Monday, December 3, 2007

Getting Some Exorcise

This past weekend, the Scribe jumped at the opportunity to see Washington D.C.’s greatest tourist attraction. Prior to 1973 they were called the “Hitchcock Steps” but don’t go combing through your collection of Hitch DVDs, because the master never filmed there. It’s easy to see why the name stuck, though; located in the southeast corner of the Georgetown University campus, in the affluent Washington neighborhood from which the school took its name, the steps can be found at Prospect and 36th Streets, and provide an unforgettably steep access to M Street below. Perhaps the name came from the Vertigo than one might feel looking down from the top of the stairs, or maybe someone came at them from M St and thought that only a Psycho would make that climb, but that would all be forgotten after the release of The Exorcist in 1973.

The Exorcist gets the Scribe’s vote for best horror film ever made. Perhaps not the scariest (a set of giant tongs were needed to pry yours truly off the theater ceiling after a certain moment in Exorcist III), but William Friedkin’s film version of William Peter Blatty’s novel is quite simply the deepest, most heartfelt and truthful meditation on the nature of goodness and faith coming into conflict with an intangible, yet absolute, Evil that has ever been made. The film struck a raw nerve with audiences 35 years ago, making nearly $200 million in 1973 dollars, and over the ensuing years, would be ripped off more times and in more countries than is countable – with each one getting further and further away from what made the original so special.

Fear is a personal thing; what scares you may be laughable to me, and so on. What Friedkin’s film did so successfully was to exploit the fears that weren’t typical for a horror film. The loss of Faith, losing touch with your growing children (“That thing upstairs is not my little girl!”), and having an orderly, secular, “modern” world shattered by an Evil so powerful that the accepted truths of medicine and science are rendered impotent. Combining these with Friedkin’s documentary approach and Blatty’s literate and witty script made for a stunning picture, and it was not until The Silence of the Lambs nearly two decades later that a genre film was taken seriously enough to both garner Academy Award consideration and support extensive critical discussion (stay tuned to this blog for a larger-scale appreciation in the near future)

But for now, back to the steps…

After Nazi hunter/film director Burke Dennings dies in a fatal fall from Regan’s window to the bottom step on M Street early in the film, they hang over the remainder of the film like the Sword of Damocles. We know we haven’t seen the last of them – it’s just a matter of when. The time comes at the film’s conclusion, when Father Karras draws the evil out of Regan and into himself, and, in what Mark Kermode correctly calls the greatest act of heroism ever committed to film, leaps from her bedroom window and down all 97 steps to his death. In the film’s haunting final shot (unless you’re watching Blatty’s utterly unnecessary 2000 re-cut), Karras’ friend and final confessor, Father Dyer, stands at the top of the steps and looks out over the Potomac. Has the evil been vanquished? The chiming of Mike Oldfield’s "Tubular Bells" says ‘maybe’…

The stairs look mostly the same today; the upper landing has been spiffed up as part of the Car Barn next door, and the MacNeil house is still there at 3600 Prospect – albeit with a privacy wall built just high enough to discourage the curious, and without the wing closest to the stairs - a temporary addition provided by Warner during shooting. It’s a bit disheartening to see person after person walk by this most notable of landmarks, without so much as a glance; the Scribe was last here visiting friends in the fall of ’88 and remembers many photographs being taken while students and local residents proudly acknowledged their very own D.C. monument. On this chilly December night, the only sounds were the better angels of my nature telling me not to write “Karras Lives!” on the stone wall by the first step. So I took only photographs, and left only hushed echoes of admiration.