A Faithful Return: The Mysterious Power of
The Exorcist has enabled movie fans to catch a glimpse of that rarest of moviehouse species: the major re-release. Although “classic” films are often trundled out of storage and given reprinted re-releases on the small art-house circuit (The Third Man and a re-edited Gimme Shelter are two unmissable films currently on this circuit), the major re-release is the Haley’s Comet of Hollywood. The reason is simple enough: old films always look and feel like old films. No matter how “classic” or “revolutionary” or “timeless,” films date themselves with their technology and hairstyles. And it’s hard for a movie that feels old to resonate with the mass contemporary audience that a major release requires.
So when a film does gets a major re-release, it has be more than just a great film. Something about that film must extend beyond its original release date and find root in the modern moment. 1973 audiences were stunned by The Exorcist, but this is not enough to warrant a re-release. The film must somehow resonate with the new context it is being re-released into.
The Exorcist can’t possibly affect modern audiences the same way it shocked its first viewers. Sure, the film is terrifying; people found it frightening then, and it’s certainly is frightening now. But lots of movies are scary. What made it such a huge success in 1973 was how shocking it was. The film presented a spectacle of strange scenes and special effects that viewers had never seen before
Just listen to Pauline Kael’s review at the time: “The picture is designed to scare people, and it does so by mechanical means: levitations, swiveling heads, vomit being spewed.” Though critical of the film, Kael draws attention to the secret of its popularity: The Exorcist was appealing because of its novelty. Audiences had never seen these sorts of things on screen.
But, of course, we are a more jaded and world-weary audience. We’ve seen blood, guts, vomit, pus, fluids of all sorts (even puppet versions of said fluids, if you’ve seen Meet The Feebles). We’ve not only seen levitation and swiveling heads, we’ve seen special effects achieve illusions beyond the scope of any 1973 imagination. Plus, one of the original anchors of the film was its appeal to religious sensibilities. But we are currently in the midst of a campaign where the presence of religion – particularly the Christianity felt so strongly in 1996 – is curiously absent. The Exorcist cannot possibly appeal to us the same way it appealed to audiences upon its initial release.
So what does appeal to us about this movie? Why re-release it now? The film preys upon religious and spectacular sensibilities; but today’s audience is far less knowledgeable about religion and the special effects cannot possibly shock us. What is it about this film that resonates in the present day?
The answer lies in the title itself. One of the curious enigmas of the film is that the title character is absent from most of the film. The Exorcist himself appears briefly at the beginning and then only at the end. Yet the film is oriented towards this mysterious character.
After Regan exhibits strange behavior, Chris MacNeil progresses from one expert to another in an attempt to cure her daughter. She begins with the physical specialist – the doctor. Then she moves onto a mental specialist – the psychiatrist. Finally, after all other options have been exhausted, she turns to the spiritual specialist – the Exorcist – who turns out to be the savior. All of the other specialists assured her that reason and science would cure her daughter. But in the end, she turns to faith for resolution.
Her search highlights a key theme of The Exorcist: science and technology promise to solve all problems, but in the end these promises are revealed as empty arrogance. In one of the more memorable lines from the film, Chris says to Regan, “You just take your pills and you’ll be fine.” It’s a line that audiences still identify with.
The added scenes accentuate this theme. The longest new scene -[^] six minutes of the new eleven -[^] shows Regan undergoing an extensive medical examination. At the end of this scene, the doctor prescribes Ritalin for her, saying to Chris, “Ritalin will fix everything.” Audiences gasp at this. It’s a stunning moment of recognition from this old film. Modern audiences are able to understand this pharmo-psychological arrogance the film is trying to explore. It encounters debates that are remarkably contemporary moment.
The Exorcist continues to resonate today because it explores our fear of technological and scientific domination. We live in an age of scientific hubris, when rational answers are seen as the only solution. Individuality and spirituality have increasingly been crowded out of the picture. As a result, the most successful films in recent years are films that encounter the fallacies of rational surety. At a fundamental level, Titanic is about the failure of technology – the unsinkable ship that sinks. In action movies, mad scientists and dangerous technology provide the threat in everything from Mission Impossible 2 to The Matrix. The Sixth Sense showed us a psychiatrist who refreshingly didn’t resort to pills and prescriptions. Our movies express our fantasies and encounter the tensions of our world. The Exorcist reflects our fear of scientific hegemony and our hope that our personalities can’t just be reduced to chemicals and numbers.
Yes, audiences are going to this film to see a first-rate thriller that terrifies us with well-crafted subtlety as well as horribly gruesome scenes. But the film also touches a raw nerve and a deeper fear: the fear that our lives are dominated by a cold and arrogant rationality. It is this contemporary theme that makes The Exorcist such a meaningful film today. It provides a fantasy, a way to encounter these scientific demons. The figure of the Exorcist stands shrouded in smoke, a testament to the power of the unknowable.