The Exorcist Is Too Serious But Still Enjoyable

The ExorcistThe second to last episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is “Mr Neutron.” It is widely reviled and considered one of the worst episodes of the series — if not the worst episode. I think it is comedic genius. The main storyline is about Mr Neutron: “easily the most dangerous man the world has ever seen.” Yet he spends the entire episode hanging out in the suburbs discussing gardening and falling in love with the cleaning woman. In the end, the humans destroy the world out of their fear of him. As I watched The Exorcist earlier today, I thought a lot about Mr Neutron.

For all the really stupendous things that Pazuzu does to poor little Linda Blair, he seems perfectly contented to hang out in that room. And he is powerful. It takes Death over an hour and half to kill of Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal, and Pazuzu manages to do it in the couple of minutes that Jason Miller steps out for a breather. Although that does feel a bit forced. They knew that they were dealing with a dangerous creature — prone to staying in one room — but dangerous nonetheless. It had, after all, killed the film director; it sprayed green goo everywhere; and it twisted that poor girl’s head in circles. Oh: and levitation and moving stuff around and making the room cold.

But the thing about the film is that it is highly effective. The first half of the film is classic suspense — the kind that we used to get in haunted house movies (also in more recent films like The Others). Early scenes like when Ellen Burstyn goes up in the attic looking for rats are chilling. So by the time we get to the last 20 minutes of the film where Blair is wearing an inch of makeup and we enter the world of Poltergeist, it doesn’t seem silly. Although out of context, that part of the film is indeed silly — very silly.

The real problem with the film is the center section. There is too much time spent trying to justify the premise. It’s a movie after all. If I had a little girl who came down stairs at a party, just to urinate on the carpet, sure, I’d think she might need to see a doctor. But if she started freaking out while her bed was bouncing around the room, I wouldn’t go to the group of doctors and complain that they kept telling me my daughter had a brain tumor.

Ultimately, this is what keeps The Exorcist from being a great film. It takes itself too seriously. It’s fine to spend half a movie questioning if the impossible is really happening. But that’s only true if it is never clear what’s really going on. In this film, that isn’t the case. Pazuzu is mad at Max von Sydow and apparently, this really oblique way was the only way to get to him. Overall, I’d have to say that Constantine does a better job of this aspect. But it’s third act is weak (although the scene with Peter Stormare is great), and with The Exorcist we get the previously mention green goo and rotating head — which is awesome.

It’s also notable that on a technical level, the The Exorcist is first rate. I loved the cinematography. And the editing is paced really well. The dialog is usually pretty weak, but the outstanding cast makes it work anyway. But for a horror film made over forty years ago, it holds up remarkably well. Still, it’s more fun to watch House on Haunted Hill or The Shining.


There is much I could say about the theme of the film. Maybe I will at some later time. I’ve got the flu and I don’t feel up to it. But the film doesn’t deserve too much analysis. It touches on a few things, but doesn’t take anything very seriously. But hey: green goo.

3 thoughts on “The Exorcist Is Too Serious But Still Enjoyable

  1. Recently, on a whim, I re-watched The Omen (1976). Like its kissing cousin The Exorcist, it was an A-List production with serious star power, cinematography, and orchestration. Oh, and a decent script which carries you along in spite of the silliness of the proceedings. These two films, each of which inspired a host of sequels and imitators, were released during a cresting wave of fundamentalist religious fervour and paranoia which is still having baleful effects on public life decades later. They were distinguished by being quality entertainment rather than by their Satanic themes, of which there were many other examples in the cinema of the time.

    I first saw The Omen in a college class (not a film class), not too long after it’s release. Even as a 16mm print in a semi-darkened classroom I thought the movie effective at creating suspense and uneasiness. I don’t remember what sort of class it was, only that the film had no relation to the subject of the class. In retrospect, I think the instructor must have had religious motivations for showing it — as with The Exorcist, quite a few religious-minded people took the film for a kind of pseudo documentary, as unlikely as that seems. “O tempora o mores” indeed.

    • I’m a little threatened by The Omen. I saw it when I was a kid and it terrified me. I probably should watch it again. But I don’t think it has the wonderful silliness of The Exorcist. If I watch it, I’m sure I’ll write about it, though.

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