The Exorcist isn’t about religion. It reveals how much people hate children. It’s really about a child being tortured.
– Max Von Sydow
Good and Bad Critics
I’m a film critic. You almost certainly are, too. If you’ve ever told a friend to go to see such and such a movie, or to avoid a movie because it’s terrible, you’re a critic. If they do go to see the movie, or if they do make sure to avoid seeing it based on your recommendation, that makes you a salesman into the bargain. But are you a good critic or a bad critic?
There is a simple way to explain the difference between a good and a bad critic: a bad critic will say ‘I hated it’ or ‘I loved it.’ Anyone can do that. A good critic will say they loved it or hated it then give you reasons. That’s the difference which makes the difference.
It might sound obvious, but try asking your beloved for reasons why they liked or disliked a movie next time they’re wearing their critic’s hat and see what happens. Ask them to be as specific as possible and an argument won’t be far in the distance. It could easily go something like this:
‘Why did you hate the movie?’
‘I just did, it was rubbish.’
‘Yeah, but why? What was it you hated?’
‘It just wasn’t my thing, you know? Not my cup of tea.’
‘No, I don’t know. Can you be more specific? I mean, do you actually know why you hated it?’
‘Why are you questioning me like this?’
‘I’m not, you said you hated the movie, I’m just asking if you’re able to tell me why.’
‘I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘I’ll be specific: you’re a cunt.’
If I decide to say that Tarantino’s Death Proof is his best movie, then I should be able to follow it up by explaining it’s a movie which tickles the cocks of his male fans during the first half, then brutally slices them off in the second. Any bloke who hated Stuntman Mike come the end of the movie needs to reflect on why they liked him in the first half. They should then decode the dialogue between Kurt Russell and Rose McGowan at the bar. I’m talking about the point from which Mike slides his keys along the bar to where Tarantino, playing the bartender, Warren, sums up Mike’s drink – a ‘Virgin Pina Colada’ (Virgin’s Penis Collider) – by pointing at him and saying ‘virgin.’ It’s a wonderful exchange between Russell and Mcgowan that leads up to that, and the way to decode the dialogue is to ask why Mike corrects Pam by telling her he’s offering her a lift, not a ride…
Or I could claim that George Clooney’s performance in From Dusk till Dawn was worthy of an Oscar – which it certainly was. Again, reasons should be offered. I could argue that it’s the way Clooney shows his character’s thought process and reasoning through small cricks of the neck and almost subliminal facial tics which marks this performance out as award-worthy. Or that the beautiful, understated pragmatism he shows when he decides his brother has to be killed is an example of the ‘less is more’ idea in action.
It doesn’t matter if these reasons are good or bad or agreed with or not, it matters only that they are offered and the position taken rises above the ‘It was good because I say so’ or the ‘It wasn’t my cup of tea’ level. Reasons are the difference between a good critic and a bad one.
Mark Kermode is a good critic – he gives reasons for what he likes and dislikes and, as it happens, I’d respect him as a critic without my slim (and glaringly self-serving) definition of the difference between good and bad. I think he’s very good. But I can’t understand his love for The Exorcist. It makes no sense.
I know that one man loves munching muesli while another loves munching muff, but personal taste is only part of the story. Let me put my confusion in context. If a person with a normal job said they thought The Exorcist was their favourite film, I’d automatically assume that was a question of personal taste: a matter for them and their psychiatrist; but if a film journalist, an actual movie critic, claims The Exorcist is the best film ever made – well, questions need to be asked about the story.
Let me make something clear. If Laurence Olivier – as Othello or Heathcliff, doesn’t matter – enters a scene, slams the door behind him and delivers a splendid speech while the wall of the set wobbles, that says nothing about the quality of the story. That should be obvious. The movie Left Behind, one of the stupidest movies ever, has a bible thumper tell Cassy Thomson that he hasn’t been ‘raptured’ into heaven because he’s lost his faith, and lost it years ago. He’s been going through the motions. Yet all the new-borns on the maternity ward – for reasons unknown to me (or the screenwriter) – have been raptured upstairs. When there’s a howler like this in the story’s logic, its premise, or whatever you want to call it, it’s not the fault of the set-designer.
This is a distinction worth making. Kermode cannot think The Exorcist is the best movie ever made for reasons which have nothing to do with the story. That would be ridiculous. This is fiction we’re talking about, the story is the point.
The question of what defines a ‘good’ film as compared to a ‘bad’ film is harder to answer than the same question about good and bad critics. It’s obviously possible to have a good story demonstrated by a poorly made film, and a stupid story demonstrated by a competently made movie; so, although technical questions are not beyond my scope in respect to The Exorcist film or novel, I’m interested more in why what is offered to the reader and viewer is absurd given the story’s premise, and those considerations don’t rely on whether we’re talking about a novel or a movie: I’d happily discuss the absurdities of Exorcist: The Musical or Exorcist: The Stageplay.
In other words, the medium used to deliver the story is of secondary importance to the story itself, and no technical skill or director’s “vision” can rescue a stupid story with top-notch cinematography or clever editing. How can it be otherwise?
This is why Kermode needs help: it’s not so much the movie that’s the problem – William Friedkin is no idiot and the movie is competently made – it’s the story. There are some fiddly questions to answer. Once you’ve decided a movie is “good” how much of that depends on the story, how much on the technical accomplishments of the director? How much on the acting skills of the players, how much on the actual dialogue they have to memorise? We’ve already seen, thanks to Tarantino’s Death Proof as the example, that the dialogue can mean more than the surface words before a player is hired to read them. Yet obviously the performance is important. Diane Keaton, telling Al Pacino in The Godfather II she’s had an abortion without his knowledge, is an example of the delivery of the lines taking the lines themselves to another place entirely. The surface words could be taken literally, but that seems to require Keaton to put some emphasis on “I,” changing ‘I had it killed’ to ‘I had it killed.’ She doesn’t do that, yet that’s the line that causes Michael to slap her. She’s mocking him, his family and the patriarchal tradition. It’s a beautiful scene which wouldn’t have its subtlety if Keaton had laid down the emphasis that a literal reading would require. Or take a simpler example. Robert Duvall telling Marlon Brando they shot Sonny on the causeway, ‘he’s dead.’ Duvall’s voice falters on the last word. To say he lifted the words off the page would be an understatement. Sometimes it does matter who’s in a film. I’m not immune to performance; it’s not all about the material and the assumptions of the story for me.
The first Jurassic Park might have been a technical triumph, but there’s not much story to talk about. If a critic said the film was the best ever made, it would a fair assumption the critic was a sort of tech-head, and it was only the effects and the visual power which did it for him. You can’t say that about The Exorcist, so the story must be a part of anyone’s claim it’s the best movie ever made.
The novel was a commercial success, selling millions of copies, and a person might assume the source material was competently written. It’s an easy mistake to make. There’s also another easily made mistake I’m mindful of in respect to criticism. You shouldn’t assume a character is there to offer the disguised opinions of the writer. However, if the narrative expresses attitudes which are not dialogue, and are not the character’s thoughts through obvious attribution or ‘free indirect style,’ then it is fair to assume those attitudes are held by the author, for who else owns them? Who put them on the page? And it is that which then allows for some gentle speculation: yes, maybe, the author is hiding behind his characters here and there?
I think Blatty let a little too much of himself onto the pages of his famously awful novel, and I think he knew it.
Behind every holier than thou, sanctimonious, Dan Quayle type, I’ll show you a man who pays two transvestites to piss in his face.
- Jack Nicholson
Mark Kermode begins the discussion of the novel (in his thesis) with the following: ‘In 1971, William Peter Blatty, a relatively unsuccessful author who had worked mainly in comedy screenwriting, managed to persuade Bantam books to publish his supernatural Horror novel The Exorcist.’ Read any page of the novel and you’ll realise Kermode deserves a Knighthood for services to understatement. My copy of the book is the paperback ‘40th anniversary edition,’ the cover of which claims it’s ‘The most terrifying novel ever written.’
Blatty’s prose is hilariously over-descriptive, contains incomplete sentences, and he didn’t care enough to attempt any improvement. There are numerous examples of his prose making no sense at all. Almost everywhere it’s appalling, in many places, gibberish.
The ‘prologue’ sets the tone for the rest of the book. This is where we meet Von Sydow’s character, Fr. Merrin. The novel begins by referring to Merrin as ‘the man in khaki’ – but, after we’ve been given his name, continues to refer to him this way. This is very strange.
The priest is served tea by a person Blatty decides not to dignify with a name, referring to him as ‘The Kurd’ (which is not far off how we should refer to the book.) By page two our ears are being twisted by his style:
The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt. The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma.
The final word renders everything after ‘eyes’ redundant. Personally, I think it deserves an exclamation mark. Once Blatty had written his way to his glaucoma ‘eureka moment’ he should have exorcised what went before it. Things get worse very quickly. We don’t know if he enjoyed his tea, but he ‘paid for his tea and left a tip of fifty fils on a splintered table the colour of sadness.’ The colour of sadness?
By the next page (page 3) Merrin is in the company of his friend, ‘the Mosul curator of antiquities.’ He has the amulet of Pazuzu, the demon which is going to be causing trouble later. This is our introduction to the demonic, and after it’s decided (out of nowhere) someone wore the amulet for protection, Mr Mosul comments:
“Evil against evil,” breathed the curator, languidly fanning himself with a French scientific periodical;
I laughed out-loud.
By page five, Merrin has wandered off to ‘The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar.’ This is where he ‘sifted vibrations’ and found the limestone statue of Pazuzu. Blatty uses skill and subtlety to show us the significance of this after giving us our first description of the demon:
Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis, and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.
Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.
He bowed his head.
It was coming.
Oh, please. This is only page five. Blatty has told us that Pazuzu is going to be making an appearance later, which is sweet of him to tip us off (who wants an element of the unknown in a horror novel?) and he manages to do it without telling us how his character knows it. So in the space of six lines we have a demon standing on either talons or feet (‘taloned feet’ seems confused) and a character blessed with spontaneously occurring information about the future; and information which makes all those pages with doctors testing Regan a frustrating (but hilarious) waste of time.
The prologue ends with Merrin planning to leave Iraq and return to the United States. His journey begins with ‘his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would be hunted by an ancient enemy whose face he had never seen. But he knew his name.’
Well that’s alright, then. At least he knows his name.
The ‘prologue’ contains an embarrassment of riches in respect to examples of the ludicrous. Consider this:
The man in khaki fixed his gaze on a speck of boiled chick-pea nestled in a corner of the Arab’s mouth; yet his eyes were distant. ‘Home,’ he repeated.
The word had the sound of an ending.
‘The States,’ the Arab curator added, instantly wondering why he had.
The man in khaki looked into the dark of the other’s concern.
By asking the following question I’m actually ignoring a great deal. Is Merrin focusing or in a daydream? It’s difficult to know because Blatty doesn’t care enough to make things clear. And if the nameless Arab is confused about what the author has made him say, he should spare a thought for the tortured reader. The ‘prologue’ is five pages of rubbish which leaves us assured that things can’t get any worse.
Things get worse.
Chapter One shifts the action to Washington DC and we are told that the prologue we just endured might have been irrelevant to begin with:
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.
By asking the following question I am ignoring a great deal. Difficult for whom? Can it be clearer that Blatty hasn’t a clue what he’s doing? By page nine I began to whistle in amazement that this rubbish sold as many copies as it did. Certainly you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you definitely should never judge a book by its success, either. The public has a lot to answer for.
Once Blatty has written-off his prologue, he deftly describes the house in which the horror is to take place:
The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight.
Tight? Tight? I have no idea what that word is doing there, and I doubt the author would be able to explain it either, so I’m going to move on for the sake of my sanity.
He introduces us to Regan on chapter one’s first page, also to an attitude toward ‘the help’ which might have been ‘written in’ (among other things) without the author realising it:
Regan, her daughter, was sleeping down the hall; and asleep downstairs in a room off the pantry were the middle-aged housekeepers, Willie and Karl.
Do we need to know where the help’s bedroom is? Perhaps some snobbery has slipped onto the page unnoticed? Bear in mind, the Columbo-clone snob detective we’re forced to meet later, refers several times to Willie and Karl as ‘the servants,’ a rather hoity formulation when simply ‘the staff’ seems more appropriate. (The snob cop is called William.)
The first time we see Regan, she’s asleep, and Blatty feeds us this first look with more than a spoon full of sugar:
Her pretty eleven-year old was asleep, cuddled tight to a large stuffed round-eyed panda. Pookey. Faded from years of smothering; years of smacking, warm, wet kisses.
To say that Regan is introduced with just a little too much syrupy ‘aw, shucks’ ‘gee whizz, mommy’ American, so-sugary-it-will-rot-your-teeth prose, would be an understatement. Consider the first morning in the tight house. Regan’s mother goes down for breakfast:
Looking down at her plate, she smiled fondly at a blush-red rose against its whiteness. Regan. That angel. Many a morning, when Chris was working, Regan would quietly slip out of bed, come down to the kitchen to place a flower on her mother’s empty plate and then grope her way crusty-eyed back to her sleep.
Well, the little angel wouldn’t plop the flower in the bean-juice, would she? This is absurdly forced, yet required for setting Regan up as a cloying, sickly fucking kiss-ass who we can find annoying enough to enjoy watching her rape herself later on.
Regan isn’t eleven for very long, and her birthday party offers the only creepy scene in the book. Consider the following. Regan, in the early stages of her possession, is in a sulky mood prior to her twelfth birthday:
Regan folded herself into silence. She stayed totally quiet all during the drive home, her mood persisting all the rest of that day and then, disturbingly, all through Monday.
On Tuesday, Regan’s birthday, the spell of strange silence and sadness seemed to break.
The sarcasm and contempt are obvious, but whose words are these? They are not dialogue, and they are not ‘free indirect style’ – belonging to the narrative but really the thoughts of a character , so we have no choice but to conclude the attitude is Blatty’s. He doesn’t have the basic common-sense to hide his contempt behind a character.
Following this, Regan is on her mother’s film-set where the director, Burke Dennings, is spoiling her:
Always a kind and gentle man when sober, Dennings had the lights rewarmed and, loudly calling it a ‘screen test,’ filmed the scene as Regan blew out the candles and cut the cake, and then promised he would make her a star.
That’s creepy. When a director tells a twelve year-old girl he’ll make her a star the deal might involve a bit of the old ‘give and take’? Read your Mario Puzo. Let’s remember that Blatty, before typing The Exorcist, worked as a screenwriter and one must assume he had a fair working knowledge of the entertainment industry. Could this be peverse ‘insider’ humour? And this interpretation is justified later when Dennings is hurled from Regan’s bedroom window while no other adult is in the house…
If you’re going to present the story of a mother worried that her daughter might need a psychiatrist rather than a run-of-the-mill medical doctor, and do so in a story in which we know the daughter is being slowly possessed by a demon and will end up needing a priest, how fortuitous it is that Blatty has a character who is priest and psychiatrist. Karras is first seen visiting his wreck of a mother:
He sat in the kitchen and listened to her talk, the dingy walls and soiled floor seeping into his bones.
Karras, spongy dude that he is, actually absorbs the walls of his mother’s apartment. Perhaps it was he who absorbed the life out of her? Not only do we have the clanging coincidence of his psychiatry qualification, but also a crisis of faith into the bargain. I wonder what will happen to his doubts?
Regan’s behaviour deteriorates and her mother has to have some frank conversations with the medical profession. This is where Blatty forces another mention of the child Chris lost years before. He can’t be bothered to show Chris’s attitude, so he just tells you she’s got it. Regan’s mother is asking if the only doctor she trusts could come over and check her daughter personally. The author shoves in a memory for justification:
She was remembering Jamie and his lingering infection. Chris’s doctor at the time had prescribed a new, broad-spectrum antibiotic. Refilling a prescription at a local drugstore, the pharmacist was wary. ‘I don’t want to alarm you, ma’am, but this…well, it’s quite new on the market, and they’ve found that in Georgia it’s been causing aplastic anemia in young boys.’ Jaime. Gone. Dead. Ever since, Chris had never trusted doctors. Only Marc, and that had taken years.
Where should one start with that? With the pharmacist whose information is better than the doctor’s, or with a new drug which affects only young boys in Georgia? The dialogue is absurd ‘I don’t want to alarm you, ma’am,’ (but really I do, so I’m going to.) And there’s that horrible ‘yes but no but’ rhythm to the final two lines.
By the end of the page, the doctor Chris trusts, the doctor it’s taken years for her to feel safe with, offers his thoughts about Regan with the subtlety and bedside manner you’d expect from Jason Voorhees:
‘Now what would you say,’ he proposed as an instance, ‘if you were my internist, God forbid, and I told you I had headaches, recurring nightmares, nausea, insomnia and blurring of the vision; and also that I generally felt unglued and was worried to death about my job? Would you say I was neurotic?’
‘I’m a bad one to ask, Marc; I know you’re neurotic.’
‘Those symptoms I gave you are the same as for brain tumour, Chris.’
What a nice man: talking to a friend of many years about her sickly, precious daughter and the symptoms she’s suffering from (apart from worrying about her job, obviously, Regan doesn’t have one because she’s a child) and he gives her a cold slap. And he does it – allowing for the conversational ‘rhythm’ – because he disapproves of her sense of humour.
There’s no effort gone into this at all; to the characters or the dynamic between them. What does Chris like about this doctor, that he’s blunt to the point of being unpleasant?
The doctors are not really characters, they’re disinterested drones. This is part of another conversation between Regan’s mother and someone called Dr. Klein:
‘Extraordinary strength is pretty common in pathology.’
‘Oh, really? How come?’
Klein shrugged. ‘Who knows. Now, beside what you’ve told me,’ he continued, ‘have you noticed any other bizarre behaviour?’
That’s hilariously lazy. But the doctors aren’t done with Regan just yet. Matters come to a something of a climax after the hypnosis session. Her mother hears something of a rumpus and rushes into the bedroom and switches on the light to find
Regan and the doctors writhing on the bed in a tangle of shifting arms and legs, in a melee of grimaces, gasps and curses, and the howling and the yelping and that hideous laughter; Regan oinking and grunting like a pig, Regan neighing like a horse, and then the film racing faster with the bedstead shaking and violently quivering from side to side as Regan’s eyes rolled upward into their sockets and she wrenched up a keening shriek of terror torn raw and bloody from the base of her spine.
Can any thinking person believe this was written for theological reasons? Given Hollywood’s love of remakes and reboots, perhaps the film’s remake will be directed by Roman Polanski?
We don’t know at this point if this is the climax of the interactions between Regan and the doctors, but we can admire their efforts in trying to get to the bottom of things.
We’ve had the sneering sarcasm about sulky kids cheering up in time for their birthday, but he manages at least two more thinly disguised sneers. The first of these comes when Karras and the Columbo-clone snob cop are discussing the vandalism in the church:
‘And it couldn’t be some teenage lout?’
‘No, it couldn’t.’ Karras turned to look at Kinderman again. ‘It’s the Latin,’ he said.
‘The Latin? Oh, you mean on the alter card.’
‘Yes. The Latin’s flawless Lieutenant, and more than that, it’s got a definite style that’s extremely individual.’
I wonder about that little exchange. Perhaps as he typed it, Blatty realised that a teenager not being fluent in Latin was hardly a reason to sneer, so quickly tacked on the after-thought? The second is when Karras questions Regan’s mother about her daughter:
‘Would you consider her precocious?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Nancy Drew and comic books, mostly.’
She can’t find even a defensive compliment for her model-making, flower arranging brat? Gee, thanks mom. Perhaps her mother has been spending too much time with those diplomatic doctors?
I consider Blatty convicted, but there’s more to this than a nasty attitude to the young. There’s the playground idea of what’s shocking. Swearing or sex isn’t “controversial” or “shocking” unless you’re an adolescent or a troubled adult.
All the sex-talk spewed out by the possessed demonstrates the failing imagination of the writer. It’s the same in many movies. These are demons talking: not just non-human supernatural entities, like ghosts, but never-human entities. They come from hell, yet they can’t think of anything more shocking than playground sex-talk?
Consider just how hard Blatty was trying to shock with the famous masturbation scene:
Chris rushed at the bed, grasping blindly at the crucifix while, her features contorted infernally, Regan flared up at her in fury and, reaching out a hand, clutched Chris’s hair and, powerfully yanking her head down, firmly pressed Chris’s face against her vagina, smearing it with blood as Regan undulated her pelvis.
Good grief. Whose features are ‘contorted infernally’? (I feel obliged to point out something other than the obvious.) Read it out-loud in a lispy, breathless, school-boy voice. You might get a sense of the excited little mind required to write something like that.
Though Blatty has already told us Regan yanks her mother’s head ‘powerfully,’ he can’t resist telling us it was ‘firmly pressed.’ His adolescent mind is desperate for us not to miss the point. He wants us to know, yes, they really did touch.
This wasn’t shocking in 1971 and it certainly isn’t now. I’d bet The Rice and Lloyd-Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, caused more controversy by using that word to describe JC.
Karras visits the tight house but isn’t immediately convinced Regan is possessed. There seems to be some irony here. This priest won’t rush to conclusions about the supernatural, he will do his research. In one scene we have the hilarious image of a ‘sceptical priest’ reading a ‘scholarly work on witchcraft.’
The author explains the reasons for the priest’s scepticism. It is unclear from these reasons if it is the character or the author who needs the psychiatrist:
The cause of his scepticism and his doubts, his attempts to eliminate natural causes in the case of Regan’s seeming possession, was the fiery intensity of his yearning to believe.
I suppose if you’re a sceptical priest who reads scholarly works on witchcraft, or an author who doesn’t care about what he’s typing, those reasons might do nicely. I should have thought that Karras’s attempts to look for natural explanations were caused by his scepticism, wouldn’t you? But wait, that’s not what he’s saying at all. Karras has been trying to eliminate natural explanations, which suggests he already believes she’s possessed but needs bit of a nudge over the line. But if that’s the case, then his ‘scepticism and doubts’ seem to dissolve to nothing.
So there an example of a passage which, if you read it quickly, makes no sense; but if you read it slowly and think about what the author actually says, still makes no sense.
That Mark Kermode deserves his honour for services to understatement should be a point nobody could disagree with.
This book is shocking for the wrong reasons. No band releases the first rough-cut demos as finished work; no studio releases footage which is unedited and claims that’s the film done. The paying public would refuse the offer to trade. I don’t know why this book did so well. What can be so likeable about a semi-literate novel which has disguised child-rape fantasies and which sneers at the young, considering them stupid by definition?
It’s the snob cop who allows more sneering to be ‘written-in’ to the book. To call Kinderman a ‘Columbo-clone’ is correct. Blatty makes him a waffling, can’t-get-to-the-point-bumbler, who (naturally) has a sharp mind under the disarming exterior. He even has the cop suddenly ‘remember’ something and say, ‘and another thing’ before he talks to Karl outside the house. That was yet another scene where I laughed out loud.
The snob cop seems a bit clingy to me. He’s always asking people to go to the movies with him. But why does he invite people he meets while working? Doesn’t he have friends?
The cop tells Chris he likes to talk about the movie, to offer some criticism after the lights come up. Well, why not? Almost all of us are film critics. He tells Regan’s mother about a film of her he’s watched six times, but there’s
..one tiny, almost miniscule flaw. And please believe me, in such matters I am only a layman. Okay? I’m just audience. What do I know? However, it seemed to me the musical score was getting in the way of certain scenes. It was too intrusive.
After building the suspense, I was disappointed with such a banal observation and was hoping for something specific from a critic with sensitive ears.
There are two other exchanges which must be mentioned. In the first the snob cop is asking Karras to the cinema, in the second, Fr. Dyer:
‘Are you busy? I’ve got passes for the Biograph. It’s Othello.’
‘That depends on who’s in it.’
‘Who’s in it? John Wayne, Othello, and Desdemona, Doris Day…This is William F. Shakespeare! Doesn’t matter who’s starring, who’s not!’
‘I’ve got passes for the Biograph tomorrow night. You’d like to go?’
‘Who’s in it?’
‘Who’s in it?’ The detective’s eyebrows bunched together in a scowl as he gruffly answered, ‘Heathcliff, Sonny Bono and in the role Catherine Earnshaw, Cher. Are you coming or not?’
Perhaps it should say, ‘the role of Catherine Earnshaw’? (I don’t know, and by the time I got to the latter scene certainly didn’t care. But the image of John Wayne in blackface is amusing.)
Consider those two brief exchanges. This snob cop – who refers to the housekeepers as ‘the servants’ – is irritated because he thinks the writing is enough. His tastes are more refined than those of the priests he asks, and he wants them to know it. And that’s the measure of the snobbery because the priests are of a high status in this book, much higher than the clumsy, clanging doctors.
Would a film buff and critic, as this policeman is supposed to be, really think it wouldn’t matter who was in a film, given how sensitive his ear is meant to be to the music on the soundtrack?
A defence of sarcasm is that it can be funny, but there’s no humour in the snob cop’s sarcasm – only contempt for the lesser-mortals who don’t have the artistic sense he does.
Regan is eventually deemed possessed and the Church give the order for the exorcism to go ahead. It’s at this point the ‘man in khaki’ is mentioned again. Karras is impressed:
The news stunned him. Merrin! The philosopher-paleontologist! The soaring, staggering intellect! His books had stirred ferment in the Church, for they interpreted his faith in terms of matter that was still evolving and destined to be spirit that at the end of time would join with Christ, the “Omega Point.”
Chris passes one of Merrin’s books to Karras, showing him a passage she has marked out. Blatty, for some reason, is happy for us to read some of this great theologian’s work, presumably so we, too, can appreciate the ‘soaring, staggering intellect.’
It might have been prudent to leave his work for our imaginations.
The exorcism itself is a bland few pages of religious waffle, mostly in English, though I would have thought the author would have wanted to more of the flawless Latin with the individual style.
The only part of the exorcism which is interesting is when Karras asks a pretty sensible question:
‘We say the demon cannot touch the victim’s will.’
‘Yes, that is so. There is no sin.’
‘Then what would be the purpose of possession. What’s the point?’
That is a long overdue question. I would have had this question coming from the mouth of Regan’s mother much earlier in the book, rather than from a priest assisting in the ritual, but that we get it at all is better than nothing.
We get lot of dialogue from Merrin in response to the question. He begins by saying ‘Who can know? Who can really hope to know?’ and then wanders off into vagueness and banality for almost a page and a half, though he closes with a flourish:
‘And yet even from this – from evil – there will finally come good in some way; in some way that we may never understand or even see.’ Merrin paused. ‘Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness,’ he brooded. ‘And perhaps even Satan – Satan, in spite of himself – somehow serves to work out the will of God.’
The most pertinent question about demon possession is offered to the priest with the towering intellect, and all he can manage is a long-winded version of ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ This is the cop-out answer many religious offer when a sensible or difficult question is asked. It’s a worse answer than ‘I don’t know’ because it contains self-delusion and doublethink.
That’s about it all that happens.
Merrin’s heart gives out, Karras takes it badly. He invites the demon to ‘come into me’ and then jumps out the window, taking a header down the steps. Regan and her mother leave the tight house and that’s it.
The final laugh comes in the ‘Author’s note’ where he tells us he has ‘taken a few liberties with the current geography of the Georgetown University…moreover, the house on Prospect Street does not exist.’
It’s sweet of him to let us know the tight house was a figment of his imagination.
Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which everyone in himself calls religion.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
That the film’s director and one of its main players disagree on what The Exorcist is actually about is interesting. Friedkin said the movie tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the world, both good and evil, Von Sydow said it’s not about religion, but reveals how much people hate children. How can they disagree so starkly? Who’s right? Are they both wrong? Are they both right?
The basics are easy to summarise. A young girl begins to demonstrate odd behaviour and her mother gets her checked by the medical profession. They tell her that they can find nothing physically wrong with the child. Her behaviour gets worse and the poor love ends up strapped to a bed screaming obscenities at whoever happens to be there. Eventually, after realising medicine won’t work (there’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem, don’t you know) her mother gets a priest in to have a look at the child. The priest diagnoses a bad case of demonic possession and calls for a colleague – an expert on such matters – who comes over and the two of them have a crack at forcing the demon out of the child and back to the higher frequencies where it can get up to no harm.
During the struggle to evict the demon, one priest dies, and after the struggle which follows the discovery of the dead man, the second priest kills himself rather than be possessed by the demonic entity. The child is returned to normal and remembers nothing of the incident, and not even her shredded spinal-cord or mutilated vagina are enough to jog her fucking memory. Those are the basics of it. Anyone could flick through the movie and see that is, more or less, what happens. That is what the story is about– at least on the surface.
Friedkin’s comment is about the basic presupposition of the story: if demons exist, then a reality other than our own three-dimensional reality exists; if demons exist, their opposite numbers, angels, exist; and if angels exist then God exists, and if God exists, then (as far as Blatty cares) Christianity is true. That is the point of The Exorcist: it is meant as Christian propaganda.
Kermode knows all about the propaganda angle and uses a lengthy quotation about this from the author in his thesis. Chapter two of that thesis, ‘Paedophobia in Modern Horror Fiction,’ has a first essay entitled ‘The Strange History of The Exorcist.’ The first half of the quote mentions the “true life” possession case (more on this later) which gave Blatty the idea for his novel, but it’s the second half of the quote I’m interested in:
In my youth, I had thought about entering the priesthood; at Georgetown had considered becoming a Jesuit. A novel of demonic possession, I believed – if only I could make it sufficiently convincing – might be token fulfilment of deflected vocation. Though let me make it clear that I would never write a novel that I thought would not engross or entertain.
Kermode is suspicious and begins his commentary by saying ‘If we accept Blatty at his word we can conclude that his intentions are evangelistic [..]’ I’m unsure if I’m going to take him at his word, and for two reasons.
First, I raise an eyebrow at how he finds equivalence between a vocation into the priesthood and the writing of a horror novel. Perhaps he recognises this himself? Notice the expression ‘token fulfilment of deflected vocation.’ He seems to want to have things both ways, here. On the one hand he’s fulfilled his ‘vocation’ – or ‘done his bit’ for the team – on the other he can hardly claim that writing one novel is comparable to decades of service in the priesthood, hence the ‘token’ part of his revealing phrase.
Second, if the book really was meant as Christian propaganda, then it is certainly rubbish propaganda to start off with. The author doesn’t understand his own position.
Simply, the existence of demons in no way presupposes the existence of angels. Why should it? The late Christopher Hitchens summed this up nicely during a debate with two rabbis on the question of an afterlife. He suggested, with a sort of amused shrug, that maybe there was a God, but one with a sense of humour: good people go to hell. If there is an afterlife then the nature of it is whatever it happens to be. It could be the case that God is an evil god; it’s not a stupid idea philosophically, and for instance, in 2011, the philosopher Stephen Law took on the theologian William Lane-Craig in a debate at Westminster Central Hall and set out the basics of such a case in response to Craig’s beloved Cosmological Argument. Blatty’s idea, that the existence of angels presupposes the existence of demons is just daft. The Exorcist story is flawed from the off.
Some might object and say to me ‘calm down, dear – it’s just a story – it is fiction,’ and they’d be right, it is. I’ll happily grant the fiction-writer any premise at all: be it vampires and werewolves or worm-holes and alien intelligence. I don’t think fiction must be realist, who would? But The Exorcist is different in that its author has claimed a more serious motive than simply a desire to ‘engross or entertain’ (which he fails to do) so it’s worth looking at the foundation upon which his story sits because I’m sceptical about his motivations for writing the book to begin with. And in any case, if a person wanted to write a story which presupposed the existence of angels, why not write a story which has a few angels in it?
That’s the first problem with The Exorcist – the motivation for writing the story is philosophically incoherent, and therefore any story which comes from this confused beginning is going suffer whether the writer is a genius or not, and Blatty is not.
This doesn’t have to be the case with a premise which assumes the existence of dark spiritual forces. Oculus (a superb horror movie) manages to offer a coherent story based on a similar, ludicrous premise: the existence of malevolent forces not of this world; yet at no point does Oculus become absurd, because (and more importantly) the movie is written in such a way as to allow the visions and all the other goings-on to be symptoms of mental-illness from which the characters might be suffering. We can believe that Karen Gillan hallucinates an apple which is really a lightbulb because the entity is playing games, then drops the spell once she’s bit into it, or we can believe the hallucination is all hers and she’s shocked back to reality once her mouth appears cut. Both are possible given the movie’s presentation. A premise which is fantastic can be used as one explanation within an ambiguous scenario, adding a layer of uncertainty to the viewer.
This is why The Exorcist story is not scary. The story squats on top of its premise and remains there without offering anything ‘unknown’ or even ambiguous or uncertain of any importance. Demonic possession isn’t scary because we know what’s going on: a person is possessed by a demon. Door closed on the imagination. To properly scare a person the writer needs to appreciate that people scare themselves, and leaving some things unknown, or at least ambiguous, allows the person to fill the space with whatever scares them the most.
Orwell understood this which is why the Big Brother machine didn’t have a universal torture method inside room 101. There are no spaces for a person to fill with The Exorcist.
Another movie which understands the effectiveness of leaving some things unknown is Sinister. This movie is almost the perfect horror film, though the last sixty seconds, when the creepy entity appears with the kid in the home-movie being projected, ruin it. Up to that point we know that, although families have been murdered horribly in the backstory, one child from each family remains missing. That is scarier than the found footage we’ve been watching along with the too-curious Ethan Hawke, and it’s scary for the reason mentioned – we don’t know where those missing children are, but we’ve been told they are missing, so our subconscious minds have no choice but to start imagining.
Here’s a simple example. Stephen King withholds the information about who or what sends out the ‘the pulse’ in Cell. King knows what he’s doing. Here’s a simpler example: he injects a tiny element of the unknown into his novel Revival by choosing to tell us that nobody knows who set the lighting rod into the granite, yet he didn’t have to mention it. There are too many examples to mention. But here’s one which cannot go unmentioned:
‘…Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!’
He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.
To say that Heathcliff doesn’t react well to Cathy’s death would be the least of it, and that passage could easily have inspired the spooky warning be careful what you wish for.
Wuthering Heights is a fine example of a novel in which a character is possessed by a demon; indeed, Lovecraft calls Wuthering Heights ‘a piece of terror literature’ and says of Heathcliff ‘that he is in truth a diabolic spirit rather than a human being is more than once suggested.’ And that’s the point – it’s suggested, not gracelessly vomited in your mouth. There are several hints that Heathcliff might be more (or less) than human. For instance, our hero, embracing the frail Cathy too tightly for Nelly’s liking, isn’t grateful for the housekeeper’s concern:
‘..on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species.’
If Lovecraft is mistaken and Heathcliff isn’t a demon, then he’s certainly possessed by one. It doesn’t matter which it is. Things are implied to keep our psychology, our subconscious, a little on edge.
In addition, Bronte leaves two huge unknowns in Wuthering Heights: We are given no explanation for Heathcliff’s history: his parents and place of birth are unknown: old-man Earnshaw picks him up off the street and takes him home.
Where did he come from?
The second is even creepier. No explanation is given for how Heathcliff earns his fortune during the three years he is absent from Wuthering Heights. We are left to wonder who or what helped him become a man of means so quickly.
Where did he go?
Where Heathcliff has been is the same ‘unknown’ as the question about the missing children from Sinister.
Why didn’t Blatty understand this? Why didn’t he care?
What is “great” about a horror novel which demonstrates its author doesn’t know or care about the psychology of fear?
Five minutes of research will show that he claimed scaring his readers was never his intention; his claim is somewhat convenient. One wonders if, had the book been terrifying, he’d claim that was an accident. But this claim increases my scepticism about his motivation for writing the story.
Stories of eternity in hell have been the method used to terrify people, especially children, for centuries. By lying to children and terrifying them you can influence what they believe as adults. It’s a basic tactic and a very old racket. The scare-stories are a fundamental part of the modus-operandi of the religious recruiter. So to have no intention to scare (absurd in itself when writing a horror novel) is to drop the evangelist’s ace-card.
By denying he attempted to scare his readers, it follows he chose to be less persuasive than he could have; yet he’s also claimed to have made a (face value) evangelical case – yet persuasion is the ultimate point of evangelism.
The Exorcist doesn’t offer any sickly descriptions of the bliss of Heaven, either – true enough – but that’s a problem for Blatty, not me. It means his daft story just fails in the other direction as the Christian propaganda he claims he wanted it to be. Could it be his claim about motivation is simply ‘justification after the fact’?
What of Max Von Sydow’s comment, that The Exorcist has nothing to do with religion and is really about a child being tortured?
Subtext is obviously important and can be ‘written in’ to the story without the author’s conscious knowledge. Stephen King came to realise, for instance, that his novel, Misery, is about alcoholism. (Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ is a metaphor about this process and Alan Moore, in Writing for Comics, makes a similar point about thorough research.)
This happens thanks to the process of writing: just sitting there, hour after hour, typing away can produce an altered state, a sort of hypnotic trance, in which material gets typed into the story without the author being consciously aware of it. This material can manifest itself as the subtext or theme of the story; or sometimes the author might discover he doesn’t think what he thought he thought about a particular topic. When this happens it can be a pleasure or a shock (or maybe a shocking pleasure?) but there’s no doubt this happens. Any writer would confirm it and there’s no reason to believe Blatty doesn’t know it. He might even have been embarrassed by it.
Another interesting little psychological idea is that humans do what they do for emotional reasons, then find intellectual justification after the fact. Robert Cialdini, for instance, talks about this in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He suggests this is true whether we are buying a car or battling our way through the initiation to become a warrior of a tribe, and suffering brutal torture, to earn the ‘right’ to wear different coloured headdress from the uninitiated. (This is interesting by itself and might explain why certain ‘elite’ military regiments put so much emphasis on the colour of the beret.)
We intellectualise after the fact.
Even Kermode, die-hard Exorcist fan that he is, seems not to believe Blatty’s justifications. He says in his thesis that most critics thought the author’s reasons were ‘eccentric.’ This is just politeness on the part of anyone who thinks it – with a hint of excuse-making thrown in. His reasons were not ‘eccentric’ – they were probably ‘bullshit.’ The Exorcist is the semi-literate, barely disguised hate-fuck fantasy of a religious whack-job.
Hollywood movies make demons look barely competent in the possession business. These creatures seem to be extremely powerful and utterly ineffectual in equal measure.
As Karras asked Merrin, what does a demon gain from a possession? It gets to torture the person who is possessed and this, in turn, allows mental anguish to be inflicted upon the family of the possessed. An evil and sadistic entity, which enjoys inflicting suffering, gets to do so. That’s okay as far as it goes, but could it go further?
The priest demands that it enters him to spare the girl at the end of the story. The demon does so and attempts to force the priest to kill Regan. To protect her, he jumps out the bedroom window, falls down the stone steps and lands squarely on the spot marked ‘Hollywood legend’.
What’s the demon doing at this point?
If it could ‘jump’ from Regan into the priest then why not jump back and have Regan go the way of the priest? The demon has Regan ‘softened-up’ as it were so the lock on her psyche should be easy enough for a powerful demon to pick. (In any case, at this point, the demon has ceased squatting in Regan’s mind only moments before, so what are the chances she’s had time to put up the psychic shutters?)
So there we have an example of power and no power at the same time. Also, that the demon had to ‘jump’ from Regan to the priest is interesting. In doing that we see the demon has not the ability to be in two places (in this case, two minds) at once.
The symptoms of possession come and go – the possessed has lucid moments now and then which are used to beg for help, thus implying they are aware that something is wrong. And at other times the demon seems to be the only one at home, spitting obscenities at whoever is in attendance.
So where are the demons during the lucid moments? Having a break? Out to lunch? Possessing someone else, maybe? Perhaps one victim’s lucid moment is another’s time to vomit and climb the walls? Perhaps the mind of the victim, at some level, is battling the demon and the lucid moments represent periods during this struggle where the victim has the advantage? Whatever the reason for the demon being quiet at certain times during the possession, it seems to become mighty annoyed when a priest enters the room and begins the exorcism procedure, which is odd when its behaviour is the thing which brings the priest to the scene.
If I was a demon and I did not wish to be driven out of my victim then I might decide to stay hidden in some way. If the incantations from a priest were enough to get me evicted then I would not want a priest to show up to begin with. Why not possess a dog, or an eagle, or an astronaut on the space-station, or a prime minister or president?
What of that sweary sex talk? Pazuzu uses sexual language to taunt those close-by. Regan grabs her mother’s head, shoving it into her vagina, screaming “Lick me! Lick me!’ The sexual language doesn’t function as much more than a distraction to the priests in attendance. All the talk of cock-sucking and cunt-licking and ass-fucking might prevent them from concentrating, but anything it shouted would do that, so why sexual obscenities? What does it say about the writer, and what the writer thinks of the human animal, that all his imagination can come up with is sex talk? But assume the sex talk is a tactic, and assume it works, and the exorcism fails. We’re left with a girl tied to a bed, the demon victorious and then…what? The girl/demon goes on a rampage and uses preternatural strength to break the necks of policemen and anyone else it fancies until cornered and shot? It’s a fair question: what would have happened to Regan if both priests had failed and old Pazuzu had remained in there?
Why would some of the best hell has to offer wish to torment one uninteresting human for such a time? No reason is given; it is simply the case that it’s happened. Though the demon might be deriving twisted pleasure from torturing Regan and her family, it also suggests that they don’t have anything better to do, or that she might be worth the effort, but if she is – why?
The Exorcist is hardly the only story with this problem; more recent movies care even less about the point of possession than Blatty did, and that’s saying something.
The Devil Inside is one such movie, but it actually starts off ok. The documentary-style shooting is one which lends itself to the idea of an exorcism because such a procedure would very likely be filmed in this way. The shaky camera, the lack of space – these things add to the surface realism, giving the viewer the chance to enter the action more thoroughly than if the footage was laden with production values and effects and set-pieces: this is one advantage first-person-visual has over third-person-visual.
Consider the first exorcism shown. A young girl is strapped to a bed in her parents’ basement. Our first sight of the girl is genuinely horrific. She is under her bed sheet and contorted grotesquely out of shape. That is a sight which affects the viewer because what we are looking at is a thing which should not be: a human bent and twisted into a sick yoga parody, something from Lovecraft.
The girl is injected with a muscle relaxant and her bones crack, dislocate and twist themselves as her form is returned to normal. This scene does make one think of Regan’s head turning 360 degrees in The Exorcist – a scene which shocked many, yet is one of the more ludicrous sights in that film. The Devil Inside’s contortion-in-reverse is not so absurd because the contortions seem to be possible without killing the possessed human. Regan’s head-spinning would have left the child dead after the demon leaves her for the unfortunate priest, yet she is fine at the end of the film.
Once relaxed, the attending priests set to work to rid the girl of the thing which possesses her, a demon called Berith.
This allows us to know the two priests (who are performing exorcisms off-the-books) are serious practitioners of the ritual and just the fellows to help sort out the lead-character’s mother. This victim isn’t the point of the film, but even this victim, when in demon-mode, has to mention blow-jobs to one of the priests.
The mother has been possessed for fifteen years and by four demons. If four of them are in there, surely there’s a good reason and the victim is worth the effort? Alas, nothing is suggested as an explanation (but they might be enjoying baffling the incompetent doctors.)The Exorcist has but one demon doing the possession-for-the-sake-of-it, four is ridiculous.
One of the most offensive possession movies ever – and a film which is actually worse than Left Behind – is The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The movie should actually be called The Implied Gang Rape of Emily Rose, because that’s what it’s about. A young farm girl gets raped – the rapists take Emily’s virginity – and she’s tortured by the guilt for the rest of her miserable life.
The film is another attempt at Christian propaganda, and in this respect it’s better than Blatty’s child-rape wankathon, but that just makes it more insulting to the intelligence.
That is a basic outline of the subtext. One could say that, after reading the outline, they know what the film is about.
The key to this conclusion lies in the flashback scenes which come while hearing the testimony of the witnesses in court. Without carving up each flashback scene and attributing it to each witness, I’ll give another outline of the story-within-a-story which the flashbacks represent and mention some scenes from the present in more detail.
A young and attractive farm-girl is jumping up and down on her bed because she’s heard that she has won a scholarship to university. Her mother bursts in to her room and Emily stops her child-like behaviour and becomes serious, telling her far-from-worldly mother that a scholarship means “they pay for everything”. This tells us from where Emily is coming: a non-sophisticated, non-metropolitan, simple background of good, honest work “down on the farm;” Sunday-school and bible-class; in other words, a traditional god-fearing all-American background. (They’re big on chastity, by the way.)
We then cut to a close up of a Martini – two olives, not one – on the counter of an ultra-modern metropolitan bar. This is where the hot-shot city lawyers hang-out and drink expensive martinis. The place is chrome and glass and the exotic alcohol on the shelves behind the bar give the place colour. Its customers are sharp-suited city sophisticates, and Erin Bruner is first seen here, doing a deal with her boss to take Fr. Moore’s case in return for promotion. She is clearly the opposite of Emily Rose. That is the first thing to note: the church-bake sale purity of Emily in contrast to the slick, amoral lawyer.
Erin Bruner takes the case after making sure there is something in it for herself (she’s obviously a bitch) and her boss is happy because she recently won a case for a client (who is not featured in the movie, but is very relevant to Bruner’s story arc and will be mentioned later) and is, therefore, on something of a roll.
Emily Rose finds herself away from the protective bosom of her family for the first time. There she is: on her own in for the first time, sleeping in a dormitory at university. Some things need to be noted about the university. The place is, without doubt, the most poorly lit educational establishment I’ve ever seen represented on film. The place is unreasonably dark and yet universities are meant to be the places of enlightenment. I wonder why the university is portrayed this way.
One scene, in which Emily has a vision of another student’s face becoming demonic is set in a class-room with students at desks, but the room is sufficiently dark that you wouldn’t be able to read your notes; in addition, this particular lesson is taking place at night. The non-subtle implication is that universities are dark and miserable places and should be avoided. (This is, actually, far from standard with Hollywood movies, even horror movies. There are too many movies to mention in which the college or high school the doomed characters go to, or are already attending when the film starts, is packed with noise, life and colour and parties involving lots of booze and lots of sex. One could get the impression from Hollywood’s depiction of college-life that it’s one big fuckathon.)
After leaving her life of dust and dungarees for the unlit university, she has a nasty experience. She wakes up at 3:00am, disturbed by something, and wanders out into the hall to check. We get a shot of a corridor with the door now swinging open. This is an odd shot (demons don’t use doors) but wasn’t filmed by accident, so I wonder what the director was trying to suggest?
She goes back to her room and climbs back into bed. What is this girl, newly left-home and on her own in the adult world, wearing in bed? She doesn’t wear a short, slinky night-shirt or cropped top and shorts – nothing like that, there’s no dirty, shameful, gratuitous flesh on display; no, Emily is wearing a passion-killing boring nightdress which no red-blooded frat-boy would ever strain his jock-strap for a chance to get into. So it’s clear the good-girl from the good Christian home has kept to her roots and not become a dirty slut who has sex outside marriage. It’s the laughable bed-wear which convinced me about the rape, not just the sex.
This is when she gets attacked, for the first time, by the demonic entity. Invisible hands pull her covers away and an unseen weight holds her down. She is left crying and shrieking on her knees at the side of her bed after this attack and the scene is exactly what one would expect after a rape. She runs from her room, sobbing, into the night.
Now, it needs to be mentioned that it is not only Emily Rose, in flashback, who is “visited” by demons, her priest’s lawyer, Erin Bruner, is harassed by the forces of darkness in the present day. It is her contact with the demons which confirms what the entities require of a potential human host to gain access. The answer is guilt. The back-story is that Erin recently got a “not guilty”, and that victory was one of the reasons for her boss offering her the Fr. Moore case. As Erin sits in her local cocktail bar – the sophisticated bar with all the glass and chrome and exotic booze – she sees a news story on the television about a man just arrested. That man is, obviously, the guy she got-off and – would you believe it? – he’s only gone and killed someone; thus confirming that slick-lawyers are shysters and giving Erin a perfect reason to find the Christian goodness lurking under her weapons-grade ambition and begin to see the error of her godless ways. (This process of finding herself and changing her shitty attitude takes the rest of the film, but is complete when she speaks to Fr. Barron for the last time, when she has, in a symbolic way, become a Christian and by definition redeemed herself.) The murder on the television news gives Erin – crucially in terms of the movie’s underlying theme – a reason to feel guilty about something.
After seeing this news story and realising she put a bad man on the streets to kill, the very next shot shows the consequences of that guilt. She comes out of a toilet cubicle and approaches the sinks to wash her hands. There is, it appears, nobody else in there. Then she is startled by a loud crash and a tall, black-clad figure exits a cubicle and approaches the sink next to her. It is unclear if this figure is male or female, but, in addition to the black clothes, this male or female figure is wearing either a hood or scarf, obscuring its head. Erin gives this odd addition to the cast-list a quick, nervous look and exits the bathroom. The figure doesn’t look at her, but we can clearly see that its eyes are hidden in dark shadows giving it an obvious and deliberately sinister appearance. This is a demon. The point of this scene is to show that the guilt she feels about getting a bad guy back on the streets is the doorway the demons use to get access to their victims; and the intensity of guilt is in direct relation to the intensity of the possession or the mischief the demons are able to enact upon the guilty person. Erin feels not much guilt about the guy she let off, so the demons can only clang a door here and there in her apartment. Emily’s guilt is significantly more intense.
Emily Rose has not one, but six demons inside her wreaking havoc, so one is forced to ponder what the poor love feels guilty about? There’s also the idea of possession to begin with, and the question of why six demons would infest the mind of this unlucky female.
Emily Rose should be better, smarter, slicker and cleverer than The Exorcist, but it’s more ludicrous – it’s a downright ugly movie. It rejects knowledge, reason, education and enlightenment for dumb hick myths of the supernatural.
I have to check every few weeks that this insulting trash was made by the same bloke who made Sinister. I can hardly believe it.
While possessed, Emily has a vision and is told that heaven is not indifferent to her suffering, and is offered the chance to end her agony by dying straightaway. That doesn’t seem very charitable, but remember God moves in mysterious ways. Emily is told the demons will not leave her alone if she goes back to her body. Heaven is not indifferent, but won’t be sending anyone out. That the demons will not leave her alone is another way of saying she will never get over the guilt and trauma of the gang-rape.
Heaven does suggest that if she returns to her physical body, suffers at the hands of the demons for as long as she can last, others will learn from her example and be inspired to come to Christ because, obviously – and here we go again – if demons exist and can do terrible things to us, it rather suggests that angels exist and we might want to take out some religious insurance. Her sacrifice is for the greater good and a lesson to us all. I’m sure I’ve heard that story somewhere before.
Emily Rose, in all but name, becomes a modern day messiah, her case bringing about an increase in people coming to the church and leaves everyone happy.
There’s nothing about this film which is any good. A person could argue that there is at least a reason for the possession of Emily, unlike Regan, but the reason is the subtext, remember, not on the surface of things. On the surface we are meant to believe she’s actually possessed by demons with nothing better to do.
This should be the other way about, with the rape on the surface, as something we see has happened to her, and the guilt/demonic dynamic happening down in the subtext where we can’t see it and have to ask if she’s really possessed or losing her mind because of that guilt: a similar ambiguity to the structure of Oculus. To have the physical in the subtext and the supernatural on the surface is a strange way to arrange matters.
And Emily Rose is, like Blatty’s novel, claims to have been based on a true story, and it might be claims like this which annoy me more than anything else about films like this.
It might be true that these tales were based on true stories, but ‘based on a true story’ just means it’s true the story was reported, not that the story was true. The ‘true stories’ Emily Rose and The Exorcist were based on were not genuine cases of possession because demons don’t exist.
The story would just be ridiculous, but for the author’s claim it was written for theological reasons. Because of that, the story is worse than ridiculous, and shouldn’t be taken seriously by any thinking person.