Not The Scariest
The first horror-flick I ever watched was with my dad. Evil Dead, not the 2013 remake, but the 1981 original, maintains a strong place in my list of top 15 horror films of all time. The horror film after that was The Exorcist. Somewhere down the line, you have probably heard of it being the scariest film ever created. My dad said that there were actually priests lined up outside the cinemas, pleading with the general public not to watch Satan’s latest work. It is a film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel, and an outstanding one at that.
The first half of the film is, frankly speaking, slow. It does not hit you with a barrage of scares like the traditional horror film, jump scares flying left and right, adrenaline soaring at every sharp turn. Instead, a series of storylines weave together to tell the exorcism of Regan MacNeil, a simple eleven-year-old girl who is literally bedridden by the possession of a vulgar spirit.
Somewhere in Northern Iraq, Lankester Merrin finds a totem, representative of Pazazu, the descendant of Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, and the main antagonist of The Exorcist. Apart from that introduction, nothing more is revealed about the somber minister. However, the eerie background serves as a backdrop for the hell that is going to be opened onto the MacNeils.
Back in Georgetown, the United States, Chris MacNeil is having the time of her life. Her career as an actress is soaring, and her relationship with her daughter, Regan, is wonderful, even in the absence of the father. They are clearly comfortable from a financial standpoint, so the biggest concern is probably just deciding which private school to send Regan to. This is a smart inclusion, so we know that no one is a colossal bitch until Regan starts letting fly the most creative swears. There is talk of hearing rats in the attic, and a levitating bed. Of course, a ouija board is involved, and the demon Pazazu, takes over the innocent girl. Where psychiatry and science fail, it would appear that exorcism is the only medicine.
The last important character to be added to the mix is Father Damien Karras. When he is done doing priestly stuff, he comes home to a bowl of spaghetti carbonara all Italiano, courtesy of his terminally ill mother. After the mother passes, Damien is approached by Chris, now a desperate mother panic-stricken by the abnormality which is her daughter. It takes some inducement, and upon meeting the demon, Damien joins the cause.
I’m not Regan.
Well, then let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras.
And I’m the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps.
If you’re the Devil, why not make the straps disappear?
That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.
This is my problem with The Exorcist. It is true back then, that nobody had ever seen a film quite as graphic as William Friedkin’s, a time where special effects barely made anything out of itself. On a “scary” front, the film kicks into gear in the last third. Now by my logic, a film would be scary if there were effective scares throughout the runtime. Emphasis on effectiveness. The horror genre is sort of like selling condoms; there is never a one-size-fits-all selection. Unlike action or romance, with relatively straightforward depictions, horror films make their money by unhinging their audiences. Whatever is considered so vile and unorthodox, depends on subjectivity. Most people fall victim to jump scares, but beyond that simple technique, lies so much more. German expressionism during the Weimar period. Monster films such as Frankenstein’s Surgeon Simulator abomination when all it probably wanted was to be friends. Recently, since everyone thinks they are a state-certified psychologist just because they took that one intro-to-psychology class back in first year, psychological horror is a big hit. To those guys, I say “Get out”. No literally, Get Out. This is subjective, but The Exorcist does not scare me as much as the horror films today. It succeeds with a good plot, good direction, and state of the art special effects (back then). However, it is time for people to hand the “scariest film of all time” title to another film.
For its amount of distressing scenes, The Exorcist can challenge any film for the title of “purely disturbing”. That 180 head-turn proceeded by vomiting out a slime toy from Walmart. That loss of bladder control during the party. That disgusting spiderwalk down the stairs. These are the more materialistic acts of terror. Yet the uncomfortable part is again, realizing the dramatic difference between an unpossessed Regan, and a possessed one. The film is heating up, and Pazazu is just starting to have his fun.
The violent quick image of Pazazu during Damien’s dream is nothing short of genius. It is where everything escalates out of control. The film is a compilation of iconic horror scenes. My personal favourite is the rated R scene with the crucifix stabbing. Absolutely despicable for the filmmakers to use the possession of a little girl to maim herself like that, but that is what grabs the attention. As if the film did not have enough controversy already.
Let Jesus fuck you!
At the final hurdle, when Lankester Merrin is called in to perform the exorcism, no one really wins. There is no dramatic portrayal of good triumphing over evil, not when Damien offers himself to be possessed instead of Regan. Maybe that’s a good point for horror. Even though there are parts to complain about, I would not change the film at all. Combined with religious beliefs, the idea of such malevolent forces plaguing us is unsettling, that’s why The Exorcist can be crowned one of the best horror films in history, just not the scariest one. At least for me.
P.S. don’t watch the rest of the series, the sequels are trash.