The Exorcist

Directed by William Friedkin

I’ve never really been much of a fan of horror films because I’ve never been able to suspend my belief long enough to let a monster scare me. To me psychological demons are much more effective than overdone makeup jobs. I prefer The Haunting with Claire Bloom, or The Shining with Jack Nicholson. But the all-time classic has got to be The Exorcist. One of the reasons The Exorcist always scares the bejesus out of me is because it treats an epistemological subject very seriously, even when the one character you’d expect to step forth willingly, young priest Father Karras (Jason Miller), does his best to dissuade Ellen Burstyn that her daughter is possessed by a demon. Of course, by that time Karras has already confessed to a fellow priest that he’s started to lose his own faith because he realizes that the problems he has to deal with of his congregation are too much for one man, especially a man who keeps neglecting his own mother during the last days of her life.

I think one of the reasons this is such a successful film is that the concept of a demon is treated as intangibly as our imagination’s reach: How WOULD the devil deal with us if confronted? By reading each of our souls, finding whatever carefully hidden secrets there are and spewing them back in our faces as spiritual ammunition. Not only that, but when you see Regan (Linda Blair) in the opening scenes gently horseplaying around with her mother and her sister, the charm and goodness she radiates leaves you completely floored when she finally does become possessed and turns into a creature so horrible that you forget all about Regan. The lynchpin is having Max von Sydow cast as the aging priest who comes to finish off the work that Father Karras has started. Von Sydow who has been Ingmar Bergman’s spiritual warrior for so many of his films dealing with the epistemological nature of the universe. And credit must go to Mercedes McCambridge for supplying the voice of the demon.

I think The Exorcist is one of the best "lit" and photographed films of all time. The use of shadow is brilliant; very low key (simple things like showing a lit hall, yet having the far stairway at the END of the hall not lit...very subtly eerie stuff) yet incredibly evocative. I mean, the shadows damn near have colors. Director of Photography Owen Roizman, whose work can be seen in "The Addams Family" and "Grand Canyon," shot "The Exorcist." Roizman’s credits include such famous titles as "The French Connection," "Network," "Tootsie," "Three Days of the Condor," "The Electric Horseman" and "Havana." In a movie that took 180 days to make (three times the average), the exorcism alone took three months—and on some of those days the crew felt lucky to get one shot. That was because director William Friedkin wanted to make it visually clear that the satanic spirit inside the possessed girl had made the room unbearably cold. A refrigerated set representing her bedroom was constructed on a sound stage, and air conditioners worked all night to lower its temperature to 40 degrees below zero. "When we set up the lights in the morning, that would raise the temperature to around zero, which was necessary if we were going to be able to see the frost on the actor’s breath," Roizman explained. "We also kept the humidity very high. It was an unbelievably uncomfortable way to work."

Look closely using stop-action laserdisc to reveal the flash-frames of Satan’s face, which Friedkin inserted almost subliminally at two places, and to reveal a subtle double-exposure in which the evil spirit seems to peer out through Blair’s eyes. There are semi-subliminal single-frame shots in this film: when the priest is dreaming of his mother coming up out of the subway, there is a single frame shot of a face (Eileen Dietz), painted black and white, grimacing. There are two other places where this image is supposedly displayed: when Regan, lying on the bed, turns to look at Father Merrin and Father Karras, and just after the head-turning scene. Do not watch this alone.