The Exorcist’s opening Iraq sequence is a masterclass in visual metaphors. By using only images and sound (the brief dialogue is in Arabic), a portending evil is introduced.
The scenes taking place in an ancient arid land (you can feel the heat) slowly lull the viewer into a hypnotic trance with its stark imagery. These symbols remain in the viewer’s subconscious and are called back in later scenes: the black cloaked women in the Iraq street scene and the white cloaked nuns in the Georgetown street scene, the demon face of the women in the carriage and “old altar boy” bum in the subway, animal images and sounds, all adding layers of complexity that the viewer absorbs and feels, but perhaps doesn’t consciously understand.
Many films today would forgo this prequel setup as being ‘too slow,’ but by taking its time and showing the ancient roots of the Pazuzu, demon of the wind, and the sense that Father Merrin has dealt with its evil before, the film gains more gravity and deep symbolic meaning that lingers in the viewer’s subconscious long after the shock values of the spinning head and silly spider-walk wear off.
Often this sequence is forgotten about by the viewer when they recall the film; but the symbols are planted, priming the mind to receive the rich and layered storytelling of a film that has stood the test of time for a reason.
A blood red sky shines down on the archeological site of an ancient spiritual temple ruins.
A young boy runs to tell Father Merrin about an important discovery.
The unearthed relic fills the priest with terror. He knows what’s coming. We see it in his eyes, the shake of his hands while he swallows the nitroglycerine pills for his failing heart. The people at the cafe regard him with watchful suspicion. He wanders through dark tunnels of markets and mosques that resemble an underworld shot by shafts of intermittent light.
Surrounded by impending danger, Merrin’s nearly run over by a black carriage carrying a demon-faced woman. Are these images real? Or do they exist only in Merrin’s mind?
Merrin returns to the archeological site. While dogs fights in the distance, he faces the evil.
Wind whips up a frenzy of desert sand as the camera slowly zooms into the face of Pazuzu while the sound of fighting dogs and demonic growls blend together in a terrifying crescendo.
The blood red sky dissolves into Georgetown. Cue Tubular Bells.