The Exorcist (1973)
This used to be the scariest movie I had ever seen. When it was theatrically re-released in 2000, I was paralyzed with fear in my theatre seat. When I saw it theatrically in 2010, the film barely did anything for me. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I have theories. Possibly a decade of exposure to numerous hardcore horror movies have hardened me as a movie-goer, thickening my skin and threshold for terror. By comparison, The Exorcist III has been a consistently effective film that I have gained more respect for with each viewing. This review is surely not a negative one in the least, but it’s important to know my experience with The Exorcist over the years.
Taking up temporary residence in Georgetown, Maryland is movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who is having her troubles. The script for the movie she’s filming seems inadequate, her ex, who is also the father of her adolescent daughter Regan (Linda Blair), neglects to call the girl on her birthday, and the attic has rats. Meanwhile, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and a psychiatrist, is losing his faith while dealing with a terminally ill mother who needs medical care he hasn’t the money to provide. Meanwhile, the sweet and innocent Regan has undergone a slow, brutal change in both the way she looks and the way she acts, with violent outbursts on everyone who comes in contact with her. Medical professionals prove to have no cure for her condition, and thus, her worried mother meets with Father Karras with the belief that her daughter is demonically possessed. She requests an exorcism, which Karras and the church are hesitant to grant on a whim. Another priest, the old and ailing Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), has just returned from an archeology expedition in Iraq with forebodings of evil. He has faced this unholy evil before, and soon, will have to face it again.
I believe the main aspect of the film that made it so effective was its realistic quality. William Friedkin shot this in a very textured way. Lighting is very natural and subdued. It never looks staged or stylized. Friedkin intended to take a documentary approach to the film to give it sense of grim realism. The scenes in Iraq are very gritty with an unsettling and harsh quality that is striking. The scenes in Georgetown have a slightly gloomy autumn quality that boosts the foreboding and grim nature of the movie. Yet, there is still eerie beauty at times such as the moment where “Tubular Bells” creeps into the score. Friedkin simply instills a lot of subtle atmosphere with the lighting, camera work, and the score that gets in under your skin. He uses the music very sparsely allowing that ambient reality to seep into your nerves. That realistic tone in the visuals and the performances solidly grounded the film, and thus, when these horrific changes begin to surface in Regan, they are all the more unsettling and chilling. The sound design is profoundly effective. These disturbing auditory elements are mixed in together at a high volume to truly jump out at you in an almost unnaturally loud way. It’s an example of using sound effects and design to establish an unnerving mood without resorting to a musical score, which supports the documentary feel Friedkin was going for, and it succeeds in spades.
Now, William Friedkin has been known to be quite the bastard of a filmmaker. Him firing guns on set, and throwing his actors into hard stunts to get a visceral reaction out of them are just a few reasons why. Personally, as a filmmaker myself, I don’t believe someone has to get hurt for the sake of art. There’s always another way to achieve the results you want. Still, regardless of how you view his methods, his results are very intense. He always casts great actors, and does some challenging work with them. With these actors, we are given a breadth of deep, hard hitting emotion that penetrates the characters’ souls. The struggles of faith with Damien Karras are portrayed with deep heartache and weariness by Jason Miller. You can empathize with his pain and fear as you see the dour aspects of his life. It is a powerful performance that Miller poured deeply into his soul to achieve. Ellen Burstyn put in a very warm portrayal that gradually morphs into something very raw and painfully emotional. The grief she expresses as Chris MacNeil is heart wrenching and soul tearing. It hits harder than anything in the film, and sells the terrible reality of the horrific situation she faces.
There is a fine, understated performance by Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William Kinderman. He investigates the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, the drunken director of the film Chris MacNeil was involved with. Cobb walks a fine line between earnest, probing investigator and kind-hearted soul. He surely makes assertive inquiries about this unusual death, but treads cautiously amongst these people. He questions as much as he observes them trying to decipher the deeper reality of what’s happening. This made the character very intriguing and just endearing enough to connect nicely with an audience. Cobb passed away less than three years after the film’s release, and was succeeded in the role in The Exorcist III by the acclaimed, powerhouse actor George C. Scott. Cobb laid a solid foundation that Scott strongly built upon in that excellent film.
However, the most understated, yet immensely captivating performance comes from Max von Sydow. While I feel the film could have benefitted from more time spent delving into Father Merrin, what von Sydow brings is substantially strong on its own. Merrin himself is a few decades older than von Sydow was at the time, and his acting as a frail elderly man is pitch perfect. He has a cautious grace in his movements and a sophisticated sensibility that comes with wisdom. The calmness and power he brings forth in the final act tell much about Lancaster Merrin’s soul. While he has his battle scars from a previous exorcism, his weathered soul still holds his faith and will solidly.
It’s also shocking and amazing what Linda Blair did in this role. She easily endears herself to an audience with her innocence and playful nature. She worked beautifully with Ellen Burstyn as a very natural mother-daughter relationship. Of course, it’s easy to overlook the performance after the possession since all her lines were overdubbed by the grizzled voice of Mercedes McCambridge, but what she physically does is immensely impressive. She was put through a lot of long hours in pain and deep cold to achieve what she needed to. Even the make-up prosthetics were a challenge that she would not subject herself to for the sequel. For being so young, only fourteen at the time of filming, she dedicated herself with a strong stability that should be highly admirable to any actor. The overall performance is quite amazing, and in the darker areas of the film, rather disturbing.
I find the make-up effects work to be very effective. As the possession gets worse, Regan’s flesh becomes cracked with open sores and discoloration. It looks like she’s almost rotting away due this demonic evil within her. The visuals of this can be disturbing to many viewers. While times certainly have changed greatly since the early 1970s where this had people fainting and throwing up during screenings of this film, it can still hold chilling weight today. It was a startling motion picture that blindsided audiences, and much of that is due to both those grotesque make-up effects and the style of editing. Quick flashes of the demon face are what frightened me for the longest time. It’s a face that sends chills all over me still. It’s something that nightmares are made of, and a haunting vision that would be terrifying to see peering out of the darkness at you, which is exactly what it does. It’s immensely effective, near subliminal trickery.
The Exorcist does give us a few sequences that establish something sinister or malevolent looming over these characters. Father Karras has an ominous dream sequence about his ailing mother that does haunt him. Also, Father Merrin staring down the stone statute of Pazuzu in Iraq has a fierce, raw unnerving quality which sets a foreboding tone early on. It’s also your preference whether to watch the original theatrical or extended edition. However, the extended cut does add in a couple of editing effects that throw that demon face into a few unsettling scenes. Lights are flickering in the MacNeil house, hinting that a powerful force is at work, and that fearsome visage does make a small appearance. Regardless of which cut you choose, the film truly is ripe with chilling moments that demonstrate the skillful quality of William Friedkin.
I will say straight out that I have no religious beliefs. However, I can still perceive and appreciate how deeply this film’s subject matter penetrates into an audience with them. In the least, it’s a film that explores a pure embodiment of evil that is able to corrupt even the most innocent among us. If this timeless, demonic evil could possess this pure of heart young girl in the context of such a grounded, hardened reality, many audiences easily could be rattled to their core. The Exorcist is just as much of a film that frightens with its visuals and sound as it does with its ideas. William Peter Blatty truly constructed a deeply detailed screenplay built off a novel written with the help of a real life priest. Everything was well researched and discussed where the church is concerned to understand exactly who these men of faith were, and the depth of knowledge with demonic possession and exorcism. All of that detail comes through in Friedkin’s film who even cast several real life priests in key roles. That casting was smart as they carry a certain weight and aura about themselves that is very natural. They truly added to the realistic strength of character through the picture.
I suppose my only criticisms upon the film are that I do feel that Lancaster Merrin could’ve been fleshed out more for us to have a better context and perspective on the man himself. He’s given a perceived poignancy in the film, but he ultimately has little poignancy to the story. I also believe that the ending feels a little shorted. With the grueling battle that Merrin and Karras were waging in that room during the exorcism, the conclusion did feel a little lacking in substantive pay-off. The ending to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III would end up being very grandiose, almost seeming a bit too over-the-top, but still, it had enough direct, dramatic pay-off to feel like a satisfying conclusion. With this film, there almost seems to be a lack of dramatic build-up to the very final moments. It surely doesn’t end how one would expect it to, which is a good thing, but let’s just say that the Merrin character again seems to be slighted. I can surely understand the idea that the film is more about Damian Karras, but Merrin is surely meant to be the climactic difference maker in this plot, yet he is dispatched with most unceremoniously. He is supposed to be the title character of the movie after all. Max von Sydow gave the character such immense depth with little to no dialogue that I felt he should’ve been a more purposeful element in the overall film, and given a proper story arc. He’s given enough setup and build up to support that idea, but ultimately, he’s not given that weight of relevancy. It’s just something that has regularly nagged at me with the movie. A little more time spent with Merrin could’ve helped create a more gradual transition into the third act, and perhaps, motivated Blatty and Friedkin to actually conclude his story on-screen. As it is, Father Merrin is more of a plot facilitator than a character with his own story to tell, and I believe that to be a negative mark against the screenplay and film.
While I supposed my skin has thickened over the years where horror films are concerned, I cannot discount the strength and quality of this film. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the horror elements here in the least. However, it can be difficult to judge if people still call this “the scariest movie of all time” due to just blind reputation, or because they truly, personally feel that way. Since the effectiveness of this film has lessened with me over time, and I have found new horror films that scare me more profoundly than this, I would have to question whether current audiences genuinely believe The Exorcist to be the scariest of all time. So, I suppose this makes for an unusual review. The Exorcist surely is an exceptionally well made film with intelligent themes and deeply frightening elements that have immense impact on a visual and auditory level. Yet, it doesn’t affect me remotely as much as it once did. Regardless, I cannot deny that it once did have a powerful effect on me, and likely still does on countless others.