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9 November 2017

The Exorcist film gave me a raging scared-on – so why is the play so funny?

In the sense of rousing primal feelings, the film is like a porno, but for fear.

By Eleanor Margolis

Psychologists have theorised why many anxious people have a thing for horror films. The genre, with its focus on the immediately and externally scary, directs our anxiety at things outside of ourselves. Zombies and serial killers replace, for around 90 minutes at a time, our fears over everything from our own inadequacy to mortality.

Which is probably why, as someone who has suffered with anxiety since I was a teenager, I love The Exorcist – a film regularly touted as the scariest ever made.

My relationship with the 1974 classic is complicated though. My mum said it would be “fun”. I was 11 and already a horror fanatic, having cut my baby teeth on the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser. Which simultaneously scared me shitless and left me craving more. Almost as far back as I can remember, I was obsessed with all things horrifying: ghosts, demons, medieval instruments of torture, the persistent corn on my dad’s foot. But The Exorcist was different. It had all that mythology around it (paranormal happenings on set, cinema-goers passing out in the aisles, etc.) and even the sibilant title sounded like a threat.

But, not even a teenager yet, I sat down with my grotesquely liberal parents to watch a film where a demonically-possessed child violently masturbates with a crucifix. And the moment Regan’s bed started galloping around of its own accord, something changed in me. Even that pretty tame scene had a far more profound impact on me than, say, Freddy Krueger disembowelling a hapless teen. I wasn’t brought up to believe in God, but this was close to a religious experience. But the kind of religious experience where you discover the fear rather than love of God. Or, more pertinently, the Devil. My mum cackled throughout and made fun of the corny and dated special effects. My dad looked bored and fell asleep. Meanwhile, I was racking up trauma at the speed of fright.

Even as an adult, The Exorcist does things to me. In the sense of rousing primal feelings, it’s like a porno, but for fear. It’s the only film that’s ever managed to give me a raging scared-on, and I’ve been chasing that level of terror ever since seeing it for the first time. Which is to say, writer John Pielmeier and director Sean Mathias’s stage version of The Exorcist, which opened at the London West End’s Phoenix Theatre in October, had one, err, hell of a lot to live up to. But, based on the much-overlooked novel (the original incarnation of The Exorcist) by William Peter Blatty, it would be unfair to say that the play is necessarily an attempt to bring the film to the theatre.

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About a minute into the play, or more like the pre-play build-up, I’d already spilled wine on myself twice. Two jump-scares facilitated this. There are only about four of these in the entire film. In fact, one of the best things about the film is its lack of reliance on cheap jump-scares. It’s a slow-burner that creates atmosphere as seamlessly as Regan is transformed from sweet 12-year-old to head-spinning, foul-mouthed Hell beast. When the suitably ornate Phoenix Theatre turns black and fills with nervous laughter and murmuring, I know that – as intended, I suppose – this is going to be absolutely nothing like the film. But it’s going to be – as my mum promised the film would be, ironically – fun.

From the opening scene, in which Regan – played by Clare Louise Connolly – speaks to an oversized teddy bear, the adult’s portrayal of a 12-year-old is surprisingly convincing. Which makes her interaction with an invisible demon – voiced by Ian McKellen – all the more unsettling. Especially as the paedophilic element (clearly hinted at in the film and novel) of the relationship between the Demon and Regan is fully realised. The Demon makes its entrance – on the impressively gloomy McNeil house set – as a disembodied voice where he asks Regan to play a game where, if he wins, he gets to touch her. It’s just a shame that, once fully possessed, Connolly’s various “fuck”s and “cunt”s, even after the infamous crucifix scene, are met with laughter from the audience, rather than the intended stunned silence.

Jenny Seagrove is decently exasperated and frantic as Regan’s mother, Chris. The famous “that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter” line, I imagine, is difficult to deliver without it – as with Regan’s swearing – coming out as a messed up punch line. Seagrove, however, manages not to get a laugh. Meanwhile, Father Karras – played by Adam Garcia – is more neurotic than brooding. I have to admire the ingenuity of somehow turning one of the most intense heroes of the horror genre into a Woody Allen character. Peter Bowles is well suited to the part of Karras’s senior partner in exorcism, Father Merrin, although, sadly, he’s pretty much entirely overlooked in terms of character development.

Special effects, including video projections of smoky faces and a (I guess…) requisite attempt at the head-spin, made for more of an entertaining, house of horrors pastiche of the film, than a considered interpretation of the novel. And perhaps the short running time of 90 minutes was partly to blame, but character building – particularly in the case of Karras – was either rushed or basically absent. Tristram Wymark is entertainingly (if not a little dated-ly) camp as Chris’s alcoholic friend (the guy Regan pushes to his death out of her bedroom window). But, as a whole, although I was right in my prediction that I’d get my mum’s promised “fun” version of The Exorcist, the play still very much left me chasing the terrified high of what I can only describe as my childhood ordeal.