Monday, May 9, 2016

Top 66 Things I Love About The Exorcist (that no one talks about)

There’s never a bad time to watch William Friedkn’s The Exorcist. It’s as scary, smart, and engaging as it has ever been. The film is 43 years old and is in no danger of becoming any less timeless. The music, the acting, William Peter Blatty’s script, the cinematography, the make-up – it’s classic cinema personified. Here’s a look at a handful of things I love about the film (the director’s cut, to be clear) that are rarely discussed.

How ‘bout that ice cold Warner Bros. logo?

And then there’s the opening shot, of a completely innocuous brick home. But the low angle of the shot, the music, the wind, it’s all so instantly unsettling.

The way the title jumps onto the screen (whereas Friedkin and Blatty’s respective credits slowly faded in). And the music, and the font, and the color.

The increased shutter speed of many of the Iraq shots (it’s why the actors’ movements look slightly sped up and “herky-jerky”). Adds to the mystery of the sequence.

The match-cut of the kid jumping into the trench.

Not to mention, the hurried pan shot of the kid running in the trench (again with the jacked shutter speed).

You know you’ve used good aging make-up when the actor looks the same today as he did with the make-up on 43 years ago.

The rhythm of these blacksmiths doing work.

The graceful manner in which Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) waves off these guards.

This has nothing to do with anything, but isn’t it always strange/fun to see your old stomping grounds appear in a classic movie? The amount of hazy nights/mornings I spent walking on that bridge...

Nice William Peter Blatty cameo.

I love that the first time we see Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is one of the only times he smiles in the movie.

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) practicing her lines as she walks into her scene.

Now’s a good time to bring up The Exorcist’s incredible use of zoom lenses. Cinematographer Owen Roizman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work in the film) uses zooms constantly in the movie. This is one of my favorites. It begins above Chris as she gives her speech, then spends 21 seconds slowly zooming into Father Karras, as he stands in appreciation of Chris’ work, before walking away. I have a personal fascination with zoom shots, because they are so rarely used in film today. Most DPs opt for dolly tracks or steadicams to move in on a subject, but in the ‘70s, zoom lenses were king.

So look (and listen) here. Here we have our main character taking a perfectly innocent walk home. There’s literally nothing eerie about this shot, except Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” playing over the soundtrack. That’s the power of music.

This is one of the most depressing scenes in the movie. In hindsight, we know that this is the only time we’re going to see Regan (Linda Blair) fully normal. It’s all downhill from here.

The way the white-hot light illuminates Father Karras as he walks up the steps. That’s storytelling through cinematography.

I love that this seemingly minor scene between the subway vagrant and Father Karras ends up being one of the most important scenes of the film.

The brief scene that introduces us to Reverend Thomas Bermingham. Bermingham was a reverend in real life, and his only acting credit was in The Exorcist. It’s one of the most authentic performances from a non-actor that I’ve ever seen.

Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman) trying to conceal his smile when asking Chris if she knows that Regan uses obscenities.

Chris laughing at what Regan said to the doctor.

Everything an actor needs to know about contained rage can be found in this scene. The way Miller quickly pulls his arm away from the patient – his face, his posture, the movement itself – that’s acting.

The music underscoring this brief scene between Father Karras and his uncle (Titos Vandis).

Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) taunting poor Karl (Rudolf Schündler) at the party. “And you never went bowling with Goebbels either I suppose, eh? Nazi bastard.” It’s such cruel stuff but it always cracks me up.

The sympathy on Father Dyer’s (William O’Malley) face as Regan pees on the rug. Again, O’Malley was a priest in real life and The Exorcist was his only acting credit. I love that The Exorcist contains such real performances from non-performers.

The insert shot of the light flickering as Regan’s bed jumps up and down.

I love that you really have to pay attention to get the full effect of the film. For example, the first shot here is the shot that opens the party sequence. Notice the purple light being emitted from the top left window. The bottom photo is during the bed-shaking scene, once the party is over. These two shots are the only clear evidence that that is Regan’s window, which will be very important later, during the film’s most iconic shot.

Regan’s scream being heard the moment this necklace in Karras’ dream hits the ground.

Here’s Paul Bateson. Bateson was a technician at the NYU Medical Center when The Exorcist was shot. In the film, he is essentially playing himself. In the years following The Exorcists release, Bateson would often pick up men at gay bars, have sex with them, then murder and mutilate their bodies. Bateson was caught in 1979, and his story became the basis of Friedkin’s wildly controversial 1980 film, Cruising.

The fact that the hospital scenes are still the most uncomfortable sequences in The Exorcist.

The look of total bafflement on Dr. Klein’s face the first time he witnesses one of Regan’s episodes. Dr. Klein’s reaction is so upsetting. After all, if the people who are supposed to help us are too stunned to do so, then we’re all fucked.

The composition of this shot. So cold, so detached.

Again with the flickering lights. Trouble sleeps here.

The way Chuck (Ron Faber) slowly takes off his hat before he tells Chris and Sharon (Kitty Winn) that Burke is dead.

This SnorriCam shot (when the camera is attached to the actor) of the psychiatrist falling down.

The litter under the bleachers. Was that dressed, or was it already there?

I love that Lt. William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) doesn’t tell Karras that Karras looks like an actual boxer, but rather like John Garfield who played a boxer in Body and Soul. That’s something only huge film fans do.

Kinderman’s enthusiasm when talking about movies. “I love to… talk film, discuss, to critique.”

The clinical conversations have always been some of my favorite scenes in the film. They are great lessons in how to distribute expository information economically. In the beginning of this scene, only Dr. Barringer (Peter Masterson) speaks to Chris. But when Barringer moves the conversation toward religion, the other doctors speak up, though never talking over one another. It’s obvious that all these doctors have had a conversation prior to Chris coming into the room, about who should say what, and when they should say it. In short, a lot of thought went into this conversation in the film, which is evidence of great screenwriting.

This scene, filled with great zoom lens shots.

Chris’ slightly annoyed reaction when Kinderman accepts her offer for more coffee. Everyone knows “Would you like some more coffee?” means “So are we finished here?” But Kinderman has a little left in him.

This low angle shot of Karras. Similarly to Karras walking up to the subway station in New York, notice how he is rising into frame.

Chris mistaking Father Karras for a fan.

The way Karras stops walking when Chris says the word “exorcism.” Look at Miller’s face and body language. Such command of the frame. And this was his first movie!

One of my favorite shots in the film. The camera tracks Chris as she walks into the house, then the camera waits for Karras to walk into frame. It’s such a good way to hold tension – Did Karras come home with her or not…?

I love Karras’ calm, almost amused, demeanor during his first interaction with the demon.

“Can you help an old alter boy, Father.” And BAM, there it is, a callback to Karras’ brief moment with the subway vagrant. How in the hell could Regan know of that interaction?

“You’re daughter doesn’t say she’s a demon. She says she’s the devil himself. Now if you’ve seen as many psychotics as I have, you realize that’s the same thing as saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte.”

The way Karras says “Goodnight,” so quickly when leaving Chris’ house.

Composition. Composition. Composition.

The demon’s palpable fear when it sees Karras’ holy water.

This low angle 360 shot of Karras walking down the stairs.

Chris and Karras’ exchange about the water in his scotch. It’s such a human moment.

This is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It’s Reverend Thomas Bermingham (remember him from earlier) and Bishop Michael (Wallace Rooney) discussing if they should approve of the exorcism. What I love about the scene is how casual the actors play it. It’s as if one of them is asking the other about an auto mechanic he trusts, because he’s tired of getting screwed over by the dealership. The actors are serious, but not melodramatic. We are seeing them behind closed doors, doing their job, which adds weight to what is to come.

The sound of the blacksmiths slowly coming over the soundtrack as Father Merrin gets word of the exorcism.

And here it is, one of the most iconic shots in the history of film, which, believe it or not, is given that much more weight because of a purple fish tank from earlier.

Lighting. Lighting. Lighting.

“Do you want to hear the background of the case first, Father?”

Jason Miller and his cheekbones.

This brief (and final) interaction between Chris and Father Merrin. It’s so fragile and earnest.

Father Merrin calling Father Karras “Damien” to get his attention.

There’s an interesting bit in Friedkin’s memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” about this moment. For the scene where Father Merrin attempts to cast out the demon from Regan (and the ceiling cracks above him), von Sydow could not deliver a take with the intensity Friedkin required. They attempted to shoot the scene dozens of times (breaking a fake ceiling every time), but von Sydow could not do it. Finally, Friedkin offered to fly Ingmar Bergman to the set so he could direct the scene. Von Sydow said the problem was that he could not believe Merrin’s words, because von Sydow himself does not believe in God. Friedkin then directed von Sydow to play Merrin as a man, rather than a priest with supernatural powers. Von Sydow asked for an hour of solitude, then walked on set and delivered the take that is in the film.

This is one of those rare, pure cinema moments. Every time I watch The Exorcist, a few tears form in my eyes as Regan rises from the bed and Merrin and Karras repeatedly yell “The power of Christ compels you!” These aren’t tears of fear or sadness, but rather of appreciation. Pure cinema is when every needed element of film comes together to produce an awe-inspiring moment. And this is indeed that.

These three consecutive shots are so immaculacy composed, they could’ve easily earned Roizman his Oscar nomination by themselves.

The demon’s expression after it has killed Father Merrin. Carefree yet bemused.

This jump cut.

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  1. I just skimmed through the whole thing as I don't want to be spoiled as I've never seen the film in its entirety. It's one of my Blind Spots for this year so I will be watching this in October.

    1. Oh man, I cannot WAIT to hear your thoughts on this one. Such an uncontested classic. A masterpiece.

  2. I loved this list. You mentioned things I had never even noticed! I wanna watch the film again now just to spot them out. I'm gonna give the rest of your lists a read now!

    1. Thanks! So happy you liked this post, and I'm thrilled that you want to give the others a look!

  3. Wow, I had no idea about Bateson. That's wild. I love this movie and everything you mentioned here. I like that you focused a lot of your stuff on the non possession parts, as those are really the ones no one talks about.

    The spider walk always gets me because it wasn't in the version I saw the first time, so when I finally worked up the nerve to watch the film again I was like "where the fuck did that come from!??!"

    1. Isn't that wild about Bateson?! Leave it to Friedkin to hear about the murders, contact Bateson in prison, then make a fuckin' movie about the dude's crimes.

      The spider walk gets a lot of heat because a lot of people think it is sensational for the sake of being sensational. But I dig it. Apparently the MPAA made Friedkin cut it from the original version in order to avoid an X rating.

  4. These posts always amaze me and make me appreciate the film even more. I saw this for the first time a few years ago and was lucky enough for it to be in a theater. I never picked up on that iconic shot that the light is beaming from Regan's window until just now. That is fantastic!

    1. Thanks Jess! So glad you like these posts! That fish tank light thing is great, because it's such a small detail, but one that you subconsciously notice.

  5. Always love these posts Alex. My favorite scene is the one in the kitchen with the flickering lights, with all the multiple exposure images layered in. Such an eerie moment despite the lack of action. Big fan of the blocking on those stairs too.

    Any hints at which film is up next, or do you just do these compulsively?

    1. Thanks Mark! I love that scene too. So good.

      I have an ongoing list films I'd like to cover in this series, but the majority of the time, a film pops into my head and I go, "Oh, yeah, right, how haven't I done that yet?" The only rule is that I have to really love the movie, because, man, it takes forever to write these things.

  6. Love this post so much, fantastic work! I didn't realise that the light from that iconic shot was coming from Regan's window until I read this list, and honestly, I found out a lot more about the film by reading this. I like that you didn't put as much focus on the scenes featuring the actual possession, and rather focused on the filmmaking techniques or the story.

    My favourite moment from the film might be the one where Ellen Bursyn just lets out this primal scream after Dr. Klein slaps Regan in one of her early episodes. Despite all the other terrifying scenes in the film, that's the moment that really shakes me up. Such power.

    1. Thanks Aditya! It's funny, I didn't realize until about halfway through the movie that I wasn't really focusing on the possession scenes. I guess those have been talked about to death, so I didn't have much to add haha.

      I love that scream too. Such a real moment. Still can't believe Burstyn lost the Oscar that year.

  7. Great post Alex, it's one of my favorite horror films of all time yet there's a lot of things in there I didn't notice before. Love the anecdote about Bergman, I really should read that book!

    1. Thanks Mathieu! So glad you like post. The Friedkin Connection is a great read. Highly recommend it if you're a fan of his work.

  8. Wow that info abut the guy who became a serial killer is crazy! I really need to rewatch this movie, it's such a classic and it's been years since I've seen it

    How fun is seeing von Sydow on GoT?

    1. Isn't that serial killer stuff crazy? And then Friedkin goes and makes a movie about it (a movie that almost ended his career). Crazy stuff.

      I LOVE von Sydow on GoT. He looks damn near the same age in GoT as he did in The Exorcist.

    2. McShane is showing up in episode 7 by the way :)

  9. Alex, I can't even properly read this article. This film terrifies me so badly.

    1. Haha, I guess that speaks well for the movie!

  10. Great article. I have only seen the movie once when i was younger and it scared me so much i couldn't sleep that night. The theme song still haunts me to this date. I recently picked up the blu-ray though so i am planning on watching at again some time closer to Halloween. I always enjoy horror movies more during that time.

    1. Oh me too. I almost held out on this post until Halloween but I thought, Eh what the hell. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts when you rewatch it.

  11. As always, these posts make me appreciate a film even more than I had previously. In this case, it makes me want to watch it again, something I've not done since I was a kid and it scared the hell out of me. I'll dedicate my upcoming nightmares to you, lol.

    1. Haha oh no! Well, if there was ever a film that holds up on rewatch, it is this one. Its effect has not been diminished one bit. Thanks for reading!

  12. Amazing experience with this at a horror marathon recently- People were SCREAMING throughout. It was wonderful to be with such passionate fans of cinema because after two hours of it scaring them shitless- people got up and gave it a standing ovation.

    I don't think I'll ever forget that.

    1. Wow that is so cool. One of the best things about seeing an older movie in the theater is picking out the people who clearly haven't seen it before. I just saw The Deer Hunter at Tarantino's theater on Friday, and this young woman in front of me was having such a visceral reaction to it. Clearly her first time seeing it.

  13. The Exorcist is one of those movies I saw once a while ago in its crappy edited TV form with commercial breaks so long you forget what you're even watching, so I definitely have to see it again before I can make any official comment on it.

    Two things I do want to say, though:

    First, totally get what you said about the stomping grounds. I remember watching Chaplin's original The Tramp short, and I am certain I've been down that exact road at the end (it's either a freeway entrance or a paved path). In fact, before Hollywood, Niles Canyon was where filmmaking first came to California, with Essanay Studios (walk down Niles Boulevard and there are pictures of Chaplin everywhere).

    Second thing I want to say is about zooming. I took a filmmaking class at the local community college, not a big class, but the instructors were quite experienced in the biz, and one of them, who I think mentioned being a producer for that Arrow show, actually said to never, ever use zoom because it's apparently "unnatural" to look at. I thought that was so odd, because it was all over the place in the seventies (and also Django Unchained). He also said, with an even more serious tone, to never, ever shoot at a downward angle, so naturally the first shot in my project that year was a downward angle (it actually serves a narrative purpose, too, although the film itself is painfully amateurish, despite some talented people working on it. Still, that opening shot is one I'm very proud of).

    1. Yeah, see - and I'm speaking strictly for myself here, please don't think I'm invalidating your studies - but stories like that piss me off. There are literally no creative rules in filmmaking. So much great cinema has been made by directors who acknowledged those rules and ignored them. Sure, certain styles and techniques work better than others, but I can list dozens of incredible downward angle compositions in film, and many more amazing zoom shots. So I call big time bullshit on that one.

      Anyyyyway haha. I excited for you to give The Exorcist another go. It really does hold up.

    2. I already hold my schooling in a pretty low regard. Don't worry about invalidating my studies, because you're right, it IS bullshit.

  14. Great post, thank-you. Love The Exorcist, a masterpiece of cinema, the film is top notch on every level...can never get enough of it. And still just as potent and powerful today as it was back in 1973. You made some great points.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! So happy you liked the post.