Censor Me! Truly horrifying: The Exorcist
The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s astonishingly powerful 1973 classic is one of my favourite films of all time. Unlike Reservoir Dogs, I haven’t got an amusing anecdote regarding it, nevertheless this is a film I didn’t see until 1999, when it received a 25th Anniversary cinema run in the UK. Why was that? Because, inexplicably, The Exorcist never received a video classification (although the BBFC claim, somewhat disingenuously, that it was not banned as a video nasty). Looking at it now, I find it astonishing that this intelligent, frightening and adult movie was lumped into the same category as juvenile trash by the likes of Franco, but nevertheless, The Exorcist was completely banned for most of my upbringing. As such, it had attained near mythic status as being the most frightening and extreme mainstream movie of all time, and I, quite frankly, couldn’t wait to see it in the cinema. I was not disappointed, as it was certainly the most terrifying movie I had seen on the big screen, but even as a 21 year old, I did wonder about the legitimacy of the ban.
As per usual, all citations come from the BBFC’s excellent case study, available here. This, incidentally, is a superb resource, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading a lot of these case studies for this series.
Contains pea soup and spoilers below.
The Exorcist is almost a perfect example of how you get a controversial film passed by the censor in the UK. Admittedly, what we’re talking about here is a particularly high-quality film, certainly one with a claim as being one of the greatest Horror movies of all time, and one with a notable level of public support. The problems that The Exorcist had were almost all related to its video classification in the UK, and so that is going to be the focus of this review.
What is interesting about the Exorcist, and a highly salient point in this series in general, is that the film played in Cinemas in the UK on and off for the better part of 25 years. It was still on the big screen in 1979 as part of its original run, and received permission from the censor to keep playing right through the duration of it’s “ban”. The BBFC had clearly drawn a line with what was acceptable in the Cinema not being acceptable on video, and there’s only one reason for that.
Summary of the Film:
Does anyone out there not know the plot of The Exorcist? Really? oh, alright then, I’ll do it. The Exorcist is based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, which, allegedly, is based on a true story. Charting the adolescent Regan’s (Linda Blair)demonic possession by Pazuzu, this follows the initial attempts at diagnosis on a medical basis as her mother (an outstanding Ellen Burstyn) goes to more and more frantic lengths to find an explanation for her daughter’s increasingly psychotic behaviour. The film culminates with the near legendary Exorcism scene as Father Karras (an also outstanding Jason Miller putting in one of the all time underrated turns) and Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) attempt to drive the demon out of the girl.
Structured over three acts, The Exorcist plays with light and contrast. The opening scene with Merrin in Iraq on an archaeological dig is filmed in lush technicolour and scorching sun. When it moves to autumnal Georgetown, the film becomes claustrophobic, the palette changes and an air of menace builds. The second act that deals mostly with the real deterioration of Regan accentuates this with more and more of it taking place at night, while the final act, The Exorcism itself, takes place in almost total gloom. The changing brightness of the film complements the action on screen perfectly.
The Exorcist is, or rather pretends to be, a fairly simple film. What we have here looks like a straightforward battle between good and evil for the soul of a young girl. However, thematically, Blatty and Friedkin were aiming much higher. The subplots of the film all deal with huge issues, including Karras’ loss of faith, and the nature of both religion and hysteria. It’s worth pointing out that Chris is agnostic, and it’s only the extremity of Regan’s behaviour that pushes her to the Catholic Church, not to mention that the Church themselves aren’t exactly eager to perform the ritual itself. This is a film with a lot to say, a horror movie with a real punch to it, and while, yes everyone knows about the show-stopping scenes, it still, to this day, has the power to deliver a proper horror movie atmosphere. The Exorcist is, even if you’re familiar with it, highly unsettling, and although it lacks the jump scares and overplayed minor key soundtrack required by the ADD generation, I think it is still an actually frightening horror movie.
This, really, is what the genre should be aiming for.
Easy, this. Basically, The Exorcist is superb, on pretty much every level.
From a performance standpoint, all the actors (including those non-professionals such as Father William O’Malley as father Dyer) are superb. They’re all on song, and I find this simply remarkable. However, I think a lot of the credit/ blame for this has to go to Friedkin. He took a, to put it mildly, hands on approach to the performances, and used a number of methods to obtain the performance that he wanted that I don’t think he’d be allowed to do today. A couple of famous examples are actually wounding Ellen Burstyn’s back during one scene and slapping O’Malley just before the climax to obtain “authentic” shaking. Not to mention his pathologically insane penchant for discharging firearms on set.
Friedkin, actually, was probably the key figure to the film working so well. Indulged to an almost fantastic degree by Warner Brothers (he vetoed the casting of Brando as Merrin, because he didn’t want it to be a Marlon Brando film), The Exorcist saw him really off the leash. The measures he took were frankly incredible at the time, and included constructing effectively a vast freezer around the set so that they could film actual “mist” on breath during the climactic scene. This was a terrible idea as it meant that they could only film for little time every day, and there was a real danger of Linda Blair coming down with hypothermia.
As The Exorcist spiralled over budget, Warner’s began, not surprisingly, to develop the jitters over it. They need not have worried, as Friedkin knew exactly what he was doing. Almost every decision the nutter made here was utterly vindicated on release, even down to the unusual soundtrack choice of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Friedkin pulled unknowns into the film in every department, from Miller as Karras to an old Mexican dude who did the folio work (the neck turning is actually the sound of an old wallet being manipulated) and every single one of them repaid him with some of the best work in their careers.
As films go, I cannot for the life of me think of a single change I would make to The Exorcist, and neither, for the record, would Friedkin (although Blatty thought of one to fix the problematic “Spider Walk” scene that ended up cut). This is, arguably, as close to cinematic perfection as anyone has ever got in the Horror genre, and even to this day, almost 40 years after it’s original release, the fact that it is still legitimately scary stands testament to the simply superb work put in here by all departments.
Pointless Digression Time:
Well, not entirely pointless, if I’m honest.
The Exorcist has a strong, urban myth attached to it, and while I can think of other films with urban legends associated, it’s the sheer quantity tied into The Exorcist that sets it apart. There are simply hundreds of bizarre and absurd stories attached to the production, from the film being cursed with a number of deaths related to the filming, to the, frankly bullshit, rumour that Friedkin had called in an exorcist for the set. What nonsense. However, what he did do was stoke the flames of mass hysteria before the film was released by having priests bless the crew.
Friedkin here was pulling a very crafty example of mass media manipulation. Arguably, what he was attempting to do, by leaking this garbage into the mainstream, was to portray this as an actually “evil” film. He was trying to, with no little success, whip up the morbid curiousity crew, and as this was a very adult horror film he was no doubt hoping that the film would attract a high degree of both horror from the moral majority, and a significant following from gorehounds and those looking to be scared.
Why did it have problems?
In a way, I think Friedkin bought this on himself, as The Exorcist was but one of a number of highly controversial films released around this time. It also carried a frankly horrendous reputation from America with stories of people crying, puking and fainting in the cinema. This was mass hysteria in action, and when coupled with the content of the film, there were always going to be difficulties. Except, brilliantly, the Director of the BBFC, Stephen Murphy, didn’t think so. Ignoring the cries of outrage from the likes of The Festival of Light (Mary Whitehouse’s cult) he said “”It is a powerful horror movie. Some people may dislike it, but that is not a sufficient reason for refusing certification”. So, stick that one up your uptight arses, he was passing it completely uncut.
However, as is always the way, the outrage didn’t stop with his word. The moral majority scumbags had got their tails up, and despite both an impressive level of critical acclaim (The Exorcist garnered a number of Oscar nominations, which is nearly unheard of for a horror film) and incredible commercial success, they wanted it banned. A few local councils did secede to their desires, which, of course, only increased the notoriety of the movie. Eventually, obviously getting desperate (really, do they have nothing better to do?) they appealed to the censor that it might violate the Protection of Children Act, which prohibited “indecent” (define that one, dare you) images of children. The Censor, thankfully, was having no truck with this utter garbage either.
Nevertheless, along came our old friend the Video Recordings Act in 1984. The Exorcist was now in deep trouble. Given the volume of films already available in 1984, the BBFC had a deadline to certificate every movie released on VHS pre-1984 by 1988. The Exorcist had been one of Warner’s flagship releases released in 1981. So, under pressure from the moral majority the BBFC took the brave option and, er, procrastinated. What they thought they were playing at is an absolute mystery to me, but they had basically two problems with it as a home release.
The first is that they were concerned that Regan’s age would give the film appeal to young viewers. This is an asinine proposition, but an indication of them playing the despicable “Won’t someone please think of the children” card. The second, and probably more typical problem is that they were bowing to public pressure. Worried by reports of young women and pregnant women throwing hysterical fits on watching the film, they were scared of negative headlines and the publicity a film with as high a profile as this one could attract. So, instead of showing some balls and passing the film, they simply let the deadline expire, and when questioned argued that they did so as they couldn’t guarantee that young kids wouldn’t see the film on video.
Thus, The Exorcist effectively became banned in the UK. However, the story wasn’t over, as the BBFC decided that although it was not fit for home consumption, it was perfectly safe to allow it continued release on a cinema screen, just as an 18 rated film. This created a strange anomaly in the UK. Films that were not allowed video certification were, as a rule, placed on the Video Nasties list, and thus were also not allowed a cinema release. By doing so, they were effectively labelled obscene.
Not so here, as the BBFC hadn’t banned it, they had instead prevaricated and therefore not had enough time to give the film a certificate for home consumption. Yet, by the same score, they clearly didn’t feel strongly enough about the film’s more difficult scenes to ban it outright. Thus, The Exorcist remains, to the best of my knowledge, unique in that it did not receive a certificate, yet remained off the Video Nasty list. It’s no wonder that when discussion of the 1984 act comes up the Exorcist is always labelled as a Video Nasty, because for all intents and purposes it is the only film that was deemed to be nasty specifically on video.
Time passed, and the film reached near legendary status to teenagers in the UK in the 1990’s. As the 25th Anniversary approached, Warners decided to have another stab at video certification. Knowing full well that the film would sell out cinemas, it was given a special “Anniversary” remastered release, and packed out theatres across the UK- this was THE EXORCIST! The bête noire of horror movies, and we simply had to see it. As a consequence of this, they also resubmitted the film for a DVD release.
The BBFC suddenly found their testicles from down the back of the couch where they’d previously mislaid them, and took different factors into account. Not least of which was that this was an inordinately famous film, with a significant reputation, and as such perhaps parents could be relied upon to show some common sense and not allow a 10 year old to watch a film with a little girl masturbating with a crucifix. The passage of time had also lessened the impact with the effects in particular dating, and audiences were far more desensitised in 1999 than 1974. Common sense prevailed, and after 11 years of effective ban, The Exorcist finally received a release.
Were they right?
To put this simply: no.
The problems the Exorcist had were entirely ridiculous, and this can be seen in that they did eventually decide to allow the release of one of the most famous horror movies of all time without cuts. They did, eventually, trust that people wouldn’t be complete cretins with a film that even if you haven’t seen it, you know the notorious sequences. Hell, there are probably pygmies in the Amazon basin that know that Linda Blair’s head spins round 360 degrees in this film, and I’m sure there are Mongols on the steppe that know that Damien Karras’ mother sucks cocks in hell.
To try to pass off a decision based entirely on fear of bad headlines and moral cowardice on the loathsome “protecting children” card was an appalling craven call. They, simply, didn’t want the publicity. In all honesty, I can’t believe that this was ever even considered for prohibition on these grounds. It actually angers me that grown adults can not make a decision, and allow a deadline to pass, so that they don’t have to face criticism from the media and the usual disgusted of Tunbridge Wells brigade.
I actually do not have enough epithets at my command for the censor when I think about this. They had 4 years to make a decision on the suitability of an inordinately famous and successful film, and I find both the procrastination and cowardice of this almost leaves me struck for words. This is, of all the films I considered in this series, probably the best one and simultaneously the film least suitable for a ban.
Just because it deals with difficult subject matter, and is actually successful at both challenging the audience and meeting the central requirement of its genre, i.e. to be scary, does not, on any level merit them playing the save the kiddies card. This is not the BBFC’s finest hour.
The Exorcist is a stunning film, that was amazingly shabbily treated by the Censor. I suspect that as it deals with religion in some detail, and arguably has almost blasphemous elements, meant that the moral majority were sharpening their knives for it. Any film dealing with elements such as this would always antagonise these busybodies, and I find it significant that The Festival of Light were already agitating for a ban before it even reached the UK.
This is an idiotic case of the BBFC attempting to step in and perform the functions of a parent; to position themselves as the protectors of the fragile youth of the UK. This, frankly, is not their job, and the craven approach to the Exorcist’s VHS certificate pays testament to that they didn’t feel on safe ground here. Had they had some moral bravery, then they would have slapped the ban on it and proclaimed their problems, but they didn’t do this. Had they shown some common sense, and realised that it isn’t their job to try to protect the youth, then they would have given it a certificate, but they didn’t do this either. Instead, what they did was fail to make a decision. They had over 4 years to make the call, and simply couldn’t, because they knew that if pressured they had “We were protecting the children” to fall back on.
An absurd call, and an utterly indefensible one. The Exorcist is a magnificent Horror movie, one that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the viewer and one that has the confidence to deal with actual issues rather than a man in a mask jumping out of a cupboard.
Looking back on Friedkin’s masterpiece, I am still astonished as to the level of power the film has, and the spine-chilling effect of much of it. Playing out on a slow burn, I have often wondered if The Exorcist wouldn’t make a spectacular stage play, and I’m not surprised to see that it has recently been adapted for this format. If it ever makes it to London, then I’m there.
Overall, this is another that doesn’t need my recommendation. One of the most renowned Horror movies of all time, and one that still has the capacity to scare the bejesus out of an audience almost 40 years after its release, I have absolutely no qualms at all about giving this one a fat stamp of approval. The Exorcist is simply a stunning film, and may well be the best one that I’ve ever reviewed.
Next time I’m looking at the absurdities and all the small things that could provoke the censors.
So, until then,