“The mystery of faith” is a phrase heard every week by millions of Catholics at Mass, just before the sacrament of Holy Communion. The words describe something indescribable, really. There are some teachings of the Church that are above reason, hence the word “mystery.”
On the new 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition of his 1973 masterpiece, “The Exorcist,” director William Friedkin describes his film as being about the mystery of faith. If at first that seems preposterous, consider the preconditions for exorcism, as set about in The Roman Ritual: “Signs of possession may be the following: ability to speak with some facility in a strange tongue or to understand it when spoken by another; the faculty of divulging future and hidden events; display of powers which are beyond the subject's age and natural condition; and various other indications which, when taken together as a whole, build up the evidence.” The evidence of possession, like the Holy Trinity itself, seems unknowable to us as humans, beyond reason.
Friedkin’s description is apt, and offers a new perspective on the film, beyond it being the "scariest movie of all time." It's still a chilling experience, forty years after it scared audiences half to death in theaters. At the time of its general release, it wasn’t uncommon to hear stories of people fainting in the aisles or leaving the theater in a daze. The movie, as Roger Ebert described it, is “an assault” from nearly start to finish. Its horror and “mystery” are made more real by the placing of its phantasmagorical story in an otherwise ordinary home, and amidst the very real world of the Catholic Church. “The Exorcist” may provide a glimpse into the world beyond, but it works so well because it takes its theology, and those who practice it, seriously.
The priests of “The Exorcist” are men, and troubled ones at that, just like you and me. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is wracked with guilt over his mother’s death, and confesses to a colleague at one point that he may even be losing his faith. He’s a psychiatrist himself, and counsel to the other priests at Georgetown University, and when he’s approached by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) to perform an exorcism on her demon-haunted daughter, he’s skeptical. Modern science has shown, after all, that the majority of so-called possessions are really cases of mental disorders.
But nothing prepares him for the sights and sounds of young Regan (Linda Blair), who is clearly not in control of her own faculties when she is lifted off the bed, or displaying feats of strength beyond her 12-year-old self. Karras, after being convinced that the case does meet the conditions set forth in the Ritual, agrees to the exorcism whereupon Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) is brought in.
The special effects that Friedkin and his crew devised to create the illusion of supernatural forces are effective. Never once are we less than convinced that furniture is being dragged across the floor, or objects are flying about the room on their own, or a bed violently shaking. And yet all of the effects were accomplished without the use of computers. A terrific special feature on the Blu-ray edition of “The Exorcist” includes behind-the-scenes footage of prop masters using levers to shake the bed, or behind the camera with a wind machine, launching objects into the air. Friedkin couldn’t create an illusion in some cases, though, and for a freezing cold room, the set was chilled to less than zero degrees so that actors’ breath could be seen on camera.
The voice of the demon was performed by actress Mercedes McCambridge, who reportedly spent three weeks in front of a microphone while tied to a chair, chain smoking and downing whiskey and raw eggs to achieve the guttural, otherworldly sound heard in the film. Friedkin also uses sound brilliantly throughout the film, alternating between extreme quiet and loud passages to create a perpetually unsettled mood.
Ultimately, the demon is driven from Regan, but not without some sacrifice and loss. But would it be odd to say “The Exorcist” is a spiritually enriching film? For Friedkin, and for the film’s screenwriter and author of the source novel, William Peter Blatty, I don’t think so. Blatty, reminiscing about the film’s production on the Blu-ray disc, remarks that he had recently lost his mother while writing “The Exorcist,” and that for him, a story that confirmed life beyond this world--even if it was evil--was comforting to him. (I’m reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s half-joking assertion that “The Shining” is a happy story because any story about ghosts proves there’s life after death!) Friedkin, for his part, concludes his director’s commentary on the disc by saying, “If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place, that’s what you will take out of ‘The Exorcist.’ But if you believe that there is a force of good in the world that is forever combating evil, sometimes winning victories over evil, but never an ultimate victory... if you believe as I do that that’s the case, then you will take that away from ‘The Exorcist.’”
That’s something I think many people can relate to, and the reason why “The Exorcist” holds up as a great film today. Regardless of whether you were raised Catholic or not, deep down, we all have a fear of the bony fingers of evil penetrating our lives. In “The Exorcist,” the evil happens in the most ordinary of places. In a city, in a home, in a bedroom, in the body of a little girl. The unknowable and fantastical is not exclusive to the movies, but is all around us. The mystery can describe the bad as well as the good, and the faith that good will triumph.
“THE EXORCIST” ON BLU-RAY
The 40th Anniversary Edition of “The Exorcist” on Blu-ray includes all special features of the previous release, including both the original theatrical cut and the Director’s Cut, released in 2000, that includes about 12 minutes of footage that William Peter Blatty persuaded William Friedkin to reinstate to the film. Most of the footage works well, but the famous “spider walk” sequence is still unconvincing, and the denoument, feauting an extended conversation between Father Dyer and Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), is unnecessary (incidentally, the same scene works great in the book, but not on film).
There are three audio commentaries, the best two of which are included on the Original Version disc. Friedkin’s commentary on that disc is far superior to the perfunctory commentary track he recorded in 2000 for the revised cut of the film. Second, for those that have always wanted to hear a comparison between Linda Blair’s original vocal tracks and Mercedes McCambridge’s lines, you’re in luck--it’s amazing to hear McCambridge wheeze through several takes of demonic dialogue.
There are several short and long documentaries on Discs 1 and 2 of the set, and on Disc 3, there are two featurettes. In one, William Peter Blatty, revisiting the house he lived in while writing the novel, reminisces on the process of writing the book, and reveals some of his own spiritual feelings about the material. The second short documentary features an extended 1974 interview with Father Eugene Gallagher, one of Blatty’s former professors at Georgetown Univeristy, who offers his thoughts on the movie and his own opinions about exorcisms.
The set also includes a handsome, hardbound excerpt of director William Friedkin’s new memoir, “The Friedkin Connection.”
I found new context for the film on this, my third time viewing it, and first in over a decade. It’s a difficult movie to watch, but a fascinating one to study, and this set provides ample rewards for the curious viewer.