Films / Horror

The Exorcist

The Exorcist is widely considered to be the scariest horror movie of all time. William Friedkin’s movie, adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel, caused a huge stir upon its release in 1973 – audiences were absolutely terrified by it, and to this day, the movie sits firmly atop top ten horror movie lists. But it’s a movie which has fallen prey to its own hype, with modern audiences remembering its more iconic and outlandish moments – green vomit, head-spinning, bed levitation – at the expense of the film’s quality. Rewatching the movie recently after several years, its surprising how layered and subtle it is, and also how well it puts its scares together. There’s a lot more here than just a standard possession tale, and The Exorcist remains not just a classic of the its genre, but also as a cinematic milestone worthy of discussion.the exorcistThe film follows movie actress Chris (Ellen Burstyn), who lives in Georgetown with her 12-year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Regan begins acting strangely – with violent mood swings which doctors can’t explain. Events with her daughter become so severe that Chris turns to the Church, primarily Father Karrass (Jason Miller) who begins an examination of the girl in order to decide whether or not she’s possessed. An ancient demon named Pazuzu seems to have set up shop in the girl’s body, and Karrass joins forces with priest Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who has experienced similar phenomenon in the past. The battle for Regan’s soul commences, but it won’t be an easy fight.the exorcistWhat most people forget about The Exorcist is that it’s actually a very measured, deliberate movie, shot by Friedkin in a realistic, documentary style which makes the horrors on screen feel much more believable than they should. The opening sequence in Iraq, often forgotten by audiences, gives the movie an unsettling, ominous atmosphere right off the bat, and the mood transports nicely to the grim, autumnal setting of Georgetown, Washington. There’s a grimy, 70s realism to the city, and the solidity of the location grounds the movie too. It’s a slow burn – The Exorcist is free from jump scares and builds up carefully, layering atmosphere and character work before becoming increasingly extreme. There’s a great sense of hopelessness to the movie, as Burstyn’s character struggles to understand what’s wrong with her daughter – we don’t jump to possession straight away, and there’s a lengthy section of the movie dealing with doctors trying and failing to understand Regan’s problem. The movie puts the focus on the family, which is partly what makes it so successful – we watch Chris and Regan and become involved in their lives, their love, and watching them fall to pieces at the hand of an unseen and malicious force is frightening. The movie almost works as a commentary on disease, and the hopeless inexplicable horror of a loved one falling sick. It’s fantastic that the movie spends so much time building up Chris and Regan before destroying the two – this attention is what provides the stakes in later scenes.e6There’s also a great deal of ambigiouty regarding Regan’s condition – doctors provide realistic medical explanations and even when we’re certain that the girl has been possessed, there’s still an element of doubt – Regan reacts psychically to fake Holy Water and the foreign languages which she speaks are actually just reversed English. This doubt gives the movie an uncertain quality which makes the horror more convincing; we never quite know where we stand. In fact, there’s a great amount of ambigiouty to the movie – mysterious attic noises could be demons, or could be rats. We see Regan playing with a Ouija board but there’s no confirmation of how or why she gets possessed. We’re uncertain of the demon’s motives too. This ambigiouty works nicely with the movie’s key themes – that of faith, primarily the loss of it, and of good versus evil. Like most of the great horror movies, this is an intelligent work, with more on its mind than simple scares – the movie stands to make a point about falling faith and the entire film can be viewed as Father Karrass’ personal journey, the loss and subsequent regain of his own spirituality. The Exorcist is really a relic of an older kind of horror filmmaking, up there with Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, when horror had more weight as an art form than it does today. It has however remained extremely influentially, with every possession movie and most haunted house flicks since owing a great deal to Friedkin – the Paranormal Activity movies for example couldn’t exist without The Exorcist.the exorcistThere’s a great sense of building dread and Friedkin keeps the movie restrained, allowing little glimpses of the upcoming mayhem – a split second glimpse of a demon’s face is particularly effective, and Regan’s possession comes across slowly, seemingly from nowhere. The characters are aware of something being wrong before the audience is allowed in, and as doctors fail and the situation becomes more hopeless, the movie becomes more extreme. The scenes with Regan at her worst are fantastically well put together, frightening and confident with some absolutely amazing practical special effects work. It’s difficult to imagine how convincing Regan would have been in 1973 – her possession still holds up today, with the practical effects helping the stranger elements of the movie feel solid. The film is very intense, with wonderful sound design and a fantastic score too.Regan when possessed is a foul-mouthed horrific monster, and the other worldly elements of her condition – the head spinning, the bed levitation – are powerful as they’ve been earned; Friedkin spends so long building atmosphere, tension and characters than the sillier aspects of the movie work within the narrative; they feel justified and not ludicrous. The Exorcist doesn’t go too far until it’s earned the right to do so, and even then, what it does, it does so for the story. The most graphic and most infamous scene – the crucifix masturbation – serves its purpose, as it drives Chris to the end of her tether and pushes her to seek non-conventional solutions. It isn’t violence for the sake of violence.the exorcistFriedkin apparently fired guns whilst filming to keep his cast on edge, which wouldn’t be surprising. Everyone is unsettled here and  crucially, everyone is on top form. This is possibly the best acted horror movie of all time. Ellen Burstyn is wonderful as Chris, likeable with a nice relationship with her daughter, and we feel her pain and sense of hopelessness as everything goes to pieces. Her terror and shaken resolve holds the movie together. Jason Miller’s Karrass however is probably the centre of the movie – thematically, he’s got the greatest ties to the narrative, with the loss of his mother upsetting his sense of faith and his ultimate sacrifices to save Regan from evil forming the arc of the film. Karrass is a broken man and Miller is haunting in the role. Max von Sydow feels wise and powerful as Merrin, but of course it’s Linda Blair who steals the show. She’s incredible as Regan and very believable as the demon. In the wrong hands, Regan could have been laughable, but Blair is stunning here – sweet and innocent at the start, horrendous, creepy and terrifying when possessed; she feels wild and unpredictable and generates a huge amount of horror from simply sitting in a bed grinning. The brilliant voice work of Mercedes McCambridge as Pazuzu certainly helps – its an iconic voice over, up there with HAL-9000, and really feels otherworldly and inhuman. Everyone in the cast gives one hundred percent and throws themselves into the movie – the acting combining with the great direction to make The Exorcist a brilliant and scary feature.e1The Exorcist sometimes suffers at the hands of its own reputation. However, it’s actually a subtle, very well constructed horror movie, and deserves its place as a classic of the genre. It’s surprisingly still relevant today, and not especially dated, the style and effects holding up very well. Whilst it’s not quite the best of the horrors – that would be The Shining – its certainly up there, and remains an important moment from a more mature age of cinema. A fantastically powerful, intense movie and a hugely influential one, it’s a film which deserves its enormous legacy.


8 thoughts on “The Exorcist

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  3. Excellent review; I particularly agree with your assertion that it suffers from its own reputation. Whenever people I know watch the film for the first time – many of whom aren’t horror fans – their biggest complaint is that it wasn’t what they were expecting. *Everyone* has seen the masturbation scene, the vomit, the spinning head etc. because they’re so iconic (and have been parodied to death by trash like Scary Movie) and everyone seems to have seen films like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism, so I think when they finally watch The Exorcist and realise how much of a psychological horror film it is, it leaves them a bit baffled.

    Quite a few people I know also claim that it’s a “funny” film, which makes me question their sense of humour a great deal…

    • Thanks Jay! Glad you enjoyed the post. Yeah, it’s a good case of the reputation doing damage. A lot of people judge the movie unfairly on it’s hype, when it’s actually a much tighter, slower burn.

      I’ve always thought the sort of people who say The Exorcist is funny are doing so to deliberately subvert it as ‘the scariest movie ever’ and make themselves look edgier basically!

      I don’t find the movie scary as such, but it’s definitely intense and the atmosphere and mood is brilliant. It’s a much better movie than most give it credit for.

      Thanks Jay!

      • “I’ve always thought the sort of people who say The Exorcist is funny are doing so to deliberately subvert it as ‘the scariest movie ever’ and make themselves look edgier basically!”

        Oh yes, I agree! I find it pretty terrifying (I always find films with a religious bent like this scary – it’s why I also like The Omen – even though I’m an atheist) but I appreciate it more as a thriller / drama than as a horror film.

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