Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Froemming picked “The Exorcist.”
The Movie: “The Exorcist”
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair
Director: William Friedkin
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) When a 12-year-old girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 83 percent
Froemming: Last week, Brown and I saw the dangers of letting a deranged British man enter America and have access to a phone and phone book. It was an excellent start to Halloween Month, and I felt like I needed to ramp it up a notch.
So, I chose the only horror movie that ever really creeped me out. As we have discussed over the years, I love horror movies. But they never really got to me in a way that kinda spooked me. Blood, guts, jump scares? If I did sit ups, I would do them to those movies like Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” But I am a fat guy, so I just watch them from my couch.
Except for one movie. When I was 18 I went to the theater to see a rerelease of “The Exorcist,” and for some reason, this movie unnerved me. The only other movie that did that to me — that is a horror film — was “Mother!” So I guess the socially awkward horror movies are to me what body horror is to Brown.
Brown, as I play on the Ouija Board with my good-time buddy Captain Howdy, why don’t you give us your first thoughts?
Brown: I had never seen “The Exorcist” until this week’s JOE-DOWN. But over 35 years of life, I’ve seen a lot of the clips and heard it discussed many, many times.
I mentioned Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments” last week, and “The Exorcist” came in at No. 3 on that list.
So I don’t have a traumatic experience like Froemming did, but my mom did. She was in her teens, like 16 or 18, I think. She saw “The Exorcist” and was so terrified that she slept in her parents’ bed. As a near-adult.
So yeah, the hype was real, to the point that I watched this movie in the middle of the day because yeah, I don’t need “The Exorcist” being the last thing I thought of before I went to bed.
Was it as frightening as I imagined? No. But there’s plenty unsettling about it. We’ll get into it.
So Froemming, get us started while I start staring at a steep staircase.
Froemming: The movie begins with a white guy mucking around in Iraq, a concept which has never had negative consequences.
Brown: I liked that this movie opened with a sunrise and African chanting, not unlike a revered movie of my childhood.
… Not quite the same tone in this movie.
Froemming: I dunno, that movie featured sky ghosts, so not super far from this.
Lankester Merrin, a priest and I guess part-time archeologist or super “Indiana Jones” fan, is looking for artifacts in the northern region of the country that George W. Bush saved and was welcomed as a liberator in 2003. He digs up some goofy looking demon head, which unnerves him to the point he needs to take what I assumed is his heart medication he keeps in a pocket watch? This man looks like he has seen better days, like when he was in “Flash Gordon.”
Brown: The opening of this movie, I had to legit check Amazon to make sure I got the right movie. I didn’t expect the opening of “The Exorcist” to look like the set of an Indiana Jones movie.
But yeah, Merrin isn’t looking too hot when he’s staring at a statue in the desert that looks pretty close to the goat-man look Danzig had in the “Am I Demon” music video.
Also, be prepared for this movie to take a while before the scares. “The Exorcist” is a slow burn. The complete opposite of “When a Stranger Calls.”
Froemming: Which I am OK with. I don’t need jump scares every three minutes like modern horror is.
Brown: I’m right there with ya, brother.
Froemming: Anyway, I think what has happened with all this mucking about in Northern Iraq — which would be a solid call of Dick Cheney’s in 2003 — is that our friendly priest unleashed a holy terror. A holy terror named Ben Franklin.
Brown: After our trip to Iraq, we make our way to Georgetown.
Gee, the devil is going to be around the politicians in DC, huh? That’s believable.
We’re introduced to actress Chris MacNeil, who is on location while filming on the Georgetown University campus. The one scene we see her shoot reminds me of the origin story of Homer Simpson’s mom. All we need is someone at the school scaring students off with their glower power.
While on location, Chris has her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Blair) along for the ride.
Linda Blair is fantastic for that role, just because of how unassuming and real her character feels. She doesn’t seem like a child actress here; he has the mannerisms that I’d see out of my nieces.
You know, until she’s speaking in Latin and throwing up pea soup later.
Froemming: Things are going OK for the most part. Reagan’s deadbeat dad misses a call on her birthday, which causes Chris to yell at the operator on the phone. Like it is that poor son-of-a-bitch’s fault the guy won’t answer.
We also meet Damien Karras, a man of the church by day, raging drunkard by night. Damien is having a crisis of faith. See, he is a psychiatrist, which in the 1970s was not a wildly popular job that would give someone their own radio show in Seattle. No, in the 1970s, hospital doctors seem to think these folks are no-nothings and simply prescribing pills will fix everything.
What could go wrong?
Well, Damien can no longer treat these people because their problems are beyond therapy, it is something in their souls. Which is a very strange thing for a man who is also a man of the cloth to say.
He also visits his mother, where I finally remembered why part of “Joker” felt very familiar. She is on her own in some skid row apartment with a bum leg. And because the Catholic Church’s war chest is paying off lawsuits because of all the monsters in their organization, Damien makes diddly squat and can’t afford to put her in a home.
Brown: Between this and “The Omen,” did the world finally stop naming children Damien? I hope that’s a trend that ended with bellbottoms and the Beegees.
Brown: Back with the MacNeils, there’s some strange sounds coming from the attic, which Chris thinks are just rats. Then Regan shows her mom a Ouija board she found in the basement that moves rather aggressively without anyone touching it. Regan has talked to this spirit, which she’s affectionately named Captain Howdy.
Kind of takes the luster of a demon to name it Captain Howdy in such a serious movie. But I suppose you need a little levity in a movie like this.
And Chris gets a scare when she checks out the attic after hearing louder scratches up there. At one point, she gets scared by the butler, Karl. So much so that she apparently didn’t realize that her candle turned into a goddamn torch for a second. Like, she could have lit Hank Scorpio’s enemies on fire with that thing.
And it all just goes downhill from here for the MacNeil family.
Froemming: That downhill adventure begins with what seems like a normal checkup at the doctor’s. Things are going fine with Reagan until they draw blood from her. And, if you don’t like needles, this movie is not for you because there are all sorts of disgusting needle scenes in this.
She suddenly changes, starts yelling and acting psychotic — frankly she kinda reminded me a little of this other moody child character:
Though we only see a little of this. We only find out things went worse when the doctor talks with Chris, saying Reagan has “nerves.” Whatever the hell that is.
Brown: Was that before or after we find out that Regan has the bladder control of a cocker spaniel puppy?
Froemming: Before, after is when she ruined both a dinner party and the maid’s night.
Brown: Yeah, Chris has a dinner party at the house she’s staying at with people in the movie and (I’m guessing) around the college. And it’s a typical ‘70s house party, with pianos, booze flowing and the film’s director accusing a partygoer of being a Nazi. All that was missing was a serving dish full of cocaine.
We also see Regan wandering around this adult party, which made me think I was watching Drew Barrymore’s childhood.
As the party winds down, Regan comes downstairs from her room. She’s gone from a precocious girl to having this vacant stare as she tells an astronaut that he’s going to die up in space.
Froemming: She says “up there,” which is foreshadowing what happens to him later. Also, I think she is prejudiced against astronauts.
Brown: Then, Regan inexplicably starts urinating on the carpet. Which, yeah, that’s a way to tell everyone to go home. I’ll make a note of that for the next party I go to.
Froemming: Of the many lessons you learn in college, one is when someone straight up pisses on the floor, the party is over.
Reagan then goes to bed, and when Chris hears her yelling, she goes into the bedroom to see the bed is flopping around like that fish at the end of the “Epic” video by Faith No More.
Well, the doctors are stumped. The pills are not working for some reason, a couple of spinal taps do not find issues in the brain, so they are forced to recommend a head shrinker to see what his goofball assessment can find.
Brown: The first test Regan goes through, where they stick a needle into her neck and you see the blood squirting out, that was the most squeamish I was during this whole movie. And I’m not someone who’s squeamish around needles. Basically, the battery of tests is real unnerving just to see an innocent little girl go through this shit.
Also, during the bed shaking scene, you see the white, ghoulish face of the demon Pazuzu that is possessing Regan.
See, if I were younger or in the 1970s, that shit would freak me out. Nowadays, not so much. Pazuzu looks like pro wrestler Danhausen. I was expecting Pazuzu to be transforming into The Rock.
Froemming: Yeah, that isn’t all that creepy anymore, but it is kinda creepy when Chris comes home after leaving that drunkard astronaut to watch over Reagan. She comes home, the electricity goes out and there is this weird effect of that face superimposed in the dark. Clever little trick there, movie.
Oh, that drunk astronaut. He fell out the window and broke his neck falling down this set of stairs I think might violate safety standards by the house. His neck spun around three times we are told.
Brown: Wait, isn’t the guy that gets killed the director of Chris’ movie, Burke? You know, the guy who was calling Karl a Nazi? Part of the reason his death isn’t being treated at first as some sinister crime is because he’s a well-known drunk and probably fell out of the window.
Froemming: You are right. Given how he treated the butler, he sort of had it coming. Good work, Reagan and Satan.
Brown: The astronaut, he probably died when the circuits died in his spaceship. Tell his wife he loves her very much.
Froemming: The death is being investigated by a poor-man’s Donald Sutherland in William Kinderman. This actor would be replaced by George C. Scott in the third movie. Star of the classic:
Now, Kinderman is quirky in that he doesn’t really seem to work, but spends all his time going to the movies, so I wonder if he is suitable for his job.
Brown: Kinderman is as persuasive as the PI the Simpsons hire to scare off Sideshow Bob.
Froemming: Chris and the doctors bring a psychiatrist to see Reagan, who at this point when she speaks, it sounds like multiple demonic voices at once coming out of her mouth and NOBODY FINDS THIS ODD. She even assaults the guy, squeezing his balls like Joe Pecsi squeezed a man’s head in a vice in “Casino.”
The doctors at the hospital, men of hard science and medicine, recommend to Chris an exorcism by the Catholic church.
What. WHAT? These guys were reluctant to get a psychologist to see the girl for half the movie, now they are going in on a practice this movie tells us really ended in the 16th Century? A practice the Church itself really has not pursued in a very long time and don’t even like talking about?
Brown: Look, Froemming. You need to get Pazuzu away from Linda Blair. He’s the second strangest man ever in her life behind Rick James.
BTW, this song was written about Linda Blair:
Chris is at her wit’s end and going to Father Karras in desperation. She’s not a religious woman. Hell, she uses the lord’s name in vain so much that even I was uncomfortable. But, she doesn’t want Regan committed and can’t subject her to more spinal taps and other traumatising medical procedures.
Froemming: Given we see her stabbing herself in the vagina with a crucifix, yeah she needs all the help she can get. Oh, she also shoves her mother’s face into that bloody area, which nearly made me vomit.
Damien is reluctant to help. See, he thinks Reagan just needs to go into six months of supervision at a hospital. And when he agrees to see her, I think he goes blind to sight, smell and hearing because poor Reagan at this point has demonic green eyes, cuts all over her body, her face looks like an old catcher’s mitt and when she speaks, her voice is now even more demonic with backward voices thrown in as well, like an Ozzy record.
Brown: Yeah, it’s not as funny as playing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards. In that case, Regan would just want to get high.
If speaking backwards and vomiting projectile green vomit isn’t enough to convince Karras that this isn’t all mental, when he visits Regan again, a message of “HELP ME” pokes from her stomach. Either the real Regan or the tapeworms in her stomach need some divine intervention. Father Karras makes his case to the Church, who decides that they need to get in touch with Father Merrin, who dealt with this same sort of thing previously. In fact, the demon’s backwards talk mentions Merrin.
Too bad this man of the cloth wasn’t around to help with another brand divine intervention.
Know how I mentioned before that this was the opposite of “When a Stranger Calls?” Yeah… this movie is a 90-minute buildup for the last 20 minutes, which is pretty damn intense.
Froemming: Father Merrin shows up and we hear one of my favorite horror movie themes, “Tubular Bells.”
Which also includes the iconic shot of the Father in the mist and light coming to the house where either the devil now resides, or a young girl with a tapeworm. Either way, he will get that thing out of Reagan, be it Bible verses or luring the worm out of her nose with milk.
Brown: I dunno, is “Tubular Bells” as good as Ennio Morricone’s coke-fueled theme for “Exorcist II: The Heretic?”
Froemming: Welcome to Jimmy Carter’s America.
Merrin shows up, and Damien is already there. Telling me either one of these guys was fashionably late or embarrassingly early.
Merrin does not give two shits what Damien has to say about the case, because the devil likes to trick people like Loki in the MCU, for those who have no idea what the devil is. Also, the devil lost a fiddle contest to some hillbilly in Georgia so I guess he isn’t all that powerful either.
Of course, this was all before The Evil One met his true love, Saddam Hussein.
Merrin warns Damien to not listen to the monster, which is hard because when Reagan talks, it sounds like “Revolution 9” by The Beatles. That would distract almost anyone.
Brown: While Father Merrin leads a reading of scripture and splashes holy water on Regan, Father Karras is astonished by what he’s seeing. More green vomit, Regan and the bed floating in the air and more vile speech coming out of this 12-year-old girl.
And, the most memorable moment: the head spin.
All the while, Karras is trying to keep it together since the demon can clearly tell he’s the weak link of this exorcism due to the guilt he’s felt the entire movie about his mother’s death.
Froemming: I have a question on her death. There is a scene where he visits her in the psych ward and she is babbling and his uncle can’t take care of her and neither can Damien, so she has to stay there. Then we find out she died at home when he was away. I feel like there was an editing mistake here.
The first round of this ends with Reagan puking bright green slime into Merrin’s scarf? I know nothing about these things, so I have no idea what that purple thing she puked into was. All I know is this took a toll on both men. And we see Merrin go to his pocketwatch pills, which sounds like a terrible Grateful Dead song.
Brown: While Father Merrin tries to get it together, Father Karras goes into Regan’s room again, where Pazuzu has Regan talking like Karras’ mother.
Did you not listen to Merrin, dude? The devil is a trickster! Also, he’s probably wondering why your mother named you, a man of the cloth, (REDACTED) Damien!
Seeing that Karras is crumbling under the stress, Father Merrin goes it alone for round 2 of the exorcism.
Brown: After taking some time to gather himself, Karras goes back into Regan’s room where the little girl is untied and Father Merrin is dead on the floor. The movie leaves it vague but Wikipedia tells me it was a heart attack, so let’s go with that.
Froemming: Well, Damien then does what Merrin would not do: Beat the living (REDACTED) out of a little girl to kick the demon out.
Well, while pummeling this little girl with his fists, Damien says for the devil to take him instead, and we see the vile creature jump into him via his face looking like an old catcher’s mitt like Reagan’s once did.
Brown: Seeing Karras’ eyes turning green, I thought he was having trouble with the raging spirit that dwells within him.
Froemming: This movie would have been incredible if it ended like this.
Once the demon is in him, Damien then jumps out the window like the drunk director before him, hits the stairs and tumbles down until he is a bloody mess at the bottom. We are to assume he dies, but him being in the third movie confuses this.
We now end the movie with Reagan now much better, though still all bruised from when Damien beat the bejesus out of her and all the other stuff that happened to her while she was possessed by a monster. She remembers nothing of it, though when she sees a clerical collar, she seems to have some sort of reaction. Probably nothing, as she remembers nothing. Especially the priest who rained blows down upon her like Rocky just shortly before.
Brown: As the MacNeils get the (REDACTED) out of D.C. because, you know, two priests died in their home and all, another priest bids farewell to the family. Regan gives him a kiss on the cheek, and Chris gives him a token dropped by Father Merrin during the exorcism.
Then, we take one final look down the stairs before this priest surely starts dancing on them like so:
Froemming, let’s go to recommendations while I wipe split pea soup off my collar.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: Oh yeah, this is my favorite horror movie.
Brown: I would. The movie didn’t mess with me as much as I thought it would. But you can clearly see how it (REDACTED) with people in the ‘70s and how influential this movie is. And Linda Blair puts on a master’s class in child acting.
Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN: