It’s an iconic scene. Max von Sydow’s character standing in the shaft of light blazing through the window of a house he’s about to enter. It’s a picture that uses what is normally considered good symbolism (the light of a house, which equates to warmth and safety) and tweaks it by setting it on a foggy night and having the light be unnaturally bright, which gives the whole scene a sense of unease.
“”The Exorcist” is a horror movie made for non-horror fans. It plays on people’s religious baggage, and even affects more secular audiences if only because religion is so entrenched in culture that you can understand the fright of possession and the supposed power of faith. It also plays on the notion that little girls don’t do certain things (talk like chain smokers, curse like drunks, m********e with a crucifix, etc.). The movie moves at a slow pace, but when the possession starts, the terror never seems to let up, and that’s why people ended up running from the theatre.
When those familiar ideas and terrifying scenes are combined with subliminal images and a soundtrack that uses buzzing bees to make people uncomfortable, it makes for a very powerful movie. It’s slick and mainstream, and dealt with things that were decidedly unslick (vomiting and the masturbating) and were far from mainstream (a little girl being possessed and doing horrible things to herself and others while a young priest has his own crisis of faith is not exactly a movie idea that is an easy sell to the masses). When it came out, horror and big studios had yet to truly part ways, and the result was pretty brilliant. Even today the film resonates with viewers so much so that some refuse to ever see it. It’s their loss because, like all excellent horror films, it is much more than simply a scarefest. The film is a testament to the power of faith and an examination of the role of ancient beliefs and rituals in a modern world that does not know how to handle them (hence the extended medical testing scene in the re-release a few years ago).
The film, like “”The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” has many viewers convinced they have seen more than what is actually on screen. Some people have told me it’s a non-stop gore party and have insisted that they were scared from frame one. The reality of the film is much different. The special effects are tame by today’s standards (and weren’t anything that special when it was first released, either), and the film, as previously mentioned, has a very slow build up. It’s so slow in fact, that if you are used to standard horror films it becomes “”boring,” but anticipation for what you know is coming is what keeps viewers glued to the screen. What makes it shocking, however, isn’t the special effects. It is what is done with the characters. By the time the film gets into full swing, viewers have gotten a chance to know these people, and that makes their fates that much worse because now we care. These characters aren’t expendable, and they seem like people we know. (Even though Regan’s mother is an actress in the film, her situation was one a lot of women could relate to. Women were a regular part of the workforce at this time, and far too many husbands and fathers weren’t in the picture on a full-time basis, if at all. That left quite a few single women both working and raising a kid, and trying to do right by both. It’s no small irony that the woman in this case can only find real help from the very institution that condemns that sort of lifestyle. Again, the conservative nature of horror films is brought out in full force to stunning effect.)
“”The Exorcist” is always going to be a classic. No sequel or prequel can ruin that (as much as they’ve tried). It’s burned into America’s psyche, and has spawned toys, album covers and parodies. Even those who haven’t watched it know about those scenes of Regan floating over the bed, her head turning, or her vomiting. (And if they haven’t seen the film, they still shudder when those images pop up on television in shows about horror films.) The movie showed that Hollywood, when its head was on right, could turn out a serious horror movie that would impress even die-hard horror fans. It doesn’t happen often (and some would argue this is an unique case), but when it’s done right, it’s amazing. The proof is that decades later it is still talked about, sometimes in hushed tones, but always with respect. Even those who don’t particularly like the movie still appreciate its power, and there are few genre films you can say that about.