I try not to dismiss entire genres of movie. It’s easy to look down on an entire category like the rom com, but then I see something like When Harry Met Sally, or There’s Something About Mary, or Enough Said, and I realise I don’t hate rom coms, I just hate bad rom coms. When made with a genuinely unique perspective and fully realised characters, they can be just as entertaining as any genre with more movie snob cache. And even though I know that about certain categories of movie, I’ve never applied it to horror. As a genre, I’ve probably seen less horror movies than any other, and I can’t think of many that I’ve actually enjoyed. So when it was time to finally make conscious effort to broaden my horror knowledge, I decided to start with one of the genre’s biggest financial and critical successes, The Exorcist.
Working on a movie in Washington DC, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) splits her time between the movie set and raising her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). When Regan starts acting strangely, lying, getting a little blue and fruity with her language and seemingly hallucinating, Chris takes her to a series of doctors, starting with medical, moving on to psychiatric, But none of them can get to the bottom of Regan’s ailment.
Also in Washington is Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and psychologist, suffering a crisis of faith after the death of his mother. When all scientific approaches fail, and under the shadow of the suspicious death of her movie’s director, Chris starts to believe Regan may be possessed by a demon. She enlists the help of Father Karras, who in turn calls on one of the few priests left in modern times with exorcism experience, Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin.
Here’s the thing with The Exorcist, even if you’ve never seen it, you probably feel like you know all there is to know about it. The turning head, the spider walk, the projectile vomit, the demonic voice, the climax ex-crucifixa… I knew about all that stuff, and it was this supposed familiarity that kept me from watching The Exorcist for so many years. Why watch a horror movie if you know all the shocks before they can be shocking?
And here’s where I learnt an important lesson about horror movies, the shocks aren’t what make it scary or effective. It’s everything around the shocks that make it scary and effective. The little signs of Regan’s growing possession in the early moments are almost as creepy as the big, overblown moments that have become horror parody favourites ever since The Exorcist came out four decades ago. A spinning head is creepy, but a little fanciful and over the top. Regan’s performance on the rug in front of her mother’s party guests is outright disturbing.
This might sound weird in relation to a movie like this, but The Exorcists also has a certain level of reality and believability to it. I don’t believe in God, the devil or possession, but I do totally and utterly believe that these characters do. In a movie when the threat is as fantastical as a vampire or fire breathing demon, I see an immediate detachment between the world of the movie and the world I live in. But Chris, Regan, Father Karras and everyone who surrounds them is so real, so normal, so grounded in the real world, that when the craziness starts to go down and these regular, recognisable characters start to believe in the supernatural, it just carried more dramatic weight for me.
Watching The Exorcists made me realise something. I don’t dislike horror movies, I just dislike bad horror movies. And it turns that, for the most part, they’re the kinds I’ve seen in the past. The Exorcist is possibly the only time I’ve seen actual merit in the genre and understood the appeal of a movie that scares. Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, dozens of incarnations of vampires, werewolves, zombies and other monsters… None of them have ever really scared me. But worse, none of them have ever really entertained me all that much either.
Even when they have, in shows like Buffy and The Walking Dead, or movies like Sean of the Dead, the monsters have always had very little to do with it. They entertain me because the real people have always been the centre of the story, the heart, the realistic characters I can relate to. With The Exorcist, I got the compelling, relatable characters, but I also got possibly the most convincing, terrifying, unnerving movie monsters I’ve ever seen. Maybe there’s something to this whole horror thing after all.