As the spooky season raises its sharpened axe to soon fall upon us, the ghouls and goblins of Film Ireland wallow in the terror of the films that embrace the nutty freaks, bloody psychos and raging spoonatics with our ‘Bloody Countdown to Halloween’ – cue Vincent Price laugh…
(William Friedkin, 1973)
Horror is not a genre of subtleties, it reflects the world it is created in, and it pulls no punches and whimpers no niceties about the era. Horror not only shocks its audience with what is on screen, but also with revelations about the world outside the doors of the cinema; it ain’t pretty, but somehow we always go back for more. Human suffering was the cinematic flavour of the day in the 1970s, with scandals piling upon scandals, no one was to be trusted. The Exorcist explores the subject in a manner that no film before or since has attained.
The Exorcist marked a turning point in cinema in many ways. After its 1973 release horror was no longer wholly associated with exciting Vincent Price chillers, but could now be a vicious assault on the audience. Many have taken the idea of audience and gotten carried away but few have succeeded in replicating the atmosphere of The Exorcist, which abuses its audience and yet leaves them wanting more. The film is a possession in and of itself as it both shows suffering onscreen and causes suffering amongst its audience, it remains one of few films which have caused fainting and hysterics in its audience, and one of even fewer to be so sought after that bus trips were arranged to see it during its UK ban. So what made The Exorcist so special? And why should we care now?
The Exorcist was the beginning of atmospheric horror, which remains the most profoundly affecting form of the genre. The set was cooled to below freezing in Reagan’s bedroom and whether we watch it in the depths of winter or the middle of summer, there’s a moment in which we believe that we have seen fog on our own breath.
The Exorcist can also be seen as the origin of character-driven horror. Until that moment it was rare to truly love the characters in a horror movie, but here we had an ensemble cast who captured the heart of an audience, and for me, that is the true genius of director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty. The Exorcist marked the beginning of the end for pre-pubescent children in horror, it seems that one fear has transcended eras. There is nothing more frightening than a little girl, particularly if she’s not quite a little girl anymore. Since its release it’s impossible for an audience not to feel some level of suspicion as soon as little Timmy appears on screen, something that recent release Paranormal Activity 2 has utilised fully in advertising. So Reagan is verbally and physically aggressive throughout her possession, and we see very little of her prior to the possession, and yet somehow we love her, we feel her mother’s growing frustration, and we want her to be healed.
The reason for this is simple. As visually violent as The Exorcist is, it has remained on the right side of a very thin line. There is more character than pea soup, and everything stays just below that visual wasteland of ‘too much’. The ‘spider-walk’ sequence is an impressive, now over-used one, and Friedkin’s removal of the scene is necessary to retain some level of ambiguity. Whilst it is suggested that Reagan’s possession is real, it’s also suggested that it’s the result of mental illness, we will never really know, and the psychological impact of not knowing is what creates true terror and cements The Exorcist as the genre’s first bona-fide mainstream classic.
With this Halloween seeing the most violent audience assault we have seen in the shape of Saw 3D, it’s easy to lose sight of the origins and purpose of modern horror cinema. Each time The Exorcist is popped into a DVD player something special happens. When we lose sight of that little silver disc, we enter a world where the special effects of a long-lost era are still affecting, the characters remain dazzling. The first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award®, The Exorcist is the horror genre’s greatest cinematic triumph.