Shadowvision: THE EXORCIST
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Arguably considered the scariest film ever made, THE EXORCIST is a film that was in the peripherals of this article from the beginning. Few films feature imagery as iconic as that depicted in THE EXORCIST, and to watch a film about the battle between good and evil in black and white feels visually appropriate. Furthermore, the aesthetics of William Friedkin were never that of convention, often daring to go into strange directions that would be fascinating upon a color-free examination.
For those playing along at home, THE EXORCIST doesn’t require much tinkering for a good black and white conversion. The cinematography from Owen Roizman already favors high-contrast lighting, which works for both color and monochrome. So aside from a minor contrast enhancement to cancel out the grey, THE EXORCIST looks gorgeously fitting for a low-effort translation.
From the opening shot forward, THE EXORCIST completely owns the black and white format, making the most of Friedkin’s unconventional visual storytelling. William Peter Blatty’s script benefits from black and white as the narrative holds back information for genuinely shocking reveals while also emphasizing nuance within performance and suspense over gore. In black and white, those aesthetic choices show Friedkin’s influences lie in the existential dread of art cinema, particularly Ingmar Bergman. But black and white also works in terms of the films relationship to realism, as the claustrophobic similarities between the doctor’s offices and Regan’s bedroom are fascinatingly more noticeable.
In terms of individual sequences, THE EXORCIST has many that are more unnerving when stripped of color. Father Merrin’s excursion in Northern Iraq is scarier in black and white, as the dark side of humanity that peers at him among the pale sand inspires much more dread. Later, the nightmare sequence with Karras and his mother is creepier in its tragic futility without the natural color of the city. But, of course, the climactic face-off between Pazuzu and the two priests is much more intense in black and white, as Roizman’s brilliant shadowing creates a dark environment that is as alluring as it is terrifying.
Furthermore, the already-excellent cast are also aided by the black and white translation, allowing their performances to feel even more human in the face of the convincing supernatural elements. Jason Miller and Ellen Burstyn perhaps have the slightest changes, with their frustration perhaps feeling even more real when the audience focuses on their body language. Max von Sydow is much more convincing in his righteous fear, almost as the black and white world we’re watching is one he’s become accustomed to in his battles of good and evil. And Linda Blair’s iconic performance is even creepier, as the incredible effects make-up seamlessly integrates with her devoted portrayal in black and white.
In conclusion, THE EXORCIST is highly recommended for a black and white revisiting, as one of cinema’s greatest showdowns between heaven and hell deserves to be seen beyond the color spectrum. Friedkin’s visuals and performance-friendly direction help not only transfer the films atmospheric fright to black and white but even arguably bolster it as well. The viewing experience is more intense and haunting without color to liven up the world of THE EXORCIST, which should be enough to scare even the most hardened EXORCIST fan.
Recommended for black-and-white consumption?: Yes.