Courting controversy: The Exorcist

Dave kicks off a new occasional series, looking at the films that have courted controversy over the years. Where better to start than The Exorcist?

There are a fair few movies that have courted controversy over the decades, be it a film about cheese under a microscope or the Asian torture film, Grotesque. Some of these films you will have heard of.: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Clockwork Orange and, the subject of this feature, The Exorcist. 

Others, I’ll be surprised if anyone but a handful of people will have ever experienced: Don’t Go Near The Park, Don’t Go In The Woods, Don’t Look In The Basement and Don’t Tell Mom, The Babysitter’s Dead. Okay, that last one isn’t a video nasty, but fits in with the motif of things not to do!

In the 1980s, as many of you will probably know, the video nasty boom was at its height. Parliamentarians, fuelled by such firebrands as Mary Whitehouse, were intent on clamping down on the unregulated home video industry and its oeuvre of horror… er, horror films. Using the BBFC, they were able to move from cinema regulation to regulating home video, enforcing heavy penalties on the plethora of video shops that had, previously, stocked many, many horror films.

You see, horror has always captured the imagination. Yet, as with videogames in modern times, they struggled to be accepted as a valid medium.

Ad – content continues below

Horror fiction, for example, has been a genre of continued influence for decades, if not centuries. Here we’re talking proper horror by such luminaries as Poe and Lovecraft, King and Koontz, where evil is evil and good must triumph, but lose their morality along the way. 

It may not be respected, but it is often mined as a source for ideas and inspiration. Even today, horror rarely features in the more ‘serious’ award ceremonies. BAFTAs and Academy Awards are both reticent in their appreciation of the genre. 

So, whilst we may enjoy the wares of horror-meisters such as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, or delight at the Saw franchise, Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th and many other examples, there are many who feel they are not worth the media on which they are printed!  (There are exceptions to the rule, and I’m sure I’ll find opportunities to mention Mark Kermode and Kym Newman in this and future installments.)

Anyway, back to what I was saying…

With no regulation for home video, it meant that, theoretically, anybody could hire a video, take it home and do things that they couldn’t do in the cinema. As they could pause the video, freeze frame and slow play the most grotesque scenes, the viewer could seek to focus solely on these sections, sections of violence and anti-female perversion that would corrupt their simple minds. Admittedly, anybody that tried this with a 1980s video player was in for a tough time when it came to actually seeing what was happening in these freeze frames. Technically, they were incapable of the level of clarity, when paused, that we saw in later video technology and today’s DVD, Blu-ray and video files. 

MP Graham Bright, spurred on by Mary Whitehouse and lending his name to the Video Recording Bill, would announce: “Too many people believe that a video nasty is something like a hotted-up Hammer horror film. It’s not. It’s something entirely different.”

Ad – content continues below

Starting in 1984, when the Video Recording Bill became the Video Recording Act, Parliament decided that videos would all be categorised by the BBFC and even went as far as establishing a list of films as part of a Department of Public Prosecutions sting that outlawed the vilest of films. Except that it’s difficult to see why some of them were actually on the list (but more on that another time.). 

The action was retrospective, too, which meant that stockists had to consider titles they already had in their possession and could be prosecuted for carrying a title that had, subsequently, been banned. If a company wanted their film to be licensed for distribution in the UK, it had to submit the film, at the company’s own cost, to the BBFC for certification.

So, why this fear? Moral panic. It’s a powerful tool. From women in the theatre being overcome by the men folk to the evils of rock music; from the corrupting influence of home video to violence in video games, we’ve seen study after study, heard soundbite after soundbite, read story after story explaining to us that these objects would, no doubt, lead to the destruction of innocence, the collapse of social values and increases in crime. 

Children could be exposed, thanks to their local video retailer and their careless parents, to all sorts of depraved activities by simply popping in a black plastic rectangle. Furthermore, people needed this regulation in order to protect themselves from themselves. The public didn’t know what they were watching, therefore it was essential that somebody, somewhere take the role of controller for the benefit of the citizens of the United Kingdom. Nanny knows best!

It’s true that there were some…explicit materials out there. It’s impossible to look at a film like Cannibal Holocaust and not be a tad concerned about the slaughter of a real giant turtle. It’s also still, to my mind, shocking to watch The Exorcist and hear the possessed Regan cursing her mother and violating herself with a crucifix.

However, perhaps in hindsight, some of these films were the victim of over-reaction, or, in the case of many, they were banned not because they were nasty in a horrific sense, but nasty in a ‘not very good’ sense. Of course, that’s a cynical viewpoint and, in the furore that followed the VRA, it’s safe to say all the films were banned because they were the vilest of the vile.

Ad – content continues below

Oddly, the film I’m going to look at first wasn’t involved in the DPP list, nor was it banned under the 1984 sweep. Originally released in 1973, available on video until 1984, never resubmitted for certification, it wouldn’t be until its 25th anniversary that the film would be granted a home video certification.

It would be unfair to consider this film, with the intelligence and complexity of the script, in the same breath as the ‘video nasties’. In fact, my reason for writing about this film first is that it is, without doubt, highly controversial for many reasons.

Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, it’s a simply, but supremely effective story in which a young girl, on the verge of puberty, becomes possessed by a malevolent spirit. Driven to madness by the violent possession, her mother calls upon Father Karras, a priest and psychologist, to exorcise the demon, only to find that this infuriates it more, leading to more vicious torment on the innocent girl’s body and mind. 

Unable to exorcise the demon on his own, Karras recruits Father Merrin and the two begin a brutal power struggle that sees Merrin die and Karras sacrifice his own life to draw out the demon, purporting to be Satan, and save the life of Regan.

After nearly 30 years, the special effects have suffered tremendously, to the point where some of them are, quite frankly, laughable. The famous pea soup projectile vomit and rotating head are the moments that many will highlight as ludicrous, causing laughter amongst new viewers and teenagers brought up on a diet of CGI and more sophisticated special effects. 

Ad – content continues below

However, there’s more to the film than that. The language is still as shocking as ever. I say ‘shocking’ as, whilst there’s no doubt that young people have always used choice language to others, it is in this film that a young girl, beloved by her mother and sweet, innocent and relatively trouble free, is heard to spout strong sexual language as she defiles herself with a crucifix, blasphemes and curses her mother, and, as if this wasn’t harsh enough, attacks other adults, including the authority figure of the reverend, with her vicious tongue. 

Of course, we can argue, today, that these moments would be accepted. Indeed, many teenagers may find cause to laugh at the language. Is it a laugh of humour or discomfort, though?

The religious aspects of the film, bound to cause outrage at the time, are clear for all to see. The exorcism is (or was) a religious tool, both of the Fathers Karras and Merrin are not the devout, pure and perfect holy men that the church would have us believe all fathers to be, and the power of their faith is rocked many times during the film. So, as if violence and swearing weren’t enough, we can add the honest portrayal of religion to the mix of things to protest about. 

Scenes of violent movement – crashing into walls and the cries of Regan as she thrashes around her bed – are handled with an almost documentarian impartiality. It’s only later, if you’re inclined to learn more, that you realise that crashing into furniture caused Ellen Burstyn to severely injure herself, whilst Linda Blair’s Regan was not securely strapped into the metal restraining ‘corset’ and injured her back every time she was thrown forward and dragged backwards with force.

Ad – content continues below

Director William Friedkin had a number of novel ways to get startled responses from his cast, including firing a gun off-screen, multiple times, to get reactions during the exorcism. In this attempt to gain authenticity, it’s hardly a set that would be have called ‘welcoming and warm’ in a modern day featurette.

If you have the appropriate version on DVD, you’ll be able to watch the incomparable Mark Kermode, film critic and author, discuss the film in incredible depth, ably assisted by cast and crew, in the 1998 documentary Fear Of God. They discuss, in frank terms, the levels of discomfort to which they were exposed all in the name of art. 

As if the documentary weren’t enough, it’s worth tracking down his book on the topic, published by the British Film Institute and updated to a second edition. There’s probably no wiser individual on the topic of The Exorcist than Mark Kermode.

The portrayal of religion has always been a challenge for the BBFC. As recently as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Mel Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ, the BBFC has had its opinion challenged by religious groups intent on protecting their own freedoms. 

The film doesn’t even have to be directly and boldly about religion to raise the protests. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass was subject to protests as it was felt it was a direct attack on religion. The Exorcist falls squarely into this category. Many worried that people would believe in demonic possession or become possessed themselves. 

Ad – content continues below

Suffice to say, actual examples of possession or madness as a result of the film were somewhere between negligible and nil. When considering the release of the film for home video the BBFC entry states, “It must be acknowledged, however, that there is little if any hard evidence known to the BBFC that THE EXORCIST has, in its video form, caused actual harm to its viewers.”

So, what of The Exorcist today? It’s still a strong work, standing head and shoulders above many similarly themed films and being the measure by which such films are considered.

It has spawned two sequels (John Boorman’s The Exorcist II: The Heretic and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III) and two prequels (Renny Harlin’s abysmal The Exorcist: The Beginning and Paul Schrader’s far more satisfying Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist.) It has even been released in an extended “Version You’ve Never Seen” featuring an additional 11 minutes of footage and restoring the (unconvincing by today’s standards) spider walk scene.

The Exorcist is heavily dialogue driven, emotionally draining, shockingly powerful and raw. Friedkin has crafted many ways to leave the viewer feeling uneasy, some executed better than others, but all tending to be effective. 

There are very few films in the horror genre that deal with the subject matter in such a complex and serious way, rarely focusing on needless shock and horror whilst maintaining a high level of both.

Ad – content continues below