Thursday, October 7, 2010

Scariest Movie Ever? -- Reflections on "The Exorcist" (1973)

Coming soon:
Linda Blair/Exorcist Plush Doll -- great for cuddling!

Is The Exorcist the scariest movie ever made?

Does it really matter if it is or isn't?

One thing's for sure: few films live on in the imagination of their viewers than William Friedkin's 1973 film about a little girl possessed by the Devil himself. It's a nightmarish film with more obscene, terrifying moments than the majority of horror movies, yet it leaves so many questions that the viewer is left thinking about it long afterwards. There are many impressionable images that linger on the tip of the inner eye like an after taste for the tongue, or an echo for the ear. A lot of people, no doubt, use the film as a barometer for other horror movies, just as sports writers use Michael Jordan as a comparison point for basketball players.

The Exorcist may or may not be the "scariest" film ever, but it is most certainly the most important horror film.* It changed the way people examined horror movies, making many realize that the best of the genre could be just as deep and meaningful as a high-falutin' drama. It also pushed the envelope of what was acceptable in a movie. Horror movies were not the same after The Exorcist; it was to scary movies what the Beatles were to rock music.

*In a documentary on the recently released Blu-ray, the cast and crew were pretty adamant about their disdain for calling the movie a "horror" film. Linda Blair called it a "theological thriller." Director William Friedkin wanted it to be considered more as a drama. I understand the desire to avoid being pigeonholed into a disreputable genre, but calling The Exorcist a theological thriller is like calling a prostitute an escort, or referring to a pizza pocket as a calzone.

It's always fun to consider the place a movie has in history, or where it ranks among other greats. But what always matters most is what you went through as you watched it. The Exorcist and I have had a rough history. I used to call it the equivalent of cinematic rape, completely disturbed by its raw power and ability to violate the senses. At one point I even thought of it as evil. Times have changed for me, though, and now I have grown fond of it.

For me, there are few films that can churn my gut quite like this one. Watching Regan's descent into demonic possession is ridiculously creepy and never goes so over the top that you stop believing. Each step of her progress is carefully measured, so by the time we reach the climatic battle between the Devil and the exorcists the tension is at a fever pitch.

I wouldn't have cared so much, though, if I hadn't developed such love for both Regan's mother and for Father Karras. Their conflicts and struggles are intensified by the Devil's presence in that room, making every interaction with it a life-and-death moment. Great horror isn't about the shock and awe -- it's about how well we connect with the characters; the more involved we are with them, the more likely we are to be devastated by the horrific things happening to them.

And I was devastated. I'm even more devastated by the questions the film raises. Why was this girl possessed? When did the possession initially begin? How did the little statue Father Merrin found in Northern Iraq find its way to Georgetown? Who won: Father Karras or Satan? I've spent hours over the years pondering these questions, and while I have my own ideas of the answers, the fact that they are there makes the movie scarier to me.

And, of course, I can't think of another horror film in which I can recall so many iconic images. I bet, right now, several have popped in your head:

Vomiting pea soup.

The crucifix stabbing scene.

The demon face that pops up like a cinematic Jack-in-the-box.

Father Merrin's arrival.

Regan levitating over the bed.

Regan's head turning 360.

The spider-walk.

It doesn't matter whether the advertising is right or not about The Exorcist's place as "scariest" film ever, but just thinking of those things -- and the dread that shadows my heart as I do -- is enough to make me believe that it is.

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