This was one of the films that was at the very bottom of my to-watch list. I’m serious, the last thing I wanted to see was a film about a 12 year-old girl who has been possessed by the devil; talk about nightmares! But when it’s assigned for class, you’re obligated to watch it. Plus, I mean, isn’t college partly about experiencing things a bit out of comfort zone? (And no, I’m not talking about unsafe things or events, but rather ideas.)
It’s really hard for me to watch a film from the 1970s now and NOT think about the role women play in the film and their relationships with the world (and men) around them. But then again, this film begs you to read it in that light. Come on, the (single!) mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous and successful film actress. She leads a life of luxury, one where she can employ two or three people to do the everyday chores around the house. Remember when the detective comes to ask if she remembers if she was to receive any packages or visitors the day the director Bruke died? “I don’t know, Karl usually takes care of all those of things.” (More or less what she said, but you get the picture.)
So not only does Chris live in a well-furnished house that she rents while filming her movie, but she has an extremely happy and close relationship with her daughter, Regan. Regan is Chris’s world, and there is nothing in the world she wouldn’t do for her. (The film is a testament to that.) But then the strange things start happening, and I’m not talking about the devil entering Regan’s body.
Paralleling this story is that of Father Damien Karras. He’s a priest, good-looking, maybe in his mid to late 30s, and isn’t completely sure of his faith anymore. Part of this comes from his guilt for his mother’s death. It’s mentioned that had Damien become the psychiatrist as a lay person, he could have afforded comfortable living arrangements for his mother. It isn’t until after his mother’s death that Damien is asked to perform the exorcism.
This film isn’t really about an exorcism or the devil, but rather an awareness and anxiety of women’s awakening sexuality. This really isn’t a revelation in the film studies world, but I had no idea this (and other themes as well) were underlying the film. Not just an anxiety of female sexuality, but of female independence. Remember Chris and her conversation with the detective? The moment she says that Karl takes care of the things around the house, like the mail (AKA stereotypically a “woman’s” concern), the detective gives a face that renders like disapproval. When Chris asks him if he wants her to call Karl back, he says no, that it “doesn’t matter.”
The thing that struck me about the devil inhabiting Regan was every obscene thing it said had to do with sexuality. While saying a sexual obscenity once or twice is bad, there are many other evil and awful things the devil could say. This constant reference to sex and sexual aggression makes sense when one remembers that Regan is 12 years old, just at the verge of womanhood. So, essentially what I derive from this is that female sexuality is shocking and evil, in a sense. Remember what sets Damien off when talking with the devil is that his mother is in hell having, er, relations with many men.
While the film is interesting and brought much more than I thought it would, I don’t think I actually like it. I just wish blockbusters like this existed nowadays. (Or maybe I’m too narrow-minded in thinking blockbuster = superhero movies.)
William Friedkin is quoted as saying he wasn’t “aware of any far-reaching social problems” in The Exorcist. This baffles me because it seems that for someone working on it for at least a year would begin to notice these things- I mean, you’re living and breathing this project. Unless it’s subconscious; I’m not sure. Regardless, the social problems are there and they’re glaring.