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Entries in Linda Blair (2)

Wednesday
May092012

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)

Friday
Oct282011

Oscar Horrors: In (Mild) Defense of Linda Blair 

In Oscar Horrors, Team Film Experience explores Oscar nominated contributions to the horror genre. Here is new contributor Mayukh Sen.

HERE LIES...Linda Blair’s reasonably complex turn in The Exorcist, slain by the prodigious work of fellow pubescent Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon). 

Brian de Palma apparently hated The Exorcist, and it’s not difficult to see why.  I generally fall on the unimpressed side with the film, because none of the psychological trauma undergone by the characters finds aesthetic articulation.  Everything is so clearly, obviously constructed on a Hollywood set that it borders on the parodistic. What is superlative about a director like de Palma is that he understands the trappings of genre conventions and mocks the notion of film as a classically escapist, populist medium, managing to extract a modicum of truth out of such a framework.  Friedkin doesn’t understand this.  Interpreting what should be perfunctory entertainment as a parable of human suffering – that’s dreary city.         

I won’t waste a second pretending Linda Blair’s performance is any great shakes.  Her nomination was largely the product of inertia – The Exorcist (1973) was just a cultural phenomenon that the Academy couldn’t ignore, Dan.  Yet reading Glenn’s wonderful piece on Sissy Spacek’s performance in Carrie made me realize the extent to which Blair’s performance has become underrated.  Spacek’s performance is a masterpiece because of her fearless, but still graceful, physical expressivity.  She is a performer who understands body language.  The way she continually destructs, contorts, and fractures her body often acts as a reflection of the character’s emotional distress. 

Somewhere along the line, it became fashionable to oversimplify Blair’s performance as a lot of “sitting there” caked with makeup.  Those in defense of her performance often point to the luminosity of her earlier pre-possession scenes, rightly claiming that she is replete with youthful charm.  I agree.  She’s wonderful there, and she sets up a foundation for the supposed tragedy that occurs later in the film. 

Beyond Mercedes McCambridge’s voice, plastic turning heads, body double controversies and other stunts that may not have much to do with acting talent, though, Blair’s work is solid.  She demonstrates remarkable control over her facial expressions and body language, subtly communicating the “devil’s” continual torment, lack of patience, and frustration.

How does one externalize the psychological state of demonic possession?  I’m not quite sure, but we can say that Linda Blair succeeded, to a degree. Her work is highly gestural but still controlled, and this degree of expressivity works wonders. I’ve noticed a tendency of certain critics to dismiss horror film performances as merely “acting scared” and “being terrified”.  Though Blair’s performance is ultimately a cheap narrative trope, it shouldn’t be evaluated so lazily.  I’m not a fan of praising performances because of the sheer amount of work put into them (see Meryl Streep’s string of performances in the 80s), but, in this case, the physical work is brutally effective.  There is increasingly little appreciation for what actors communicate through physical gestures, and this might be part of why Linda Blair’s nomination is something of an afterthought these days.

Previously on Oscar Horrors