Friday, October 12, 2018

Lessons in Noir from The Exorcist.

October is a big month for me. In news that will surprise no one - we do Halloween bigger than Christmas in the Pickup household. My love for horror’s only boundary is my complete inability to write it, but I love to read it, watch it, discuss it, absorb it. I talked briefly about learning from other genres when I wanted to gush over how much I loved Paul Tremblay’s Cabin at the End of the World, but I couldn’t get into the details I loved or why they mattered without giving spoilers for a book you definitely want to read (no, need to read).

October being what it is, this the unholiest of months, I get my yearly viewings of favorite horror movies in. I’ve written here about my love for The Exorcist (the film) and most people have heard me talk about my love for the novel. I only allow myself a single viewing a year because I never want to lose the excitement it brings me. As a fan, it’s fantastic. As a lover of practical effects in film, it’s a Bible (oh, irony), and as a writer, it has so much to give.

Friedkin and Blatty imagined it pro-Catholic, and apparently, so did the Church, as they allowed the use of Georgetown and their own priests for the film. I don’t know many Catholics that watch this film or read the book it was based on as sacrament - everyone I know loves it or hates it for what it is - a horror film.

But it’s more than that, too. Spoilers follow (but if you haven’t seen it in the last 45 years, are you really going to rush out to see it now?).

In both the book and the film, the relationship between the two priests, Fr. Merrin and Fr. Karras, serves as an emotional lynchpin in the story. Yes, Reagan’s mother Chris deals with intense and heartbreaking emotions through the story, but they are projected onto a character that, for the majority of the story, isn’t actually there. The reader/viewer has to accept at least the possibility that Reagan is possessed by a powerful demon for the story to make any sense at all. Chris plays the role of a mother trying to find help for her daughter, but we experience a mother who has lost her daughter and wants to get her back. Because the reader/viewer and the character are experiencing different things, we merely observe her emotional distress. But Merrin and Karras are friends. In the book more than the film, we see them enjoy each other’s company. We understand that their bond is deep and they have love for one another. 

When they go in together to fight this demon - despite their fears and doubts, the reader/viewer understands the gravity. In the scene above, we are witnessing a finality. The grief Karras feels is nothing like the grief Chris felt. Chris was terrified, holding pain for her daughter - but there was a way out. When Karras demands that the demon take him, it is his moment of giving up. His best friend is dead, and he realizes this battle can’t be won with faith or power, so he surrenders. Granted, his surrender makes the win possible.

Reagan is free of the demon, that means the good guys won.

Or does it? And that’s what I love about the relationship between the two priests. They feed each other’s doubts, they feed each other’s power. When one dies, the other chooses to follow immediately. They manage to complete their job - the girl is exorcised. But to win, both the men, and all their knowledge must die.

As a writer I can’t help but admire the emotional wreackage left by that “happy ending.” Karras has just flown into a rage and started beating what he knows is (at least) the body of a young girl. He has demanded possession by a demon, and committed suicide. All within seconds. The reader/viewer cannot breathe a sigh of relief and be happy for Reagan and Chris. We can only take that relief with a spoonful of all the horror and grief Karras and Merrin have left us with.

Tell me that’s not noir as fuck.

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