Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A relatively tame but entertaining jaunt in The Exorcist

From The Week of October 8th, 2013

Though humanity is understandably hailed for its many gifts, intelligence, endurance, and dexterousness to name but a few, perhaps its most unsung virtue is its keen sense for what is and is not real. Thanks to the human brain's capacity to chronologically order our memories and to differentiate between our conscious and unconscious states, we can distinguish, without effort, reality from dream, the actual from the fantasy. By and large, we take this virtue for granted. After all, few among us ever experience even a moment's uncertainty about the concreteness of the world around us. But to spend even a few moments with those laboring under any of the disassociative disorders is to understand that our sanity hinges on this bedrock certainty, that to question what is real, even for a moment, is to lose confidence in our ability to distinguish it at all, creating a vicious cycle of doubt that plunges the afflicted into a world of phantoms and confusion. This is a truth William Peter Blatty deploys to wonderful effect in his famous work.

Chris MacNeil has it all. A famous, wealthy actress, with homes in Washington D.C. And Los Angeles, she wants for nothing. She has the loyalty of her friends and the love of her family, in particular, Regan, her 12-year-old daughter whose sweet nature brings light to her life. But despite being at the peak of her powers, despite opportunities to become a director, which would launch her on a new and exciting faze of her career, her life is about to take a sinister turn. For her lovely, Georgetown home is experiencing numerous, inexplicable disturbances -- strange sounds, weird chills, foul odors -- that appear to culminate in the sickening of Chris' cherished daughter. While Regan's body wastes away, and while her disposition descends into viciousness and cruelty, her mother and her household flail for answers even while being pulled down into a dark, malevolent world they cannot comprehend.

First published in 1971, and later adapted into a famous film, The Exorcist is a strange and somber work that largely withstands the ravages of time. But for a few memorable scenes, Mr. Blatty rejects the baseness and depravity of modern horror for a somber, almost contemplative journey into madness and wickedness. Consequently, the modern reader is initially compelled to adjust to a slower-paced narrative that revels as much in its quiet moments as it does in the shocking and fantastical. Itself n adaption of two actual exorcisms that occurred in the 1940s, the work is deliciously creepy, a Gothic drumbeat that patiently builds to a snarling, thrashing crescendo that makes the slow build worthwhile.

There would've been little that The Exorcist's first-run readers would've found charming about Mr. Blatty's entry into the world of the weird and vicious. However, with the passing of more than 40 years, one cannot help but wryly appreciate the decades of cultural change that transpired between then and now. The novel depicts its characters as fundamentally rational beings, people who first look to science for explanations long before falling back upon superstition. Mr. Blatty undoubtedly emphasized this point to better establish the contrast between the actual world and the wicked forces attempting to work their will in it, but the work's distrust both of pseudo science (psychiatry) and the unprovable (religion) expose it as a piece of its time and certainly not of ours. One senses that Chris MacNeil would've been far quicker to leap into the arms of pharmacology today than she was in her time. This is not a flaw. On the contrary, it adds a valuable, anthropological component to an otherwise ordinary work.

That said, The Exorcist is beleaguered by tameness. Our expectations for gore and brutality have been so profoundly shaped by contemporary works of film and television that, but for a few notable moments of foul language and sacrilege, the work is virtually devoid of frights. It is far more comfortable in the arena of the creepy than it is of the scary which distinguishes it from the masses but at the expense of making it seem almost quaint by comparison.

A successful piece of charming entertainment... (3/5 Stars)

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