For this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has assigned 1973’s The Exorcist, one of the most visual and therefore visceral of all American horror movies, albeit one that I have gone on record as not finding particularly effective as horror (also, our good host acknowledges that he chose this film in order to force himself to finally watch it, which I kind of love – I have definitely arranged reviews and even complete retrospectives just because I wanted to plug one or two gaps in my filmgoing education).
It is, to a spectacular degree, a horror film about faith, and particularly about the conflict between a modern scienced-driven world of normality and reason and the realm of faith, religion, God, Satan, the soul. And there are many scenes and individual shots that play into this, of which the one that has always impressed me the most is the cringe-inducing examination scene, where poor little Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is being poked and prodded in the most squirmy, painful-looking ways in the hopes of finding an explanation for her strange affliction. The subtext, of course, is that all of this modern medical suffering she undergoes is completely pointless: no doctor can diagnose what Regan suffers from.
In the entire movie, this is the only scene that honestly works me up in the way that a horror film ought to – traumatic medical scenes, particularly those involving long needles, have a better than average chance at getting me where I live – so I knew pretty much straight away that it’s where I’d start looking; I was surprised and pleased to find a shot that nailed so perfectly what might be my favorite single subtextual thread of the whole movie. For context: Regan is presently strapped to an examination table, and she is being plugged into all sorts of machines, and then we see a big ol’ needle full of an injection, which is then pulled out of the shot to show Regan’s terrified mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) looking on.
The real heart of The Exorcist, for me, has never been the operatic A-plot of a priest with doubts rebuilding his faith to fight evil, but the small, domestic B-plot of a single mother’s personal hell of knowing that there’s something wrong with her daughter, she doesn’t know what it is, and there’s nothing she can do to help. It is horror that comes from confusion and impotence, and Burstyn’s depiction of a scared, helpless mother is one of the great onscreen performances of a parent in that decade, certainly, if not in all the annals of American cinema. And it’s all there, right in that shot: the big scary needle giving us a jolt of oh my God what the fuck? and then that transition to Chris, thinking absolute the same thing, only it’s worse for her than it can ever be for us. As much a s the performance sells this shot, it’s also immediately obvious, I presume, how the visuals of the window frame and the reflection on the glass obscuring the people watching add to our awareness that Chris is trapped in two ways: strangled and boxed in by her own anxiety, and in a very literal, physical way, she’s being forcibly separated from her scared, sick daughter. it’s this very human, very secular fear that is, to me, the most touching and successful part of The Exorcist, and it’s never more soul-wracking than in this single moment.