The Exorcist - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lisa, Hunter and I watched THE EXORCIST. I know this movie made a big splash when it came out in 1973, but I was shocked how bad the storytelling was. It feels like a great example of why you should not make a "faithful" adaptation of a novel. (And especially, not let the novelist adapt his own book.) The movie starts off with a fifteen-minute sequence in Northern Iraq where Max von Sydow (44, but already playing ancient) is digging stuff up... that never really relates to anything that happens later. At least not if you haven't read the novel. In fact it's 25 minutes in (I was looking at the counter) before there is anything to exorcize. It's not until almost the third act before anyone calls in "the exorcist," whom we haven't seen since minute 15 or so. And there's a whole subplot involving a police lieutenant that never goes anywhere at all, but winds up in the epilog.

Now there are good horror movies that start quietly and slowly. But they are building something. THE SHINING is creepy from the get-go. Nothing terrible happens for a while, but Jack Nicholson and the kid are both quietly creepy long before serious badness starts.

THE EXORCIST just has scene after scene that doesn't relate to the story. Why do we need to see Ellen Burstyn acting in a movie? Her problem is her kid is going to be possessed. Does it mean anything that she's in a movie about campus unrest?

I had a strong urge to stop watching up till about minute 60. And yet the movie made a ton of money. $440,000,000 worldwide, in fact. And won Best Adapted Screenplay, and has been called "the scariest movie of all time," which it certainly is not, so go figure. (It is less scary than your average episode of HOUSE.)

My takeaway from this is that it's all very well and good to write a "good" movie. But if the climax of your movie is stunning enough, the audience may forgive the bad parts. What got people in the door was Linda Blair turning into a cursing demonic nightmare with Mercedes McCambridge's voice. Linda Blair's head going around and around. Language so foul and blasphemous that the movie was original rated X. This was alarming stuff no one had ever seen before, and that's what people came to see. By the time they walked out of the theater, they'd forgotten all about the dull irrelevant bits because of the smasho ending.

People go see movies to be entertained, and part of that is the pure spectacle of seeing something they've never seen before. If you're the first person to put really convincing CGI dinosaurs in your movie, you don't actually have to make a great movie. Everyone will go see your movie whether it's great or not.

What is so urgent about your movie that people will rush out and see it?

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11 Comments:

Quite the iconoclast!

Yet, I have to agree. I think you're bang on -- both with your movie review and your take on being the first to deliver a unique spectacle.

By OpenID scriptwrecked, at 4:03 AM  

I watched it for the first time in university, with friends, who had chosen to rent it based on its "Scariest movie of all time" reputation. One of our gang fell asleep in the middle. Another complained regularly, "What the hell is scary about this?".

I tried explaining, "Well, in the 1970s, that was pretty shocking language." and "Imagine you're the mother of that child..." and so on, putting forth my theories on why it might've been perceived as scary in its time.

"Perhaps the decadence of the '70s lent people to doubt the sanctity of their souls, so we had a rash of demon movies, like The Omen and such." I've been long been a believer that examining the horror movies of a period speaks volumes about the zeitgeist (I can't believe I used that word, a sure sign of a pretentious writer, but alas...) by showing what people were afraid of. I was considering writing a paper on the subject.

eg. in the 1950s: Mad Science (which brought us the Atomic Bomb), and paranoia (the Red Menace and McCarthyism), Teenagers (the Baby Boom, and the establishment feeling its loss of control).

Anyhow, what I realized was that it was like explaining a joke. If it wasn't scary on its own, explaining it wasn't going to make it so.

A big factor though, is that we've been exposed to so much scarier stuff in real life it's hard to get worked up over some vomit.

By Blogger Gmajor, at 10:20 AM  

Rosemary's Baby was a MUCH scarier devil movie, and it still holds up. I can't understand why The Exorcist inspired such terror, unless maybe it's because people used to be more religious?

By Blogger Lisa, at 1:31 PM  

As well as your theory about a good ending making a good movie, I think you can also have a great first half of a movie and then you don't need a great ending.

The Fugitive is a perfect example. The movie is so great until the climax, when two out of shape, middle aged surgeons battle it out.

Gladiator also ends on a rather lame note of the Emperor battling the dying Gladiator, who can't really do much.

Sure, they both end with more personal mano-a-mano struggles, but as action climaxes, they pale in comparison to the rest of the movie.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:45 PM  

I disagree.

I think the disturbing magic of The Exorcist is that it takes time to swell into itself, in spite of the obvious audience expectations. It's definitely not a popcorn film, and even if it was then, it's not now.

Part of what makes the whole experience of watching The Exorcist so interesting (and it is certainly not the scariest movie ever made) is that you're just waiting and waiting for the headspinning and pea soup vomiting and the filmmakers are aware of that and take you somewhere else first. The opening scene, for example, I turn on the movie expecting a standard 'pop' into the movie, but instead we're in... Iraq... huh? The film made me pay attention, and even when I didn't necessarily understand what the intention of the scene was, having not read the book, the imagery and soundtrack (or lack thereof) left an impact. But the whole thing isn't a subversion of expectations, there are frightening visuals peppered throughout the whole first half -- the scary Eileen Dietz face, the pre-Mercedes McCambridge demon takeover manifestations.

There was a lot of story going on, something viewers might be more accustomed to seeing in a TV mini-series rather than a feature film, the least interesting of which is Regan's demonic possession. The wheels of each story are constantly spinning, though, and when they brush up or collide with one another, there are sparks. I didn't find the climax that interesting or exciting. The film sort of stumbles when von Sydow bites it and I think audiences at that point have seen what they came to see half way through the exorcism itself. Once the impact wears off, you sort of give a side-eye to the dubious physics of the whole endeavor. The case which the film is based off took weeks of [alleged] exorcism-ing and abridging that whole process can get a bit yawn-y.

The third film (originally developed by Blatty as a standalone film) is actually better than you'd expect, and has a more focussed 'film standard' narrative.

By Blogger Chris, at 5:45 PM  

My son watched with us, with no expectations whatever -- he'd never heard of the movie until we cranked it up. I kept having to promise him that something would happen soon.

By Blogger Lisa, at 6:48 PM  

"If you're the first person to put really convincing CGI dinosaurs in your movie, you don't actually have to make a great movie."

Great example. The first time I saw Jurassic Park, I was amazed. Then my friends and I saw it a second time in the theater (after all, it was amazing), and as we left the second showing, my friend said, "That wasn't a very good movie, was it?" "Yeah, it really wasn't."

It was surprising to us how quickly we got over the awesomeness of realistic dinosaurs and registered that it was a typically shaky Crichton story.

By Blogger Alex, at 11:01 AM  

I've got to tell you, it scared the bejesus out of me.

I remember all the fuss and hooha when it was released. The head spinning, the crucifix masturbating, the urban legends of audiences members dying from fright in the theater. Warner Bros. ran photos of lines around the block.

It was movie as event and a prelude to the wide release pattern we all know and love to today.

I had to sneak in because I was underage. I still remember the opening slide before the first frame unspooled. White type on a black background that read THE MANAGEMENT OF THIS THEATER TAKES NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL WELL BEING OF ANY OF THE PATRONS FOLLOWING THE SCREENING OF "THE EXORCIST".

No wonder it played so well.

By Blogger boscutti, at 10:09 PM  

"Everyone will go see your movie whether it's great or not."

Cough cough *Avatar* cough cough

By Blogger Ralphie, at 5:17 PM  

Are you kidding? Scenes that have nothing to do with one another? Sure its ambiguous, but that's the concept, if they came out and told you what happened it would lose the affect. Just like in The Serious Man, the opening sequence has no direct connection to anything that happens later, but it still suggests that the family is cursed, as in the Exorcist, it suggests that the demon is from Iraq, and through sound is carried over by the wind.

The author was an atheist and the director was a roman catholic, so the themes aren't exactly adapted directly.

The use of silence in the film is great, I was far more scared during nearly every other part of the film than the actual exorcism itself, which keeps you engaged, especially in the resolution.

As for the film she's directing, its simply supposed to parallel her own life of unrest that is to come for her and her daughter.

By OpenID mxcryno, at 4:40 PM  

Are you kidding? Scenes that have nothing to do with one another? Sure its ambiguous, but that's the concept, if they came out and told you what happened it would lose the affect. Just like in The Serious Man, the opening sequence has no direct connection to anything that happens later, but it still suggests that the family is cursed, as in the Exorcist, it suggests that the demon is from Iraq, and through sound is carried over by the wind.

The author was an atheist and the director was a roman catholic, so the themes aren't exactly adapted directly.

The use of silence in the film is great, I was far more scared during nearly every other part of the film than the actual exorcism itself, which keeps you engaged, especially in the resolution.

As for the film she's directing, its simply supposed to parallel her own life of unrest that is to come for her and her daughter.

By Blogger Darnell Anderson, at 4:43 PM  

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