by Pauline Kael
Shallowness that asks to be taken seriously—shallowness like William Peter Blatty‘s—is an embarrassment. When you hear him on TV talking about communicating with his dead mother, your heart doesn’t bleed for him, your stomach turns for him. Some people have impenetrable defense systems. You can’t kid around with a man who says that he wrote The Exorcist because “as I went along writing my funny books and screenplays, I felt I wasn’t making a contribution to the welfare of the world.” He says that he looks upon it “quite frankly as an apostolic work.” That the work has made him a millionaire doesn’t make him a liar. Blatty is apostle to the National Enquirer, and to Cosmopolitan, in which the novel was condensed—so those Cosmopolitan Girls could make conversation without looking tired around the eyes. The crushing blunt-wittedness of the movie version, which he produced, tends to bear out Blatty’s apostolic claims. Directed by William Friedkin, who won the Academy Award as Best Director of 1971 for The French Connection, the film is a faithful, adaptation of the Blatty book—and that’s not a compliment. Blatty did the intractable screenplay, so Friedkin may have been faithful in spite of himself. The picture isn’t a gothic horror comedy, like Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby; it has been made as a heavy, expensive family picture. It’s faithful not to the way many people read the book—as a fast turn-on entertainment—but to Blatty’s claims about what the book was intended to be. It’s an obtuse movie, without a trace of playfulness in it. A viewer can become glumly anesthetized by the brackish color and the senseless ugliness of the conception.
Following on the success of Rosemary ‘s Baby (Rosemary gave birth to a cloven-hoofed infant, her actor-husband having mated her with Satan in exchange for a Broadway hit), Blatty, a veteran screenwriter, developed an outline for a novel about the demonic possession of a child, and Marc Jaffe, of Bantam Books, subsidized the effort. Harper & Row picked up the hardcover rights, and the movie deal (stipulating that Blatty was to produce) was made even before publication. Blatty, who once hoaxed people by impersonating a Saudi Arabian prince, and whose screen credits include a hand in Darling Lili, The Great Bank Robbery, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, Promise Her Anything, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, etc., is not an austere writer. The key personnel in The Exorcist are (a) Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a beautiful movie-star mother, divorced, agnostic; (b) her twelve-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), who becomes a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, blaspheming, church-desecrating murderess; (c) Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a tormented Jesuit psychiatrist who is losing his faith; (d) a jokey, warmhearted Jewish police lieutenant (Lee J. Cobb); (3) a distinguished, ascetic priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), whose archeological work has somehow—it’s not made clear how, in either the book or the movie—released the demon that takes over Regan.
The book features a murder victim—a British movie director—whose “head was turned completely around, facing backward”; little Regan rotating her head; little Regan masturbating with a crucifix and grabbing her mother and forcing her mother’s face against her bloody vagina; vomit propelled from Regan’s mouth into people’s faces. And what Blatty didn’t man-age to have his characters do he had them talk about, so there were fresh atrocities every few hundred words. Like the pulp authors who provide flip-page sex, he provided flip-page torture, infanticide, cannibalism, sexual hysteria, werewolves. The book is a manual of lurid crimes, written in an easy-to-read tough-guy style yet with a grating heightening word here and there, supposedly to tone it up. (“When the Mass was over, he polished the chalice and carefully placed it in his bag. He rushed for the seven-ten train back to Washington, carrying pain in a black valise.”) The book turns up on high-school reading lists now, and the Bantam edition carries such quotes as “Deeply religious … a parable for our times” and “The Exorcist should be read twice; the first time for the passion and horrifying intensity of the story, with a second reading to savor the subtleties of language and phrasing over-looked in the mounting excitement of the first perusal.”
For the movie, Blatty had to dispense with a subplot about the butler’s daughter, and, of course, he couldn’t retain all the gory anecdotes, but the basic story is told, and the movie—religiously literal-minded—shows you a heaping amount of blood and horror. This explicitness must be what William Friedkin has in mind when he talks publicly about the picture’s “documentary quality.” The movie also has the most ferocious language yet heard in a picture that is rated R, and is thus open to children (to those whose parents are insane enough to take them, or are merely uninformed). The Exorcist was budgeted at four million dollars, but, what with swiveling heads, and levitations, and vomit being spewed on target, the cost kept rising, and the picture came in somewhere around ten million. If The Exorcist had cost under a million, or had been made abroad, it would almost certainly be an X film, but when a movie is as expensive as this one, the M.P.A.A. rating board doesn’t dare to give it an X. Will people complain? I doubt it; the possible complainers have become accessories. Two Jesuits appear in the cast and served, with a third, as “technical advisers,” along with a batch of doctors. Besides, the Catholic Church is hardly likely to be upset by the language or actions in a film that says that the Catholic Church is the true faith, feared by the Devil, and that its rituals can exorcise demons. The two heroes of the film are von Sydow and Jason Miller, both playing Jesuits; Georgetown University cooperated with the production, which was shot partly in Georgetown; and one of the Jesuit actor-advisers enriched us, even before the film was finished, with information about its high moral character (“It shows that obscenity is ugly . . . vicious ugly, like the Vietnamese news”). The movie may be in the worst imaginable taste—that is, an utterly unfeeling movie about miracles—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.
Whatever Blatty’s claims, if The Exorcist scares people that’s probably all it has to do, in box-office terms, and basically that’s all the whole unpleasant movie is designed to do. “People only go to movies for three reasons, to laugh, cry, or be frightened,” Friedkin has said. And “There are only three reasons to make a movie, to make people laugh, to make them cry, or to frighten them.” The scaring here is a matter of special effects and sound and editing—the roaring-animal noises from the attic coming at the right instant, Regan’s bed shaking just enough, the objects in her room flying about without looking silly, and so on. If the audience ever started giggling at the sounds and tricks, the picture might collapse, because it’s entirely mechanical and impersonal. Von Sydow brings some elegance to his role, and the makeup that ages him is one of the most convincing aging jobs I’ve ever seen, but once you perceive that his Father Merrin is saintly and infirm, that’s it. As Father Karras, the most active character, Jason Miller does the gloomy, tormented John Garfield bit—and it’s a wheeze by now. All the performances are; there’s nothing the actors can do with the juiceless stock roles.
The book’s success may relate to its utter shallowness; the reader can go at a fast clip, following the plot and not paying any attention to the characters. But in the movie version the psychology, which is tiresomely moralistic (as in a fifties TV drama), is dead center. There we are with the freethinking mother feeling guilty about her divorce and its effects on Regan; we may not know why the demon picked on Regan, but we’re tipped that that broken home—the first step to Hell—gave the Devil his chance. And there we are with the creaking goodness of the Jewish cop, and the jocular bonhomie of the Jesuits. It’s all so tired that we can keep going only on fresh atrocities. Apart from the demonic special effects, which are done in staccato quick cuts, the picture is in a slugging, coercive style. It piles up points, like a demonstration. Friedkin, beloved of studio heads for such statements as “I’m not a thinker. … If it’s a film by somebody instead of for somebody, I smell art,” is not a director given to depth or mystery. Nor is he a man with a light touch—a failing that appears to have been exacerbated by the influence of El Topo. 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. Probably Friedkin really believes he is communicating an important idea to us. And the only way he knows how to do it is by surface punch; he’s a true commercial director—he confuses blatancy with power.
As a movie, The Exorcist is too ugly a phenomenon to take lightly. Its gothic seriousness belongs to the class of those old Hearst Sunday-supplement stories about archeologists defiling tombs and the curses that befall them, and it soaks into people’s lives. A critic can’t fight it, because it functions below the conscious level. How does one exorcise the effects of a movie like this? There is no way. The movie industry is such that men of no taste and no imagination can have an incalculable influence. Blatty and Friedkin can’t muster up any feeling, even when Father Karras sacrifices himself—a modern Christ who dies to save mankind. We in the audience don’t feel bad when the saintly Father Merrin dies; we don’t even feel a pang of sympathy when the words “Help Me” appear on Regan’s body. 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 and suffering, or her mother’s, any feeling for God or terror of Satan. Surely it is the religious people who should be most offended by this movie. Others can laugh it off as garbage, but are American Catholics willing to see their faith turned into a horror show? Are they willing to accept anything just as long as their Church comes out in a good light? Aren’t those who accept this picture getting their heads screwed on backward?
Somewhere in the publicity for the film there was an item about William Friedkin’s having looked at five hundred little girls before he chose his Regan, and, indeed, Linda Blair is a sparkling, snub-nosed, happy-looking little girl, who matches up perfectly with Ellen Burstyn. I wonder about those four hundred and ninety-nine mothers of the rejected little girls—or about the hundred and ninety-nine, if that’s a more reasonable figure. They must have read the novel; they must have known what they were having their beautiful little daughters tested for. When they see The Exorcist and watch Linda Blair urinating on the fancy carpet and screaming and jabbing at herself with the crucifix, are they envious? Do they feel, “That might have been my little Susie—famous forever”?
The New Yorker, January 7, 1974
Also in Pauline Kael, Reeling, 1976