BY ADAM FOX
1973’s The Exorcist is the furthest thing from underrated when it comes to the scary-flick canon. Every new release that’s even slightly in contention for “best horror film of the year” is inevitably compared to William Friedkin’s masterful tale of demonic dread. Trailers like to flash ballsy quotes in an effort to earn your hard-earned cash like, “Scarier than The Exorcist!” (this is always bullshit) and “The best horror movie since The Exorcist” (this is usually bullshit).
I don’t mean to come across as some disgruntled and jaded codger when it comes to the genre. After all, horror film (and my fascination with all things macabre) have stood as the cover photos in my catalog of interests for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I even think that The Exorcist is such an untouchable feat in filmmaking that no director from our generation should bother to recapture its magic.
The main problem lies in the fact that movie studios have taken a liking to financing projects that skip through the boring stuff (character development and solid individual acting performances) and jump straight to the good stuff (computer-generated ghosts, jump scares, excessive gore). The issue is that my idea of what constitutes as “good” and “boring” are viewed inversely by Hollywood, and as a result, I’m left feeling incredibly underwhelmed when I trek to a theater to catch the latest spooky offering.
…And I don’t really know what the hell the reason for this phenomenon is, either. Do studios think that horror movies are attended exclusively by teens who lack the attention span to make it through a healthy dose of backstory prior to seat-jumping? Is it strictly a budgetary thing? Has the genre evolved so dramatically throughout the years to the point where a horror film can’t just be a great stand-alone movie anymore?
The reason The Exorcist is so brilliant has actually very little to do with little Regan’s entanglement with the demon Pazuzu and more to do with how the movie unfolds. The message conveyed throughout that the presence of disharmony (or evil) brings out the worst in humankind is far from subtle, but far more clever than a film like The Babadook’s metaphorical head-beating.
And even the uninitiated know that no ghost, demon or monster has anything over a human being and their capacity to inflict pain on one another. It doesn’t even take stomaching the latest ISIS video leaked on the Internet to realize that humans are responsible for a metric ton of horrifying, fucked up things. This is where a handful of horror films really hit a home run and where so many others fail; when the novelty of seeing a terrifying monster in the bathroom mirror wears off, you’re left looking at your own reflection staring back at you.
The Exorcist also straddles that fine line between reality and fantasy so expertly that it evokes the most terrifying two words imaginable after watching a horror film – “It’s possible.” Perhaps it was years spent in the American Southwest that made me particularly vulnerable to Catholic mumbo-jumbo, but there’s a reason why the topic of exorcism is such a meat-and-potatoes staple for horror films. After all, The Exorcist was based on the 1949 real-life exorcism of Roland Doe which has long since been the Roman Catholic Church’s Rule 1…
Exorcisms are grounded enough in reality that, combined with Catholicism’s constant fixation on sadness, despair and good old-fashioned title fights of good versus evil, they create for some plausibly terrifying results on a big screen.
The Exorcist also succeeds at being a solid movie against the backdrop of a ghost story, without being “just” a ghost story. The moral dilemmas of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) are vast as he struggles with pledging fealty to the Catholic Church and his guilt in committing his elderly mother to a mental institution. We easily recall the memorable scenes like the head-spinning, the pea soup and the spider-walk, but the story was ever only really about an embattled Jesuit priest in over his head who commits one final, selfless act to save a little girl. It’s nothing especially heady, but it certainly rises above the ranks of its colleagues whose characters show up to shuttered houses to, you know, find out why doors are closing and the furniture is moving.
I feel like I’ve created an unintentional ranking system whenever I watch a horror movie that scales from “one” to “Exorcist,” with most modern horror releases failing to reach even a five. I’d like to think of this less as elitism and more as being so affected by the film the first time I watched it that I now have impossibly high hopes for the genre, knowing full well what it’s capable of. The Exorcist is far from perfect and even starts to show its age a little these days, but it will forever remain king of the genre until someone successfully unseats it from a four decades-long reign. You come at Linda Blair, you best not miss.
NOTE: Creator of this blog Sam Adams does not endorse Adam Fox’s assertion that The Exorcist is the greatest horror film of all time. Mr. Adams does, however, endorse Mr. Fox.