The Devil’s Work: Faith, Humanity, and Hope(lessness) in The Exorcist and The Exorcist III
(Author’s Note: I wrote this for my Horror Cinema class. It was fun.)
Max von Sydow battled an ideological “monster” before he encountered the Devil. Perhaps “monster” may or may not be a stretch, but the objective of his opponent was not dissimilar. While he, wearing chainmail and a sword on his side sat to sit opposite his opponent, Death (Bengt Ekerot), donned a black cloak and a white face, ready to reduce humanity’s greatest battle into a gamely metaphor. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) would force von Sydow to reconcile with a system of belief, and, as with any of Bergman’s film, he landed with a kind of ambivalence about the place that theologically based ideology would have in his life. Perhaps somewhat ironically, it would not be the Bergman film that would make this reconciliation with faith and ideological perspectives visceral, but a horror film fourteen years later, and a sequel of that film nearly twenty years later.
While there is little arguing in Peter Hutchings’ suggestion in his book The Horror Film that “the greatest horror monsters cross boundaries and challenge our systems of belief”, there is an omission here. Part of the cyclical nature of how monsters seem to operate within cinema, or at least partially, is not only a challenge of those systems of belief, but a reconciliation between the various frameworks with which those beliefs come into play. Which is to say that though those beliefs are challenged, they are often propped up by the very thing that is supposedly challenging them.
This seems to be most evident in William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blattey’s The Exorcist, a film that is so frequently considered anti-religion and against God that the film’s ideology is swept under the rug in favor of focusing on the film’s more visceral content. For, from start to finish, the film challenges the ideas of Catholics only to, in the end, reinforce faith.
This methodology of challenging to reinforce faith is not atypical from the narrative of many crises of faith from believers, and this is heavily implied by Father Merrin’s (von Sydow) backstory. The dynamic that exists between he and Father Karras (Jason Miller) is contingent on how the two deal with their systems of belief being challenged by Pazuzu, or, for all intents and purposes, The Devil himself. The Exorcist is slyly more interested in the way that faith crisis manifests different between Merrin and Karras; Merrin had previously experienced something similar in his time in Afghanistan as an archeologist, the finding of piece of statue causing him distress. Friedkin shoots a close-up of the antique in Merrin’s hand to reveal that it’s a demon’s head, with composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s foreboding score quietly shrieking a sense of dread.
Karras’s confrontation with Pazuzu is sort of like a petty argument between a rival that paradoxically is new to him and yet knows him completely. While inhabiting Regan (Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge), Pazuzu actively taunts Karras, almost in a juvenile way. The power that Pazuzu exerts is less one of strength exactly – though that is evident as well – but more of an ideological one. For the fact that Pazuzu represents an evil and, most blasphemous of all, a doubt in God, Pazuzu is then the worst nightmare.
Pazuzu is interesting in the way that they inspire fury in the most tacit of ways: the personal and the religious become one in the same, indicative of the way that believers hold their faith so close to their being. Pazuzu’s gibes are filthy and personal, amounting to yelling, “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” Pazuzu even speaks in his mother’s voice and briefly presents themselves sin her image. This keys into a deep guilt that Karras feels about his recently dead mother, a person that epitomized exactly what Karras finds, perhaps, strange about faith believers: she lived in squalor in New York and yet her faith in God never wavered.
However, it is this very confrontation with a demon that ironically reinforced the faith that is supposed to be dismantled. That a demon can be defeated (as seen at the end of the film, supposedly) is to suggest that there is a God, one whose control is selective and manifests itself in ways that challenge dispute the very concept of Him. The events in The Exorcist are like the hardest level of Super Mario Bros, something designed to threaten one’s ideas of structure and meaning, but whose ultimate goals merely inforce those very structures.
“I think the point is to make us despair,” Merrin says. “To see ourselves as animal and ugly. TO reject the possibility that God could love us.” The end is optimistic, though, faith in place and the single tool, against psychiatry and science, to have allowed these characters to survive fear.
One wonders, though, how much of that vision was diluted at all in the process of filmmaking, given that William Peter Blattey’s adaptation of his novel Legion, which became The Exorcist III, has a much more sobering and cynical vision to underlie it. To be fair, The Exorcist III also experienced significant behind the scenes drama (substantial rewrites, reshoots, etc.), but there’s a cynical potency that still remains.
Fifteen years after the first film, murders are being committed in the area with an MO of someone who seems to already be dead. The cop in charge of the investigation, Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott), is introduced with the following lines of dialogue: “Do you know what Macbeth is about? It’s about the numbing of the moral sense!” While The Exorcist has a moral core that has a particular orientation or direction in which it leans, The Exorcist III revels in the ambivalence. It’s not exactly a crisis of faith in the Judeo-Christian way, as in the first film, but a crisis of faith beyond theology and into the very idea of being.
The question of life itself introduces itself by the film that Kinderman and Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s film, which has George Bailey (James Stewart), contemplate the meaning of existence, has its themes inverted and subverted out of the context of melodrama and into the context of the horror film. The monster in The Exorcist III, though, is the same.
The crimes that take place, suggestive of the fact that the work might have been committed by the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) (loosely based on the Zodiac Killer), are equally as taunting as the vulgarisms that were spewed in Regan’s room: a young boy crucified on rowing oars, a priest decapitated in a confessional booth, etc. These are piece of iconography that are blasphemed, subverted to a degree where they are beyond offensive.
Curiously, though, the way in which this monster challenges systems of belief extends beyond the theological boundaries that were established in the first film. The Exorcist II is papered with Catholic and religious iconography, but the lead characters participate in a philosophical dialectic and rhetoric that doesn’t seem specified by Catholicism.
Instead, there’s an oscillation between humanism and nihilism, a dialogue between the two that exists in the subtext of the dialogue. The order of things in life are upended in the film, but much more slowly and less explicitly. Blattey focuses on the philosophical crisis of Kinderman as he continues to study the case and the implications of humanity as not evil, but hopeless. That hopelessness is itself a kind of transgression that questions a framework of belief.
Implicitly, the faith that works as the extra text of the former film suggests that there is a kind of hope for humanity, and that it is found in God. But while The Exorcist plays with the nature of evil, The Exorcist III is reliant on playing with the nature of loss and humanity as without hope. There is a Milton-esque sense to the film, swaths of Blattey’s direction being epic, not in form, but in weight.
Kinderman spends his time “groping” looking for the religious connection to the murders, but the irony is that the theoretical and philosophical weight of the matter goes beyond the religious aspects and suggestions in the murders. “If you looked with the eyes of faith, you would see,” the Gemini Killer hisses at Kinderman.
The Gemini Killer, as embodied by Dourif, transcends mere questions of faith in God, but of faith in humanity. His role as a serial killer, trapped or otherwise, is performative, the identity constructed as much as the religion that these characters seemingly adhere to. This performatively is not incidental, a kind of showmanship that the Gemini Killer hints at when discussing the plays he likes, Titus Andronicus being a favorite.
“Save your prayers, God is not here with us now. There is only the darkness here.” While the invocation of God is pointed, Karras’s iteration of “we won” right before the credits role is not a victory against just the devil, but rather a questioning of the rhetoric and dialectic that surrounds humanity. “The suicides of the two Karras – at the end of his original life and his resurrected one – remind us of the pigs in the Bible destroying themselves in a river when the demons are driven out by Jesus,” Alex Fitch points out.
The transition from a second suicide to choral music is foreboding. Robert C. Cumbow writes,
Blatty ended the novel with a conversation that did not survive into the film—at least not in words. Kinderman invokes both science and religion for the proposition that “all the known processes in nature were once part of a single, unified force…I believe that this force was a person who long ago tore himself into pieces because of his longing to shape his own being. That was the Fall…the ‘Big Bang’: the beginning of time and the material universe when the one became many—legion. And that is why God cannot interfere: evolution is this person growing back into himself.”
The choral music does nothing to smooth the edges of an ending that is incredibly cynical, even nihilistic, in nature. The final battle, so to speak, between Kinderman and Pazuzu mirrors the final encounter in the first film, but its ending, with the souls of the dead trying to climb out of Hell, is hopeless, not transcendent. That Blattey, and the devil, could inspire such hopelessness means that they won the same game that we’re all playing.
Cumbow, Robert C. “Summer of ’90: The Exorcist III | The House Next Door | Slant Magazine.” Slant Magazine. 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.
Fitch, Alex. “Light in the Darkness: William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogy.” Electric Sheep. 25 Feb. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.