Saturday, 2 July 2011

Mrs. MacNeil, the problem with your daughter is not her bed; it's her brain.

No 206 - The Exorcist
Director - William Friedkin

The first time I watched The Exorcist was at university and I was drunk... We watched it in a gang on VHS at about midnight. I didn't find it that scary, but I put it down to being drunk and rowdy students. After all... this is:

But... is it? I think the film splits nicely down the middle. The defining moment being where they catch young Regan masturbating with a bloody crucifix. Before that moment the film is genuinely unsettling, following a young girl who is traumatised by a series of strange events. I like that there are these moments (such as the prologue which I'd forgotten about) which begin to paint the paranormal elements, and which create the unsettling tone. One of the greatest shots is when Father Merrin is facing a statue of the Devil in Iraq as dogs fight in the distance. The growling gets louder and more distorted until I'm sure there was a voice hidden in it. Its a great moment, creepy without relying on hokey effects and brilliantly countered by the fact that the next hour is bogged down in doctors, suburbia and the little practical intricacies of life.

The exact reason as to WHY Regan gets possessed is never explained, but it is hinted at with the discovery of a Ouija Board and Regan's conversations with Captain Howdy (I love a fictional Captain) - The possession is much scarier when it is in the realms of believability. Perhaps it is because I have an epileptic sister, but for me the real horrific moments are the vacant looks on Regan's face or the moments of fitting. There is something quite chilling about horribly thing happening to a young child and the persistent series of tests and Xrays which reveal nothing. For me the most shocking moments of the film are the dark scowling looks Linda Blair pulls off, that seem so alien and other-worldly.

So, this seems like a good time to talk about Linda Blair's performance. It is spigging incredible, easily the best thing in the film. Blair was only around 11 or 12 when she made this and not only is she covering some heavy and disturbing themes (makes you rethink all the Hit Girl controversy when you see some of the stuff Regan says and does - whilst her possessed voice is a voice over, she is still acting and saying those things) but she is also putting across a very nuanced and layered performance. Not only is she flitting between identities but also she is trapped in her own body and silently screaming desperately for help and escape. The transformation is an incredible performance and during the slower quieter moments 'possessed Regan' is truly freaky - thanks to the wicked grins and mannerisms Blair puts across.

It is just a shame that the film also descends into silly ridiculous. Whilst the neck spinning and pea soup are famous moments, they're hardly scary. They're just a bit silly. That's the problem, I actually found myself laughing at the Devil more often than not, either because of the ridiculousness of the situation, or because there are some genuinely funny lines. Kudos especially to the term "Your cunting daughter" - I don't think that word gets used as an adjective often enough.

So, in summary, when we are dealing with an unknown force assaulting a small girl we have a film which explores the paranormal without accepting it. The film's horror stems from the world's rationalism and watching it crumble against the events that happen. However, once it all breaks into the scratched faced insanity it becomes silly and loses a lot of the fear. I also find the ending (which I won't spoil) as a bit of an anticlimax. Though I like that, once again, the paranormal isn't resolved and the demon (or devil) is never really truly vanquished.

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