‘The Exorcist’ brings out something special in David Eick of ‘Battlestar’

Sept. 13, 2010 | 2:34 p.m.

GUEST ESSAY

The day after Christmas 1973, “The Exorcist” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and Hollywood horror films would never be viewed in quite the same way.  The film is back in the spotlight with the Sept. 30 one-night release of “The Exorcist Extended Director’s Cut”  at more than 450 theaters nationwide and that edition’s Oct. 5 release on Blu-ray in a special high-definition, two-disc set that also includes the original theatrical version. The movie is often called the scariest film of all time, and its influence runs far and deep. One of the devoted disciples of the William Friedkin classic is David Eick, the executive producer of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica,” the acclaimed science-fiction shows that were informed by the merciless, genre-transcendent example of “The Exorcist.”

A scene from "The Exorcist." (Warner Bros.)

“Well, you know, it’s based on a true story, right?”

Those 10 words, spoken to my 12-year-old self by my fallen Catholic stepfather Vic, standing in our Phoenix kitchen in the wee hours of some godforsaken night in 1980, changed everything. Forever. I was a serious movie geek whose nascent social life already had one foot in its grave. Pale from lack of sun (no small feat in Arizona) and armed with my collection of Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael movie reviews, I routinely forced my preteen neighborhood chums – most of whom would later be forbidden to venture anywhere near the Eick house – to join me for (VCR!!) screenings of “The Deer Hunter,” “Network,” “Lenny,” “Taxi Driver” and any other R-rated forbidden fruit I could sink my meat hooks into. But when I saw the CBS world network television premiere of “The Exorcist” (sans foul language and bloody-crucifix-masturbation-“lick me”-scene, of course), I thought it wasn’t just a great horror film, but maybe the best movie I’d ever seen, period.  It inspired hell-bent visions of a career in show business, where I might thrill, shock and terrify unsuspecting victims with an approach to so-called “genre” storytelling that would upend expectations with disarming, documentary-like believability and undeniable realism. It was suddenly possible to disrespect the long-held tradition of playful scares. Grounded, tactile verisimilitude could be imposed where it absolutely did not belong. The time had finally come to punish the audience for its smug sense of blithe security. Horror, fantasy and science fiction were no longer obliged to be “fun.” These genres now had the capacity to inflict something far deeper. Trauma. Suffering. Pain. And I couldn’t wait to figure out how to do it.

I knew that the only way to defuse my own fear was to be in the driver’s seat, to become a producer of material capable of perpetrating these traumatic reactions myself. It could still be fun for me, so long as it could be made excruciating for the audience. And it was as I prepared to embark on this fiendish journey that I heard that unsettling remark from Vic in the kitchen. And then, it wasn’t fun anymore. Not even for me. If “The Exorcist” wasn’t strictly the product of disturbed – if inspired – genius and a groundbreaking harbinger of what visual storytelling could make possible, but was instead merely a chronicle (however loosely presented) of a real, true event that happened, then I had reason to worry. Not about what to do with my life. But what to do with my soul.

Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn in "The Exorcist." (Warner Bros.)

I was stricken with a haunting, bacterial fear of an all-powerful, diabolical intelligence that would use my body to spew obscenities, do terrible things to my mother and exact revenge for my smug, patronizing view of its significance in the world and for my belief that I could harness and employ it to do my bidding. Soon the fear became a strangling phobia I couldn’t overcome. I stopped shopping for film schools and began searching for a cure. I spent my summer in the library, reading every book about the subject. I became an adolescent demonologist, determined to ward off the inevitable invasion and willing to forsake all my dreams in exchange for salvation.

A minister at Christ the Redeemer Lutheran Church at 43rd Avenue and Dunlap took pity on me one Saturday afternoon during his sermon rehearsal. Seeing me loitering alone in the chapel and learning that I’d become obsessed with demonic possession, he informed me that as a baptized Lutheran, the Holy Spirit had entered my body, and therefore no evil spirit could ever inhabit it.

I said: “Oh.”

And from that moment on, I was saved. I was Dumbo with the feather back in my trunk.  With rekindled spirit, I returned to my first mission. I vowed to impose on others the sleepless nights and woeful paranoia I’d been forced to endure. And so far, I have failed. But I vow to continue trying.

"The Exorcist." (Warner Bros.)

In its guts, “The Exorcist,” directed by Friedkin and based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, was not just a film about a mean spirit. It is mean-spiritedness, incarnate. And therein lies its true power. As Pauline observed in 1974: “Blatty and Friedkin can’t muster up any feeling, even when Father Karras sacrifices himself – a modern Christ who dies to save mankind. We in the audience don’t feel bad when the saintly Father Merrin dies; we don’t even feel a pang of sympathy when the words ‘Help Me’ appear on Regan’s body. From the mechanical-scare way that the movie works on an audience, there is no indication that Blatty or Friedkin has any feeling for the little girl’s helplessness and suffering, or her mother’s, any feeling for God or terror of Satan.”

What Pauline (and, yes, after decades of worship, I call her Pauline) may have failed to observe at the time, and what has become imminently clear in the ensuing 37 years, is that it’s precisely this distance from and contempt for sentimentality that serves the film in its most meaningful and effective pursuit: to create in the viewer a sense of being truly alone in the universe. Perhaps the greatest practical joke of “The Exorcist” is to depict evil in its most overt, graphic, vile form, only to obscure its more insidious message about the futility of the human spirit: how real evil quietly separates and detaches us from one another, how it allows us to impugn the very essence of what it means to be human in the everyday banality of our existence. We are ugly beings, it turns out. We are, perhaps, not redeemable. And, somehow, maybe paradoxically, we find that story endlessly irresistible.

Tales are legion of Friedkin-as-harpie-director during the production of the film – profanity-laden rants, physical abuse of actors, rampant firing of key crew, irrational demands that serve as the picture of ’70s-era excess and coke-encrusted narcissism. His spirit possesses “The Exorcist” in ways that his peers of the time – the hard-hitting but ultimately optimistic Lumet or the tortured but soulful Scorsese – never could have approximated. Wherever Friedkin’s rage or unapologetic hostility comes from, it oozes from the pores of every frame, and is the perfect recipe necessary to faithfully translate the novel.

Today, Friedkin and his accomplice, novelist-screenwriter-producer Blatty, mellowed by time and age and maybe a touch of regret, now claim that hope – the beacon belief in the power of goodness – was actually the point all along. I say: Nice try, fellas. No question, this type of revisionist history makes for great DVD extras, but you’re still going to hell, and we, your wounded sufferers, can’t thank you enough. The genius of “The Exorcist” is that it is bereft of any sincere attempt to balance its sense of godless despair and raw, obscene terror with any familiar or comforting antidote. To pretend otherwise is to rob the movie of its dark, ruthless intent.

Years later, the lesson of “The Exorcist” for me, ironically, is that its controversial “source material” (what we would today cynically call “inspired by true events”) came to matter little, if at all. The absence of any honest external motivation for the story is partly why it’s so powerful. It’s something made up; it crawled out of the foulest nether regions of two mortal guys deeply jazzed by the challenge of forcing us to look at something unspeakably hideous, until they realized they didn’t have to worry, that we couldn’t look away even if we wanted to. That’s why it’s not just a scary movie, but also a profound phenomenon not to be taken lightly. And what it accomplished was deceptively prescient, for as we now know, it forever stripped away all the layers of protective coating that we had come to faithfully rely upon from our celluloid storytellers. We have been betrayed, our covenant of trust permanently violated. Going to the movies now means anything can happen to us – however unimaginable, however challenging to our innermost senses, however much it threatens the boundaries between storyteller and audience, or audience and ourselves. Today, this is not only allowed, it’s expected. Maybe somewhere, it’s still being demanded. We have been possessed. And thank God for that.

– David Eick

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Comments


20 Responses to ‘The Exorcist’ brings out something special in David Eick of ‘Battlestar’

  1. sophie says:

    The cinematography of the Exorcist adds to the terror that film inflicts. The utter banality of Washington, DC., the gothic architecture and just the every hum drum-ness which contains this stark evil and the way it's presented scared the heck out of me (I saw this film as an adult in the 90s on TV). I can't ever visit Georgetown University without thinking of this film.

  2. Alex Reyes says:

    This is not my favorite film of all time but I consider probably the most successful film in terms of leaving an effect. I was in 4th and remember not being able to sleep for nights and re-considering sleeping in between my parents after giving that up for years. I don't even think I saw the whole film. What made Exorcist so powerful was not the special effects but the acting, storytelling, pacing, and leaving an image you can't forget. I think I'm going to re-watch the director's cut and see what it does to me now.

  3. Manuel Alderete says:

    PART 1:

    Don't be fooled by the special effects.
    The Exorcist is really about sexual abuse (and the unwillingness of adults to see it as such), not about “the Devil”.

    It is a movie about "blaming the victim", portrayed in a highly dramatic, cinematic way.

    I used to think "The Exorcist" was purely devilish Hollywood fantasy, until I watched it again recently as an adult. I now suspect that the movie is a cleverly-concealed indictment about a girl who was SEXUALLY ABUSED (by Mr. Burke Dennings, the "family friend"), and the blind faith of family and experts around her, who would prefer to consider even the most superstitious explanation (possession!), rather than consider her erratic behavior as related to abuse.

    The signs of sexual abuse are all over the movie:

    1) The opening 10 minutes take place in Iraq during an archeological dig. (WTF does Iraq have to do with a little girl in New England?) The most dramatic scene is set when the old priest comes face-to-face with a statue of "Pazuzu". The scene is awesome: both figures stand in mirror to each other. The visual message is clear: The evil that we see is OURSELVES. Man is the Devil in this world.

    This is alluded to by the Iraqi Cultural Minister to the Old Priest:
    "Evil against Evil" he says.
    Just then, the clock stops.

  4. Manuel Alderete says:

    PART 3:

    5) But the biggest GIVEAWAY is that the Old Priest (the Devil-believer) is a complete failure in his exorcism of the girl. He not only fails buts dies in the process. He is conquered by Evil because he cannot diagnose it properly. When he sees the girl's silhouette reaching up toward "Pazuzu"s statue (in that famous scene), she is reaching up for help, in the pose of someone in the throes of abuse. But all the priest sees is "The Devil". The close-shot scene of the Old Priest right before that shows us that we are seeing this through HIS eyes, based on his prejudices, projections, and prior experiences.

    In the beginning Iraq scene, we are also given a plain-as-day shot at an Iraqi with ONE EYE who stares squarely at the Old Priest. A cinematic reference to “limited sight”?

    6) The devil talk, the floating, and everything else make for great special effects. BUT THIS IS WHAT THE ADULTS “SEE”. They refuse to see anything but a "Devil possession".
    We know they are wrong, because the “cure” comes from the Doubting Priest at the end: he abandons his mechanical faith and starts to strangle the girl, saying “Take me instead!”

    7) Briefly, we see a flash of a “ghoul face” on the young priest, right before he leaps to his death out the window. Just before that, the girl rips off a medallion-necklace from his neck.
    This medallion we see, was the SAME exact medallion necklace found by the Older Priest in the Iraq archaeological dig. When the old priest found it buried, he said, “This doesn't belong here.”

    8) The mother sees her daughter reading a magazine. The cover photo shows both of them (the mother is famous), but the mother is wearing DARK GLASSES and her daughter looks very unhappy.
    On her nightstand next to her bed, the mother has a large photo of the girl looking very much like "The Virgin Mary", hands clasped in prayer and a menacing figure behind her.
    The magazine was titled "Photoplay", and these scenes were indeed photoplay: the mother refuses to see her daughter's misery, only the illusion of "serenity" that does not disturb her comfortable world.

    9) The movie is called “The Exorcist”, not “The Possession”.
    It is about the Priest. But which priest was the REAL exorcist?

    THIS MOVIE IS AN INDICTMENT, not just entertainment.

  5. tlstoffa says:

    It is impossible to exorcise the trauma instilled by The Exorcist is my son's mind. Thank goodness David watched it without me, as to this day, I have been unable to watch this movie to its depressing yet altruistic ending. Thank goodness, also, it created a creativity in a mind destined to present us with interpretations of the curious partnership of good with evil.
    David's mom

  6. Darren says:

    The Exorcist definitely was a real shocker!!!

  7. leonard macaluso says:

    the rhythm of "The Exorcist's" editing, perhaps, is one of the more important aspects of its filmmaking expertise. relax, tense-up, relax, tense-up, over & over it is the driving force of the film.

  8. ma'am says:

    I found the Exorcist to be a completely hopeful movie. Very simple to understand. Why does the reviewer want sentimentality in this picture? He wants the characters to "feel" something. He laments the fact that no one in the audience is given the chance to "feel bad" for the characters. In this, he misses the point completely. Victory over evil has nothing to do with feelings. The good "feeling" that God is with you has nothing to do with the reality of HIs presence. It's all about deeds, not emotions. The two priests did what was expected of them and that was enough. Mission accomplished. I liked the movie more because of that unsentimental approach.
    And no, I was not scared by this film, though I thought it was very good.

  9. la_russe says:

    This writer has rewritten the film to suit his hopelessness. How can an ending with a possession survivor kissing her Exorcist's best friend be hopeless? Don't forget we call Merrin the title character but it's Karras who earns the namesake. Of course there is hope, transcendence, and specifically its product, innovation. The demon never actually encounters Karras's spirit until the ending, when it feels the true Karras, his living corporeal emotion, a mixture of despair, hatred and love, the film's key moment is the will of Karras, his reaction to hatred (evil is what a layperson labels it, a word politicians mine endlessly) while praying Regan survives. He's not yelling at Regan, he's shouting at the devil to depart. We think his reaction is futile but instantaneously it gets the job done. Hopeless? Merrin's usage of scripture is only a script, an endless process the demon is learning to endure, he's the church's legacy, its stagnating failure, and of course he's preceded by medicine and law, and both fail to comprehend the nightmare Regan and Chris encounter. To rivet viewers to this madness must involve hope and belief, and to make it a blockbuster it needed this rapid-fire ending, which blended all of Friedkin's shock cuts into the most appalling of all, Karras taken by the demon and then a fusion reaction. Does the demon kill Karras or the reverse, this mystery is what everyone in 1973 whispered about when they left the theater in shock. That's the paradox of faith, something Eick may lack. Nice try (and I'm not even a deist).

  10. mark says:

    Scary. Yes, very scary. But, I believe the underlying scare has to do with everyone's inner fear of losing control. Losing control is the first step necessary to having our "inner demon(s)" taking over.

  11. JHH says:

    Manuel, your giant assessment of the film as an indictment of sexual abuse is interesting and well-thought out. The issue I have with your 'theory' is that it all hinges on Burke Dennings abusing her. If you watch how he is portrayed, it's clear to me at least, that he is a homosexual. Perhaps there was some good ol' Catholic homophobia in the fact that he is the first one dispatched. Your notion that 'this is what adults' see? Um, no. This is what people in the room see, because the girl is floating above her bed. I think your view of the film is either through the lens of having a personal connection to sexual abuse or through the lens of so much sexual abuse associated with the Catholic Church. Still, I think your attention to detail in your analysis is pretty impressive. Nice work. Good food for discussion.

  12. AQueryan says:

    Great essay – hugely entertaining and highly insightful. And Mr Eick has effectively confirmed my belief that the closest thing "in spirit" to The Exorcist that the cinema has produced is indeed Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008), for the following paragraph taken from Mr. Eick's essay applies to both films equally well, in my opinion:

    "it’s precisely this distance from and contempt for sentimentality that serves the film in its most meaningful and effective pursuit: to create in the viewer a sense of being truly alone in the universe. Perhaps the greatest practical joke of "_____________” is to depict evil in its most overt, graphic, vile form, only to obscure its more insidious message about the futility of the human spirit: how real evil quietly separates and detaches us from one another, how it allows us to impugn the very essence of what it means to be human in the everyday banality of our existence. We are ugly beings, it turns out. We are, perhaps, not redeemable. And, somehow, maybe paradoxically, we find that story endlessly irresistible."

  13. Tommy says:

    I kind of see this film in the same light as a lot of other gritty, no holds barred cinema from this time period…. The Godfather… as a primary example. It was excellent really. I was born in the seventies and they produced some of the best and my favorite films. Being innovative and doing something "new" in film is cheap unless it's contextualized with the pause and depth that often comes across as despair in contemporary realistic lifestyles. Few directors have mastered this and I think there were just a strange brew of excessive and exhausted elements in the seventies that lent to these storytelling gems.

  14. frank says:

    Very Interesting i never noticed that before

  15. trajan says:

    you must be the life of the party manny

  16. trajan says:

    nothing is scarier to me than that white face in the dark

  17. Damen Stephens says:

    David, it hasn't become "imminently clear", which would mean "will become clear soon" and be quite nonsensical in the context you provide for it. You meant to say it has become EMINENTLY clear. I know, they sound similar – but they mean different things.

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