Just over a week ago, full of excitement and trepidation, I hopped on a couple of trains to end up in Leicester Square in London. I wasn’t there for a premiere of the latest blockbuster but rather to experience on the big screen what so many people would call “the scariest horror film of all time” – needless to say, my expectations were high. I was joined by my friend Matt and together we merged with the ever-increasing throng of people outside the Prince Charles Cinema, eager to enter and take their seats, much like the hordes of people who queued up to see the film way back in 1973. It’s hard not to have premeditated thoughts on a film, especially one so widely acclaimed and talked about, but I really wanted to enjoy it and I wanted to be scared, if possible terrified. In the end I found it interesting, but my enjoyment was not much above average and neither was I scared. In fact, during the film, the only sounds I heard from the audience was the occasional ripple of laughter. Not one scream or even a sharp intake of breath.
The Exorcist is about the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil (Lind Blair), a 12 year-old girl living with her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) in Georgetown, Washington D.C. The film also follows Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest experiencing a crisis of faith, who is later called upon to assist Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) in performing the exorcism itself. The film is a slow builder, seeking to create tension and unsettle the audience, before delivering a few shocks and a climatic ending. A lot of scenes in the film, while nevertheless important, seemed to be overly long and I feel that they could have cut it in places. I enjoy a film that builds slowly, but by doing so, you walk a fine line between engaging and boring, and sometimes The Exorcist did seem to be the latter.
That is not to say the film is without its merits. Cinematography is done very well, as evidenced superbly by the iconic shot of Father Merrin silhouetted outside the house. Fantastic camera angles are also used throughout and The Exorcist can seem strangely beautiful from time to time. Sound design elevates the film and assists the creation of an unsettling atmosphere, and there are many good examples of this right from the start. The title sequence appears to the sound of tortured violins, searing your eardrums, then followed by chanting – it’s a great intro that puts you a little on edge. When Father Merrin confronts a statue of Pazuzu in Northern Iraq, there is an escalation of growling and snarling noises mixed with high-pitched screeching that overpowers your senses. The Exorcist uses sound to great effect, regularly making it blare out suddenly, invading the quiet stillness the majority of the film.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that The Exorcist has genuinely frightening moments; the creepiest moments for me are when the face of Pazuzu flashes briefly on the screen, appearing out of the darkness (an addition for the Director’s Cut). That image stayed with me for a while and generally got under my skin…except when it appeared much smaller in an oven hood. That was just silly. Other than that, the scenes with a possessed Regan were more intriguing than scary and I was impressed with the special effects. They still look great today, even the pea soup. Talking of effects, some hardcore fans malign the Director’s Cut, but it does have the infamous spider-walk scene which is excellent and comes out of nowhere to liven up the proceedings. Another scene which I absolutely have to mention is one involving a cross. I was genuinely shocked by this scene and I’m amazed that it was in the original cut. It’s above and beyond all the other events in the film and I’m not sure how they got away with it. One final note to those who would say that you need to have the right circumstances to watch the film; I watched it again by myself in the dark and I came to the same conclusions.
I came out of the cinema with this opinion; The Exorcist was alright, and simply that. I really wanted to emerge from the cinema agreeing with the views of some of my critic heroes, but I couldn’t. I appreciate the film as a milestone in cinema but I remembered the giggles in the showing and that got me thinking – Can a horror film retains its scare-factor in an increasingly desensitized world? Will a horror film only have the greatest impact at the time of its release? Can it only be fairly reviewed and analysed in the context of its time? Can horror be timeless?
I think you have to look at this question with two points in mind; the cinematic quality and the horror itself. Many of the great horror films of the past have exhibited large strides forward in technicality, be that sound, effects, cinematography, writing, or direction. As such, they can be viewed as incredibly important works and commended for pushing cinema further. Judged on content, some films are just not scary by today’s standards and will therefore never achieve the same effect they had upon viewers at that time, when that was the first of a certain horror they had seen. Others manage to tap into fears that exist in each generation making their scares effective and relevant, unsettling the viewer and making them hard to watch. Usually these films pose questions and offer commentary on the things that terrify us, perhaps making them all the more horrifying. Still there are others that are designed to scare through gross, visceral depictions of gore and torture, and even more that just make you jump.
I believe the horrors that retain their potency are the ones that address our deepest fears connected to our existence and the human condition. Cheap scares and shocks that terrify one generation will be the corny jokes of the next generation, and eventually disappear, even if there are people who still bang on about them being the scariest. Horror films that say something about us as humans will live on, and in this way, a horror film can age well and maybe become timeless. For me, The Exorcist is a decent film and an invaluable piece of movie history, but it is better viewed as a study of faith centred around the reluctant Father Karras, than as a truly scary horror film.
Lastly, an interesting video showing the reactions of audiences in 1973: