Is “The Exorcist” a religious movie? More specifically, is it a Catholic movie? Many say no.
I say yes.
The re-release of The Exorcist, one of the biggest box-office successes of all time, gives us a chance to re-evaluate the film on its own merits, without all the hoopla that accompanied the original release. The controversial film, dealing with the demon possession of a young girl, was enormously popular with moviegoers in 1973, but also gained notoriety for the large numbers of people that fled from theaters during its more graphic scenes. Newspapers dutifully reported on the tough job some janitors faced after showings of the film.
Critically, The Exorcist was a success too. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the film won two: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound. It also took home four Golden Globe Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Freidkin), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), and Best Screenplay (William Peter Blatty.)
To recap, The Exorcist is the story of the possession and exorcism of an evil spirit inhabiting innocent young Regan MacNeil (played by Blair.) After teams of doctors prove powerless in helping her daughter, Regan's mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) desperately requests an exorcism from Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young Jesuit priest who has lost his faith. After Karras convinces Church officials that the possession is real, elderly Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), an experienced Exorcist, is assigned to lead the ritual. After Merrin dies of a heart attack during the exorcism, Karras, regaining his faith, provokes the evil spirit into leaving Regan's body and entering his own so he can destroy it. Battling the demon's attempt to kill the girl, Karras hurls himself out the bedroom window and falls to his death on the steep concrete steps below.
Seeing The Exorcist again (including the 12 minutes of additional footage) reminded me of the film's excellence it is far superior to any movie currently in circulation, and perhaps better than any movie released in the past several years. The acting is superb all the way around, with Burstyn, Miller and Von Sydow particularly inspired. Director Friedkin's masterful directing alternates scenes of character exposition with those of absolute horror, keeping audiences riveted.
But the key to appreciating The Exorcist, as any artistic creation, is the story. For movies represent modern-day storytelling so much so that they have come to define Western Civilization. From Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare to the parables of Christ, the story is the artistic element most accessible to the human heart.
It is here, in the story, that The Exorcist reveals itself to be a Catholic movie. Catholic art is characterized by a sense of the transcendent, of an ecclesiastical nexus between the natural and supernatural, of the metaphysical significance of individual actions in a universe ruled by God. From this perspective, the film is undoubtedly “Catholic” in nature.
In the new version, six new scenes have been added, four of which add Catholic context to the film:
1. The new film opens with an ominous, autumn breeze blowing across the courtyard of a well-appointed Georgetown townhouse, and the camera pans to the beautiful serene face of the Blessed Mother. The scene then shifts to Iraq, where the original film began.
2. A long sequence has been added of a doctor's office visit by Regan, wherein she begins exhibiting behavior problems. It's a useful buildup to what happens later in the film.
3. The famous “spider walk” scene where Regan walks downstairs upside-down, like a crab is startling, but doesn't add much value to the film.
4. Before the exorcism begins, Chris walks into the living room where Father Merrin is praying the Rosary, girding himself for his fight with the devil.
5. One of the most important additions is a talk Father Merrin and Father Karras have on the stairs after the first round of exorcism:
Karras: “Why this girl? It makes no sense.”
Merrin: “I think the point is to make us despair, to see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.”
This dialogue so short but so insightful hits at the very heart of the struggle between God and Satan, who loves nothing more than for God's children to consider themselves as mere animals, unworthy of Divine attention. This is what the battle is all about.
6. Perhaps the most significant change is the film's ending. The original ending shows Regan and her mom leaving the house for the last time. While saying goodbye to Father Dyer, Karras' best friend, Regan focuses on his Roman collar, and suddenly hugs him thankfully. Their car pulls away and then stops. Chris gives the priest Father Merrin's St. Joseph medal that was found in Regan's room. After the car drives away, Father Dyer looks down the ominous stairs and turns away, ending on a note of despair.
In the new version, after Chris gives Father Dyer the religious medal, he gives it back to her, and her hand closes over it. As the car drives away, Regan looks back, smiles and waves. After looking down the stairs, Father encounters Detective Kinderman, who invites Dyer to see a film just as he did when first meeting Father Karras. The film ends with the two men walking together, chatting about movies.
What's the significance of the new ending? In an interview with e3mil.com contributor Kathryn Jean Lopez, William Blatty, author of the novel “The Exorcist” as well as the movie's screenplay, said it gives the film “a moral center,” providing the viewer with “a feeling that everything's okay.” In other words, despite the priests' deaths God's servants who presumably went on to greater rewards the moral order prevails.
Thus, in the world encompassed by The Exorcist, there are forces of good and forces of evil. Good is represented by two Catholic priests who bring with them the only power capable of dealing with absolute evil. Modern medicine and modern science stand limp before the horror overtaking the MacNeil household. The contrast between the efficacy of the Church's sacraments and the doctors' impotence could not be more starkly portrayed.
But there's more. During the titanic clash of wills between Father Merrin and the demon, the deep faith of the old priest re-ignites that of the young priest, and (at least implied in the new version) possibly converts Regan and her mother as well.
I recognize the problems with this argument: the movie's graphic sensationalism (360-degree head spins, self-mutilation with a crucifix, spewing of green vomit, etc.), vulgar language, and images of blasphemy make it at times hard to watch. But none of these necessarily disqualifies the film as Catholic art. Doesn't it stand to reason that an evil spirit would hate holy objects, revile Jesus and His Blessed Mother, and despise God's creations to the point of making them vile and hideous?
The truth is that Christianity is unintelligible if it omits belief in evil spirits. Denying that reality is tantamount to denying the words and deeds of Christ Himself. So, while The Exorcist remains shocking and even offensive, it is ultimately a powerful morality tale and once we look beyond the special effects and cinematic stunts a profoundly religious film as well.