#112 The Exorcist
(1973, William Friedkin)
“The power of Christ compels you!”
Boy, Ellen Burstyn has the worst luck when it comes to parenting, doesn’t she? We’ve seen her once before on this blog, where her son Jared Leto suffers due to his excessive drug use, and now her daughter gets possessed by demons. Lady just can’t catch a break.
The plot of The Exorcist is generally well known. World-famous actress Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) is living in Washington while filming a new movie. However, her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) begins exhibiting strange behaviour: urinating on the living room carpet in front of guests and exploding into violent outbursts seemingly at random. After passing her through various doctors and psychiatrists, the thing that at first seems to be split personality disorder turns out to be more likely to be demonic possession, causing her to reluctantly call in a priest.
The Exorcist, as you may well know, is frequently referred to as the scariest movie ever made, and to be honest, I’d say that was a bit of an exaggeration. Sure, it has its creepy moments, and there’s a persistent sense of dread in the movie’s atmosphere, but overall, the movie is rather slow, with much of the outright horror reserved for a few brief scenes and the final climax.
This isn’t to say the movie is bad, but it’s a different kind of horror movie to what people say it is. Fundamentally, this is a movie about a mother struggling to save her daughter from forces beyond her control. The real horror isn’t in the demon violently shouting obscenities through the mouth of a twelve year old girl, it’s from a mother feeling helpless to protect her child. It’s also a movie about faith, and the tests it can be put through. This is why the movie is slow, and why the gruesome stuff is minimal.
The slow scenes serve to set up a real family dynamic, showing the relationship between Chris and Regan, cutting to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) struggling with his beliefs in the wake of his mother’s death. Sure, it may seem disappointing to those coming in expecting some horrific gorefest, but they’re in the wrong place. It sets up tension, and sets up mystery, and it’s pleasantly different to what was expected.
There is plenty to satisfy the gruesome horror fan, mind. The final exorcism scene is shocking, and many of the effects still hold up today. Linda Blair looks horrific as the possessed Regan, and the dubbed voice of Mercedes McCambridge is suitably demonic and freakishly androgynous. Scenes such as the vomiting and crucifix masturbation are uncomfortable but effective. The best part is that these scenes serve as shocks in the midst of the quiet reflection that makes up much of the rest of the film. They provide a suitable contrast, and never once do they feel jarring.
The Exorcist can be difficult though. The slowness, while effective for the most part, does mean the movie takes a while to get moving. Nothing particularly happens for the first half an hour or so, and there are several moments when things can drag on a little. The opening scenes in Iraq also feel out of place, since they don’t connect too well with the rest of the movie. In fact, it took me a while to realise that this character was the priest who arrives for the exorcism later on.
So, scariest film ever? Not exactly. But it’s tense and creepy and has some shocking moments, and that’s all you need from a horror movie really. And it’s a damn sight more intelligent than a lot of other horrors.
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair & Mercedes McCambridge
Written and produced by William Peter Blatty
Main theme music by Mike Oldfield
Cinematography by Owen Roizman
Edited by Norman Gay
Favourite Scene: Oddly enough, one of the creepier scenes involves Regan going through really uncomfortable medical procedures. Or maybe that’s just me
Scene That Bugged Me: The opening scenes take forever to do anything interesting
Watch it if: You like your horror movies to be a little smarter
Avoid it if: You think the entire movie is the final exorcism scene