Something almost beyond comprehension is happening to a girl on this street, in this house …and a man has been sent for as a last resort. This man is The Exorcist.
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by William Peter Blatty
Starring Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, Max von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin, Jason Miller as Father Damien Karras, Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman, Kitty Winn as Sharon Spencer, Jack MacGowran as Burke Dennings and William O’Malley as Father Dyer. Also stars Vasiliki Maliaros as Karras’ Mother, Thomas Bermingham as Tom and Barton Heyman as Dr. Klein.
The film begins in Northern Iraq where a dig is taking place. Archaeologist and priest Father Lankester Merrin finds a couple a small objects, a Christian medallion and an idol that represents the demon Pazuzu whom he has encountered before and exorcised from a young boy (Exorcist II: The Heretic ’77, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist ’05 and Exorcist: The Beginning ’04). The two objects being found together are an omen that he will meet the demon again.
The film moves to Georgetown, Washington D.C., where we meet actress Chris MacNeil and her 12-year-old daughter Regan as well as Father Damien Karras and his mother. Regan has been playing with a Ouija board, talking to Captain Howdy, she asks the questions, Captain Howdy answers. Strange noises are also being heard around the MacNeil house. Elsewhere, Karras is experiencing a crisis of faith and a personal crisis involving his ailing mother. Regan starts to exhibit strange behavioural problems, pissing herself, swearing a lot, violent spasms. Her mother takes her for some tests, doctors come to the house, more tests, but the X-rays come back normal. When Chris’s director is killed falling from Regan’s window, Lt. William Kinderman (The Exorcist III ’90) starts to investigate. Dr. Klein eventually suggests that Chris tries exorcism, having exhausted all other routes. Chris approaches Karras regarding an exorcism.
This film has terrified a lot of people, including myself years ago. OK, there’s the odd bell-end who claims to have ‘laughed all the way through’ but that’s just fucking lying. For one thing the film isn’t remotely funny so while someone might well have sniggered childishly at a couple of effects or something there’s not much in the way of comedy on offer. These days I just find it a really interesting film to watch, more than ‘scary’, but I have watched it many times and I am a hardened horror fan really. It had gigantic balls when it first came out and still has. Some scenes still make me wonder how they get away with it I suppose, although I suspect 10 Oscar nominations has a lot to do with that, it won 2; I reckon if Fulci had put a 12-year-old girl masturbating with a crucifix in one of his films it probably would have been cut forever. That’s not to say I think it should be cut, fuck no, it’s perfectly in context, I just don’t like one film being treat differently to another based on its performance at some pissy-arsed award ceremony.
It’s a long film, well, two hours or so, so there’s a lot of build up, but what a build up! It’s a story properly told and very true to the novel (unsurprisingly really as Blatty wrote the screenplay), beautifully made, with remarkable performances all round but I think the real credit should go to Linda Blair who is just…. wow! I know the demon voice was provided by Mercedes McCambridge but even so, Blair is phenomenal. Jason Miller is also brilliant as Karras, such a subtle and wonderful performance from him. Of course there are the scenes that everyone seems to mention, the turning head, the green vomit, there are famous much-quoted lines too, “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell” springs to mind; what a line! But, there’s a lot more to The Exorcist than that just like there’s a lot more to The Shining (1980) than “Here’s Johnny”; things just enter pop culture that way and become banal ways of expressing familiarity I suppose.
In truth it’s an incredibly dark masterpiece of cinema. Regan’s transformation from normal girl into demonic evil thing is pretty startling stuff to this day. The screenplay written by William Peter Blatty has some choice lines for Regan, guaranteed to raise an eyebrow or two at W.I. meetings, and Jason Miller and Max von Sydow provide strong opposition to old Pazuzu in the exorcism scenes, “The power of Christ compels you!” There are also scenes that are beautifully grotesque, and not just the famous ones, but I’ll let you discover those for yourself; I have mine.
But what is it about The Exorcist that makes it so damn good? Well, this is my theory for what it’s worth: any horror film is only as ‘scary’ as you allow it to be in your mind, that’s why the first time you see the best horror films they tend to do what the filmmakers intended them to do, scare the shit out of you, because they have the element of surprise on their side. So, how exactly do you allow them to scare you? Or why? Well, that comes down to taking them seriously, not easy to do the second or third time you’ve watched a film as you’re already analysing and dissecting it by then. But when it’s new to you, very different. The Exorcist and other true classics are simply much harder to break down, they bravely cross lines, raise questions and defy a comfortable understanding, they’re more primal, and so they don’t pale under scrutiny, they remain as they were intended and none does it better than The Exorcist. I mentioned The Exorcist has balls, and that’s key, some stories don’t sit well in normal life, maybe we don’t want to hear them, see them, they’re just too much, but throw in some award nominations and some fantastic reviews and it almost becomes socially important to recognise them, a group thing, and so darkness becomes acceptable and stories/films like The Exorcist become notorious and live on in culture, as they should, because they look at what makes us human, and even an atheist can’t deny that faith is a big deal in cultural terms and fear is a human emotion that can’t be ignored.