The Exorcist (1973)

William Friedkin

Ellen Burstyn - Chris MacNeil
Linda Blair - Regan MacNeil
Max Von Sydow - Father Lankester Merrin
Jason Miller - Father Damien Karras
Lee J. Cobb - Lt. Kinderman

Genre - Horror/Demon/Supernatural

Running Time - 122 Minutes (original)/133 Minutes (The Version You've Never Seen)

Score - 4 Howls Outta 4

The scariest film of all time. An abomination. A religious porn film. Grotesque schlock.

These are some of the many descriptions of William Friedkin's 1973 horror classic, THE EXORCIST. Based on 1949 case in Maryland where a 14-year-old boy was exorcised of his demons [which was later disproven] that led to a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty in 1971, THE EXORCIST shocked audiences and gained a ton of critical acclaim for its filmmaking back in 1973 and 1974.

The stories are legendary of movie-goers filling up an entire block or two just to get a glimpse of this "evil" film, just to pass out from fright, or to run out of the theater and go straight to church to clean the filth they've just witnessed. Even crew members passed away during the filming, as unexplained occurences hovered over the troubled set. Surrounded by all this hype, THE EXORCIST was a massive worldwide success and considered by many [even to this very day] to be the scariest movie ever. The proof is in the VHS/DVD sales, as well as the success of THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN re-release in 2000, which added 11 more minutes [including the creepy spider-walk scene].

I first watched THE EXORCIST in 1988, when I was seven-years-old. My uncle, being the nice guy that he is, pretty much locked me in a dark room with this film playing with loud volume. I was tormented by the images of this little girl masturbating with a crucifix and having horrible seizures on a bed. The voice of the demon haunted me. And anytime "Tubular Bells" played anywhere, chills ran up my spine. I was so afraid of this film, that it took me over 20 years to watch it again with a new perspective. Sadly, the fear I once had for this movie faded away during the rewatch, as I actually laughed at certain things. Still, THE EXORCIST is a classic piece of horror history and regardless of whether it still scares you or makes you see it as camp, there's no denying that the film is extremely well-made and well-told.

An actress in Georgetown, Maryland named Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is having issues with her daughter Regan's (Linda Blair) behavior. Regan has been playing with Ouija boards, talking to imaginary people named Captain Howdy, having seizures on her bed, cussing like a sailor, and even fornicating with a crucifix with much delight. Regan is even believed to be connected to a murder of one of Chris' friends. Doctors and psychologists, after many tests and X-rays, have no logical explanation for Regan's sinful behavior. They're so stumped that they actually tell Chris to go find a priest for an exorcism. She gets the help of Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who has been doubting his faith, especially after the death of his mother. Noticing Regan's demonic appearance and behavior, Karras recommends to the church that an exorcism must take place. With the assistance of the experienced Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), Karras starts to regain his faith in order to drive the demon out of Regan.

Even to this day, THE EXORCIST remains a highly memorable piece of horror cinema. It's still very effective for what it tries to do and is definitely a standout amongst films of its ilk, such as ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE OMEN. It feels authentic [Blatty was a Jesuit priest at one time] and still manages to maintain its creep factor after all these years.

THE EXORCIST may be remembered for certain scary moments that I'll get into later, but they wouldn't matter all that much if the narrative wasn't strong enough to build them up. THE EXORCIST works because it's a character-driven story. The first hour is fairly slow, probably more so now for modern audiences, but it allows for the viewer to learn about the main players of the film and care about these people. That way when these horrible events do happen, we feel for these characters and want good to triumph. It also brings about ideas and themes about religion and good vs. evil in such a way that it provokes thinking as you watch. A horror film that allows one to use their intellect - how rare! I know many now complain about the slow build, but if it's written well, why complain? The build up to the climax is worth it.

There's also an issue about the narrative making the film anti-religion, which I believe is crap. Yes, there's a demon possessing a young, innocent girl. Yes, she masturbates with a crucifix and says the most disgusting [or funniest] things to priests. But what saves Regan at the end? It isn't medicine. It isn't psychiatry. It's the power of faith, hope, and religion. The film isn't about the Devil. It's about regain one's faith and realizing that good will always triumph over evil, no matter what the cost. Or maybe the underlying message is that only morality could tame the rebellious teen. After all, the possessed Regan could represent that teenager who will say and do the most horrible things to fight against authority in order to get attention. The power of morality and faith brought Regan back in the grace of God. In that case, I believe THE EXORCIST is pro-religion. I've never understood why the religious community was so upset about this film to begin with.

The only issue I have with the narrative is the subplot with Lt. Kinderman. While the characters does reappear in THE EXORCIST III as the main character, his role here is barebones and doesn't have much use. Do I really need to know his perspective of the horrible situation? It's not like he does anything for or against it. As a matter of fact, he could have been left out and nothing much would have been different. I think he was the least developed character in the entire two hours. In a sea full of really developed ones, it becomes a flaw when he sticks out for the wrong reasons.

THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN, which was released back in 2000, adds more footage. There's a more upbeat ending [which I don't mind, but don't have a problem with the original one], subliminal visuals of demon faces [which aren't needed], more demonic sounds [again, not needed], scenes that expand the Regan diagnosis scenes, and of course the infamous spider-walk. It's nice to have two different versions of the film, even though I feel the original is strong enough that it doesn't needed an expanded edition. Still, that spider-walk is freaky as hell and definitely deserves the hype it has gotten and still gets.

The special effects and make up are exceptional for 1973. Hell, they still look pretty damn good now. From the convincing levitation scene, to the demonic make-up and altered voice, to the projectile pea soup, and to the infamous 360-degree head spin - they all hold up and are still effective visuals. I like how they were all done pre-CGI and for the fact that they hold up better than most CGI-infested films. And watching the documentary, THE FEAR OF GOD [that comes with the Special Edition DVD], the stories of torturing the actors in freezing cold temperatures and roughly pulling on their straps whenever they needed to move in a certain way really show the extreme lengths Friedkin and his fellow crew went to in order to make their vision come to life.

The direction by William Friedkin is very good. He goes for a realistic feel, using minimal soundtrack and just focusing on the situation presented to us. At times, it even feels like a documentary. There's a nice level of tension and suspense that build up the creep factor and the scares. I do think the editing is a bit choppy at times, as we get really short clips in between big moments that slightly disrupt the flow. But the set up is well done, the cinematography is beautiful, and the pacing is nice. It's interesting to know that Friedkin really tortured his actors to get the visuals that he wanted, but the visuals are great. Friedkin should be commended for creating a horror film that has stood the test of time, even if his methods were questionable in making that happen.

The acting is phenomenal in THE EXORCIST. Ellen Burstyn is great as Chris MacNeil. At times, I don't even believe that she's acting. She comes off as real and natural. Linda Blair plays Regan and the Pazuzu-possessed Regan to perfection. For a 12-year-old girl at the time, Blair gives a mature and extremely convincing performance of a child possessed. It's a shame her career hit its peak here, as she had to flounder in a horrible sequel and B-movies. Blair is a revelation here. Jason Miller as Father Karras is fantastic as the faithless Jesuit. I believed in his struggle and his evolution as a priest who finally found his faith when it mattered most. Miller should have gotten a bigger profile because he was a damn fine actor. Max Von Sydow brought class to the film. He's not in the film as much as people who haven't seen this film may believe, but when he is on screen, his every action and expression carry a lot of weight.

While it's not as scary as I remember it and somewhat hokey and laughable at times, THE EXORCIST is still a classic piece of cinema, not just in horror, but in general. It's subtle, powerful, and a horror film that relies on as much character depth as it does it visually stunning special effects. I'm not sure how a modern audience would perceive this film, but either way, THE EXORCIST is not for the faint of heart.

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