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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Exorcist"

The Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is deceptively simple. Choose a single shot from a pre-selected movie that you think is best, best being in the eye of the beholder. Tonight we're looking at The Exorcist (1973). And for me at least, it's the first time I've looked at it. That's not quite as shocking as your 12 year old daughter's head spinning 'round 180º, but maybe it's close.

Nearly every horror classic I've seen I've resisted in some ridiculous way: I saw Halloween at a sleepover movie marathon but it took my horror-loving friend five holidays to convince me; I first saw Silence of the Lambs because I had five nightmares about it beforehand and wanted them to end; I can't remember what prompted Rosemary's Baby but I'm willing to bet that I rented the video five times before actually watching it. And so on. 

If I was ever going to watch The Exorcist, the power of blogging would have to compel me. And so it did.

And here we are in the haunted upstairs bedrooms of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). The first thing that impressed me about the  movie was how rooted in character it was. Director William Friedkin and the novelist screenwriter William Peter Blatty spend more than half hour with the four main characters before the devil (The Devil?) crashes the party. The first shot that I truly loved foreshadowed the horrors to come in a wonderfully lived-in nonchalant way. After Chris MacNeil unleashes a stream of profanity on an angry phone call (including, pointedly, several "Jesus Christ!"s) we cut to the middle of the night when she's woken by a phone call. I love that the shot starts in the dark and when Chris flips on the light the only face that's really illuminated, given her bleary banged face, is Regan's in a photo on the bedstand; the young girl looks actively worried for her mother which is a brilliant set decoration move. Chris hangs up the phone and the camera tracks her movements to the right until we and she realize that her daughter has crawled into bed with her. It's the first time Regan is essentially split in the film, surrounding her anxious still oblivious mother.

Chris: What are you doing here?
Regan: My bed was shaking. I can't get to sleep.

Here in a sweet mother/daughter moment, Regan's telling us where all the horror will be found. The next voice we here, overlap edited over the end of this shot but just barely is the devil's if you want to get metaphoric about it is Captain Howdy's (The Devil's) who is banging about in the attic. Oh Chris, soon to be overwhelmed Chris, it's not rats. 

The Exorcist builds beautifully towards its truly grotesque last act but at least half of the reason it's so effective is that it never forgets who is terrified while it's terrifying us. My second favorite shot in the film is a beautifully quiet character beat for the title character(s) in the "intermission" of the exorcism. 

The Exorcist(s): Father Karras and Father Merrin

One of the movie's most disturbing famous images is "Help me" scrawled on Regan's stomach from the inside.  If Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) were to remove his clothing, wouldn't we see a similar cry for help from his private hell?

It's these quiet glimpses of internal terror that really sell the movie for me, whether it's Ellen Burstyn's increasing impotent understanding (when no one else has accepted it -- not even the priests) or Father Karras's personal doubts. This silence, this vacuum, lets the terror flood in, often courtesy of the Oscar winning sound work. In the shot above we still hear Regan's possessed wheezing from inside the bedroom, less shocking but even more unsettling than her loud profane outbursts.

This push and pull between external and internal terror, room-shaking chaos and sudden absences of sound but for Exorcist chanting to fill the void powers, for me, the most hypnotic shot in the film. The room suddenly goes quiet and we see Regan lift off the bed in crucifix pose until she's nearly touching the ceiling. A simple familiar image, yes, like you'd see in a magic show. But somehow alien and unnatural, too. Only the exorcists can break this unholy spell.

The Power of Blog Compels Them
Movies Kick Ass is Hollywood the devil?
The Tomas Experience "as sure as the sun rises, you can find evil anywhere"
Film Actually the mysteries of faith and science
The Sketchy Details Regan split in two
Antagony & Ecstasy a single mother's personal hell
Cheerful Cynicism the slow burn is the best part 
Cinesnatch has mixed feelings about the movie 
Okinawa Assault colours and threats 
Encore's World is moved by the mother/daughter bond 
Beau McCoy "The Exorcist and Nothingness" 
Stranger than Most find horror in the hospital
Pussy Goes Grrr "body and soul" and Linda Blair's eyes

Next Wednesday: Edward Scissorhands (1990)... will we catch you dancing in it?
Previously: Pariah (2011), Raise the Red Lantern (1991),  Serenity (2005)

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Reader Comments (14)

I love the shot with Karras and Von Sydow as well. Did you enjoy the film?

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

I did. It was not what I was expecting I have to say. But I did think it was still pretty shocking. I can't imagine some of those scenes in today's movies. At least not the way they're presented here.

May 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm loving these posts. This film was a good idea!

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

Every time I've seen it I'm counting down the minutes to that levitation scene, it is SO damn good and eerie.

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJose

anyone see the killer joe trailer. looks like a great friedkin film. its supposed to have a stellar performance by mcconaughey. please do a write up on the trailer.

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Killer Joe looks like it might be good.

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCinesnatch

What version did you see? The original or the "director´s cut" (actually the writer´s cut)...The original theatrical version is THE Exorcist for me!

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoman

Roman -- i believe i saw the original version because I didn't see any notes to the contrary. And I definitely didn't see that "spiderwalk" thing that you can see online. and i'm glad i didn't. I love that the horror stays so confined to that bedroom.

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I saw the Director's Cut too, although it seems classier and less obscene than most horror films nowadays. I`m not the biggest Friedkin fan but younger directors need to look at the way, as you say, he eases his audience into the horror yet dropping hints of tension here and there.

Yes for the Killer Joe shoutout!

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Nathaniel, you hit on the timing of Regan's split. I still think you don't see the real suggestion of a schism until her first doctor visit. I can't believe I never noticed that photo before.

I love discussing The Exorcist more than I love the film. There's a lot to go at as evidenced by how varied the posts in this Hit Me... are. Just avoid the Director's Cut, aka The Version You Were Never Meant to See. There's a reason you weren't meant to see it. The stuff they cut out looks terrible and slows down the film even more.

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

OMG that Killer Joe trailer is out of this world!!! And all this time I was looking for Magic Mike to be his breakout.. who knew!! lol

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

"The Power of Blog Compels You" = Me spitting out soda on my keyboard.

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

Need to resee this one. Love it. The truly great horror films remind me what the others are missing... things like character development.

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

ellen was sure on fire in the 70s. i was scared for her in this film. she embody so much in this role

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkent
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