Film: Holy ghostbusters

The horror that turned heads in '74 has been exhumed from movie hell. Chris Darke exorcises its troubled past, while Catherine Von Ruhland gives it her blessing
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The Independent Culture
MY FLESH creeps before I even enter the cinema. After all, The Exorcist has a silver jubilee of urban myth to feed on: of heart attacks and epileptic fits in the audience, of strange things happening to the cast like some Tutankhamun curse striking down anyone involved. I was still in primary school when it was first released but I can remember the stark posters as distinctly as Malcolm McDowell's false eyelashes from A Clockwork Orange ads just the year before.

The young Catholic marketing officer at the local multiplex where it's showing tells me she's avoiding seeing it. Editors on the Christian press seem reticent about giving the film's Scottish distribution any coverage. Phoning in ideas for my column on an evangelical paper, there is a marked silence from the editor when I suggest reviewing it. Another Christian arts editor is more interested in the news angle of any campaigns against its showing - "and especially if Episcopalians have anything to say".

The film's atmosphere of utter evil is chillingly authentic in a way achieved by possibly no other movie. Where most Hollywood horror pussyfoots around the satanic, casting a hollow-cheeked gentleman charmer like Christopher Lee or Al Pacino as the very devil himself, The Exorcist remains deeply disturbing in its account of the 12 year old Regan's possession and the ensuing spiritual battle for her soul.

The improved sound quality exacerbates the film's sheer horror, for without a visible foe - except as expressed in young Linda Blair's impressive contortions and bestial facial transformation - it is what we hear that terrifies. Yet the film's redeeming theme is that of the Catholic priest choosing to go the full distance with Utter Darkness - a sleeves-rolled- up, no-holds-barred fight to the finish between God's earthly representatives and Satan.

Disturbing in its depiction of evil in a way that controversial releases such as Reservoir Dogs and Crash are not, it is a not a film that I would wish to be seen by anyone who is under 18. But, the Exorcist is surely an explicitly Christian film. Against primitive 1970s brain scans and dismissive psychiatric diagnoses, only Church rites administered by Max von Sydow's frail but fearless Father Merrin and Jason Miller's doubting Father Karras can reach Regan's troubled soul.

Certainly the depicted possession is overblown, but the ministry is presented with dignity as an honourable vocation, staffed by people who are ordinary, imperfect men aided by the power of God. Both priests, like their God, are self-sacrificial in their quest to save the girl. And the very crux of the film is all there in the famous poster image: the yellow silhouette of the man at the gate bringing light into the pitch black of the night.

Catherine Von Ruhland is film critic of the `New Christian Herald'

What they said in 1974

`The Exorcist is claptrap. It has hardly any narrative to speak of ... it contains more loose ends than the first draft of a 2000-page novel.'

Vincent Canby, `New York Times'

`It rates high on the list of phenomena not to be taken seriously ... Making analytic statements about it is as silly as the famous one made by a social scientist about `The Godfather'; he said that the movie was a hit because people liked the example it provided of family solidarity.'

Eugene C Kennedy, priest and psychology professor, `New York Times'

`All I can say after squirming through this sickening excess of blood, vomiting, lewd language and gruesome satanic phenomena is that I hope never again to see anything half as hateful.'

The `Daily Mail'

`Doing that soundtrack was a terrible experience. I didn't just do the voice. I did all the demon's sounds. That wheezing, for instance. My bronchitis helped with that ... I used moaning cries I used when playing Lady Macbeth for Orson [Welles] ... For the groaning, I pulled a scarf around my neck, tight, and almost strangled.'

Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the demon, speaking to Charles Higham, `Variety'