Better Late Than Never: The Exorcist

The Exorcist

Sometimes we’re dumb and haven’t seen movies that everyone universally loves. Better Late Than Never is where we make amends by playing catch-up and writing about the experience.

The movie: The Exorcist (d. William Friedkin, 1973)

The story: A Catholic priest must overcome his crisis of faith when a young girl becomes possessed by an ancient demon.

Why I’ve never gotten around to watching it: Horror films have never really been my thing. I don’t hate them, but as a genre I’ve never really been drawn to it even though I do have some horror favorites. This seems like the kind of movie that would be ripe for viewing during sleepovers at a friend’s considering how ironclad my parents were when it came to forbidding me from watching anything higher than a PG for most of my youth, but then none of my friends were into horror either. As a result, this one remained unwatched for decades.

Now that I’ve seen it, what did I think? The sign of a truly great movie is one that can not only stand the test of time, but one that can retain nearly all its impact despite decades of imitation and parody. Pretty much everyone knows or is aware of The Exorcist and some of its most harrowing and iconic images and moments. Countless movies have attempted to tread similar ground and yet none of them manage to deliver the impact that Friedkin’s film achieves more than 40 years after the fact. It didn’t matter that certain parts had been referenced, quoted or parodied into oblivion, actually seeing them within the context that director William Friedkin crafts is nothing short of arresting. I wouldn’t say that I was genuinely frightened while watching this, but I was riveted and shocked and thoroughly engaged from beginning to end.

Part of that engagement came from the fact that there’s a lot of this movie that I wasn’t aware of. The pop cultural awareness of The Exorcist seems to begin and end entirely with the demonic possession element, with little (if any) attention given to the story of Father Karras and his crisis of faith. Not that I would expect scenes of a priest struggling with spiritual doubt to become as iconic as the sight of a little girl’s head spinning around, of course. Still, it was nice to have a large portion of the film that was 100 percent fresh.

I suppose that freshness is part of why Karras’ story was so impactful. The scares and the shocks are well done, but it’s Karras’ existential struggle that is the true meat of the film. This is due in large part to the wonderful, nuanced performance that Friedkin gets from Jason Miller as Karras. It’s a performance that could have been drowned by overplaying the sullen, weary nature of the character’s existential angst, but instead Miller brings Karras’ humanity front and center. It’s a wonderful performance that anchors the film, even (especially) when the bile hits the fan.

What’s perhaps most interesting, to me at least, is the spiritual battle that drives the film. I grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, and that meant being in the middle of the Satanic Panic, a phenomenon within the Charismatic Christian Church at the time that propagated the belief that Satanic Cults were infiltrating all points of the popular culture and brainwashing your kids into rejecting Jesus and hailing Satan as their lord. My parents now admit that such hysteria was ridiculous and find it silly that they did things like forbid me from watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Splinter meditated and that was bad, mmmmkay?) or studying a martial art (the Eastern philosophy from which those originated meant I would practice it like a religion), but that’s how it was. So to even suggest that I be allowed to watch something like The Exorcist would have been madness.*

Now, I definitely think that my parents made the right call. This is definitely a film that is too much for most kids to handle. I don’t, however, think the movie is one that Christians should shun outright. I understand if you don’t want to watch a film where a demon-possessed girl does horrifying things with a crucifix, but to dismiss it simply because of its demonic content feels wrong. As someone who still professes his Christian faith, I actually found this to be a fascinating and even validating film in some ways.

The Christian faith doesn’t usually get taken very seriously in television or film. Characters who profess that belief are often presented as caricatures or punchlines, or without a real understanding of what a lot of Christians are actually like. Certainly there’s not much weight given to the ways Christians believe in the power of God over darkness and evil. I’m not going so far as to say that Christians are persecuted or what have you, it’s simply an observation. So when I watch a film like The Exorcist, a film that fully acknowledges the existence of evil and the power that the name of Christ has over it, that fascinates me in a way. You so rarely see evil challenged in this specific way in a piece of entertainment. I don’t think that people should be watching this in their youth-group sessions, necessarily, but I found it to be a film that took seriously the concept of spiritual warfare in a way I’d never quite experienced. It didn’t shy from the fact that people in the Christian faith struggle with doubt and belief, nor did it shy away from the idea that the word of God is capable of combating evil.

This was a resonant film, and truth be told I never quite expected it to be. In some ways I’m glad that I didn’t see it earlier, as I doubt, back when I was younger, I would have found it engaging for the reasons I do now. Still, it’s a tremendously crafted film that is every bit the classic it is touted as.

*It should be noted, I’m not resentful toward my parents for the choices or restrictions they made when raising me. I don’t think them thinking I shouldn’t watch a lot of different movies stunted me in anyway. It’s just simply the way it was.