The Exorcist (1973) and horror before the Horror
When I think of The Exorcist I don't think of levitation, blasphemous profanity or of projectile vomit. I think of the horror before the horror: the turmoil of two priests, the anguish of a mother and the quiet vanishing of a young girl.
What scares the most is the not knowing. As Regan starts to act strangely a sickly worry and terror settles over the whole film. It is imbibed in its fabric. As Regan begins to become distant from herself, she undergoes horrendous procedures that are painful for her to suffer and for us to watch.
There is no escape because we do not know what we are running from.* This is horror of the everyday.
However, when it becomes clear what we are dealing with (demonic possession), what may be required to save her (an exorcism) and to where the evil is confined, the horror looses its all-encompassing hold over us. Once the film gains a clear focus physically and geographically, spaces of calm and safety are created without. In other words, we can step outside the door.
The tremulous and desperate search for answers transforms into an overwrought and overlong battle between God and the Devil and the tension dissipates amidst a cacophony of effects.
Of course Regan is possessed, a scarred shell, but still we do not see enough of the girl we knew beneath all the make-up. During the exorcism itself the umbilical cord between her and us is severed. Muffled by all the shouting and the magnetic fury of a war of the soul is the humanity, the crises of family and faith that gave uncommon tenderness to this tale of salvation.
In fact the two most remarkable moments of the film bookend the exorcism. Before the ritual Father Merrin asks Regan's mother Chris what Regan's middle name is to which she responds "Theresa". To this he says "what a lovely name" with a heartbreaking solemnity and care, like a warm hand outstretched in the cold dark. The second, in the wake of the storm, is the instinctive kiss of thanks Regan gives to a priest when she sees his dog collar.
Finally we return to the people and the feelings that drew us in, after the ghost of tawdry spectacle had been laid to rest.
*This reminds me of The Descent, a film I did not know involved monsters, a film that was a masterpiece of the unfocused horror of claustrophobia and entrapment (spiced by the petty power struggles of the women involved) until the more overt and conventional horror genre elements took over.