To the Editor:
COMMENTARY is the last publication I would have expected to publish a review of The Exorcist [“ ‘The Exorcist’ & Its Audience,” by William S. Pechter, March] which takes the film seriously, and on its own terms. I am more inclined to agree with Pauline Kael in the New Yorker that the film is, at worst, a brutal, witless, insulting exploitation of the most superannuated tenets of Catholicism, and, at best, a calculatedly lucrative venture in popcorn-porn.
Simply because the manifestations of “evil” in The Exorcist are presented in supposedly adult terms . . . and the film reinforces these effects with “a not inappropriate humorlessness,” to use Mr. Pechter’s phrase, are we to be convinced that Satan is alive and well and hanging around our best neighborhoods?
Granted the child’s possession is disgusting to behold, but in fact how intrinsically evil is it? In a world that has witnessed Hitler’s Holocaust, are we now supposed to turn gray at the sight of urine on the carpet and vomit on the cassock? . . .
On the whole, this movie Devil is a rather gauche fellow, although his brand of mischief is mechanically spectacular and as physically nasty as any reader of sado-comics could hope for. But what we are presented with in The Exorcist is not the ultimate evil; it is, in fact, a most convenient way of ignoring the ultimate evil.
Beverly Hills, California
William S. Pechter writes:
Given that I conclude by describing The Exorcist as artistically no more than a horror film with a new gimmick, Rosalind Levitt’s ability to find my piece on it an instance of my taking the film’s image of evil seriously on its own terms seems to me, to say the very least, creative. I do find the film worthy of serious interest; its phenomenal success makes it that; for, whatever else one may say about it, the film has clearly struck a responsive chord in its audience, and isn’t just another horror film with just another new gimmick. (There are, as I said, plenty of other horror films which, while they may lack The Exorcist’s spectacular effects, are no less sensationally horrific, and they’ve attained nothing of The Exorcist’s popular success.) Moreover, heaping The Exorcist with ridicule or moral indignation—and it’s an easy mark for both—will not make it go away. But far from my taking it on its own terms, I certainly hoped to indicate I thought much of the film’s interest derived precisely from the discrepancy between its makers’ intentions and its actual effect. For all its Hollywood-style lofty ambitions of portraying the ultimate evil (indeed, the Holocaust is explicitly invoked in the epigraphs to the novel) and of ending on a note of pious uplift with the triumph of goodness, the actual evil it suggests seems both distinctly more mundane and more tenacious: that of a world of dirty secrets in respected places (of White-House horrors, one might even say) in the face of whose uncontainable malaise we have the sense of being only helpless victims.