Body and Soul

Ah, The Exorcist (1973). That Most Iconic of Horror Movies. That onslaught of sacrilege, holy water, and pea soup vomit (or so pop culture would have you believe). It’s this week’s pick for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, and you know what? Beyond being a repository of gory iconography, it’s a seriously good-looking movie. William Friedkin and Owen Roizman—the latter of whom also lensed ’70s classics like The Stepford Wives and Network—shoot it mostly as a domestic drama, where drab colors and cozy furnishings belie the growing evil. As the exorcism nears, though, they employ some stark chiaroscuro.

That’s when we get the famous shot above, one of my favorites, with Father Merrin going up to the MacNeils’ house. Borrowing, I think, from The Night of the Hunter’s expressionism, it’s a tantalizing prelude to the film’s expulsive climax; it charts just how far this urban homestead has descended into gothic madness. Merrin’s silhouette suggests a man of mystery, a man burdened by unpleasant knowledge who remains (judging by that toolkit) an absolute professional. He’ll be shaken up soon, th0ugh, thanks to one very special girl.

Together, these constitute my favorite image in The Exorcist. (To avoid cheating, though, I’ll name the lower-right shot as “best.”) They showcase Linda Blair’s decidedly normal-girl visage as it transforms, through the addition of scars and contact lenses, into that of a demon incarnate. But it’s not just makeup and Mercedes McCambridge’s voice that enact this metamorphosis. Blair’s whole demeanor changes: without losing the audience’s eye contact, she goes from victim to agent of terror, and her attitude shifts from bed-ridden supplication to caustic resentment.

Her camera-directed gaze establishes a visual continuity between the before and after, and in both phases, it’s haunting. It implicates us in both her suffering and her demon-induced rage. I find that hospital-bound before picture the most disturbing, though. Pazuzu’s condescension is one thing, but Blair’s pallor and confusion are hard to stomach. She just looks like a sick little girl who’d much rather be drawing or playing than smothered under layers of medical equipment. And as she catches our eyes, she seems to be asking—calmly, patiently, with good humor—“Why me?”

All that vomit and blood would be meaningless without this sick little girl. Her pain is what makes The Exorcist is so scary.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Body and Soul

  1. Ashlee

    You pretty much captured what I thought to have been key to the film, Andreas. I did a lot of onion peeling with this film…

  2. maja

    i watched it for the probably sixth time yesterday (amazing, each time), and i looked up for some trivia on imdb afterwards. so, according to it, that famous shot of father merrin coming out of the cab and standing in the light is actually inspired by the painting “L’Empire des lumières” by rene magritte. although, it really is very similar to “the night of the hunter” shot.

    • I’ve read about the Magritte connection—and actually referenced it in the alt-text of the top image—but I think it’s perfectly possible that Friedkin and Roizman were influenced by Magritte and Laughton/Cortez, just given the uncanny resemblance to the Night of the Hunter shot. Hard to say, though: visual genealogies like this are fuzzy unless someone involved with the shoot gives us concrete information, as Ellen Burstyn did here. Ideally, I’d love to ask Friedkin if he’s a NOTH fan, which wouldn’t surprise me, what with the films’ similar treatments of faith, evil, and childhood.

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