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The Exorcist (1973) October 31st, 2022

Our annual October Horror Marathon was truncated this year due to our move. We made up as much time as possible by committing all Halloween day to horror movies. My first (obligatory) choice was The Exorcist. With it’s 2+ hour run time I knew the longer movie of the night needs to kickoff the marathon like Kwaidan had in 2020. While I expected a violent scary movie, I didn’t expect it to kill our momentum right out the gate.

The Exorcist is a massive cultural touchstone billed as the scariest movie of all time. Amend that to ‘the scariest movie in a narrow sliver of time’ and I might agree. For as long as I can remember people of my parents age spoke about The Exorcist in hushed tones. A movie so scary people ran from the theater screaming and throwing up. The same movie Scary Movie 2 spent 10 minutes roasting in its opening sequence? That’s the most notorious horror film of all time? I bought into the hype and saved it for a special occasion like Halloween. My wife, whose mother was one of those catholic moviegoers The Exorcist forever scarred, had already seen it and was reluctant to watch it again. Nevertheless, I insisted.

The Exorcist has a decent plot. A distraught mother desperately exhausts all available medical science to save her daughter from a mysterious illness only to discover the child is possessed by a demon. Meanwhile a young priest with exorcism experience struggles with a crisis of faith before reluctantly lending his expertise to the mysteriously ill girl’s case. That’s the good part of the plot, the lame part involves Max Von Sydow’s archeologist priest character who’s responsible for introducing the demon element into the film. I don’t remember which version we watched (theatrical or extended or director’s cut) but whichever version we saw began with 20 minutes of Max walking around dusty Iraq like Indiana Jones. His character has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie so this prelude only serves to delay the real story and by the time the movie gets going it’s too late. Jason Miller, Max Von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair all deliver amazing performances in The Exorcist but nothing can save it from the Rosemary’s Baby problem. Neither catholic horror movie lives up to their hype.

In my Dune review I wrote about the problem when viewing a classic work decades after its release when countless contemporary works already mocked or ripped it off. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are two of those groundbreaking horror films buried by the success of their successors. I wonder if those same people The Exorcist terrified in 1973 have revisited their horrors? I wonder how many people’s emotional memories cloud their perceptions of how well a work of art holds up.

Earlier in the month I shared with my wife a movie that lived in my emotional memory as a horrifically realistic nightmare. The McPherson Tape AKA U.F.O Abduction. My memory of The McPherson Tape is it aired on UPN in the mid 90s as a found footage film that ‘could be proof’ of aliens existence. I was a 10 year old with aliens on the brain. All I could think about was Independence Day and wondering when would I be allowed to see Starship Troopers. I begged my mom to watch The McPherson Tape with me because I thought it could be real, maybe aliens really were landing on earth and UPN had the proof. The McPherson Tape is centered on a McPherson family birthday party and is shot with a home video camera (like The Blair Witch Project). After seeing a fireball in the sky the three older men in the family, all brothers, walk into the woods to find the crash site and discover aliens surveying the damaged ship. The aliens spot the brothers and chase them back to their cabin/house. The rest of the film is a loud blurry mess of alien home invasion while family members get picked off by little gray men (children in halloween costumes).

As a kid I was terrified, I remember when the movie was over I made my mom help me pack a bugout bag just incase we ever found ourselves in the midst of an alien abduction. Over two decades later that same fear gripped me again as I watched it in the same house I had the first time. The thing is, that’s not exactly what happened.

Turns out The McPherson Tape was produced in 1989 and found cult like success in the found footage scene. Director Dean Alioto marketed that success into a The McPherson Tape remake and retitle it Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake Country. That was the movie I saw on TV in 1998, which explained why so much of The McPherson Tape felt off but still familiar. My wife thought The McPherson Tape was an interesting novelty but ultimately unwatchable and she’s right, but my emotional memory was so strong that I was watched in the grip of terror as the horror I remembered flowed back into me with renewed gusto. No matter how cheesy the effect, no matter how much the cast shouted their lines over one another, I was still on the edge of my seat because I remembered being afraid. When it was over, I agreed with my wife, quite the novelty but not a watchable movie.

I suspect most people The Exorcist initially terrified would find it campy and tame by today’s standards and might even laugh at how much pea soup they carried with them all these years later. Maybe it resonated more with Catholics 50 years ago than with atheists today. The most memorably scary part for me was seeing how desperate Ellen Burstyn was to help her daughter only to discover there was nothing medical science could do to help her. Not being able to treat a patient really is a far more horrifying premise than demonic possession. Same with Rosemary’s Baby, the worst part of that movie isn’t the satanism, it’s the rape. A young woman is married to a man who drugs her, gaslights her, and rapes her until she’s pregnant… that’s fucking dark.

I’m grateful to have finally watched The Exorcist but I think the only way I’d watch it again is in some kind of academic setting. I’d sit through a lecture on the film in the hopes that someone could enlighten me by exposing its less obvious merits.

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