Some movies aren’t just movies. They’re closer to voodoo — they channel currents larger and more powerful than themselves. The audiences that lined up to see The Exorcist in the late winter and early spring of 1974 were drawn by a primal desire to get shocked and prodded in a way that they’d never been shocked and prodded before. The picture was marketed as a deeply solemn ”religious” hex horror movie, complete with catechismal mutterings and a showdown between good and evil, but the word of mouth told the true story. The pea-soup vomit! The pee on the floor! The twisty head! The 12-year-old girl who turned into a slavering, salacious harpie, jabbing her private parts with a crucifix and croaking out such tenderhearted sentiments as ”Your mother sucks c—s in hell!”
Scary? As hell. But this, make no mistake, was also a blasphemous, eruptive freak show, less Rosemary’s Baby than a supernatural Lolita’s Revenge as imagined by the Marquis de Sade. The Exorcist is being rereleased in a special enhanced print, with a dynamic new sound mix, some quasi-subliminal shots of the devil’s face (a nifty sinister grace note), and 11 minutes of added footage, notably the ”spider walk” scene in which Linda Blair’s Regan scurries down the stairs on all fours, the moment climaxing with a terrifying close-up of her blood-drenched mouth. Will viewers line up once again, this time for a nostalgic psychotic roller-coaster ride? In a sense, they hardly need to, since the spirit The Exorcist brought into being is now all around us.
In the famous prologue, Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin gazes up at a sculpture of a teeth-baring succubus, and the screaming music on the soundtrack seems to herald the arrival of something new and frenzied in the world. Could it be … Satan? Actually, he’d been around once or twice before. What The Exorcist really gave rise to was a demon of entertainment, an impulse of titillating blatancy that has bedeviled and outraged audiences ever since. That demon was kicky and gross and fun and purgative. It was the lure, the dark-carnival force, of Extreme Culture (now known as what’s playing on cable, at the multiplex, on your CD player, in your head).
It’s still a shock to see how young Linda Blair was; it is Regan’s nymphet innocence, of course, that renders her subsequent ravings so obscene. Yet if The Exorcist remains the ultimate exploitation-nightmare vision of the onslaught of adolescence, the film’s terror and disgust, like its hideously explicit and literal-minded special effects, spoke, at the time, to a larger, if unconscious, collective fear. Here, in paranoid, bad-acid-trip form, is the real birth of girl power. A-