Arguably the most famous horror movie of all time, The Exorcist was something you heard of before you knew what an exorcism was or the full impact of the legendary film. William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic had terrified an entire generation before I laid eyes on it, but I had already heard plenty about the head-spinning, bile-spewing action from family members.
I was lucky enough to see The Exorcist for the first time in theatres. In 2000, Warner Brothers released an extended cut of the film (its full title was The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen), which included the spider-walk scene that Friedken had removed from the original but which he had CGI artists re-work solely for its 2000 re-release. Images of spinal taps, spider-walks, and subliminal demon faces made their mark on yet another young mind, proving that The Exorcist had not lost any potency in its near-30-year existence.
Having a chance to re-watch the movie recently with a more discerning eye (i.e., having gotten over the ‘too-scared-to-move’ hump when I was 10), I was able to fully absorb the incredible narrative and character setup Friedken created to support the more memorable possession scenes and spectacles that have kept people talking since it first released.
There’s an aura and complexity to this era of horror films to which today’s versions, modeled more on the boobs-and-blood formula of the 80s, bear hardly any resemblance. Being of the present hedonistic era, I was initially unaffected by the clearly moralistic connotations of a film that featured religious guilt and sin among its central themes. In the post-60s radicalism/Vietnam War era, The Exorcist and its contemporaries, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, treated the subject of demonic manifestations in children as allegories for the breakdown of family values and widespread disillusionment; the children’s afflictions are meant to be symptomatic of an amoral system. (John Milton, who created the most influential characterization of the Devil in Western history, wrote of a similar connection between societal breakdown and the advent of “prodigious [abnormal] births of body and mind” [11.687]). The most interesting aspect of The Exorcist is that it counters the world’s faltering belief in God–perfectly embodied by the doubting Father Karras (Jason Miller)–by making us seriously consider the existence of the Devil.
William Peter Blatty wrote the 1970 novel, The Exorcist, and adapted it for the 1973 film. Blatty provides a fascinating prologue set at the ancient site of Nineveh in present day Iraq, where viewers are introduced to the titular character, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). Friedken delivers shots of blinding light and almost tangible heat as Merrin unearths a small, devilish talisman and is then driven to the site of a garish man-beast statue that simultaneously puts the priest and the audience at ill ease.
The Old World setting, introducing the idea of the most ancient evil, gives way to the New World, where we are thrust into the thoroughly modern life of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). The ancient battle between good and evil is the furthest thing from Chris’s mind as she films her latest movie and settles in to an old Washington D.C. home with her wunderkind daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Friedken, winner of the Academy Award for Best Director for 1971’s The French Connection, ably straddles the ancient-modern, sacred-profane divides that make this film not only the best horror movie you’ve ever seen, but a great film in general.
The entertainment value of all the most famous scenes of The Exorcist remains intact, though I watched them with a different sort of reverence this time around. The controversial cross-f**king scene, for instance, is not merely an act of gratuitous violence and profanity in the vein of contemporary torture porn films, but an overwhelming demonstration of contrast. The scene works to contradict the claims of Regan’s doctors that the girl is undergoing a psychotic episode by having her do and say the most unthinkable things. Having been formerly introduced to Milton’s Satan, these shocking moments make all the more sense. Satan is the progenitor of all sin and evil. His number one cause is defiance and sacrilege. The shockingly indecent imagery the film has become famous for is necessary to communicating the inhuman depths of evil and depravity that the Devil represents (just because you wouldn’t do that to a young girl doesn’t mean the Devil wouldn’t). Such knowledge makes the exorcism scene more powerful, as Father Merrin invokes God’s greatest weapon against the demon: Jesus Christ, who represents the opposing heights of love and goodness.
Consider also the impact the violence has on Regan’s mother, who knows her only as the young, innocent girl that viewers meet at the beginning of the film. The renewed horror I experienced during these scenes was not based on my own reaction to the demonic outbursts. Rather, I was feeling empathy for a mother who has to face the unimaginable truth that her daughter is possessed by the Devil himself. Burstyn’s terror is palpable, sending up an almost animal-like cry of despair in the face of pure evil. Burstyn delivers especially in the concluding scene of the exorcism. As the newly-exorcised Regan cowers in the corner and calls to her mother, the woman hesitates, struck with the fear that it’s all a trick, that the fiend is still present in her daughter. After such a terrifying experience, no one could blame her.
Overall Score: 8.75 – Spectacular. (Movies that score between 8.50 and 9.00 are some of the best films its genre has ever created, and fans of any genre will thoroughly enjoy them)
Drama, psychological thriller, gross-out gore fest, and dogmatic horror, The Exorcist still resonates as one of the best and scariest films ever made. The power of Christ compells me to recommend this film to everyone.
Overall Score: 8.45 — There’s no question that The Exorcist is one of the best horror movies ever made, but a few flaws are still there. Main characters absolutely shine in their story and acting performances, but side characters are muddled and transitions are inadequate. It’s been a few decades since it was released, and a whole decade since it was re-released, so I’d actually love to see them do a remake with a slightly improved plot and a shot-for-shot recreation of the bedroom scenes. You can read his full review here!