The EXORCIST Story Beats

The Exorcist

The Exorcist

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Welcome to the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster – the movie that every horror film afterwards owes it’s soul. The Exorcist is the mack daddy of all Horror films and I have the stats to prove it. Opening Christmas weekend December 26, 1973 to lines around the block – The Exorcist was the first movie to have people leave the theater passing out in the lobby, physically unable to take what they were seeing on the screen and psychologically scarred. Directed by William Friedkin based on the 1971 bestseller by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist broke records all over the country. It was the biggest motion picture of all time and became a social phenomenon world wide. Don’t take my word for it – watch this video from 1973 of people on opening weekend –

 

Every filmmaker’s dream right? Lines around the block for a film so potent people HAVE to see it to believe it. Name one film in the past 20 years that has had this kind of effect on the culture? The Exorcist is a film that must be studied if you are a screenwriter or horror film buff. The film uses every trick in the book – and invents a few new ones – during it’s 127 minute visual, aural and psychic assault. Watching it now through the 40 year gauze of bad imitators, poorly executed rip offs and beaten to death copycats does seem to lessen the effect this groundbreaking film had on an innocent public. Make no mistake – The Exorcist is balls out THE BEST horror film of all time – and has scenes in it that no Hollywood suit today – with their marketing and legal advisors – would even let be filmed never mind released as an R rated mass market movie. This was real filmmaking – using state of the art special effects – paired with a master storyteller at the helm directing an A list cast. Everybody in horror steals from this film including Ridley Scott who readily admits he studied The Exorcist when creating the 1979 classic Alien – another horror movie paragon. From sound design, to visual effects, to pacing, shocks, the iconic score and the deft shifts in tone, this is high level filmmaking at it’s finest.

Let’s look a bit at the plot – since that is what Story Beats is for.

The film starts off slow. Big balls #1. You go in expecting to be scared with all this hype surrounding it and what does Friedkin do? Does he SHOCK you with gore? Does he try to impress you with an over the top action set piece? Does he try to hook you with a plot twist? Nope. He calmly takes you to Iraq – an archeological dig in Nineveh where we meet Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin – an aging Priest with a heart condition – who is given a relic that was found in the rubble. Do they even name the demon? Nope. Pazuzu for those playing at home – and there is not one hint of that name in the film. To name it would diminish it’s effect.  Not once do they explain it, why it possesses a girl in Georgetown, what Merrin has to do with it in the past or any of the stock expository stuff. In fact you never see it again after the opening bit. In fact part of the power of this film is that they never spell out anything for you – especially with dialog – about what this all means – what is really happening – why – or what the deeper thematic meaning is. This is all inferred through the film’s clever subtext – but never spoken of.  Friedkin sets up a deeply psychological story of two arch rivals – Old Wordly Priest vs. Old Nether Worldly Demon – pitted against each other masterfully with minimal dialog for NINE MINUTES. And do we follow the travails of this old archeologist priest Merrin like Indiana Jones… Not on your LIFE. This is well thought out adult filmmaking that refuses to pander. This is art. We lose the Father Merrin story after the apex of his meeting with his demon in the Iraq desert amidst dogs fighting in a prophetic wind storm that tells us everything we need to know without saying anything. We then cut to our actual story beginning, which happens to be an old fashioned haunted house tale, about what else… noises in the attic. The word you want to describe this juxtaposition is droll. It is a comically ironic understatement that is both effective as a plot beat as well as an inside joke. The opening nine minutes of The Exorcist is absolutely beautiful, ballsy, stunning, poetic, tense and a master class in the language of film.

Why is Friedkin doing this? The book starts in Iraq. But I think there is another reason that is more interesting that also relates to theme. Knowing that there is so much anticipation going into this film to “scare and shock the audience” – Friedkin pulls back and subverts expectations by getting you in the proper mood for what is to follow. The Iraq sequence is there to calm and heighten your senses – prepping the viewer for the onslaught of terror to follow. Of course the opening bookend with Merrin adds weight to his character for the third act when he returns to do battle – but nine minutes of deep character study and no dialog… Unheard of now. Coming from a popular bestselling novel helps no doubt. It ensures a built in audience willing to go along for the ride and not zone out – yet this tack could have just as easily backfired. There are plenty of crap possession movies out there that we are not discussing now because of a lack of originality, skill and talent in execution. Friedkin nails his opening and milks it where lesser filmmakers – and certainly any modern film-as-made-by-marketing-committee would have most certainly cut it. This is the difference between The Exorcist and nearly every other possession movie. The Exorcist holds back – confident that it will beat the living shit out of you later. Most if not all films – especially horror and possession films – can not live up to that claim. Exorcist is basically a haunted house meets personal drama movie for the entire first half. 

So this film breaks the rules right off the bat and then brings you back to a simple trope opening – noises in the attic – as almost a joke – and then proceeds to deliver the ultimate haunted house thrill ride without explaining itself, over defining the demon, or telling why. To explain it is to kill it – possibly the most important lesson of all for horror movie writers. Never explain your monster. Monsters just are. They are metaphors that we as viewer will fill in the void if you do your job correctly and give us a fully realized world full of not so innocent souls for the monster to eat. If we know every detail, exactly where it came from – why it is there and how to kill it – then we can empathize. If we empathize – even slightly, we are not really scared. And if we are not scared – then your movie needs to resort to lowest common denominator Quiet Quiet BANG bump shock nonsense in order to keep us interested. Or worse, torture porn. 

Lets talk about comedy for a second. Because The Exorcist is actually not lacking in the comic relief department. For a heavy movie full of over the top shocks there are several comic moments where characters are allowed to reveal themselves as living breathing people making light of a tense situation. It endears you to them and makes them believable adding another layer of subtext to the film. I have to give credit to Friedkin for allowing these bright moments of levity to pepper this film – especially with Father Karras and Lt. Kinderman (played by the excellent Lee J. Cobb). No one ever discusses the comic moments in Exorcist and how they are strategically placed to break the tension – just like in life. This is a tactic used by most if not all of the best filmmakers and when done correctly it is the sign of a master storyteller – being able to infuse humor in a tale full of unbelievable horror. Kubrick being arguably the most adept and subversive in this department. Friedkin nails it here and much credit should go out to the actors who capably pull it off. Kinderman asks Father Karras – do you like to go to the movies? And they joke about critiquing film – as if Friedkin is poking fun at the audience saying: …you like movies? Well how about this one. Are we having fun yet? No – just wait. Ellen Burstyn is a tour de force as a mother at the end of her rope struggling with the sickness in her daughter. She manages to ground this film with nearly every emotion – including self deprecating humor as her situation grows dire in a brilliant exchange with Father Karras. Karras himself is an ironic character – a PDH Jesuit priest psychologist who does not believe in exorcism and has lost his faith.  

Friedkin holds off the big gun set pieces as long as possible – using logic, and plausible deniability within the medical profession as his foil to build his arguement. This tactic of slowly taking you deeper into the haunted house while easing and engaging your ability to suspend disbelief by ticking nearly every haunted house cliche off one by one throughout the first half is not by accident. 

And then Regan kills someone – Burke Dennings. Now we have another layer of plot to add – Did Regan really kill Burke? We never see it happen on screen – but who else could have done it? Now we have a haunted house movie that becomes a possession movie – that is also a murder mystery. Pretty good stuff here for only being 59 minutes into the flick. We are actively engaged in every character. All without that Priest from the opening nine minutes coming back and so far zero pea soup being puked out. So the entire first half we are being primed with strange demonic flash frames, slow build scares, surreal dream sequences, a priests familial guilt towards his ailing mother, divorce fallout, murder, and scientific evidence building, qualifying the case for possession and wearing us down… The last resort is to bring in the Priest. Again ironically suggested as a joke by one of Regan’s many doctors after every medical avenue has been exhausted. 

And then at beat 28 – 1 hour 17 minutes and 30 seconds into the film we finally get what we paid our money for — the set piece of all set pieces – the scene that sent people wailing into the lobby — Reagan stabs herself in the goods repeatedly with a cross while shouting out the worst of the worst thing a little girl with a bloody crucifix could possibly utter, over and over. And if that is not enough to make the marketing department shit themselves a pumpkin spice latte – she grabs her mother’s horrified face and rubs it in the bloody mess between her legs shouting… well you know. Then her head spins around backwards and she says the C word in the cockney voice of the deceased Burke Dennings. That right there my friends is why your horror movie – any horror movie – will NEVER match The Exorcist in sheer ability to push the limits and shock the system. All this at Christmastime in 1973. The irony. The audacity. Good luck trying to top that. I don’t want to say it can’t be done. But really, it can’t be done. No modern studio marketing team would ever let it happen even if you could come up with something more shocking. 

The actual exorcism in The Exorcist lasts only 10 minutes. That’s correct kids. Ten minutes. Merrin comes back – they do a quick prep to get ready – a gathering of the weapons for battle. Father Karras asks if he wants the backstory and Merrin shuts him down and says: WHY? Exactly. No backstory exposition needed. Fill it in yourself. And in 10 minutes we get the set piece of all set pieces – and the conclusion of the story. You know why that is? Because Friedkin being a master filmmaker knows that if it is any longer than ten minutes he will run out of shit to do on screen with 2 priests and a possessed girl on a bed without being pedantic, boring, or worse, a farce. Which is pretty much what every other exorcism film that followed is. That is all the time needed – and he fills every moment of it with tension, story, visual effects, and terror. He manages to wrap up this tale in a deeply satisfying – yet tragic way with Father Merrin coming back to battle his old arch rival and losing – and Karras sacrificing himself to save the girl. We can all watch it now and laugh at the effects some 40 odd years later from our computer generated cartoon comic book loving world. That is only because lesser talents and movies made by marketing committee have diluted the waters of this genre and made it a virtual laughing stock.

There are a few things that were added in the re-release of The Exorcist – dubbed The Version You’ve Never Seen. Mainly this stuff is unnecessary to the story and in my opinion better left as outtakes. We really don’t need the Spider Walk sequence – it adds nothing to the story – in fact you could make a case that it detracts from the story – which is why they left it out in the first place. And we don’t really need more flash frames of the demon which are now interspersed throughout the movie. The original version had 2 flash frame demon faces (during Damien’s surreal dream about his mother) and was wildly effective as both a scare tactic and a subliminal thematic device. The ending is also an add on with Kinderman and Father Dyer walking away as friends joking about movies. Again – unnecessary. The original ending – Father dyer stares down the steps where both Burke and Father Karras fell to their death – and somberly turns and walks away to the sound to Tubular Bells. Iconic. Classic. Haunting. Now we get this low rent almost slapstick bit which doesn’t even match with the last thirty minutes and is so out of place it is painful. For me the original ending is the only ending because it does what great films do – it highlights the theme with just a look of the actor’s face and a turn – no dialog needed. There is no kindness, there is no explanation – there is only our loss, memory and grief and the FAITH to move on. Way more powerful than the new “up” ending tacked on. Just my opinion.  

Here are the StoryBeats of the hands down best horror movie of all time:

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