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Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

Movie

The Exorcist
(1973)

 

Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist, duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “a film about the mystery of faith”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

I can’t recall when I first saw the film; I expect it was following its 1998 UK re-release, as it had been out of circulation (maybe I saw someone’s pirate copy before that). Consequently, I was familiar with Blatty’s third instalment long before I experienced the first. My response was that it was clearly expertly made – Friedkin’s ’70s triumvirate stand significantly apart from everything else he’s done – but not, perhaps, to earth-shattering ends. I did, and do, respect its lower-key first half much more than the shocktastic FX-orcism rollercoaster that follows. It’s this latter part that emphasises the director, for all – or possibly because of – his favouring documentary technique, as slick a showman as any of the wunderkinds who followed.

The picture’s admirers include the various jabbering drool of one Mark Kermode proclaiming it the best film ever. Which isn’t quite Jeffrey Dahmer vibing on The Exorcist III, but close. As authoritative statements go, Kermode’s are less than convincing. He did, after all, seek confirmation – and received it – from Paul Greengrass that there was no conspiracy surrounding 9/11. Case closed. My recollection is that he cites his Roman Catholicism as a preface to his assessment, which at least makes sense, as it’s a picture all about fear (and what is RC-ism based on, more than any other denomination, if not fear of damnation?)

Revisiting The Exorcist, however, my takeaway is that, if it has anything to “say” – and I can quite believe it’s popular with those with faith, for much the same reason The Passion of The Christ is – it’s much closer to nihilistic-humanist in its leanings. It isn’t belief in God, but rather in the devil that confirms to Father Karras (Jason Miller) there is something more. And it isn’t God who triumphs, but man, Karras winning out in personal willpower against the demon. Is that what Blatty was up to, beneath the trappings of devout rumination? Or was it something more insidious still, based on formative training that may (likely) have extended into his showbiz career?

That The Exorcist was an enormous hit, as well as being Best Picture Oscar nominated, shouldn’t obscure that it was both highly contentious among critics and public alike. Pauline Kael wasn’t buying any of the promotional pitches, such as Bantam books’ cover quote (“Deeply religious… a parable for our times”). For her, the film was simply a mask for the true state of affairs: “Shallowness that asks to be taken seriously… is an embarrassment”. She accused it of “crushing blunt-wittedness” and considered it “an obtuse movie, without a trace of playfulness in it” (on the whole, I’d tend to agree, although Regan’s obscenities have invariably provoked laughter in my experience of viewing it in company, usually of the subsequently quotable kind; it’s quite possible Friedkin, who never made a decent comedy, was oblivious to such a potential consequence, though).

Peter Biskind saw The Exorcist as a “male nightmare of female puberty” in reference to women who despised it, and “drenched in a kind of menstrual panic”; certainly, that might account for Kael’s reference, asking “How does one exorcise the effects of a movie like this?”, while noting “Men of no taste and no imagination can have an incalculable influence”. She considered it a “religiously literal-minded” movie, something echoed by Kim Newman in Nightmare Movies: “Although The Exorcist may have been touted as blasphemous, its finale is a return to moralising waffle”. He considered “the masturbation scene is the key to The Exorcist” in terms of its sacrilegious must-see quality, but it led to “a cinematic dead end” with “hordes of interchangeable, cheap imitations”.

For all that the film’s capacity to “terrify” has diminished in the passing of decades, it’s still extraordinary – suspiciously so – that they “got away” with it; I can’t imagine equivalent content in a mainstream movie now with an adult, let alone a child (scan down to Top 200 box office hits of all time, and you’ll find nothing comparable). This was only half a decade after the Hayes Code had been demolished. One can interpret that in terms of floodgates opening, but a more likely culprit is the persuasive power of the likes of Tavistock and express social engineering. Biskind set the scene, almost as if he understood the scene had been consciously set: “By the time William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist, based on an ostensibly true story, appeared in book stores… Americans were ready for a creepy tale of demonic possession and pure evil, especially after the bloodletting of Vietnam, Kent State and Manson. It became an instant bestseller”.

Kael was entirely cynical about the reasons it got a pass: “… when a movie is as expensive as this one, the MPAA rating board doesn’t dare to give it an X… The possible complainers have become accessories”. By which, she meant the film’s Jesuit advisors and the Catholic Church: “The movie may be in the worst imaginable taste… but it’s also the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s”. I can only assume she’d seen neither recently; they’re more likely to send a prospective convert to sleep.

Friedkin has it that “If The Exorcist had previewed, it would never have come out”. As a result, “They didn’t see this thing coming. They didn’t see Star Wars coming”. However, Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye has it that John Calley was afraid to preview the picture; Wiki will tell you how it opened on thirty screens and “huge crowds… forced the studio to expand it into a wide release very quickly”, an approach rarely used for anything but exploitation films. If Warner Bros didn’t see it coming then, they also seemed to mitigate the matter very quickly. Wasson notes the standard approach of platform releases (gradual expansion over months) had changed with Billy Jack – an earlier Warner picture – receiving “four-walling” after its director sued the studio to ensure a proper release. Amounting to oversaturating the market so as to ensure quick returns, it would “change the course of Hollywood”, and as Variety noted, they would then take the same tack for Friedkin’s film, “the biggest production to be four-walled on a large scale by a major [studio]” Per Warner exec Dick Lederer (quoted by Wasson but previously quoted in Easy Riders Raging Bulls), “There are guys in New York looking at these figures saying ‘This is the kind of money you can make in the movie business?’ We’ve been having a good time out there and been very successful, but it’s gonna get real serious after this’”.

As a consequence, there isn’t much between “first blockbuster” Jaws and The Exorcist’s performance; It’s No.9 at the all-time, inflation-adjusted box office (and the only higher-placed movies released before it are Gone with the WindThe Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments). Jaws is at 7 with about $150m more. If one hadn’t been told it had landed the way it did more through trial and error, one might have been sold that it was precision-engineered for maximum impact by parties who knew exactly what they were doing.

I first encountered reference to Blatty’s history – something you won’t find on his Wiki page – in a Jay Dyer piece; however, this seems to have been mentioned publicly following the movie’s initial release, and is cited since in pieces on the director himself (if not ones broadly circulated). Blatty joined the US Air Force in 1951, and he would become chief of the policy branch of the Psychological Warfare Division; he also joined the United States Information Agency; there’s some dispute of the order for this. Wiki has it coming after, while most of those who cite the USIA role as a cover for CIA work suggest it came first (his son chipped in “Absolutely not true. My father never worked for the CIA”, although you never tell someone you worked covertly for the CIA unless the CIA wants you to tell someone).

Either way, Blatty had the tools and training at his disposal to influence the masses when he changed career – at least superficially – and became a screenwriter. Most notably on a string of Blake Edwards comedies including A Shot in the Dark. Sudden genre shifts, unless you’re Terry Nation moving from Tony Hancock to Daleks, don’t tend to be the norm in the industry, but Blatty manoeuvred it with remarkable deftness. Indeed, once he was “inspired” to write The Exorcist novel (per Kael) a “movie deal (stipulating that Blatty was to produce) was made even before publication”.

The producer part is key here, as it emphasises someone with a vested interest in how his work turned out (it was the first time he took such a role). As producer, he wouldn’t be the one responsible for inserting the subliminal – however one characterises the cuts, they’re designed to be fast enough, and slow enough, to provoke a response – imagery, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t provide Friedkin suggestions based on his own “education” (it seems he was certainly experimenting with reverse speech, which we know was already a significant part of the music industry’s output: Tavistock again).

Being a diligent sort, Kael went to the trouble of reading Blatty’s bestseller, and discovered “fresh atrocities every few hundred words. Like the pulp authors who provide flip-page sex, he provided flip-page torture, infanticide, cannibals, sexual hysteria, werewolves. The book is a manual of lurid crimes”. The retinue she catalogued here may have been less pulp puerility than crafted intent, though, in the same way her criticism of Friedkin are: highlighting the express designs of the picture. It seems absurd to countenance that Blatty initially approached Bogdanovich (also turning it down were Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn and John Boorman, who passed on making a film “about torturing a child”; come the sequel, it was his intent to make it about “goodness rather than evil”. Linda Blair wasn’t so complimentary about his divine motivation, however). Particularly since he described Blatty as “someone who could give the film a sense of reality was what the fantasy absolutely needed”.

If Kael recalled her criticism of The French Connection when watching The Exorcist, she didn’t mention it. Friedkin had been influenced by Costa-Gavras’ Z, in particular its verité documentary technique (as noted above, Friedkin started out in the same genre). She noted “The purpose of the brutality in Z was moral… Here you love it, you wait for it – that’s all there is”. She concluded of The Exorcist, though, that the explicitness (blood and horror) “must be what… Friedkin has in mind when he talks publicly about the picture’s ‘documentary quality’”. But she suggested similar in her earlier in her review: “the brackish colour and the senseless ugliness of the conception”. The idea is that The Exorcist could take place in the same world as The French Connection, although Popeye Doyle might have encountered more problems picking his feet in green vomit than William Kinderman.

I’m not enormously keen on Friedkin, although I rate both The French Connection and Sorcerer, and have to doff my hat to The Exorcist’s undeniably potent execution. I’ve seen enough of his movies and heard enough tales to take the view that he’s a bit of a sick twist (as can be seen from later efforts like Bug and Killer Joe), and anyone who has treated cast members the way he has could probably be described as sociopathic (a good qualification for a movie director). Blatty described him as “somehow unfettered by the usual Hollywood inhibitions” (he spoke his mind), while Biskind identified his furious temper “that left him literally foaming at the mouth with saliva spewing from his lips” and an ability to see right through people: “If Billy wanted to tell you what you were really like, he was going to destroy you. It was like a psychiatrist going right inside your head and unhooking the wires”, suggested cinematographer Bill Butler.

With such charming qualities, it’s perhaps little surprise that some have pondered the particular suitability of Friedkin for the project; it seems he tweeted “Like” in response to speculation he had been subjected to MKUltra programming. Obviously, that could be Friedkin messing with people, but auticulture made some interesting connections in this regard, noting the director’s autobiography referencing UCLA’s Head of Neuropsychiatric Clinic Dr Louis Jolyon West – and MKUltra specialist (even Wiki cites that one) – on why people enjoy suspense and horror movies: “You’re in a dark room with dangerous, life-threatening events happening before your eyes, but as a viewer you’re in a safe place, removed from what’s happening on screen”. Such disassociation being a fundamental of MKUltra conditioning. Chapter 13 of the autobiography is called “A Safe Darkness”, the same phrase West used for his state.

Consequently, Kael’s characterisation of Friedkin resonates in ways she surely did not intend: “He has himself said that Blatty’s book took hold of him and made him physically ill. That’s the problem with moviemakers who aren’t thinkers: they’re mentally unprotected. A book like Blatty’s makes them sick, and they think this means they should make everybody sick”. That certainly sounds like someone who has been conditioned setting out to condition others (she also calls him “a true commercial director – he confuses blatancy with power”, but probably needed to revisit that assessment post-Sorcerer).

If that makes Blatty – who also wrote a treatment for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at one point – and Friedkin seem like the perfect partners, it also serves to add grist to Dyer’s take that MKUltra is less about producing programmed killers and celebrities – although it is that too – than applying its techniques to the population as a whole. Under such consideration, one shouldn’t be at all surprised at Kael’s assessment that “From the mechanical-scare way that the movie works on an audience, there is no indication that Blatty or Friedkin has any feeling for the little girl’s helplessness or suffering, or her mother’s, or any feeling for God or terror of Satan”. She further wonders of the casting call that picked Linda Blair, and the other 499 mothers whose daughters missed the part: “Do they feel, ‘That might have been my little Susie – famous forever’?” Given the legacy of abundantly corrupted and decimated Hollywood youth proving no deterrent at all, yeah, they probably do.

One of Kael’s notes is that The Exorcist’s broken home is “the first step to Hell – gave the Devil his chance”, and it’s certainly true that the dissolution of the family unit is part of the Elite game plan. Subliminal Synchrosphere is of the view the picture is really about child abuse, and “Friedkin has dressed up/buried this ‘child abuse’ theme under the garb of Satanism” (Blatty had it that “There’s no hidden message. The book is the book, and it says what I wanted it to say”. Well, he would say that). I’d argue it can be about both child abuse and Satanism; after all, Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill illustrates they go hand in hand. Undoubtedly, it’s abundantly clear the movie wants you to fear possession, irrespective of its prevalence (it’s feeding off Christian doctrine, rather than being doctrinal); perhaps, indeed, Blatty’s technique is the very thing that exacerbates the conditions for it, in the same way MKUltra fashions the (majority of) serial killers the FBI ostensibly tracks down?

Regan clearly has (Monarch) butterflies on her bedroom wall; she also has butterflies, dinosaurs, little Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf on the kitchen walls and cabinets, along with a variety of animal figurines; Blatty has said it was Regan who desecrated the statue in the church, which makes sense given her “creativity”. Regan’s the only child we see here, although there’s an earlier, repeated reference – “Could you help an old altar boy?”– from a homeless man; of course, we now immediately assume his destitute state is a result of abuse. And perhaps it is (Father William O’Malley, who played Father Dyer in the film – the character would reappear played by Ed Flanders in The Exorcist III – would later be accused of “grooming and abusing” a seventeen-year-old boy at Jesuit High School over 1985-86). Rich kids possessed, poor ones dispossessed.

There’s also the presence of film director Burke (it’s notable that those present at the party include priests, NASA and Hollywood, a triple threat of deception and lies). Jack McGowran had a rep for playing Irish drunks (The Quiet ManDarby O’Gill and the Little People) and he plays another one here. Indeed, it appears that, in a state of suggestibility – the spirits of the glass have possessed him – he launches into a tirade against butler Karl (Rudolf Schündler), suggestive of the kind of provocation Pazuza will later show, suggesting he’s a Nazi (“Cunting Hun. Bloody, damned, butchering Nazi pig”). Subliminal notes the demon uses Burke’s voice when it repeats the phrase with “Do you know what she did…?” Burke could just be habitually lewd, of course, but we’re given no clue he’s a predator other than his presence in Regan’s room, before he “hurriedly” exits it; Kinderman’s presumably thinking that way, but if his outburst is predicated on demonic influence, his visit to the bedroom might be too.

CutshawWell, actually father, we’re pretty comfortable up there compared to the Gemini and Mercury programs where they were tight for space. It’s even got about 210 cubic feet so we can move around.
Father DyerListen, if you ever go up there, will you take me along?
CutshawWhat for? 
Father DyerFirst missionary on Mars.  

Burke has an earlier scene at the party, in which he lewdly asks astronaut Billy Cutshaw (who appears in The Ninth Configuration; he’s played by Dick Callinan here, but Scott Wilson there) “There seems to be an alien pubic hair in my drink. Never seen it before in my life. Have you?” Which sounds more suggestive towards him than any other potential proclivities. The NASA thing is curious, much as it is in Diamonds are Forever. Space and possession. We wouldn’t see the like again until The X-Files Season 1. Did Blatty have the lowdown on the NASA hoax? Is Pazuza offering confirmation (“You’re gonna die up there”), designed to add confirmation the NASA thing is real, à la Kubrick, or to allude the demon’s a liar? It’s also interesting that Nazis and the space programme are invoked within several minutes in the same interior space.

And that in terms of space, Burke calls the pubic hair “alien”. Chris tells Regan, much like HAL and his advice to take a stress pill: “It’s nerves, and that’s all. Just take your pills and you will be fine, really”. Really, they won’t stave off possession/transformation. Indeed, Dr Barringer (Peter Masterson) tells mom “… it starts with some conflict or guilt that eventually leads to the patient’s delusion that his body’s been invaded by an alien intelligence – a spirit, if you will”. Aliens, and angels and demons. Kinderman saw mom’s film Angel six times (what to make of her starring in Crash Course?) And Merrin’s to be found at Woodstock, perhaps investigating the influence of the Tavistock Institute.

Father Karras: (talking about exorcisms) Well, it just doesn’t happen anymore, Mrs Mitchell.
ChrisOh yeah, since when? 
Father KarrasWell, since we learned about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia. All the things they taught me in Harvard.

Blatty’s presentation of religious faith, or rather disillusion with the same, is more eruditely served in The Exorcist III, if ultimately to the same end. Karras struggles between science (well, psychology) and the faith he no longer holds. He turns away the needy, is powerless to help his mother, he drinks and smokes. I wondered too if he might be implied as gay (and thus nursing guilt/shame); several points in the picture, such as the way in which Dyer puts him to bed, accommodate this reading, but I assumed Pazuza would have taunted him, if so (it turns out, in the novel, it does). The movie’s lack of positivity towards men of faith – Merrin presumably expires because he hasn’t been taking his allopathically-prescribed heart pills – may be reflective of Blatty’s prevailing perspective, which can be characterised – surprise, surprise – as Luciferian.

Blatty doesn’t identify a demiurge in Dimiter (2010), and it seems he subscribes to a Fall (Dyer – that’s Jay – would be pleased at that part), but “Exploding from oneness into multiplicity, we became the physical universe, space-time, light cloaked in matter, for in no other way but in bodies could we risk, could we grow and evolve back into yourself … . Consider: all matter is finally energy. And what is energy finally? Light! … ‘You were once a bright angel.’ Do you see? We are Lucifer, the ‘Light Bearer’ ….” Such notions of gnosis are common from Blavatasky onwards in modern (New-Age) religiosity, albeit Blatty seems to be making a distinction between worship of Lucifer (Hollywood) and “becoming” him. Some would say that’s slender, likely depending on how devoutly Christian they are. Which, as we’ve established, Blatty is not.

Rather inevitably, Warner Bros is planning an Exorcist retcon (in contrast to an initially announced reboot). Because they work out so well, don’t they (Terminator Dark FateHalloween)? Like Halloween, it will ignore all but the first film, and like Halloween, David Gordon Green is attached. So is Ellen Burstyn, ninety this year, and presumably setting to work right now building up those abs and six pack, so she can go toe to toe with Pazuza. Or at least prevent being thrown rather nastily from a bed. Hopefully, the project falls apart, partly because retcons are quite my least favourite method of continuing a franchise, but partly also because Green is a hack who had a few people believing he was an unreconstituted indie guy for a while. I’m sure he’ll be slavishly mixing up – or regurgitating – the pea soup while endeavouring to redefine the entire series – which, whatever the sequels’ failings was not a charge that could be levelled – as wholly pedestrian.

First published by Now in Full Color on 28/06/22.

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