Monday, 30 May 2016

William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" – Hell of a Film

A little while ago I commented that, for all its flaws, at least Return of the Jedi managed to spawn an original and long lasting Halloween outfit: the Slave Leia.

Other films have attempted to introduce new swearwords or slang into our lives.  In Chan-wook Park's Oldboy, the character Oh Dae-Su returns to the world after a fifteen-year imprisonment to find that the kids have coined a new swearword: dickshit.  In Mark Waters' Mean Girls, the character Gretchen Wieners tries unsuccessfully to foist ‘fetch’ as a new piece of slang onto her friends.

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is notable for using the word ‘cunting’ twice.  ‘Cunting’ was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until March 2014 but it was alive and well in the mouth of the character Burke Dennings in The Exorcist in 1973.  While the OED defines the word as an intensifier, similar to ‘fucking’, there seems to be an extra sense in its use in The Exorcist of ‘like a cunt’ or ‘cunt of a…’


The first time Dennings utters the word, he is drunk at a party and accuses a guest he believes is a Nazi as a ‘cunting Hun’.  The second time we hear it, is from the twelve-year-old possessed girl Regan, who is made to speak in Dennings’ voice by a demon to say ‘Do you know what she did?  Your cunting daughter?’  This is after he has been killed by the possessed Regan.  If the demon had said ‘Your cunt of a daughter’ it would have ruined the iambic flow and we all know the devil gets the best poetry.

It’s typical of William Peter Blatty’s intelligent and devilishly sparky script that this unusual word links the two speeches and gives the audience a nudge that it is Dennings’ voice coming from the little girl.  It provides all the proof that Regan’s mother needs that her daughter has indeed killed Dennings.

Fans of modern classical music often despair that nothing later than Stravinsky seems capable of making an impact on modern society.  In fact, there are two places where modern music is alive and well in popular culture: one is in the ‘before’ section of adverts plugging anti-migraine pills.  The other is in horror films trying to summon the spirit of Bernard Herrmann's screeching strings in Hitchcock's PsychoThe Exorcist uses passages of top-flight modern composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Hans Werner Henze at the beginning and end of the film.  Sadly for music fans, the use of these passages (for both the ads and the films) seems to be when a director asks for ‘an ungodly racket,’ ‘the worst imaginable sound,’ or ‘an aural representation of a living hell.’

A lot of people have said a lot of things about The Exorcist, which is why I’ve gone a little left-field for this review.  Watching it again, I was struck by the mastery of every scene.  Compare the opening shots of the Iraqi archaeological dig with similar scenes in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, for example.  Friedkin aces the scene, with herds of sheep flowing along the bottom of the shot.

As though to justify the outlandish elements of the script, which asks us to believe in an actual demon, there are multiple evocations of hellish aspects of the real-life world, from the hints of the holocaust in Dennings’ rant, mental illness, loneliness and abandonment of the elderly, child abuse, the trauma of broken families, painful and hopeless medical procedures.

Vastly more ambitious than the average horror flick, The Exorcist also leaves its audiences with visual images as memorable as any in film.

Personal Score: 9/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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