The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
Screenwriter: William Peter Blatty
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, William O’Malley, Kitty Winn
Nearly five decades on, The Exorcist continues to be one of the most talked about horror movies of all time; even to the point that its many surrounding curiosities and controversies are practically common knowledge to even non-horror fans. On top of claims of injury, pain and misery for its cast and crew, The Exorcist also enjoys claims of its apparent sacrilege and being one of the scariest films of all time – its initial release had droves of audiences fainting in the aisles of their local cinemas and even some modern viewers testify to losing sleep after a curious watch. Often enough, the urban myths surrounding certain films inflate the expectations of the audience to ridiculous levels, which inevitably leads to disappointment, but the fact of the matter is that the hype for The Exorcist hasn’t died down over the years, even amongst hardcore horror fans; so can we be blamed for our curiosity? Nearly fifty years removed from its release, The Exorcist remains a go-to Halloween movie, but; is it still the must-watch exemplary genre topping production it once was? Shut the blinds, switch the lights off and don’t forget to tuck your feet up onto the settee – let’s find out together.
World famous actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn), filming on location in Washington D.C., begins to be irritated by disturbances in the house she’s staying in with her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair) who takes up playing with a Ouija board whilst her mother is away on set. It becomes apparent that the strange noises in the house aren’t caused by rats in the attic, and Regan begins to feel unwell, but Chris doesn’t become too concerned until Regan urinates on the carpet in front of her house party guests. Regan begins to deteriorate, and Chris, worried sick, desperately seeks answers to her daughter’s problems, subjecting Regan to some grueling and invasive medical procedures. A furious Chris is upset at the mere referral of Regan to a psychiatrist and openly scorns the suggestion of an exorcism, but Regan has become unrecognisable. Eventually Chris seeks the aid of local Jesuit priest, Fr Damian Karras (Jason Miller), who is almost amused by the request for an exorcism – as a trained psychiatrist, he views possession as the ancient and incorrect answer to many mental health issues such as Schizophrenia. However, after a meeting with Regan, he is soon convinced and requests permission for an Exorcism to be performed. The church employs the expertise of another, much older Jesuit, Fr Lancaster Merrin (Max Von Sydow in a role that caused filmgoers to be surprised by his appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – compliments to the make-up department), who orchestrates the exorcism in one of the most iconic confrontation scenes in cinema history.
It can’t be denied that The Exorcist has been proclaimed from the rooftops to be one of the most terrifying horror films of all time, but these claims do nothing to prepare you for how truly brilliant this film is. It’s fit to burst with allegory and symbolism, enough for any budding film aficionado to have a crack at an original interpretation; but it’s like it’s not even trying. The story of puberty, religion vs science, natural vs the the supernatural, society’s neglect of mental health and of course good vs evil – take your pick. Unlike many of its predecessors, contemporaries and successors, it’s not camp, it’s not tongue in cheek, and it’s certainly not hokey or cheap; The Exorcist is played totally straight and serious.
William Peter Blatty, a writer of a devout Roman Catholic background, who adapted his novel for the screen, treats the subject of possession with an acute graveness and not as a nebulous wickedness that transcends our reality; it is an evil intrinsic to the known universe, ready to wreak a very real destruction in our lives. The actual story is told as a gritty human drama made of a weave of threads of individuals’ different lives that intersect with each other, spreading moments of happiness but also of distress and suffering. The compelling ordeals of all the key characters of The Exorcist quickly silence any cynical, snarky giggles leading to a fully immersive experience. This intelligent writing, brimming full with humanity, lends itself to an absolutely terrifying realism, leaving you with the very real fear that you yourself might just get possessed by The Devil whilst lying in bed in the cold dark of the night.
What truly sells the concept of The Exorcist however is its delivery, and indeed the film is stuffed full of simply unforgettable performances. Linda Blair (as Regan) really should be credited as one of the most talented child actors in Hollywood history. Initially her performance is sickly sweet but utterly believable in the context of an only child, single parent relationship with mother having plenty of time and money to dote. As the possession takes hold, Blair’s revelation of each step of Regan’s transformation from the innocent, All American prepubescent has the power to repulse and at the very least chill the hardiest of horror fans. The hideous voice of the evil entity that resides within Regan is credited to Mercedes McCambridge (who treated the role with incredible dedication), but it was Blair who took on the physicality of the role in an incredibly adult context. At the height of the possession, you don’t see Linda Blair or even Regan, but the human manifestation of evil itself.
It has been established that The Exorcist’s realism is its cause for its individuality amongst the horror movie crowd, but the feature responsible for the film’s outstanding uniqueness is the focus on the characters’ actual terror, particularly when faced with the possessed Regan. Of course, it’s perfect logic for a horror film to focus on the big bad of the plot, and again it’s not exactly unknown for the horror genre to be full of screaming damsels in distress, but the unbridled terror seen in The Exorcist is unprecedented. Ellen Burstyn perfectly toes the line between out and out hysteria and a furious mother grizzly bear trying to do the best for a daughter she is terrified of. Jason Miller as Damian Karras leads the most drastic journey into fear, beginning with cool psychiatric professionalism and descending into outright visceral terror. We, as the audience, in fact become Karras at the film’s climax in the exorcism, a man with his own personal demons terrified into a state of catatonia when faced with true evil, unable to give the necessary responses to Fr Merrin’s exorcism rite.
For the orchestration of these wonderful performances, you would naturally give credit to the director, William Friedkin. He creates a gorgeous tension through the plot’s slow burn, and ensures we are not bored as we are treated to the characters’ dirty, dirty laundry. What’s more is that he never patronises us with exhaustive exposition. In The Exorcist, the concept of possession is treated with an intelligence that has not been seen in any demonic film since, refusing to dichotomise science and religion (which would have cheapened Karras’ crisis of faith). However, it isn’t quite right to blindly lavish praise upon Friedkin, especially in light of the insipid methods he used while directing his cast. Unfortunately, The Exorcist joins a long list of so-called classics of 20th century cinema that can now be viewed as the results of manipulation and in some cases, abuse. There is well documented misery in the filming of The Exorcist, such as Max von Sydow’s grueling three hour make-up regime, Linda Blair’s back injuries during the bed shaking scenes through the failure of safety equipment, and the plunging of the temperature on set to minus thirty degrees, yet it remains the deceptions committed by the director that prove the most upsetting to learn.
In a scene where the possessed Regan hits Chris and sends her flying across the room, Ellen Burstyn was attached to a rig controlled by a stuntman. Friedkin assured Burstyn that she wouldn’t be pulled hard, but then instructed the stuntman to pull as hard as he could. The scene remains in the film, and Burstyn can be heard audibly screaming due to a painful injury to her coccyx. On another occasion, Friedkin fired a gun right next to Jason Miller’s ear so as to garner a more “genuine” reaction from him. Film production does come with its risks, as does work in any other industry, but to inflict real pain and severe injury through deliberate deception and miscommunication is nothing short of immoral. What really stinks is that much of this suffering was unnecessary – the cast were fantastic and more than talented enough to perform “realistically frightened” reactions, and of course these performances were supported by special effects which remain outstanding even by today’s standards. Even with nearly fifty years of mimicry and parody, let alone the ever increasing standard for what is considered scary, many of the spooky scenes of The Exorcist remain the stuff of legend and continue to chill audiences, these techniques employed by the director being obvious oversteps in his pursuit of “the genuine”.
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of this important horror landmark, it is very possible that The Exorcist will eventually be usurped from its position atop the list of Scariest Films of All Time, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a more intelligent horror flick. This classic, brought to screen by a cast and crew excelling beyond what most would produce ever again, remains worthy of its hype and a true spectacle not only of horror cinema but of cinema in a wider context; an undisputed classic.