Monday, February 1, 2010

Exorcise Routine

Last night's film was "The Exorcist", the 1973 film about family, love and the pain of growing up. It was a film that caused a large number of young priests to major in "demon-ectomy" in priest school, and an even larger number of mothers raising difficult daughters to invest in vomit guards.

The plot synopsis--a famous actress named Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn, who was not a famous actress at the time so it took some serious acting skill on her part--she would later star in the Nick Cage comedy remake of "The Wicker Man") is living in Georgetown (in D.C., not Guyana) with her daughter Regan, an au pair named Sharon, and an older German couple that claims to be Swiss (which is what I'd do if I were an ex-Nazi). Why Georgetown, you ask? Don't ask, it's not important. The point is it gives the film some great familiar locations for those of us living in the area. Anyway, Regan starts doing some hilarious hijinks, such as interrupting cocktail parties to spook out an astronaut and urinating on the carpet (ah, to be 13 again!) and gyrating violently on her bed (though unlike most teenagers, Regan was doing this involuntarily). Chris, unable to discipline the kid with a bamboo rod, takes her to a series of psychiatrists who use their years of clinical experience and modern testing methods to suggest she instead go to an exorcist. At first, Chris is all "eek!" but then Regan starts slapping her around and talking in some gutteral older man's voice and that pretty much seals it.

What also sort of seals it is that the director for Chris' film, an ornery British jerk named Burke, is found dead at the bottom of the steps in Georgetown that lead to M Street (now of course known to locals as "the Exorcist steps") with his head turned completely around. The top of the steps are within a short hop from the MacNeil house, so a police detective (played by veteran actor Lee J. Cobb!) starts nosing around. Chris is basically sure her daughter is possessed, and did the murder--and needs to do something. Granting full custody to her estranged husband and moving to France would have been my suggestion, but nobody ever takes my suggestions.

She tracks down a Jesuit priest named Damian Karras, a man distraught about losing his elderly mother, who reluctantly goes to see the girl. You see, in 1973 the Church was a bit embarrassed about its history of exorcisms, much the same way as Ellen Burstyn would later be embarrassed about "The Wicker Man". Karras sees Regan, who's all tied down on her bed (to keep her from attacking people and violating herself with a crucifix--yes it was pretty gross), and though he's not in his priest outfit she seems to know he's a preist, and that his mother died, and a number of phrases in Latin (and not the easy ones either, like "carpe diem" or "e pluribus unum"). She also vomits some green goo at him, which makes me think that the director had a vat of guacamole handy on set and was like "hey why not?".

Karras becomes convinced that this kid has a devil in her, and at this point I'm like "hey, if the devil is stuck in some girl tied to a bed, he can't be up to much trouble! We can try for world peace now!" which is interesting because 1973 was also the year of the U.S. signing the agreement to end the Vietnam War. Coincidence? You decide! But Karras wants to expel the demon, so he calls on esteemed elder priest Lancaster Merrin, who has performed exorcisms before, and is played by Max von Sydow (who would go on to play the head villain in 1980s "Flash Gordon" movie--oh how the mighty have fallen!).

Merrin shows up, just in time to hear Regan/Demon making cow-like noises from upstairs. I half expected some light comedy--like the priest asking Chris "is this the right house?"--but instead he gravely heads upstairs to lead the exorcism. He's met this Devil before, you see.

Far as I could tell, an exorcism consists of reciting religious verses, spraying holy water on the possessed person, and wiping green guacamole off your face each time they spit up on you. You also need to remember the Devil is a liar! The Devil will say things like "buy stock in Enron" and "really, that new Nick Cage film is worth the ten bucks" but you are not to believe it. Also, the possessed body may levitate, and you have to resist the urge to get your picture taken under the floating body. Apparently, all of this results in casting the demon out.

Sadly, it works out poorly--Father Karras gets spooked because the demon does a great impression of his mother's voice, and Father Merrin makes him leave the room. When Karras returns, he sees Merrin dead at the foot of the bed--it isn't clear how he died, but we did notice him taking pills earlier in the movie so he may have had a heart condition, made worse by the exorcism. What we do know is Karras then flies into a rage and starts to beat up Regan/Demon, which we sort of wanted to see all along. He hollers "come into me, damn you" and then Regan's voice goes from that of Vin Diesel to her original voice of a scared girl, meaning the devil is out, and we suddenly see Karras' eyes glaze over and we know the demon is in him. In a final burst of strength, Karras flings himself out the window and down the now-famous steps, dying on M Street below. He has sacrificed himself to save the kid.

All in all, this is one of my favorite films--while the premise is fantastical, they execute it well, giving you a good sense of how people might rationally react to such a crazy situation. But if any of my kids someday get it into their head to get demon-possessed, I'm going to use a Calvinist priest so I can find out how things will turn out ahead of time.


  1. Those steps are pretty scary in real life. I'm still trying to figure out why they build what appears to be a ramp leading to the top of them. Really gives the effect that you're going to be sucked down into the abyss.

  2. M Snay--I sometimes wonder if there's a record of people actually getting injured on those steps.