• A WORD ABOUT RATINGS: Ever since its introduction in the late 1960's, the Motion Picture Association's rating system has been a source of continuous controversy. Supporters defend it as a means of protecting both artistic freedom and the rights of parents. Critics on the left see it as a source of "institutional censorship," while those on the right see it as a "license to undermine the morals of our nation." Because the advent of the rating system coincided with the initial wave of sexually explicit films, both critics and supporters have come to view it as a "sex index," with the more explicit and/or outspoken material receiving a more restrictive rating. Within this limited context, the system has worked remarkably well, giving parents a fast and usually accurate means of deciding whether to bring or take their children to a particular movie. Until now.
The problem is that the standards used in rating movies—sexual content and (occasionally) violence—are not comprehensive enough to achieve the system's most crucial goal: protection of children from potentially psychologically damaging material. This flaw, virtually unnoticed for years, has suddenly triggered a fullblown crisis with the release of the granddaddy of all horror films, THE EXORCIST.
This movie was rated "R." It should have been rated "X." While THE EXORCIST contains no nudity—apparently a prerequisite for the "X" rating—it expels such heavy doses of supernaturalism, gore and shock that it could easily cause permanent damage to an impressionable mind. When hundreds of adults in their 30's and 40's are unable to sit through the film without fainting or becoming sick, the effect on children is bound to be even worse. The "R" rating gives no hint of these possible side effects.
To be fair, an "X" rating would't do the film full justice either. Many newspapers would relegate its advertisements to the pornographic or "adult films" section, where it clearly does not belong. Others would refuse to advertise it at all. And government censorship problems, already being encountered by some exhibitors, could intensify.
But many of these problems could be resolved simply by widening the scope of the ratings, so that they reflect more than merely the amount of sex and violence in a given film. It is obvious now that such an overhaul is needed. If it can't deal adequately with a film such as THE EXORCIST, then the rating system itself may be in serious trouble.
• As a movie, THE EXORCIST virtually defies description. It is easily and by far the most terrifying film ever made. It is also the most gruesome. It its depiction of a twelve-year-old girl who is possessed by a demon, the movie (except for a lack of nudity) leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. The intensity, set deliberately at a low key during the first half hour, builds with maniacal precision throughout the remainder of the film's two-hour running time, piling shock upon shock with absolutely no relief. At the center of this supernatural storm is Linda Blair as Regan, an intelligent and apparently normal girl who is gradually reduced to a hideous caricature of her former self, with filmy yellow eyes, a face full of sores, and a gravelly voice that seems to erupt from the depths of hell. Effective performances are also delivered by Ellen Burstyn as Regan's distraught mother, Lee J. Cobb as a puzzled detective, and Max von Sydow and Jason Miller as the two priests attempting to banish the demon that inhabits Regan. Philosophically, the movie draws heavily upon medieval Christianity, which personified evil as a conscious force with supernatural powers. Unlike William Blatty's novel, which explored the possibility of natural explanations for these strange events, the movie is clearly intended to portray a titanic struggle between God and Satan. William Friedkin's tightly focused direction is backed by a galaxy of well-crafted special effects to achieve this result. As the priests chant their exorcism ritual, Regan screams vile obscenities, levitates her body into the air, spits up a nauseous green slime, and twists her head completely around on her neck. A mind-bending experience, THE EXORCIST is horrifying and fascinating at the same time; for sheer impact and intensity, there isn't another film around that even comes close. Rated "R."
• PAPILLON is a long, earnest, ponderous epic of human suffering and frustration, more a test of endurance than an entertainment for its audience. Steve Me Queen, as the victim of a frame-up, and Dustin Hoffman, as an expert counterfeiter, deliver finely etched performances as inmates of a notorious French penal colony in South America. But their acting is not sufficient to overcome the episodic, drawn-out, laborious plot as it becomes bogged down in needless detail within endless cycles of escape and recapture. Steve McQueen projects the tenacity of an increasingly obsessed mind, deranged by the tortures and deprivations of prison. In the beginning he wants to escape in order to live a free life; by the end all that matters is escape itself, with no further goal in mind. Dustin Hoffman stands out as the prison's lone intellectual, surrounded by mindless misery, attempting to live by his wits and only partially succeeding. The photography and direction combine to achieve a gritty realism, underscoring the movie's relative lack of excitement. For all its craftsmanship, PAPILLON is more a work of sociology than a work of art. Rated "PG."
• As a pair of small-time grifters attempting to swindle a gangland syndicate boss, Paul Newman and Robert Redford are a winning combination in THE STING. Set in Chicago during the prohibition era, the movie is similar in spirit to their earlier triumph, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Redford, a back-alley hustler attempting to avenge the murder of his partner, teams up with Newman, a down-and-out swindler, to produce one of the most elaborate con games ever devised. Their intended victim, Robert Shaw, is convincing as a neurotic but ruthless mobster with a weakness for gambling. With no heroes in sight, the fun is derived from watching the small villains take on the big villain. The movie's tone is uneven at times, its comic veneer masking a more serious undertone. But the plot is well developed, the direction crisply paced, and the movie as a whole well worth your entertainment dollar. Rated "PG."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".