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The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)

Despite the title, The Exorcist is about pretty much everything except the actual exorcist. When he does appear, kicking off the third act, it’s kind of a stunt. There’s a lot of implied mythology in the film, without much connective tissue–but nothing ruling out connective tissue. Director Friedkin does a balancing act. The reveal moment of the exorcist, complete with foggy streets, is where Friedkin just gives in to the sensationalism.

It’s 1973, there’s a possession so real skeptical priest Jason Miller fights for it to be exorcized, things are about to get intense. There’s fog, isn’t there? And music. Friedkin’s sparing with music. He uses it to great effective earlier, less on the exorcist’s introduction.

The actual exorcism has excellent special effects and good acting. Friedkin’s direction is far more pragmatic than usual; unlike the rest of the film, he and editors Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman don’t make any imaginative, affecting cuts. Cinematographer Owen Roizman is given the mundane task of insuring the frosty breath comes out. Previously, he’d been creating this warm, welcoming, terrifying Georgetown. It’s a step down.

Despite being entirely well-acted, none of The Exorcist’s actors particularly standout. Max von Sydow’s archeologist priest starts the film, digging up demonic relics. von Sydow just has to look scared or sick. It’s not much of a part. But Friedkin and the editors work their magic and make it through.

Then the film moves to Georgetown, where movie star Ellen Burstyn is filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist–just kidding, she’s in some mainstream hippie movie. She and daughter Linda Blair are living in a rental house, complete with servants and a full-time assistant (Kitty Winn). Everything’s going fine until something starts happening to Blair… and the doctors can’t figure out what.

At the same time, priest Jason Miller is confronting a crisis of faith while trying to care for his aging mother. Miller’s crisis doesn’t get much time, it’s just part of his ground situation.

The film cuts between Burstyn and Miller. They’re in the same neighborhood, their orbits moving closer and closer. Though not in any inevitable way, rather coincidental. Burstyn and Blair’s story, despite a deadbeat dad subplot, is a lot less intense than Miller’s. They have all the fun supporting cast members, including drunk movie director Jack MacGowran.

Friedkin and the editors seem to cut a little faster each time. Actors’ lines don’t finish in their scenes, but carried over to the next shot, the next scene. Simultaneously, Roizman’s photography is completely laid back. It’d be calming if the movie weren’t called The Exorcist and there weren’t occasional scary music and what are those weird noises in the attic?

After getting done with von Sydow and moving on to Blair, Burstyn, and Miller, the film keeps its character focus pretty well balanced. Until Blair gets less and less to do. She has to go to the doctor and we don’t find out until after it’s happened. That absence succeeds in hurrying things along, but not making Burstyn or Blair much more sympathetic. They’re sympathetic because they’re mother and daughter and Blair’s a cute kid, not because they’re particularly likable. Blatty’s script doesn’t do them any favors. He writes scenes for maximum effect, not character development.

Then Burstyn ends up losing time to Lee J. Cobb–as a police inspector–and Miller. Miller’s got a new church subplot, which eventually meets up with Cobb’s murder investigation one. It leads to an excellent scene, beautifully shot, edited, acted, but nothing for the story. During the second act, the film loses its sense of momentum. Cobb and Miller are too stone-faced; the film needs Burstyn’s growing dread, which it mostly skips, even going so far as to switch over to Miller to avoid showing Burstyn and Blair’s side.

Blair’s fine. She handles the part, which is considerable. She’s the film’s de facto subject. Everything revolves around her and she knows it. Mercedes McCambridge does even better, doing some of Blair’s character’s voice work.

Great acting from Cobb, Miller, and Burstyn when she’s got the material. Nice support from everyone else.

The Exorcist is often expertly and sublimely executed. But that strong execution mostly pauses for the third act. The epilogue is better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman; production designer, Bill Malley; produced by Blatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Dennings), William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Peter Masterson (Dr. Barringer), Robert Symonds (Dr. Taney), and Mercedes McCambridge (The Demon).


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Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman)

Oh, no, Ennio Morricone did the music for Exorcist II: The Heretic. I feel kind of bad now because the music is not good and I like Ennio Morricone. I’m sure I’ve liked something cinematographer William A. Fraker photographed too, but his photography in Heretic is atrocious. Because it’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, everything about it is atrocious. It doesn’t even look like anyone had any fun; it’s not like director Boorman goofed off and then slapped together some awful sequel involving hypnosis and super-beings among us. Maybe some stuff got changed, but all the stupid was always there.

In addition to the stupid there’s the bad. Bad acting. Lots of bad acting. Richard Burton is bad. I like Richard Burton but he is very bad in this film. Louise Fletcher isn’t great either. She might be better than Burton but has a worse part so it’s iffy. But then Burton does perv out on Linda Blair, who’s probably seventeen in a bunch of this movie, and she’s supposed to be playing a sixteen year-old. It’s strange because Boorman clearly tries not to get creepy with Blair when she’s doing a dance act, but then he’ll get creepy whenever she’s in a nightgown or something. It’s weird. It’s another weird, awful thing about this movie.

Awful cameo from Ned Beatty. Embarrassingly to both Beatty and the film. Kitty Winn’s bad. Belinda Beatty’s fine. She sort of disappears once it’s established priest Burton can understand the mental telepathy machine doctor Fletcher has cooked up to cure children of mental illness. Burton sees its potential in demon-hunting.

And then it just gets stupider. And stupider. And stupider. And the sets are crap and Fraker can’t shoot them and it’s long and why does Burton take Blair to a creepy hotel and how is it possible there isn’t a single line of good dialogue in the whole thing. It’s awful. But in a way you do want to watch it, you do want to see where it goes, because it goes all over the place.

The Heretic. Yuck. But kind of amusingly yuck.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Boorman; screenplay by William Goodhart, based on characters created by William Peter Blatty; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Tom Priestley; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Boorman and Richard Lederer; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Richard Burton (Father Philip Lamont), Louise Fletcher (Dr. Gene Tuskin), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), Belinda Beatty (Liz), Paul Henreid (The Cardinal), James Earl Jones (Kokumo) and Ned Beatty (Obnoxious man).


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