horror film which obviously has a strong message
about faith and the struggles various believers may encounter. After repeat
viewing, you may find that this is actually a comment on the poor state of the
American health service. It could be a film about surveillance and how we are
constantly monitored by Big Brother (or in this case The Devil). Or, it could
simply be a film about the natural conflict between good and evil.

While trying to pick up on
the message of the film, you may overlook the fantastic acting on display.
Three of its actors earned Academy Award Nominations. Jason Miller for his performance as the complex and troubled Father
Karras. Ellen Burstyn as the tormented
mother, Chris MacNeil, and of course Linda
Blair
as the possessed Regan – a role that would come to define her career
for the good and the worse.

To try and fit everything
that is good and great about The Exorcist into a few short paragraphs is near
impossible, but let’s just consider this. Next year will mark the film’s 40th
anniversary. Every exorcism film that has come along since, be it The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, The Devil
Inside
or The Last Exorcism, has
tried to recreate and scare us on the same level and every single one of them
has failed. When it was first released, it was called the scariest film of all
time. Four decades later nothing has surpassed it. Not only is The Exorcist a
good film; it’s one of the best ever made.

Against: By Paula Hammond

“Your mother washes socks in Hull.”

We all know the line – and the scene – for which
The Exorcist is famous. Or should that be infamous? Because, since its release
in 1973, The Exorcist has become one of the most talked about, copied and parodied
of all modern horror movies. Yet, strip away the hype and what do you have? A B
Movie with pretensions of grandeur.

The author of the original novel on which the
film was based, William Peter Blatty, considered the story to be a serious study about the nature of evil.
On the book’s opening page, Blatty even compared a scene from the life of
Jesus, with some of the horrors of the ‘modern’ world – touching on everything
from the terrorism to the holocaust to the Vietnam War. The author clearly had
something important to say and his screen play stayed close to his original
novel. The problem is that The Exorcist’s director, William Friedkin,
seemed to be making a completely different movie. The result is a mess.

When it comes to
horror, less is sometimes more. We don’t need to see ‘everything’ to be scared.
In fact, the less we see, the more our imaginations will fill in the gaps. The
Exorcist shows and shows and shows until it becomes nothing more than an
‘effects’ movie packed with over the top imagery. All that remains of the original story is a veneer of moribund moralizing which sits, like the skin of a cold
rice pudding, on top of Friedkin’s schlocky visuals. And you need more than
schlocky visuals to maintain interest. The fact that screenings these days
generally attract audiences of snickering teenagers who don’t even look up from
their mobiles until the vomit starts flying, tells you all you need to know
about the success of this ‘great’ horror.

It’s true that
the possession scenes make for unpleasant viewing. Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair)
grunts and howls. She projectile vomits. Her head rotates. And, in one of the
most unpleasant scenes in the movie, she masturbates with a crucifix. Remember,
that this is all happening to a 12 year old girl. That’s not a pleasant thought
and it’s equally unpleasant to watch. However unpleasant is not the same as
scary.

Great horror films scare the Be Jesus out of
you. They give you sweaty palms and goosebumps. They have you peering in the
dark spaces and jumping at your own reflection. They make you scared to go to
the loo in the middle of the night in case ‘something’ is out there, waiting,
in the shadows. The Exorcist does none of these things. It’s gross. It’s disturbing. But it’s
not scary. Which, for a horror movie, is an epic
fail.

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