Sunday, 11 July 2010
Resolution Ten: No# 1 - The Exorcist
In the new year, I came up with a concept to annihilate movie classics I hadn't yet seen in a feature called the resolution ten. Because it was the season and all. Anyways, due to other pursued avenues, masses of movies and unfortunate things like me having to exist in the real world doing stuff, it got benched till the summer, which in a wonderful sweep of convenience is right now. So let's do this.
Rather then do it in order, which would show the kind of organisation and discipline I have no interest in seeing or doing, I'll pick each film from list on a whim, because that's how I do. First up is The Exorcist, chosen perhaps because its the most notorious of my selection and a film that any film fan doesn't really have to see to see. I think part of the reason I hadn't seen it up to this point was because of that sense of premature familiarity. All of its most iconic moments I had consumed already in some variety of documentaries, features or articles. The subject of endless discussion and analysis, backlashes and defences, it is simply impossible at my age to come into this in that idyllic tabula rasa state of mind. The head-spinning, the vomiting and the letting the power of Christ compel you just surely couldn't have the same impact on a viewer who'd in his own own mind had already seen this movie without seeing it. Could they?
Yeah and then some, because it takes about 25 minutes of watching The Exorcist to know you're watching a masterpiece. And I don't use that word lightly, like all this Kick-Ass is a masterpiece nonsense. I mean it in the sense that The Exorcist is one of the best films I've ever seen or ever will see. It's a masterpiece of its genre, yet somehow transcends it into something to stay with you forever, in equal parts haunting and sublime. I want to compliment so much that it leaves me at a loss of what to say, although I do know that from all the film's from cinema's second golden age of the 70's, none have affected me quite so profoundly as this. Aside from all that though, what the film did, which is deeply heartening for me, is show that knowing what's going to happen and how it's going to happen are two thoroughly different things. All those scenes and moments I thought I already knew still worked wonderfully because the tone of a film is not something you can prepare yourself for. It's enough to want the discovery of great old films all over again.
Perhaps more then anything, the film is a triumph of atmosphere. Moving past jump scares and jolts into a place of unrelenting intellectual and physical terror. You're not just scared by this movie, it affects you and to use a particularly crude metaphor, gets under your skin and never lets up. I would imagine that in many respects that's due to the build. Director William Friedkin wisely creates a realistic a reality as was humanly possible for all the horror to take place in, largely complimented by the performance of Ellen Burstyn as the unfortunate child's mother, who plays it admirably restrained and straight and thus grounding the film to stakes we can invest in, and the relatable nightmare of seeing a loved one being devoured by something inside of them is wonderfully communicated in the film. There's the literal case of Regan's possession of course, but also as scarring are the scenes of her intrusive medical examinations, poked and prodded and cut up in a way that thoroughly degrades her humanity, just as the demon does. To say nothing of Father Karras' mother whose ailment is old age, that great devourer of life and innocence itself, imprisoned in her home by her own frailty. In this respect, The Exorcist is about the sheer lack of control we have over are own being. Passengers in an unstable vessel we can't protect from time, disease and the malice of others.
Another aspect of the film that worked for me somewhat unexpectedly and fantastically was the level of soulfulness the film possesses. It breaks horror convention by existing not to cause people pain and take pleasure in it but rather to truly share in its despair. Characters are crafted so thoroughly, so realistically that they don't merely act as cyphers for the experience. We care about them because they are true human beings, something generally quite rare in cinema let alone horror. In this respect I'd like to pay due to Jason Miller's performance as Father Karras, and in many ways its his character that particularly allows the film to succeed in this way. Miller, in his first cinematic acting role believe it or not, so underplays his character's sense of existential despair that it becomes deeply affecting, because he is as lost as any other character in the film. That the film can spend the time making Karras such a credible character speaks to its qualities, not interested in merely scaring but instead in crafting a tale of characters who experience loss and consequence realistically.
It would be bad form to wait much longer before mentioning Linda Blair, who's performance as Regan is astounding, even with the voice assist of Mercedes McCambridge once things turned really demonic. But one only has to look in her eyes in these scenes, and for some scale the wonderul way she plays her early scenes, which could have been a little one-note in that 'look how innocent she is' kind of way, but thanks to Blair are thoroughly endearing. For all its noteriety, its interesting to see that The Exorcist is a film with three Oscar nominations for acting, all of which are thoroughly deserved. Miller, Burstyn and Blair all received fair accolades for their performances. Blair in particular gives what I would submit to be the best child performance I've ever seen in anything.
The film still hasn't lost its power to shock either, and scenes such as Regan masturbating with a crucifix or on a more cerebral level, the scene where she mimics Karras' deceased mother in a desperate plea to save herself both remain very affecting, and aside from being heart-breaking, this scene is also horrifying, which is what all horror should aim for really. The Exorcist is a masterpiece not just because it is truly haunting, which it is, but because every aspect of it excels to the point that few films can match. From its look to its tone, to the fact that it might be the ultimate human horror story. Its a film that you very much want to call perfect. A very good start to this feature, although I highly doubt that any other film in my list will manage to be as good as this.