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Friday, October 5, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 5: THE EXORCIST (1973)

The infamous scene that somehow did not thwart my interest in all things vagina-related.

What more can really be said about THE EXORCIST? It's arguably the most influential horror movie ever made and its plot particulars are so well-known that they have become a part of our common international culture and the subject of countless parodies and punchlines, so it's pretty much impossible to approach it cold and have no knowledge whatsoever of elements. Let's just call a spade a spade and state the case for exactly what it is: THE EXORCIST is the carved-in-stone epitome of the '70's-era "devil junk" movie, and it stands head and shoulders above what came before and after it simply by virtue of it being a beautifully crafted film from top to bottom. (For those who may have only just emerged from living deep within a cavern somewhere for the past four decades, THE EXORCIST is about the utter shitstorm that occurs when an innocent young girl is possessed by a malevolent demon for no apparent reason. You may now proceed to the rest of this post.)

I was eight years old when the film was unleashed upon an unsuspecting moviegoing public and it would be roughly another six years before I saw it for myself (in the heavily-edited version that premiered on CBS during my ninth grade year), but its impact was positively thermo-nuclear. All of my friends' parents saw it during that original run and its content was the subject of much discussion at the posh cocktail parties of Westport, Connecticut, content whose ultra-lurid descriptions were overheard and disbelievingly pondered by us eavesdropping kids who were supposed to be upstairs and asleep. A little girl who curses like a longshoreman, pisses on the living room rug during a party thrown by her actress mother and projectile vomits thick pea soup, only to top that by savagely jamming a cross up her underage pussy and screaming "LET JESUS FUCK YOU!!!" could not possibly be something they'd show in a movie theater, could it? Oh, it certainly could, and what made all of that possession-fueled mayhem even stronger was that it was starkly presented in a manner that was rooted in a reality that we all recognized and existed in on a daily basis. Sure, the possessed kid spoke with a demonic vocal timbre and could spin her head around like a fucking barn owl, but at no time was it accented with cheesy "spooky" music or overt depictions of Hell, plus the Catholic priest who first encounters the possessed girl is himself having a very deep crisis of faith, which only serves to underscore the unimaginable horror of what's transpiring. In short, THE EXORCIST took both itself and its audience seriously and presented its horrors with an up-front respect for the grownup viewer's intelligence (and possible theological cynicism or outright non-belief).

However, one of the biggest hurdles THE EXORCIST must overcome, both nearly forty years ago and today, is that its efficacy has a lot to do with the viewer's stance on Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. I've found that the film's staunchest supporters were raised within the catholic church, and several of my Italian friends just fucking love it to death. In the case of my brother in all but blood, Greaseball Johnny, (who hails from Commack, Long Island), his doting and horror-loving Eye-talian grandmother took him to see it when it came out. Johnny was all of five years old at the time, so you would be right to assume that it left a rather sizable impression on him. (It remains his #1 favorite horror movie to this day, which is really saying something because  the guy's interest in the cinema of horror at times eclipses my own.) As for me, the edited version that I first sat through entertained me, but shorn of its harsh language and R-rated visceral shocks and with me firmly having had no belief or interest in organized religion since my earliest days of being forced to unwillingly endure the weekly spiritual drudgery/imprisonment that was Sunday school, it left me wondering what the big deal was. Without something resembling a belief in the Bible and the capital G "God," fully getting behind THE EXORCIST's faith-dependent narrative can be tough going (plus, to say nothing of having first encountered it in a neutered edition), and even after I finally saw it uncut I still did not grasp why the film was so universally beloved as a horror masterpiece.

The turnaround of my opinion finally came with the film's sold-out 20th anniversary screening at Radio City Music Hall, which I and several of my movie-loving friends attended. The audience was positively electric with energy as director William Friedkin and star Ellen Burstyn spoke about the movie and its impact, and that energy only built when the lights dimmed and the film splashed across the screen. When wee and wholesomely apple-cheeked Linda Blair's innocent mucking around with a Ouija board in the attic led to an encounter with the disembodied spirit identified as "Captain Howdy," nearly everyone seated in that theater let out a knowing and ominous "Ooooooooooooooooh," and from then on every shocking bit of supernaturally-spurred mishegoss elicited gasps and screams, finally culminating in an exhausted sense of catharsis as the demon is cast out, the girl is freed with no memory of what she's been through, and the attending priests both meet dire fates. Thus it was that I finally realized THE EXORCIST is a film best seen with a full house of those who truly grok its considerable power. It's an "audience movie" to the nth degree, so if you have the opportunity to see it projected in a theater, don't miss it.

It should also be mentioned that the international success of THE EXORCIST wrought the expected avalanche of cheapjack cash-ins and ripoffs, the majority of which were boring, scare-void wastes of time that are best avoided like a roomful of unshielded plutonium. Nonetheless, the demand for more and more devil junk did not abate for much of the next decade, with only one film really stepping up to the plate to scratch that itch, but more on that tomorrow...

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