Credit: Warner Bros.
by Molly Adams Featured Film Kicking the Canon

The Exorcist | William Friedkin

August 27, 2021

With the release of last year’s conversational documentary Leap of Faith: In Conversation with William Friedkin, one thing has become abundantly clear — people are never going to stop talking about The Exorcist. Looking at the phenomenon through modern eyes, it might be easy to put the film’s success down to the sheer triumph of its marketing. Protestors outside cinemas, ambulances called for the fainting masses, and the inevitable interest generated by the film’s censorship — it was a perfect storm of terror and excitement. Add to this cocktail the countless documentaries and analyses in the decades since its release, and it’s safe to say that The Exorcist is among the most discussed genre films of all time. Be that as it may, all this contextual hoopla still sells the film short. Certainly contemporaneous audiences might have flocked to the cinemas to participate in the zeitgeist, but what is it about this film that keeps audiences coming back? It’s fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary, and its age is showing: in 2020, pea soup and a revolving head just don’t cut it anymore when put up against modern horror effects. The elements of The Exorcist that were perhaps most impressive and terrifying to its audience back then have faded from fashion thanks to time’s forward march, imitators who turned such effects into cliches, and the inevitable progress of technology. What have survived the test of time are what Friedkin refers to in Leap of Faith as the film’s “grace notes”: those small embellishments sprinkled here and there which, despite not being crucial for plot or character, often become a movie’s most idiosyncratic and identifying features.

The Exorcist is a movie filled to the brim with these grace notes: two nuns walk down a street, their billowing habits creating a momentarily beautiful tableau; Friedkin’s subtle allusions to the art of Rembrandt and Magritte; a medallion one character finds in the Iraqi desert appears in the dream of another, subtly unifying them. The film’s narrative coils itself around these subtle mirrors and images, and culminates in a single crucial idea: despite The Exorcist‘s protagonist arguably being Father Karras, it actually has no central character, and instead, all the characters exist in orbit around the evil presence of Pazuzu, who permeates all of their lives. He stalks Father Merrin in his travels in Iraq, taunts Father Karras with knowledge of his mother’s final words to her son, and terrorizes the Macneils, but it isn’t that evil that ultimately unites them. Rather, The Exorcist is a story that orients itself more around goodness, specifically the united struggle to protect an innocent. None of the priests involved have any connection to Regan or her mother, no reason to go out of their way to protect her, and yet they do. In the legion of demonic films that have come since The Exorcist, there’s often a much larger focus on the evil at work, of both the demon and the humans caught up in an exorcism’s larger narrative beats. While the better films in the vein, such as The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), delve into similar issues of faith and regard their characters with plenty of empathy, weaker installments in the sub-genre indulge in mere spectacle, and just like the pea soup of 1973, they don’t age anywhere near as well.

Indeed, the unique elegance of The Exorcist historically earned it credit where other genre works were more quickly and harshly denigrated, and its strengths lie exactly where Friedkin suggests: not just in grace notes, though, but also in the grace it carries as a film. While the movie was viciously rejected by Christian groups upon its release, Friedkin treats Christian faith with the utmost respect — in the end, the Christian worldview even prevails. That we still talk about The Exorcist is not because of its bombast or its specific scares (although it remains a chilling movie), but because of what exists buried just beneath the surface. The film’s interrogation of evil doesn’t lead to a nihilistic or brutal end, but rather to the conclusion that human nature has some inherent grace to it. The frail Father Merrin is not the deus ex machina he seems set up to be, but he tries. Father Karras is no saint, having his own lapses of faith and indulgences, but he perseveres and ultimately embraces the muddiness of his own faith, both sacrificing himself in a noble act of God and simultaneously committing one of the most egregious sins. He tries. And at the end of the film, we see the last of Friedkin’s little grace notes: Regan returns Karras’ St. Joseph medallion to Father Dyer. This young girl, whom everything has been sacrificed for, acts on instinct, not even offering explanation for the gift. It’s simply something she is driven to do, an unthinking expression of her nature. It’s unclear whether Regan understands the significance of her act of kindness, or even the full extent of her own experience (she does not remember her possession or exorcism), but in this small moment, we see precisely what Karras and Merrin die to save. In this moment, such littered grace notes of The Exorcist at last come together, winding and twining and culminating in nothing less than a bittersweet song of faith.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.