The Exorcist is not a film that scares me. It may be that as I am not religious I have no real fear of the devil or possession. That is not to suggest that it is a bad film. It is shocking, disturbing, difficult, even powerful, just, for me anyway, not scary.
Part of the problem was the lack of ambiguity. I thought there was no suggestion that Regan’s problem was anything other than possession. It was written on her face and on her body. Again, I think my lack of religious belief lets me down. This was just something I am not capable of believing in. Last week, I saw the film again. As part of Sheffield’s DocFest, there was a showing of The Fear of God, a documentary about The Exorcist, a Q&A with Mark Kermode and then a showing of The Exorcist. I have to admit that the main draw was Kermode who is always incredibly intelligent about film and who I admire greatly. I have to admit that I’ve always been a little unconvinced by his championing of The Exorcist when I so often agree with his opinions about films.
The documentary was brilliant, not least because it showed how difficult special effects were before CGI and how borderline insane William Friedkin was. It is always fun to open up a film and find out exactly how it was put together. Well worth a watch if you are at all interested in horror.
Kermode was his usual charming and knowledgeable self. He dismissed notions that we are desensitized to violence these days, pointing out that this is a debate that has been running almost as long as the film industry itself. Most interestingly, he explained exactly what parts of the film impressed him even after more than 200 views. (Can you imagine seeing a film that many times? I’ve seen my favourite film, It’s a Wonderful Life 5 times.) I found myself excited by watching The Exorcist and spotting these things myself.
One of the things that Kermode said about the film was that when you watched it for the first time, it was unrelenting but watching it for a second time, you would be able to spot the more subtle effects. I found that hard to believe.
It was 1998 when I first saw The Exorcist and it was a completely jarring experience. It felt like one terrible moment after the other. I read once that one of the reasons The Exorcist was such a difficult watch was that it showed no sympathy for its teenage heroine. I could only agree. It was completely without mercy. Every image was shocking, sickening, utterly painful. I could completely understand people vomiting in the aisles or running into the nearest church.
So I found it hard to imagine that it would be different the second time around. And some scenes where just as difficult even when you knew what to expect. The sight of a teenage girl, plunging a crucifix between her bloody legs will always remain one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen. But Kermode was right, I was able to notice other things. For a start, one thing that disturbed me, that I barely remembered from the first time, was the horror of all the invasive processes that the medical profession force on to Regan. It is interesting to note that the problems really seem to come to a head after her father forgets her birthday. No wonder she was so very angry.
It became apparent that you could read this as something other than a religious parable. Regan’s bodily transformation could represent the changes at adolescence. It could be a manifestation of her very real anger. It could also represent the fears that adults have about the younger generation. So it became a much better, more interesting film on second watching. Still not frightening as such but certainly more interesting and more powerful.