Friday Favorites: Favorite Scare – The Exorcist

Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.

I have a bit of a complicated relationship with Halloween when it comes to movies.  I’m not big on “scary” movies, where things are designed to jump out and get the audience to scream.  However I do love suspenseful movies that create a sense of dread that hangs with you for days afterwards.  I love the films of Hitchcock, the classic monster movies of the 30s, and other films that set out to create more of an atmosphere than to get simple scares.  I’m also a fan of “spooky” settings and the macabre in film, but I don’t watch movies to be spooked.  Slasher movies have no interest to me, I don’t want to see creepy children climbing out of TV sets, and the trick of loud bangs and things jumping out is just annoying to me.

However, there are exceptions.  I love the moment when Ben Gardner’s head pops out in Jaws, especially when I got to see it on the big screen last year and watch the audience’s reaction.  While I hated The Departed, the scream emitted by the lady sitting behind me when Leonardo DiCaprio was shot was so epically loud and long that the entire audience laughed.  And of course there’s that great moment in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Bilbo went crazy and lunged at Frodo and the ring, that was so unexpected and perfect that it’s impossible not to love.  On the other end of the spectrum is the Inferius grab from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I felt ruined the entire cave sequence by giving the scene the wrong tone.

My favorite scare comes from the first time I saw The Exorcist.  (Movie scares have to be tied to a particular experience of seeing that film, as the “boo”-type scares rarely work more than once.  Perhaps that’s one reason why I’m not a fan of that type of filmmaking.)  The first time I saw The Exorcist, it was on the big screen, as part of “The Version You’ve Never Seen” re-release in 2000.  I saw it with my dad on a Saturdayafternoon in a mostly empty theater.  There couldn’t have been more than 10 people in the audience, all men and mostly middle-aged.  I had the impression that most of them, like my dad, had seen the film before, and that I might have been the only first timer in the group.  There is a scene halfway through the film, where Father Damien Karras is listening to a recording he took of the possessed girl, Reagan, which contains a hidden message when played backwards.  Karras sits in his apartment listening to the recording, which is creepy and disturbing.  He then shuts the recording off and sits in silence, thinking about what he’s heard, when suddenly the phone rings.  All of the people in the theater, including my dad and I, screamed and jumped, and then we all burst out laughing.  It was a great “gotcha” moment, because instead of simply relying on the scare it plays on our fears that have built up over an hour of watching Reagan’s possession.  It’s a great payoff on the suspense the film has created.  On its own, there’s nothing scary about the scene, but placed in context and watched by an audience engrossed in the film it’s perfect, especially when you consider that the film contains no genuine “boo”-type scares at all.

There has been a backlash of sorts against the film in recent years.  Considering that The Exorcist is often picked as the “scariest film of all time”, there has been a lot of criticism of the film for not being scary at all.  That’s really an article for another time, but I will say that I feel younger audiences don’t really understand fear and how it should be used on film.  Gone are the days of the slow-burn suspense film, which required audience investment and attentive viewing, and we’re now left with “boo” moments and gore, neither of which truly tap into fear.  That level of suspense is what makes a film like The Exorcist (andPsycho and Alien and The Birds and countless others) infinitely more terrifying in the long term than what shows up in the theaters these days.  But those films need an audience willing to put some effort into watching the film.  We have to care about the characters, to understand what’s at stake, and to be able to put ourselves into their shoes in order to feel the fear that they are feeling.  It also requires, at least for the length of the film, that the audience actually believe the events in the film are possible.  A “scary” movie sets out to scare the audience, but a great movie sets out to make us identify with the characters and then to scare those characters in order to create a more lasting sense of fear.  And for that kind of experience, I’ll take The Exorcist any day.

What do you think?  Do you find The Exorcist to still be scary?  Am I the only one who prefers suspense to “scares”?  What’s your favorite experience of being scared during a film?  (My #2 is when I first watchedAlien out on my grandmother’s screen porch in the middle of a thunderstorm.)  Let me know in the comments!

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