Remembering the Exorcist

Posted by Tenby Museum on Sep 30, 2020 Blog No Comments

The Exorcist comes to Tenby

 The Exorcist is a movie that will haunt and finally take possession of you”,  Kathleen Carroll, The New York Daily News

There are some films in any genre that can truly make the viewer believe in the power of cinema. With regards to the supernatural, or ‘horror’ (and by this broad term I do not mean the tedious stalk and slash mundanity that passes for entertainment these days but proper thought provoking films), three films, all made in the 1970s, are in my opinion, amongst some of the best films ever made. The first two are Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The third is perhaps the most controversial of them all and was the one that appeared on Tenby’s cinema screens in 1974. William Friedkin’s screen version of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Films that can make people think, can raise an opinion as well as the hairs on the back of your neck, films that have something to say even if it is not always what Joe Public really wishes to hear.

Of course this is only my opinion. You may prefer Road Trip 1 –350 with their plethora of rehashed bum, boob and fart gags. I say enjoy and be happy. As I say, it is only my opinion, right or wrong.

For those of you who do not know the story of the film of The Exorcist, let me offer this brief synopsis. A young girl becomes possessed by the spirit of evil (in this instance the demon Pazuzu), literally turning into the daughter from Hell. Her mother, an atheist, having failed to find a scientific explanation for her daughter’s troubled behaviour, approaches a priest, Father Karras, for assistance. Karras himself is troubled – his mother has recently died and he is suffering a crisis of faith. With the assistance of Father Merrin, Karras risks his sanity and his life in exorcising the demon from the young girl. Both priests sacrifice themselves for the greater good in the process. Explained in such nutshell terms, the movie sounds horribly trite.

But there is far more to it than that. Outside of the head-turning, pea-green spewing, crucifix abusing and foul-mouthed tormenting, there lies at heart a deeply moral film. It is the ultimate contest of good against evil and can act as a metaphor if preferred not to be taken literally for so many things. In the words of the screenwriter William Peter Blatty, the exorcism of an evil spirit is “tangible evidence of transcendence…if there were demons, there were angels and probably a God and a life everlasting”.

Numerous films have over the years been hit by the censorship laws and a few have been banned outright. The Exorcist came under close scrutiny for years because of some of its more graphic scenes even if its most affecting aspects take part in the mind and the imagination of the viewer. Added to that of course film, censorship and religion have often been uncomfortable bedfellows – just ask the Monty Python team.

Critics were and remain divided – they either loved it or hated it. The evangelist Billy Graham appeared to have missed the entire point and tenure of the film when he denounced it for having a power of evil (this coming from the man who said, “If we had more hell in the pulpit, we would have less hell in the pew”) whereas others, including members of the clergy, championed its cause.

In Tenby the availability of the film for public viewing was preceded by a special private showing for members of the South Pembrokeshire District Council on the afternoon of 4 October 1974. The newspaper reported:

Already neighbouring Preseli District Council have seen the film and have approved its showing in their area. So far the only formal objection of the South Pembrokeshire District Council have received to the film is from the Festival of Light.”

 The Festival of Light was a self-appointed moralist pressure group that sprang into existence in the 1970s, as a result of a moral crusade against the 1970 stage production of Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta (which featured Tony Blair’s father-in-law in all his natural glory). The production the moral crusaders stated placed a “heavy rod in the hands of the philistines for generations”. Supporters of this group included Cliff Richard but the main protagonist would become a household name for being disgusted, Mary Whitehouse and in their rallying against the surge of a permissive society they also attacked myriad others including Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The Council obviously fell on the side of rationality and permitted the X-rated film to be shown to mature audiences. This was much to the chagrin of one regular contributor to the Tenby Observer who outlined her profound reservations in the weekly article, under the headline:

That film – I would ban it

 The author goes on to expound her theories on why the movie should not be allowed to see the light of day, not just in Tenby but all over:

My ban would not have been because of the so-called shocking content of the film – a child possessed by the devil – or on the grounds of obscenity. I would simply have wished to ban it because I feel it is such an incredibly bad film…And when a film is considered to be so controversial that the buck has to be passed to local councillors to decide whether it should be shown or not then the distributors are really on to a winner…What worries me about all this publicity furore is the psychological effect it has on the public, particularly when the film deals with such a disturbing and emotional subject as exorcism…many members of the public have gone to see The Exorcist brainwashed into believing they are going to be shocked, disgusted and disturbed. Once inside the cinema a kind of mass hysteria sets in and that is why we have the sight of women leaving after the film, sobbing and in tears; why strong young men emerge white and shaking and why outside some cinemas priest have been waiting to comfort the victims…I have read the book and I found it boring, verbose and lacking in subtlety: the film suffers from the same faults, although in fairness, there is some good acting…I found the actual possession and exorcism sequences very badly done. The excessive use of sanguine red paint or perhaps it was tomato ketchup and what looked revoltingly like pea-soup would have disgraced even the most pathetic of amateur films societies…I believe films like The Exorcist insult adult intelligence and for that reason alone they should be discouraged.

Tenby Observer, 11 October 1974

(Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to mention that The Exorcist received 10 Oscar nominations in 1974 including Best Picture and Best Screenplay for which it won.)

Maybe the article was a roundabout way of discouraging people from going to see the film but it does not seem to have detracted people from attending the screening.

In the same edition of the newspaper came a reassuring letter for all the sobbing, nauseous and terrified public, entitled ‘Who’s Afraid of the big bad Exorcist’:

I should like to point out to any one who has seen the film The Exorcist and has subsequently got the jitters, that it is impossible for the devil to take possession of the soul, unless it is by the absolute free-will of the person concerned

Tenby Observer, 11 October 1974

The terrifying aspect of the film does not seem to have affected many of Tenby’s cinemagoers who appear to have approached the film with a mature attitude. For many weeks after the opening letters regarding the film appeared in the local paper with the letters page for 18 October working under the tagline Readers write about ‘That Film’.

People stood up for the argument against the special effects and the proposal that the film should be banned on artistic grounds (“in the environment in which we live, one person will never, I hope, have the power to throw out a film, or a book, or even an opinion that is the basic right of every individual to decide upon himself”).

Perhaps the most interesting arguments for the film came from someone training for Holy Orders:

So the great Exorcist has got under way and already comment has been expressed concerning the acting, production and (of course) the entertainment value therein…The point is being missed however and the former are side issues… I can only conclude that the message of The Exorcist was an admirable, clear and resounding triumph for Christianity over the dark forces. A horrific film perhaps, a revolting film possibly; a film so shocking that it demands attention certainly…The Exorcist explodes the myth (of the romantic image of a kindly faced benevolent and all-knowing priest) to show us the very real and material problems that beset the priest; his feelings of guilt, his shortcomings, and the realisation of his limited ability to help. For all these imperfections that makes a priest a human agent, the conclusion of the Exorcist leaves us with more respect and understanding of the faith that he stands for than could any of his grossly idealised brothers in the numerous Dracula films…The Exorcist presents to us an evil so real and convincing that some of us were repelled and condemned the film on side issues of bad taste; perhaps the film had technical shortcomings; perhaps at times it was short of perfection, but the Exorcist deserves to be acclaimed for its bold portrayal of evil, and by shocking us into awareness to the concreteness of it around us. In this respect the film is entirely successful.”

 The following week’s Postbag (25 October 1974) featured yet another letter on this subject, this time A cinema manager’s view:

To criticise is one thing – to crucify is another. It is most unfortunate that certain people with no qualifications whatsoever in that particular field take upon themselves the role of guardians of their particular interpretation of public morals and quality of substance.

Strong views indeed, on both sides. The phenomenon of The Exorcist was ongoing. In 1988 under new censorship laws it was removed from video shops and remerged for public viewing in 1999 where it won legion (no demonic pun intended) of new fans and admirers and of course detractors. The medium of DVD now also allows the public to see the original director’s cut of the film including the infamous ‘spider walk’ scene and I was lucky enough to see it at the Royal Playhouse cinema when the movie was re-released in the 1990s. It is however interesting to see that Tenby was part of the event that was The Exorcist from the very beginning and I thoroughly enjoyed reading these original opinions on one of the films I know will go down in cinematic history.

 

Mark Lewis, Curator

As part of its vast archive, Tenby Museum and Art Gallery has numerous back copies of the Tenby Observer available for viewing by appointment.

Quotes in this article were taken from the Tenby Observer of 1974 and William Peter Blatty’s book ‘The Exorcist: From Novel to Film’ (Bantam, 1974).

How The Exorcist was shown: next to some very dodgy movies!