09 May 2012


For this week's entry in The Film Experience's Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has assigned 1973's The Exorcist, one of the most visual and therefore visceral of all American horror movies, albeit one that I have gone on record as not finding particularly effective as horror (also, our good host acknowledges that he chose this film in order to force himself to finally watch it, which I kind of love - I have definitely arranged reviews and even complete retrospectives just because I wanted to plug one or two gaps in my filmgoing education).

It is, to a spectacular degree, a horror film about faith, and particularly about the conflict between a modern scienced-driven world of normality and reason and the realm of faith, religion, God, Satan, the soul. And there are many scenes and individual shots that play into this, of which the one that has always impressed me the most is the cringe-inducing examination scene, where poor little Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is being poked and prodded in the most squirmy, painful-looking ways in the hopes of finding an explanation for her strange affliction. The subtext, of course, is that all of this modern medical suffering she undergoes is completely pointless: no doctor can diagnose what Regan suffers from.

In the entire movie, this is the only scene that honestly works me up in the way that a horror film ought to - traumatic medical scenes, particularly those involving long needles, have a better than average chance at getting me where I live - so I knew pretty much straight away that it's where I'd start looking; I was surprised and pleased to find a shot that nailed so perfectly what might be my favorite single subtextual thread of the whole movie. For context: Regan is presently strapped to an examination table, and she is being plugged into all sorts of machines, and then we see a big ol' needle full of an injection, which is then pulled out of the shot to show Regan's terrified mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) looking on.

The real heart of The Exorcist, for me, has never been the operatic A-plot of a priest with doubts rebuilding his faith to fight evil, but the small, domestic B-plot of a single mother's personal hell of knowing that there's something wrong with her daughter, she doesn't know what it is, and there's nothing she can do to help. It is horror that comes from confusion and impotence, and Burstyn's depiction of a scared, helpless mother is one of the great onscreen performances of a parent in that decade, certainly, if not in all the annals of American cinema. And it's all there, right in that shot: the big scary needle giving us a jolt of oh my God what the fuck? and then that transition to Chris, thinking absolute the same thing, only it's worse for her than it can ever be for us. As much a s the performance sells this shot, it's also immediately obvious, I presume, how the visuals of the window frame and the reflection on the glass obscuring the people watching add to our awareness that Chris is trapped in two ways: strangled and boxed in by her own anxiety, and in a very literal, physical way, she's being forcibly separated from her scared, sick daughter. it's this very human, very secular fear that is, to me, the most touching and successful part of The Exorcist, and it's never more soul-wracking than in this single moment.


KingKubrick said...

I've heard a lot of people say this is the most harrowing moment in the film. I contend it's the mother's face in her child's you know where but to each his own.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

"The real heart of The Exorcist, for me, has never been the operatic A-plot of a priest with doubts rebuilding his faith to fight evil, but the small, domestic B-plot of a single mother's personal hell of knowing that there's something wrong with her daughter, she doesn't know what it is, and there's nothing she can do to help."

Thank you so much for the above. I'd never seen The Exorcist (hadn't realise Nathaniel had not either) and after it was done I felt a bit odd that it was that same aspect I was drawn to most. Ellen is just devastating with all her maternal instincts. (And, her reaction shots to all the bizarre things around her are just ace, like the one you point out.)


love this. I'm really surprised and fascinated that so many contributors are most interested in the medical scenes.

very few people seem interested in the title business.

which must say something about the A & B plots you refer to.

Colin said...

I've always wondered if the reason I don't find "The Exorcist" at all frightening, despite really enjoying it, is because the horror it evokes isn't horror at the threat of bodily harm or even death but at the threat of having one's spiritual innocence corrupted by unholiness, a threat which carries absolutely no psychological weight for someone who is atheist, whereas I am normally perfectly able to suspend my disbelief in order to feel horrified by things I don't believe in, such as ghosts, werewolves, etc.

Rick Rische said...

How am I only finding this now???

Anyway, great choice, Tim. Everything with Burstyn makes this movie a must-see. Chris MacNeil's absolute, steadfast refusal to give up trying to help her daughter in the midst of rising horror is the foundation that grounds everything else in the movie. She gives one of my very favorite performances of the 1970s.

My pick is similar to yours, because it's also from the "doctors try to help Regan" portion of the movie. But my pick has a slightly different slant.

After the horrendous medical procedure to do a scan of Regan's brain, the X-rays rise up in frame on a motorized track (the motor is shriekingly loud and grating on the soundtrack) and suddenly it clicks to a dead stop....

....and the camera just stares. And stares. And stares at the array of black and white images, impersonal portraits of cold biology...

....and Friedkin puts nothing whatsoever on the soundtrack. No room tone, no hum of the air conditioner or buzzing of the fluorescent lights. NOTHING. It's the deadest dead silence I've ever experienced in a movie theater.
(An effect Friedkin achieved by splicing in leader for the soundtrack here, so there'd be absolute dead air.)

This works on at least two levels that I can think of.
1) It's an expression of how Regan's doctors are viewing her from a distance, an abstract puzzle to be solved, a series of pictures to examine and interpret. A collection of symptoms and a chart.
2) It's also an expression of how Friedkin views the doctors' efforts and the medical profession in general- clinical, detached, and in the context of the story, utterly meaningless and irrelevant.

Like you said in your writeup- "no doctor can diagnose what Regan suffers from."
For me, this one moment hammers that home.