Life with an exorcise fiend
Listen to the voice of pure evil in the new release of 'The Exorcist'
Sunday 25 October 1998
The Exorcist also has the reputation of being an inspired collaboration between an authentically religious writer - William Peter Blatty - and an unwaveringly materialist director, William Friedkin. The story goes that when Friedkin saw Blatty's first script - very ambitious and rather pretentiously cinematic - the director scolded him, and ordered a second attempt that would be faithful to the book. Friedkin, it seems, was confident of the story arc, and knew how to deliver the blood, thunder and projectile vomit. Let the spiritual matters take care of themselves. Blatty did as he was told; the picture made a fortune; and the script won an Oscar.
Yet there are so many things wrong with the script. The lengthy and fussy prologue, shot in Iraq (when its devils were all in the field of archaeology), barely establishes the key character of Merrin - it does not tell us he's a priest, with a record in fighting the Devil, and it lays no basis for suggesting who the Devil is or what he wants. And once we come to Georgetown (the academic, artistic adjunct of Washington DC), it is hard to place who or what Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn) is. All right, she's an actress - an Ellen-Burstyn type, let's say. But what sort of actress is Burstyn? In the movie, Chris seems like a star, with her face on magazine covers. But why is she living - as opposed to renting - in Georgetown? And where is the father of her child? He's alleged to be out there somewhere, divorced but alive, too feckless to call their daughter, Regan, on her birthday. And what else? We need to know, because - whether she is our central figure or Satan's target - we need to know and care about who Regan is to feel the physical and spiritual threat to her.
But Regan, and Linda Blair, are so ... dull (before the bed starts to shake). It's not the actress's fault, but to say the least she is not nymphet material. She doesn't seem to possess spirit, or moral capacity. Why does Satan want her? Don't just say he wants everyone. This is a story, and his choice needs to be pointed - for example, we feel Mia Farrow's special vulnerability in Rosemary's Baby. But Regan comes without talent, family pressure, evident psychic need or spiritual potential. She's a kid like too many others. I stress this because in all the remarkable physical transformations that are to come we don't really feel the loss of Regan. At the end of it all, with Regan restored, she's as placid as ever. She can't remember the long night in her bedroom - and we can hardly believe she was there.
Then there's the clutter in the story: the three servants - Sharon, Karl and Willie - who play no part in the action, even though Karl is accused by Burke Denning of being a Nazi. We never know if that charge has merit (let alone meaning, or whether it's just a sign of Burke's drunken facetiousness. Burke is a problem in other ways, too: is he really meant to be a film director? Does Chris like him? Why does he have to die? And why is he alive, or present, in the first place?
All these empty characters and loose ends get in the way of the only possible crux in The Exorcist - a confrontation between the possessed child and the demoralized priest, Father Karras (very well rendered in Jason Miller's weary performance), or some antagonism between Regan and her mother. I'm not just asking for some cliche about blind parent and rebellious child. One of the problems with Chris is that - as the detective says - she's "a very nice lady". If only she was neglecting Regan emotionally; if only Satan was using that window to gain entrance to the child's soul. For, in the end, we only understand (or fear) the Devil if he is human. And here we come to the greatest weakness of The Exorcist.
Whether our approach is religious or humanist, gods and angels have to be doing something for us. Supremacy may be their thing: ruling in heaven or hell with us as yes-sayers. But we have these busy, trivial human concerns. And we know the story works best if Mr G and Mr D are bending themselves to human forms and attributes. So turning Regan into Little Miss Fucker is less acute and menacing than being available for Regan's rebellious wishes. There's mention in the film that Regan would like a horse between her legs - a knowing Devil would have seized on that.
Of course, there is a moment in The Exorcist - a vision during the exorcism itself - when we see the Devil. He's a bristling, upstanding statue, but vulgar and redundant next to the magic he's worked on Regan. The Devil is so much more chilling when he doesn't have to put on the cloven-hoofs- and-lurid-grin act. In Robert Bresson's films - the greatest ever made in showing the Devil's soft touch here and there on Earth - he looks just like other people. And in The Devil's Advocate - a clever if over-enthusiastic picture - the real threat is that Satan knows how to come on like an earnest, expert lawyer, and doesn't really require the arched eyebrows and devilish laughter that no one can prevent Al Pacino from doing.
But The Devil's Advocate helps prove one point, well worth digesting: that the Devil may be more effective in life and art if played as a comic figure; an angel as subject to frustration, disappointment and bad luck as anyone else. After all, it's that worldliness that makes him so insinuating.
So what's left to recall or be afraid of? Well, there is something, and it has to do with the foul beast within Regan. The Exorcist won a second Oscar for special effects but this was 25 years ago when even a little manipulator like Friedkin believed in keeping the magic within real bounds. More or less everything we see happened: the bed rocks - easy; Regan levitates - invisible strings; she hurls out pea-green vomit - pouches in her cheeks and vacuum pressure; and her head goes round and round - paranoia ...
These tricks and the lavishly raddled look of the girl (a stand-in was used, too) are not easily forgotten. But the thing that has always worked in The Exorcist, and which is still scary, intimate and poisoned, is the sound of Mercedes McCambridge. Not in the cast list, you say. Well, there's a story.
McCambridge was 52 when the film came out. She was and is a fearsome and distinctive actress who won an Oscar for supporting actress in All the King's Men, and who can be seen elsewhere in Johnny Guitar (as Joan Crawford's rival), Giant (as Rock Hudson's rough sister), Touch of Evil (as leader of the motel gang - the one who wants to watch), and here and there. It's a striking but broken career: she was not deemed pretty; she became an alcoholic; but she had a voice that had known heaven and hell. Friedkin picked her to supply the voice of the demon. For the vomit, she filled her mouth with mushed apple and raw eggs. But for the satanic lines she simply adapted her own "wheeze". You can say she sounds like a man - that's not the half of it. She sounds like the most corrupt, knowing, charming beast that ever roamed. Her words are always on the edge of grunts, groans, sighs and moans. It is a tour de force - from a devout, if failed Catholic, someone who has likely chatted to the Devil too many of her own nights to count. And Friedkin left her off the credits.
Whereupon, the collected voices of Hollywood howled until justice was done. And so the terrible, ancient grief comes out of the child's face - and this is riveting. But such radical misplacement of sound and image has hardly been dared before or since (except in animated films). Imagine a love scene, say, a melting rapture of close-ups in which one face begins to gain the other's voice. But "realism" holds sway, and the vocal music of masquerade is ignored for being "misleading".
Mercedes McCambridge is still with us - she's 80 now - although she doesn't work much. She loved doing The Exorcist, she said, because it took her back to her favourite art, radio. My hunch is that if you really want to give yourself a fright with this creaking movie you'd be advised to close your eyes. Don't forget that the great poetry of Satan is the creation of a blind man.
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