The belief in evil. And the belief that evil can be cast out. From these two strands of faith, a frightening and realistic story of an innocent girl inhabited by a malevolent entity. As a university student in 1949, Blatty heard of the exorcism of a 14-year old Maryland boy. Two decades later that incident inspired Blatty’s electrifying novel.
The Exorcist is the chilling account of what happens to a little girl when she becomes possessed by the devil. Linda Blair is the child and Ellen Burstyn’s her distraught mother. Max von Sydow and Jason Miller are troubled priests determined to break Satan’s hold.
The Exorcist 8.75
eyelights: the phenomenal cast. the script. the atmosphere. the make-up effects.
eyesores: the quick jumps in time.
“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
Let’s face it: everyone has heard of or seen 1973’s ‘The Exorcist’. Inflation adjusted, it’s the biggest grossing R-rated film of all time. It’s also a pop cultural milestone, being the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (it was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards, winning two, and received countless other wins and nominations). It’s inarguably one of the greatest horror films of all time.
I’ve seen ‘The Exorcist’ a fair number of times over the years. It’s hardly my favourite of the genre, but it’s such a classic that I often got drawn into watching it because others wanted to. I still remember watching the trilogy with a group of high school friends, during one of our many movie marathons, subjecting ourselves to the horrifyingly bad ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’, before wrapping the evening out with the woefully underappreciated ‘Exorcist III’.
When the movie was released on home video in a 25th anniversary boxed set, complete with a gold CD soundtrack and other collectible swag, I eagerly paid the high price for it and played that VHS tape a few times. I later skipped the “Version You’ve Never Seen” because it wasn’t the original theatrical experience, but I did buy the whole series of films when it was finally released in an affordable 6-DVD ‘Complete Anthology’ boxed set back in 2006.
I’ve even had the poster laminated and put up on my wall, where it’s become a permanent fixture.
And yet I hadn’t seen the movie in eight years, when I first picked up the DVD set. It’s so firmly entrenched in my mind, so familiar, that I don’t feel compelled to return to it. So it was satisfying to discover out that, after all these years, after all the movies I’ve watched, for all the technological improvements since its release in 1973, ‘The Exorcist’ holds its own to this day: it remains a phenomenal movie experience and is still one of the greatest horror films ever made.
It’s simply a well-made motion picture. The script is brilliant, covering just the right amount of backstory and character development and peppering it with a growing array of chilling developments. The cast is phenomenal, delivering their performances with the utmost exactitude and naturalism. The direction is flawless (at least to the untrained eye, such as my own). And it creates the most delicious sinister atmosphere, building up to its climax.
Not much of a surprise, given its reputation, and one that is hard to come by in the horror genre. But what did take me aback was that it has two main characters, that it divides its time almost equally between Father Karras and Regan MacNeil. I keep forgetting just how central Karras is to the piece – likely because of the shocking nature of everything that revolves around Regan. When I think of ‘The Exorcist’ I think of Regan and Father Merrin, the titular exorcist.
Now, admittedly, the exorcism scene lasts a full nine minutes, making it a core part of the film. And, being at the end, it’s the culmination of the journey that we undertake with Regan and Karras. But it’s actually a small part of the whole picture when you think of it. And Merrin has a miniscule part to play – even when accounting for the opening segment showing him in Iraq. But his grand entrance, just as the situation gets out of hand, gives him tenfold importance.
What’s especially fascinating about ‘The Exorcist’ is how it’s more than just a horror film: it’s a character study. Its strength is exactly most other horror films’ weakness: it’s rooted in the development of its protagonists and side characters, making them known to us, making them human, three-dimensional, allowing us to care about them, to get attached, and ultimately to be emotionally involved in their plight. In essence, ‘The Exorcist’ works because it makes us care.
There are five central figures in the picture:
Regan MacNeil: Regan is a lovely, vibrant, twelve-year-old girl. A child of divorce, she lives with her mother, who is a film actress. She has a tutor who takes care of her in her mother’s absence. Regan is a slightly sheltered girl, making her a more receptive vessel for demonic possession.
Linda Blair is brilliant in the role: her performance is very natural, believable. She makes Regan totally endearing, so that we immediately care about her. Her transformation from this sweet girl into a troubled one is amazing to watch. She looks completely haunted when they hypnotize her, and when she is possessed, she’s ferocious in her intensity.
While enhanced by another person’s vocals during the possession scenes, it’s not surprising that she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress for this performance. But this vocal doubling created much controversy and ensured that Blair would not win the statuette in the end. Too bad, because she deserved it.
Chris MacNeil: Chris is an actress, a single mom, an independent woman, and she is very down-to-earth. She is extremely busy with work, but she checks in with her daughter regularly, taking interest in her activities and hobbies. But when the troubles begins, she becomes worn with fatigue, concern and stress.
Ellen Burnstyn is fantastic in the part. I’ve never been drawn to this award-winning actress but it’s hard to imagine anyone better than she is here. She makes Chris feel totally real, as though this were a real person facing real challenges. Her performance lends the film much credibility very early on.
Father Karras: Karras is a priest who has also studied psychiatry so that he may counsel other priests. He is also a former boxer who continues to train regularly. But he’s exhausted and is losing his faith. He feels unfit to continue and is asking to be transferred, but Church officials won’t let him.
He’s also a devoted son who cares for his mother, visiting her regularly in her slum apartment. When she passes on, he becomes tormented by her death and begins to drink. He is haunted by uncertainty and worry, and it’s only when he is asked to help Regan that he becomes alive with purpose again. He becomes unshakeable.
Jason Miller is possibly the weakest of the main actors, and yet he manages to convey Karras’ emotional truth so perfectly. It’s as if his mildly unconvincing performance informed the character’s lack of conviction. I would really need to see him in other films to know how intentional this was. I would like to think it was all purposeful.
To think that Jack Nicholson was the first choice. That would have been a mistake, because his strong presence would have skewed the fine balance between the characters. In the end, Jason Miller was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance (as was Burnstyn, b-t-w), so it proved the correct casting choice.
Lieutenant Kinderman: Kinderman is a side character, but he peppers the picture with his few appearances. A major movie buff, he knows how to connect with people. He comes off as a bumpkin in a way, but he’s also wilier than you’d first think; there’s an underlying seriousness about him that belies his simple demeanour.
Lee J. Cobb is a natural in the part – or at least, makes it feel natural. You could almost imagine him being a non-actor who was pulled into the picture because his personality fit the part. It’s quite likely that Cobb was nothing like Kinderman, but you would never know just by watching this performance.
Father Merrin: Merrin is a priest and archaeologist whom we first meet in the film’s prologue, taking place in Northern Iraq. He’s ill of health, and need to take pills to prevent his tremors. In this opening bit he finds the statue of a demon at a site he’s currently digging, and he’s very much troubled by it.
What’s fascinating about this part is that he only gets a few minutes at the beginning and then he doesn’t return to the picture until the 95 minute mark, when he’s called in for the exorcism. And when he arrives, he’s all business: he doesn’t care about the case history or details – he’s in a hurry to get going.
The whole picture leads to this appearance, and Max von Sydow pretty much takes over the picture at that point. He is über-confident, knowledgeable, and intent on ridding this twelve-year-old girl of the demons inside her. But his confidence is not matched by his physical ability, and there will be a price to pay.
The characters are woven together quite masterfully by Blatty and Friedkin. Karras will first be seen at one of Chris’ shoots, watching it like many other bystanders. She will later cross his path on the way home one day, notice him speaking with Father Dyer. Her curiosity piqued, she will ask about him to Dyer, a family friend. It’s only later that Karras will be introduced into her life properly.
Similarly, the relationship between Chris and Regan is established extremely well. We see them interact and even tease each other a little bit. Surprisingly, this doesn’t feel heavy-handed, like so many films do when trying to quickly make us relate to the characters; it’s relatively smooth, and it feels like a realistic parent-child connection. The back history and exposition is also well done, natural.
Friedkin, despite his notorious, and oft-questionable, directing techniques, had a flair for connecting threads and creating mood. A perfect example is when he inserted the first touches of Tubular Bells when Chris walks back from the shoot. Nice. It was so perfectly timed. It would return briefly later on when Regan is going through tests at the hospital. By then it was cemented in our minds.
He also establishes the passage of time really well. The story takes place over the course of many weeks, and at no point did Friedkin feel the need to take the shortcut that many others do, giving us dates to distinguish the sequence from one another. Instead, it’s inferred in the dialogues, by discussing incidents in the past tense or having the character subtly acknowledge that time has passed.
If anything, ‘The Exorcist’ shows a filmmaker at the height of his powers. Even the way Friedkin inserted little touches to unsettle us (ex: an Iraqi with a blind eye; pendulum on the clock stops; almost being run over by a carriage; fighting dogs; creepy demon statue; strange noises in attic; a Ouija board; Regan complaining about the bed shaking; Regan peeing on carpet) was done in a masterful way.
And with restraint: the truly disturbing stuff only comes after 40 minutes into the picture, when Regan’s bed begins to shake wildly. And for a while it’s treated in a dismissive fashion: Regan is tested at the hospital and the medical staff insist that her problem is with her brain, that there are lesions on it. So, for a good half an hour or so, doubt is being sown about the situation.
But when they come to see Regan at home, the look on the Doctor’s face when he sees her flipping about her bed violently is unforgettable. Seeing the moment through his eyes, his confidence utterly shaken, we then fully realize that there’s a truly problem. In addition, the scene was edited in such a way as to make the experience traumatic. It’s a remarkable moment.
And that’s when, and only when, that the picture totally goes nuts.
The rest of ‘The Exorcist’ unfolds in the most devilish of ways. By that point, all the pieces have been put together so neatly that we are entirely immersed and subject to its every whim. Friedkin doesn’t disappoint one bit, leaving us equally riveted and traumatized, emotionally spent by the time the credits roll. We are satisfied, fulfilled. It is and forever will be one of the most perfectly realized visions of evil in cinematic history.
‘The Exorcist’ is a timeless classic.
Date of viewing: September 24, 2014