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The Exorcist

the-exorcist.jpgIn a much older land than ours, we see an archeological dig in what once was this Mesopotamian city.  There we are led to an elderly Jesuit that has decided to reinvigorate his existence with the pursuit of ancient artefacts, and we know from this type of setup that he will find something astonishingly evil.  The object in question is a pendant.  “From a much earlier period,” says one of his Iraqi colleagues.  One side of the pendant has an inscription whereas the obverse is effaced. He continues burrowing through the reddish earth until he comes across what he feared he might come across, a grinning icon that cannot be anything except unholy.  This image was worshiped by ancient dwellers like a god, and a statue was even erected which, for some reason, has survived the ruins and erosion of time.  It stands, dirty but fully intact, amidst the civilization that is no longer, and one gets the very unpleasant impression that it might have been instrumental in its demise.  Our Jesuit, whose name is Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), senses this coming confrontation the moment the icon finds his hand and does what so many must do when evil crosses their path: he tries to convince us (with, wonderful to relate, almost no words) that his premonition was incorrect.  But he doesn’t believe it and neither do we.  He stands before the statue and sees a guardsman whose face is darkened by the shadows of the rubble; wild dogs, almost hyenas, fight and snap at one another; and suddenly he is standing mere inches away from the crazed, inhuman smile.  Thus begins this monumental film.

We move continents to a genteel district beside the most famous of American Jesuit universities.  There we sweep the steps of another priest, a Greek-American called Damien Karros (Jason Miller), who is destined to become the younger foil to Merrin.  Karros is not only a Jesuit, he is also a psychiatrist, having been sent by the Brothers to study at Harvard and Bellevue, yet his actions and words belie his education.  Karros prefers boxing (and physically resembles a young Sylvester Stallone) and bemoaning his lot at the local watering hole.  How strange it is that the priests banter and gripe like policemen – spiritual policemen, one supposes – bereft of all purity of thought or intent!  For all his training and exposure to both science and theology, Karros has still managed to lose his faith or at least enough of it to question why he still wears the collar.  The Georgetown campus is also the site of a film whose star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has taken up residence in one of the area’s posher houses, with a view onto the Potomac and adjacent to a treacherous flight of steps.  Materialist, rude, arrogant, hysterical, domineering, and devoid of any religious beliefs, MacNeil remains someone whose milk of human kindness has long since soured.  She has a twelve−year−old daughter Regan (Linda Blair), but her estranged husband only appears as the target of her telephone jeremiads.  Like all children, Regan intuits that the problems between her parents are far graver than her mother allows her to think and withdraws ever so slightly from activities.  Even with little knowledge of the film’s progression, the viewer detects the contrapuntal relationship between the wealth and atheism of MacNeil and the horrific events to which her daughter will be subjected.  That MacNeil’s first name is the essence of the faith she will require to save her child is obvious.  Slapdash research shows, however, that in Gaelic MacNeil means “son of might,” or “son of a dark complexion,” or “son of a champion,” or “son of a storm cloud,” and Regan means “the king’s child” or “impulsive, furious” – all of which augments the suggestive nature of these names into allegory.

Regan becomes the battleground for two forces that require no introduction but much more information, which the film, as it were, wisely does not provide.  This is not and never wishes to be a documentary.  Although loosely based on purported events, the possession for which graphic detail seems to have been created has the savory, coincidental quality of fiction and is best kept in that realm.  Instead, we are asked to consider the subtle touches.  Should we remember the face of the homeless man sitting in the corner just a couple of yards away from a train Karros is about to catch?  Will that face twist into the epitome of darkness?  Perhaps his words will turn out to be more important.  And what of Karros’s dream, where he sees that pendant (the first link between the two parts), a black dog, a glimpse at something horrible and inhuman, and then his mother, distant, far out of earshot, descending a subway station and himself powerless to stop her?  And the ward where his mother is kept, as all the inmates accost and swipe at him as if trapped within a prison of souls, a small arc of one of hell’s larger circles?  So when the baffled neurologists (all eighty−eight of them) suggest that Regan has “a disorder that we don’t see anymore except in some primitive cultures,” we laugh at their incompetence masquerading as smugness (topped only by that of an even more insufferable hypnotist).  But their first instinct is in a way very right: familial strife breeds the worst type of behavior, and its collapse can destroy a person, especially a child, permanently (that is not to say, however, that we are watching an allegory for a failed family).  Then a scene that has no scientific explanation takes place and we understand, at last, what we might be dealing with, while doctors insist that there is a lesion in Regan’s temporal lobe although their encephalogram indicates nothing at all.  I suppose they didn’t notice that Regan had taken to drawing hyenas and black dogs.

Reader Comments (4)

"Karros prefers boxing (and physically resembles a young Sylvester Stallone) and bemoaning his lot at the local watering hole. How strange it is that the priests banter and gripe like policemen — spiritual policemen, one supposes — bereft of all purity of thought or intent! For all his training and exposure to both science and theology, Karros has still managed to lose his faith or at least enough of it to question why he still wears the collar."


A keen observation, however, having myself spent years at the seminary, and prior to therefore at Georgetown itself as if by coincidence, I must respectfully disagree that Karros's banter and griping at the local watering hole is bereft of thought or intent. If I had a nickel for every night at the seminary when I "bantered" with my colleagues at our local watering hole in Boston, I would be a very, very wealthy man.

I have always felt that this film is a beautiful portrayal of a priest who, as a human being, struggles with his faith, but at the end of the day recovers it in a way that words are unable to describe. Far from being a man who has lost his faith, Karros endures the most difficult of quandaries: he faces his own doubts, faces evil itself, and at the conclusion of the film, he CHOOSES to offer himself for the salvation of another human being. And this is the essence of a man whose faith, while shaken, is not at all lost, but is indeed affirmed and redeemed.

This is a film not about the loss of faith, but about the lengths to which committed priests of Christ will go to reclaim it.

In my own humble words and opinions,

I remain truly yours,

July 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul (at

Well said, my dear Paul. My impression was that the conversations that Karros would have with his colleagues were very ordinary and banal, but most of life is ordinary and banal. I would not have spruced up the script with elevated language (wholly out of place in a barroom setting), but would have added a little more depth to his quibbles. Again, he is weary, his mother is ill and a couple of hundred miles away, and science has conspired to make him think twice about the validity of his beliefs. It is, as you rightly say, a perfect depiction of the correct moral choice, to absorb the demon and save the child, which he does regardless of any benefit to him. In this situation, he does not think but only believes and follows the instinct of his convictions.

I'm glad that we both admire such a film, whose gore and vulgarity are repulsive but quite in keeping with the subject matter.


July 13, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

This film is arguably the scariest ever made. It creates its monsters in simple doubt. Doubt about faith. Doubt in science. The central beast is lodged in a child, but here again the nature of the monster is not fully known. Is it Satan? Is it a lesser demon? It could be something apart from human experience altogether. Fear is all pervasive. It resides in small sounds like rats moving inside the walls. In toys and chests of drawers. Everything is a possible threat.

I agree that the theme of faith, doubt then redemption is beautifully played out in the film. But to me the glue that holds the film together is Ellen Burstyn's performance. She faces the unimaginable with believable humanity. When she says to the priest, "Tell me that thing upstairs is my daughter!" she perfectly conveys all our frustrations with 'experts' that seem to look down at us and make great pronouncements, but don't see what we see. They are not in the trenches with us and yet think they know what's really going on. She brings that priest back into the trench from whence he came. He had lost sight of the flock wrestling with his doubt in the lofty clouds of intellectualism. Now he's made to face something visceral, ugly and sticky with bodily fluids. A mother's despair is what sweeps the fog away. She's crying out for help and this priest must respond even if he doesn't fully understand the evil he is to confront. This is truly beautiful and deeply moving in a film who's trappings are gross and often disgusting.

September 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Durham

Burstyn as a strawman skeptic could easily have been a hateful performance, especially given the materialist rubbish she spouts -- but we actually pity her as Regan deteriorates. Thanks for your feedback, David.

September 10, 2009 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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