Why “The Exorcist” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” Are the Most Spiritual Films I’ve Seen

William Friedkin’s masterpiece is my favorite horror film. Martin Scorsese’s classic is among his finest. Both films moved me like few others. P.S. I’m Jewish, and agnostic.

Joel Eisenberg
Apr 9, 2020 · 10 min read
“Fathers” by ‘Console-Master,’ Courtesy of Deviant Art. Creative Commons license.

I’m a Jew with no religious beliefs so let’s get that out of the way.

My spirituality, however, is very real. So too is my love of cinema, and respect for its power.

Both William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” based on William Peter Blatty’s runaway bestseller of the same name, and Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” based on the acclaimed novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, are works of estimable craft.

I believed every last minute of them both. Well, almost. I have a bone to pick with the former.

If Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil could spin her head 360 degrees … okay, 180 as seen here (the GIF is far too short) why didn’t her neck break?

In truth, the digression matters a great deal. Why?

Whether this iconic scene was the result of an honest oversight on the part of the filmmakers, or intentionally representative of something beyond any scope of human understanding, the film had already arrested my resistance. Considering what had passed to then, I was now rooting for Fathers Merrin and Karris to channel Jesus’ power and release Pazuzu from further abusing this innocent little girl.

I was fully engaged in the supernatural … from the safe seats.

I’ve read The Holy Bible and I consider the stories metaphors, mesmerizing as they are, written by more than one writer none of whom was God. I was raised in a close-knit, loving Jewish family and consider myself a good, moral man. Many of my friends and most members of my family, inclusive of relatives, consider themselves religious and I love them all. Where I veered from those friends and family members is I was always more of an independent-minded free-thinker. I read a great deal. I studied philosophy and the arts. And religion. I became a big fan of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who surmised that all religion sprang from a common mythology. This made sense to me, as I found a great deal of similarity in various world cultures and religions.

My spirituality is derived from adapting bits and pieces from all of the above and incorporating them into a personal belief system, which is: I believe in science and the here and now, and further believe humans are limited in their perceptions. It is what we cannot see that defines the “supernatural.”

As opposed to something metaphysical, my view is the supernatural is simply our normal operating universe, less what we cannot see or sense.

Regarding the arts, I strongly believe the art of creation is akin to traversing one’s subconscious. Resultantly, cinema, as with any art form, has the ability to heighten both the artist’s and the purveyor’s perceptions of the unknown.

Both “The Exorcist” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” heightened those perceptions for me, and taught me more effectively than any academic or holy book what it meant to be human in a universe of mystery.

The Exorcist

Concluding a theme, I do subscribe to the idea of Jungian archetypes in fiction, as I do a collective unconscious which I consider part and parcel of living and breathing.

I understand the experience of being spiritually moved, the same feeling many express when they attend a place of worship. It all emanates from the primordial soup.

I have a history with “The Exorcist.” I was nine-years-old when the film was released in 1973, and my parents would not allow me to see it despite the fact that I had read Blatty’s novel the year before … at the age of eight.

I was a precocious kid. I suffered no damage as a result.

Nor did I want to convert after I read it.

Even at that ridiculous age for reading a novel such as this, which I purchased with my allowance money and snuck into the house, I was hooked but I saw it as little more than a “scary book.” The larger themes eluded me, as I did not yet have the life experience to yet recognize them. But I was an avid reader of monster and horror magazines at the time, while failing school because the teachers said my reading comprehension levels were below accepted standards. I was just bored. I wanted to read more “scary books.”

“The Exorcist” (novel) was written by William Peter Blatty and released in 1971 to stunned readers and mixed reviews. It was called everything from “classic” to “blasphemous.”

Cover for the first edition

The author stated his work was inspired by a 1949 case of demonic possession and exorcism of a young boy from Cottage City, Maryland, but also influenced by the “Louden Possessions” witchcraft trial in France, and the “Louviers Possessions” cases, both of which he referred to in his novel.

For those who have neither read the novel nor seen the film, the plot concerns the demonic possession of an 11-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, daughter of actress Chris MacNeil, and the efforts of two priests, Father Merrin and Father Karris, to exorcise the demon within.

The book sold to Warner Brothers with William Friedkin attached to direct, based on a screenplay by Blatty.

After a decade of pushing my parents to see the film “if it was ever released again,” they finally relented and, at the age of 17, I finally watched the film on what was then most commonly called “Home Box” (HBO).

“You’re on your own with this one,” my dad said. He had already watched it, I found out later, and figured I could handle it.

My two brothers were already sleeping, and my parents went upstairs to read. I turned off the lights and watched the film that was said to have not only caused thousands to pass out or get sick in their local movie theater, but to also cause actor Jack MacGowran, who played director Burke Dennings, to die of a heart attack shortly after completing his role.

It was all true; despite the dubious connection to MacGowran’s passing which the studio did not disrupt, “The Exorcist” was a sensation unlike any other.

Studio publicity, in fact, encouraged reporting of “evil forces” on the “cursed” set, which only added to the worldwide curiosity.

Regardless, I watched the film, and I was riveted.

“The Exorcist” to that point in time reached me on an emotional level like no other film. It was the humanity of the project that resonated most. I felt for Father Karris (Jason Miller), a fighter as represented by his boxing training, whose beloved and recently deceased mother became little more than a pawn for the demon Pazuzu.

Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) was a paleontologist and a priest when he first encountered an image of the demon Pazuzu in Iraq. Regan’s concerned mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) approached Father Karris with the details of her daughter’s severe condition and fears she needed an exorcism, who in turn, reluctantly, approached Merrin.

All of these characters were real. Their inner struggles were real, even Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a fan of classic films who bonded with Chris during an investigation. He was comic relief under a very serious hat (metaphorically and literally), and yet another character with whom I felt I knew in my real life.

The supernatural circumstances of the story, and its deeply-felt religious themes, showed me at that formative age that good can conquer evil, but sometimes good must be sacrificed to do so.

I’ve since amended that takeaway a bit to good can conquer evil but it sometimes takes a hell of a lot of effort. No pun intended.

Merrin died of a heart attack in the middle of the exorcism. Karris sacrificed himself to defeat the demon.

Regan survived.

Four inferior sequels followed — though 1990's “Exorcist III” has since become a cult favorite — as did a generally well-received 2016 television series that lasted two seasons.

“The Exorcist” became one of the film industry’s largest hits, grossing nearly $233 million domestically, unadjusted for inflation. The film was rereleased theatrically in 2000 and again in 2010 both with extended scenes, including the long-thought lost spider walk sequence cut from the original release.

The film was nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture, and won two: Adapted Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, and Robert Knudson and Chris Newman for Best Sound Mixing. “The Sting” won Best Picture that year, which many insist was due to “The Exorcist’s” ongoing controversy.

Final tickets sold for “The Exorcist” throughout its theatrical run are estimated at 116.5 million, which would equate to $1.04 billion in worldwide grosses today.

Certainly, I was not the only person, Jewish or otherwise, so affected. “The Exorcist” impacted me greatly because it was played straight, the characters were real to me, and for the first time since “Rosemary’s Baby” the supernatural became tangible.

Only more so.

I was privileged, I felt, to finally attain that glimpse.

The Last Temptation of Christ

I had no desire to see this film.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” was released in 1988. I was 24 at the time of its release, no longer a kid who required his parent’s permission to see a movie. I was unfamiliar at the time with Nikos Kazantzakis’ acclaimed 1960 source novel of the same name, and frankly had no interest seeing a film about Jesus Christ (times have since changed).

First novel edition, in its original Greek

And then, the controversy.

The film was reported as having caused uproars at early screenings, and many who admitted they had not seen it joined that crowd and called it “blasphemous,” petitioning for the film to be pulled from theaters. In terms of attention, the negative response was not unlike what “The Exorcist” had wrought so many years before.

Churches got involved, as with the prior film, demanding the burning of all prints.

This was serious.

The film hooked me early, 30 seconds in, during its opening:

It is difficult for me as an agnostic to be as aroused or angry over any portrayal of Jesus as may be a devout Christian, or Catholic. But I will say, as soon as the above opening crawl appeared onscreen, I became very curious.

The film was a faithful adaptation of the novel, which I read later and also found profoundly powerful.

From the Universal Pictures-approved synopsis of the film: Jesus (Willem Dafoe), a humble Judean carpenter beginning to see that he is the son of God, is drawn into revolutionary action against the Roman occupiers by Judas (Harvey Keitel) — despite his protestations that love, not violence, is the path to salvation. The burden of being the savior of mankind torments Jesus throughout his life, leading him to doubt. As he is put to death on the cross, Jesus is tempted by visions of an ordinary life married to Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey).

It was the section I bolded, above, that caused the ruckus. Jesus was removed from the cross by a little girl, who was soon revealed as the devil. She showed him another life, a life of happiness and personal fulfillment … until he made his way back to the cross and uttered his final line:

I was floored.

Willem Dafoe’s remains, to date, the single screen performance that shook me to my core. I cannot offer enough superlatives for him or this film in general, nor its astounding score by Peter Gabriel.

I watched the film and I, once again, was transported. Surely there is something in our primordial soup that enables us all to become transported via certain words or images, regardless of personal belief system. Only the words or images differ from person to person.

In this instance, the film’s controversy did not help the box office. “The Last Temptation of Christ” grossed a paltry $8.4 million domestically on a $7 million budget. When it was released on home video, Blockbuster refused to carry it, causing me to boycott the chain until their closure years later.

This film for me defined better than any other work of art the meaning of “human.”

Summation

I do not believe in a monotheistic god, nor do I believe in gods. I respect everyone’s religious and spiritual beliefs. Mine are tied to art and philosophy, which some may laugh at and others may understand. Regardless, if “The Exorcist” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” taught me anything, it’s this: Our supernatural realm can be traversed, and opportunities to do so are everywhere.

For me, those opportunities reside in our art.

Thank you for reading. As a reward, here is the missing 180 degrees from “The Exorcist” …

Sources:

Wikipedia.com, CNBC.com, oscars.fandom.com, google.com

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Cinemania

A home for conversations about all things cinema.

Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Cinemania

Cinemania

A home for conversations about all things cinema.

Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Cinemania

Cinemania

A home for conversations about all things cinema.

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