Sometimes I like to get scared. I’m sure anyone who ever willingly watched a horror movie can relate. There’s something quite rich in getting cowered deep into the back of your home sofa by something you watch on your screen, only to take your eyes off it for a second and bringing yourself back into your home sweet (possibly haunted) home.
Directed by William Friedkin, with the screenplay written William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist novel, The Exorcist (1973) was the first horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture.
I consider myself a reluctant fan. The first time I sat down to watch it, many full moons ago, I was quite petrified-slash-disgusted by the whole thing. Firmly clicking the vhs box cover shut after watching, I patted myself on the back for ticking a major one off my ‘to watch’ list. Now that I finally had the opportunity to read the novel for the first time, I decided to revisit the film. I feel that, despite having the privilege of being dubbed the mother of all horror films, The Exorcist has a lot to offer as a straight drama, even more than a horror film.
This film (and novel) is responsible for singlehandedly bringing the topic of exorcism to the mainstream – paving the way for a new niche of horror movies which tell horror stories (usually associated with morbid fantasy) immersed in realism and it-can-happen-to-you.
When it was released it was quite the phenomenon. People would line up in long queues outside cinema theatres, eager to be sick or simply scared shitless. Fainting during screenings of the film were commonplace.
What doubtlessly made it especially intriguing when first released was the fact that it purported to give insight into the goings on during (and background to) a typical (no such thing) exorcism, suddenly making the average cinema goer feel like a Vatican-appointed expert.
At face value, the film is about demonic possession.
Regan McNeill (Linda Blair) is a sweet twelve year old girl who, after messing around with a Ouija board, starts exhibiting increasingly disturbing peculiarities. Her atheist mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) takes her to every psychiatrist and psychologist under the sun, willing to attempt every scientific remedy possible for what initially seem to be the result of psychosomatic issues. Eventually, it is the medical experts themselves who suggest that she seeks out the services of an exorcist; if anything, for the rite’s power of suggestion rather than to actually drive out any mean spirits.
She contacts Fr.Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest with no experience in this particular field. However, due to his background walking other priests through their personal trials, he seems to Chris like the ideal candidate to drive out demons from little girls.
Karras is at a crossroads in his life. Just having lost his mother, he’s wrecked by guilt for abandoning her to fulfil his priestly duties when she needed him most. Karras also happens to be a psychiatrist and tends to view Regan’s case through the eyes of a scholar rather than through a man of the cloth.
This is truly an iconic film in many ways. Firstly, the imagery.
You’ve got your Star Wars light-sabres, your flying DeLorean and then there’s head-twisting Reagan. The image of the demon-infested girl is recognisable everywhere. The head spinning freak with the infected, lacerated face, sitting upright in bed spewing jets of green vomit all around her has not only become a staple image of horror but also one that universally signifies said genre.
Although today we can see through flaked and overdone makeup, which looks more akin to stage makeup than what we’d realistically expect to see in this kind of movie, it is still quite disturbing.
Its a slow-burner and, as I already stated, most of it works fine as a drama. The ‘shock element’ is there, and unfortunately seems to have taken the Exorcist legend hostage. Scares are injected in powerful doses when least expected, forever burned in one’s memory once witnessed. Regan violently fucking herself with a crucifix. The green vomit all over the exorcist’s face. Elevating beds and creaking bedroom walls defy the exorcist’s commands to be compelled by the power of Christ.
To be honest, I find it quite sad that after the years, these are the moments that not only seem to stand out most (that’s expected) but also which represent the whole film to modern-day audiences.
Even sadder is the fact that the film’s lead, child actress Linda Blair has become more known for her troubled life after the Exorcist (even though at one point in the 1980s, she was considered the hardest-working actress in Hollywood). Blair was destined to be cast in typical victim roles for the rest of her acting career, playing victims of rape, possession or bullying.
A dear price to pay for a role she played with a maturity well beyond her years. Her commitment, especially considering the fact that she couldn’t relate at all with her character (other than that she was also personally non-religious), was admirable, to put it mildly. There’s also B-roll footage on youtube of her getting injured on set when a particularly violent stunt goes wrong
Linda would go on to act in a number of near-underground movies, while re-inventing herself as a pin-up and sex symbol, something she did to prove to the world she had grown up and wasn’t the timid good-girl she started out as. A move that drastically backfired and, compounded with some overhyped drug-possession charges, made for a hell of an ‘Victim of the Exorcist Curse’ legend.
Today, Blair seems like one of the most down-to-earth, level headed celebrities, focusing all her energy (and star-power) into what she really eager to do when she was still a child – animal rights advocacy.
Ellen Burstyn steals the show as the desperate mother who just wants her daughter to get better, with most of her attempts blowing up in her face, to her daughter’s detriment. An open-minded atheist, Chris McNeal has nothing against religion per-se but definitely doesn’t subscribe to any one in particular. She not only isn’t a believer; she is also totally green to the topic of possession. Learning as she goes along, this character gives the audience enough time to understand the technicalities involved in proving a case of possession without feeling like the ignorant fools most of us really are.
Fr Damien Karrass’s priest, on the other hand, is a Jesuit with a particularly dry Jesuit wit and sense of humour. He has been so long exposed to science through his work as a counsellor and psychiatrist for members of his society that he finds himself justifying and rationalising every sign of demonic possession as a result of sickness.
This clinical approach by the priest contrasted with the mother’s increasing belief in Regan’s demonic possession, gives both characters dimension and believability, serving to make the story feel even more real. The film never rushes to conclusions, leaving all possibilities open, ultimately making the audience feel as if they’ve decided on the case of possession (or otherwise) on their own.
And that is where old Fr Merrin eventually comes in, played beautifully by a 44 year old Max von Sydow, made up to look as he would thirty years on.
If I had to nit-pick, I’d point to only one major fault with this film; pacing. Things escalate too quickly in the film, especially in the choppy first act. While Regan does take her time morphing from this sweet, endearing child to full blown Satanic spawn, her mother’s actions feel like overkill. The book explained the mental processes behind Chris’ decisions much better than the film did.
Regan’s mother doesn’t seem to think twice before making her endure dangerous and intensive medical procedures such as a spinal tap, X-rays and brain scans, apparently prompted by instances that wouldn’t normally incur such concern, such as good old peeing on the living room rug when sleepwalking. This was one aspect that, I felt, wasn’t translated that well from book to screen.
Two sequels have been made, The Exorcist 2: The Heretic (1977) and The Exorcist 3 (1990) which was re-released as Legion (2016). A two-season Fox series, The Exorcist (2016) is also considered part of the official canon as are two other sequels Exorcist, The Beginning (2004) and Dominion (Prequel to the Exorcist) (2005).
I hope to find the gumption to properly discuss the (quite inferior) first two sequels sometime as, despite all their faults, I still consider them part and parcel of the Friedkin Film, a film revered for its legend, if not so much by its sequels and spinoffs. Here’s hoping the 2021 reboot will be half as much fun as the first one – heavy on story development and light on the CG vomit.
Have you watched The Exorcist? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below.
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