Devil Without a Cause

Hold on to your stomachs-- super-realism has hit the movies! Relax-- there are also more traditional thrills and yawns.

I START THIS COLUMN WITH the handicap, I guess, of a pox on me from all avid Judith Cristers. But I’m sure if Ms. Crist knew how much I need the work she would understand and wish me reasonably well. I convinced the editors to recruit a critic born on Texas soil, steeped in our rich myths and schooled in our narrow prejudices, suggesting that these credentials would surely cause faithful subscribers to overlook a few bum steers and occasional hysterical overstatements. Reviewers, alas, are not infallible.

I must warn that there seldom will be one of those perceptive catch-all introductions telling what this month’s offering of new films means to the world at large. The Waring Blender mentality required to homogenize random smatterings of observations and sense impressions into a palatable blend of predictions or platitudes is not mine.

Not that I didn’t try with the movies reviewed on these pages. I did. But the only common qualities I discovered were the same hackneyed ones common to the human condition: love, sex, evil, supernatural forces beyond our control, and death by many causes. The only clever observation worth the space it takes to make it is that a whopping four of these new films boast retching scenes. This seemed like a train of thought better left on the side track. I could dissertate that these films must be trying to depict a new Ash-Can School of superrealism with such tasteless displays; but all people, even un-reel ones, have to deal sometime with a queasy stomach and I risk upsetting yours by going on about it.

WAIT, IT GETS BETTER!” THE usher wryly called after an ashen-faced girl rushing from the theater. Only devotion to duty kept me from following.

Her departure was prompted by a scene in which Regan, the 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil, satisfies her salivating lust using a crucifix for a dildo. And the usher was right, we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Exorcist, billed as a horror-thriller, is written by the same William Blatty responsible for the best-selling book. And, like the book, it’s an unredeemable piece of trash. But in spite of that, or maybe because of that, it has grossed over $2 million in its first big week, and is on its way to becoming Warner Brothers’ all-time biggest grosser. In more ways than one.

If Blatty doesn’t know better, director William Friedkin ( Boys in the Band, French Connection) should. Both of those films managed to shock without the cheap-shot assorted gore of The Exorcist. But then, they also made less money than this one will.

The first half of the film is more tedious than terrifying. Regan is a sweet young child with a model mother. They kiss each other night-night and talk of ponies and Captain Howdy. Then, as her first irrational symptoms emerge, there’s a sequence of Dr. Welbyish hospital scenes and consultations with various shrinks and specialists.

The thrills begin in the second half when the exorcists, two Catholic priests, are called in to scare the devil out of her. But Friedkin’s dramatization is often more laughable than scary: such as scabby-faced, wild-eyed Regan rolling her head and roaring, an unwitting parody of the MGM lion. Or the scene where Satan invades her box-springs, causing her bed to shake and rattle like a tambourine. Her new voice (dubbed in by Mercedes McCambridge) makes her sound more like a terminal emphysemic than a vessel of the devil. Not that she doesn’t pull a few shockers: gripping a psychiatrist by his tenderest part, or pulling up her gown and making sexual overtures to her mother. There’s no cop-out on the language, either. The obscenities she spits out make Molly’s Ulysses soliloquy sound like a love sonnet. And that’s not all she spits out: when the priest reads scriptures or sprinkles Holy Water on Regan she tends to vomit profusely…a new color for each day of the week.

Friedkin is so engrossed with Regan and her devil that he neglects the plot and supporting characters, letting them flounder around as best they can. The result is a mish-mash of irrelevent scenes (like the diggings in Iraq and the whole sub-plot about Father Karras) and characters with flimsy motives and puzzling actions. Regan’s mother doesn’t even try to contact her ex-husband to tell him his daughter’s turned a mite peculiar, and refuses to implicate her daughter in her boyfriend’s death, thus endangering other lives.

We really can’t care what happens to Regan. Unlike other films or plays dealing with evil or demonic possession in children— The Bad Seed, Turn of the Screw—we have no sense of Regan as a person: no insight into the very real terror she must be feeling, and thus no pity for her suffering. I wish Friedkin had shown more of what goes on in her head, and less of what comes out of her mouth.

One other thing. In spite of its apparent lack of redeeming social value, this film is rated “R” instead of “X”: the same rating Don’t Look Now earned for showing a tender, tasteful love scene between a married couple. I guess sex and violence is only offensive to censors when it involves consenting adults. Anyway, I wouldn’t advise parents to take their kids to see The Exorcist…the boogie-man might get you if you do.

MOST MYSTERY-THRILLERS ARE CONTENT SIMPLY to mystify and thrill, usually in perverse and superficial ways. Don’t Look Now manages to do more. Part of the credit belongs to co-stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and even more to director Nicolas Roeg. His previous films ( Far From the Madding Crowd, Performance, Petulia) were uneven at best. But with Don’t Look Now, he finally makes the pieces fit: so well that the resulting jigsaw-puzzle picture is moving and memorable enough to be called art.

The script (based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier) concerns an English couple living in Venice. He is attempting to restore the artwork

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