A lot of film has spooled onto the take-up reel since then, and it strains the imagination to try to reconstruct the fuss that accompanied its release in 1973. The grave and learned editors of America gave it an entire issue (2/2/74): the editor’s column, a full-page editorial and four articles to tell their readers perhaps more than they ever wanted to know about any movie. At the time it was hot copy, and all the weeklies in the country were engaging in their own form of journalistic overkill.
The America contributors addressed concerns that reveal a lot about the church, the movies and ourselves a quarter of a century ago, a different world, a different millennium. The issue, now grown yellow in my files, is a time capsule newly brought to light. In his column Of Many Things, the editor in chief, the late Donald R. Campion, S.J., sheepishly explains the issue as a comment on the event that has surrounded the filmrecord attendances, the fainting and vomiting habits of theatre viewers, instant theological and psychiatric analyses on radio and TV, worried parents and shock-happy teenagers. As usual, he was dead-on. The public reaction was far more important than the film itself.
A few weeks later, however, the film would earn eight Academy Award nominations and go on to win two: William Peter Blatty for script adaptation and Robert Knudson and Chris Newman for sound. The other nominations were heavy: best picture, director (William Friedkin), actress (Ellen Burstyn), supporting actress and actor (Linda Blair and Jason Miller) and editing (Bill Malley). The industry, it seems, valued The Exorcist for more than its considerable box-office success. When the America contributors were mulling over their SCM Electric Portables (word processors had not yet arrived), no one could have guessed that. All six of us addressed the phenomenon rather than the film, including America’s longtime film reviewer and the soon-to-become even longer-time reviewer. (Between us, Moira Walsh and I represent about 55 years of film reviewing, and I still occasionally step out of my professorial role to send in a column, even though it kills me now to get senior-citizen tickets with all the other white-haired Bostonians.)
The anonymous editorial presents a sketch of the history and theology of exorcism and explains its increasingly rare occurrence as psychiatric medicine became more widely accepted. Unexpressed, but surely floating beneath the surface, is the fear that the film might lead some believers into a premature demand for exorcism rather than appropriate medical care. (I doubt that many editorialists today would fear such gullibility on the part of their readers.) It concludes with an expression of concern that the emphasis on Satan’s power might lead people to doubt whether the redemptive power of a loving God will eventually overcome evil in the worlda homiletic point well made at the time. After a decade of assassinations and obscene warfare in Asia, of mindless protest and even more mindless reaction, and after several years of Watergate, then still working its way through revelation after revelation. Evil may indeed have seemed temporarily triumphant. By 1974 even Mary Poppins had become a cynic.
In leadoff spot, the least learned and most grave (pompous?) of the Jesuit editors, the then young Father Blake, brands the film a failure, twice no less. Fresh from film school and seminary theology, I fault the film for several implausible lapses in its plot and for an inconsistency in deciding who the Christ figure is. As a card-carrying liberal, I dismiss the charge that the film is obscene, but I object to the use of Catholic imagery and sacramentals as props for a cheesy horror film. Reading the piece today, I reach the embarrassing conclusion that the younger, feistier critic considered horror films in general and this one in particular as simply beneath him. I dismiss it as having the shock value of a frog on a high-school dissecting table.
The also then-young Rev. Robert Lauder, a professor of philosophy in the seminary of the Brooklyn and Rockville Centre dioceses, treats his subject with more respect. He discusses The Exorcist as both a work of art and as a religious statement. He admires the film for its powerful images, but then expresses doubt that it will heighten anyone’s sense of the transcendental. He writes: While there is much to shock us in The Exorcist,’ the vision is neither sufficiently sensitive to alter greatly or affect our thought or affectivity.
Robert Boyle, S.J., then a professor of English at Marquette University, is particularly incensed at Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker. He feels (and feels strongly) that the formidable doyenne of reviewers presumes too much in telling Catholics that they should be outraged by the film. Like Father Lauder, he finds it a praiseworthy example of the filmmaker’s arts and, more, a positive picture of contemporary Catholic life. To confound Ms. Kael’s judgment, he writes: I was positively pleased at the way my Jesuit brothers were depicted.
The late Moira Walsh, then the regular movie reviewer for America, cited her 25-plus years of experience, dating back to the good or bad old days of the Legion of Decency to argue that the controversy about The Exorcist had gotten out of hand. She was far more concerned that rationalist critics, like the late Vincent Canby, who was then reviewer for The New York Times, seemed overly harsh because the film rested on a premise of a supernatural order, in which Satan can be a force of evil and that the power of God may be called up to rescue those who have fallen into Satan’s clutches. Although highly skeptical about popular notions of exorcism herself, she concludes that the questions remain unsettled among theologians and implies that it certainly cannot be solved by a popular film.
This collection is noteworthy for the topics it omits and its moderation of tone in those it does treat. No one expresses outrage at the outrageously obscene sexual language and gestures of Regan McNeill (Linda Blair), the 12-year-old victim. Isn’t that odd for a Catholic periodical giving so much space to the moral and religious implications of an immensely popular film? Depending on my own recollection may be unfair to the other contributors, but it does give rise to reasonable speculation. As Miss Walsh pointed out, she remembered the early days of her career, when Catholic critics sought to shove films into a Procrustean bed of proper Catholic behavior.’ In 1975, those of us in the new, enlightened generation of film writers deliberately stayed away from any remarks that bore the scent of the old-time moralism. Father Boyle even offers Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci’s oft-banned sex melodrama of 1972, as an example of a great film against which The Exorcist must be measured. I still think we were correct in our self-conscious broadmindedness. By 1974 locker room language and gesture had ceased to be issues for almost all film reviewers, but the unanimity of five priests and one distinguished Catholic laywoman in accepting or ignoring the use of sex-charged language and gesture shows just how much the Catholic world had changed since the reign of the Legion of Decency in the 1950’s.
In today’s climate, when we are much more aware of child abuse, one or more of us might have expressed some reservations about putting Linda Blair in such a tough role. Even at the time Warner Bros. tried to anticipate this criticism by pointing out that the lines were spoken by the adult actor Mercedes McCambridge. But can anyone believe that a 12-year-old would have had no notion of the strong sexual implications of her actions? Even today, I’m afraid, just raising this question would open a reviewer to the charge of wanting to curtail the freedom of artistic expression. While the critics have changed, the critics of the critics have not.
Father Boyle and I both raise the issue of the image of the church and the appropriation of its rituals for entertainment or shock purposes. In this age of political correctness and hypersensitivity, this remains a dicey issue. Obviously, the contributors, clerics and laywoman alike, took their Catholic faith very seriously, and while they were somewhat uncomfortable with the treatment of Catholic ritual and theology, they also found nothing blasphemous or censurable. The screenwriter, William Blatty, graduated from an excellent Jesuit high school in Brooklyn, and the director, William Friedkin, who had Jesuit advisers on the set, clearly tried to be sensitive to these issues. Regardless of his personal feelings about Catholicism, Mr. Friedkin surely realized that deliberately offending people is not a good strategy for selling tickets.
As a result the film presents the Jesuits at Georgetown as eminently sensible men, as it does the cardinal and the Jesuit provincial. They have not been dragged in from the dark ages. Father Karras (Jason Miller), a psychiatrist who runs the university’s counseling center, tells Chris McNeill (Ellen Burstyn), the desperate mother, that exorcism is a relic of the 16th century and that she should follow the advice of her doctors. Good. Catholics are not superstitious fools. Yet when Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) starts the ritual formulas amid frightening special effects, one can’t help getting a sense of hysterical mumbo-jumbo. One ill disposed to a world of religious belief may find it hard to repress a giggle. Today the contributors would still be alert to the issue, and still uncomfortable with it, but I doubt any of us would be willing to treat it directly and risk being lumped together with those strident media vigilantes who shoot first and aim second.
Both the editorial and Father Lauder’s piece arise from an assumption that film can communicate religious truths and inspire the human spirit. Of course that’s true, but in the last quarter century film critics with religious interests may have become a bit more modest in their claims and hopes. Films that fit that description are exceptions rather than the rule, and as critics we are just beginning to develop the methodologies of a coherent religion-based film analysis. The question is whether The Exorcist fits into that category. In 1974 Father Lauder, the editorialist and I thought that it did. I criticized it as a muddled soteriological statement. Was that fair? Did I (we) expect too much of a film that was designed as a commercial product by the entertainment industry and created by people who in all probability never heard of the word soteriological?
To be fair in turn to my colleagues and to my earlier self, we were in 1974 still very close to the first fervor of what I’ve called the Fellini-Bergman period. These European directors of the 1950’s and 1960’s dealt with overtly religious themes, and finding religious symbols in their films became a staple of faith-tinted viewing, teaching and discussion. It was a favorite parlor game for us hip ecclesiastics. In the enthusiasm of the day, we might have been overly eager to search for Christian content and judge a film like The Exorcist by its ability to provide it.
This is clearly a new day. The Georgetown University featured in The Exorcist actually had open spaces. During its building frenzy of the subsequent decades, the campus became as architecturally stuffed as a World War II veteran trying to squeeze into his old uniform. He won the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 but has been losing it ever since. Father Karras’s pastoral Georgetown had ceased to exist by the time I landed on the faculty there in 1985. William O’Malley, S.J., appeared in the film as the youthful, fresh-from-the-seminary Father Dyer, Father Karras’s energetic companion. Father O’Malley is still youthfully trima source of great envy to us bulgersbut in the most recent of his many articles for America (9/16) he notes his experience in 10 high schools, four colleges and about 50 workshops for catechists on three continents. The Boston College library catalogue includes the titles of 12 of his books. For all of us, the years have passed by, like the stately Potomac sliding under the Key Bridge.
After this passage of time, The Exorcist provokes an entirely different set of reactions. Clearly the atmosphere of controversy has all but disappeared. For good or ill, the public threshold of outrage has been substantially raised. It’s difficult to imagine any film generating such controversy today, and without the worry of having to make a sensible Catholic contribution to the debate, I could allow the movie to be itself: no weighing of moral standards, no searching for theological meanings, no paranoia about the treatment of Catholics and our rituals. It’s a movie. Not a movie that suits everyone’s taste, but a movie nonetheless. Take it on its own terms.
Just what are the terms? Over the last 20 years, academic critics have turned their attention away from directors (auteur criticism, as the academic journals insist on calling this emphasis) and toward the analysis of genres. Different films fit into different categories, and each category provides a contract with its audience. They offer expectations, based on previous examples of the genre, that may or may not be met sufficiently to satisfy the demands of their audiences and critics.
This time I could see The Exorcist not as a religious statement but as an extremely effective supernatural horror movie. In this genre, the adversary possesses powers and technology from an alternative universe that overwhelm conventional human resources. The devil from hell struggles for possession of Regan with his human adversary, Father Merrin, whose roots in the earth are shown in the opening scenes by his digging in the earth as a paleontologist. The human tools of his trade are exceedingly primitive: picks, shovels, brushes, pans and the like. The severity of the struggle between this primitive human and the superior force from another universe appears through the brilliant special effects: bouncing beds, frigid air, the sepulchral voice and of course the infamous pea soup eruptions. Clearly, this is no battle between equals.
If I were to review this film again, I would surely rely on my understanding of genre criticism. I would point out the journey motif within the genre, from the known, natural world of the working single mother and her only daughter to the supernatural world of possession and back through a restoration of the natural world with the completion of Chris’s filmshe is an actress temporarily located in Washington to shoot a film on the Georgetown campusand the cure of her daughter Regan. I would point approvingly to the gradual progression of that journey as Chris tries to understand and remedy her situation through a series of ever more desperate steps appropriate to her human natural world: a mother’s love, physical medicine, psychiatry and the terrifying diagnostic tests performed by zombie-like doctors and monstrous machines not far removed from the world of science fiction. Finally, she realizes that her adversary is otherworldly and that she needs otherworldly means to fight it. In this light, the rite of exorcism becomes a lineal descendant of the stake driven through the heart of Dracula. Remember Dracula too feared holy water, crucifixes and fragments of the consecrated host. In both films, these quasi-religious devices are merely the machinery that restores, if not power, at least safety to the human-natural order.
Film scholars today spend quite a bit of energy in reconstructing authentic texts. Films appear in many different versions to suit the needs of theater, airline, cable and video distribution and to satisfy the whims of producers, directors and temperamental stars. Reedited versions often represent a different quality and alter the meaning of the narrative as a whole. For this reason, the 12 minutes never seen before surely demand some critical attention. The wording of the advertising would lead one to believe that the added minutes contain material so salacious that it could not be shown in 1973, but in this more permissive environment can be. You have to see the new version to get the really juicy stuff. Baloney! It’s been 27 years since I sat through the film in its entirety. Even so, the added footage (might I suggest sweepings from the cutting-room floor?) stood out so clearly from the original text that I recognized three of the four added sequences immediately. They don’t fit, and not only do they fail to improve the text, they actually detract from the original. Roger Ebert, writing in The Chicago Sun-Times (9/22), provides a list of the additions and speculates that the changes were added to spur ticket sales for the re-release and to enhance sales and rentals of the new video version. Today’s film scholars also devote energy to the commercial side of the industry. As one might imagine, many have become a trifle cynical as they review the strategies of the bottom-line boys and girls in the home office. Film is art, but it is also a very risky business proposition.
The restored footage neither titillates nor does it reposition the theological argument. In one scene, Regan scampers down a staircase like an upside-down crab. A great act for a contortionist, but a hokey scene that adds nothing to the understanding of the child’s preternatural state of possession. In another, Karras and Merrin take the equivalent of a coffee break from the exorcism and sit on the stairs reflecting that this diabolic possession was permitted by God to test the faith of believers. Really? The whole point of horror is that it is not logical and there are no rational explanations. In this respect, makers of horror films share the concerns of theologians who try to understand the problem of evil. If there is an all-powerful and all-loving creator, why are there hurricanes and floods, genocide and slavery, Brussels sprouts and Regis Philbin? We can’t explain them, and that’s what’s so terrifying.
Finally, the ending is muddled by a meaningless coda. In the 1973 version, after Regan is released from her possession, she seems fully recovered. She and her mother prepare to leave Washington, and Father Dyer appears to say goodbye. Chris assures him that Regan remembers nothing of her ordeal and gives Dyer a medal of St. Joseph that once belonged to Father Merrin. Dyer accepts it as a sign of solidarity with Karras and Merrin. The solidarity is reinforced when Regan sees Dyer’s collar, and moved with gratitude to the two priests who saved her at the cost of their own lives, she kisses him. Mother and child drive off into a future freed from Satan’s power. A nice, neat ending.
With the added footage, Dyer gives the medal back to Chris, for reasons that are not terribly clear. After Regan’s kiss and the car’s departure, Lieut. Kinderman (Lee. J. Cobb), the detective who has been investigating these mysterious deaths, appears, and after an inane conversation about going to a movie together, Kinderman offers to take Dyer to lunch. They walk off in the wintery afternoon toward The Tombs, a traditional Georgetown watering hole. With this appendage, a minor character clutters the end of the film with a meaningless exchange, when previously the story ended as it should have, with Chris and Regan, the two major surviving protagonists.
Finally, seeing The Exorcist again for the first time in 27 years provides a splendid opportunity for the reviewer to review himself. I’ve grown more catholic in my taste. After writing about popular American film for the past two and a half decades, I can appreciate the values inherent in many different genres, and I no longer feel that horror films are beneath my dignity, nor beneath the dignity of America readers. The Exorcist (the 1973 version) would have received a far more generous treatment today than it would have, had I reviewed it when it first came out. Bottom line: it’s really a very good, intelligent horror movie. It has a fine script and brilliant production values. In recent years, when computer-generated graphics make the most grotesque images commonplace, I can doubly appreciate the old special effects that make the scenes doubly horrifying, simply because they are composed of real stuff in front of the camera rather than pixels on a monitor.
Film reviewing in the religious press has come a long way since 1974. I like to think it has moved forward. Sadly, The Exorcist has moved backward.