MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1973
Stars : Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Lee J. Cobb (Lt. Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Burke), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Vasiliki Maliaros (Mother Karras)
"The Exorcist" is a great, stunning contradiction of a movie. At once an honest, disturbing exploration of the darker aspects of religion and the spiritual world, it is also an unabashed horror movie, a drive-in splatter flick with an Oscar-winning director and expensive production values. When the film was completed, no one was exactly sure what it was: was it an art film or a exploitation shocker? Could it be taken seriously, or would people laugh at its sensational account of a prepubescent girl possessed by a demon?
As most know, it was taken seriously. Millions flocked to see it again and again during the winter of 1973, with lines wrapped around movie theaters as audiences waited in nervous anticipation. Rumors flew about audience members running out of the theaters, fainting, vomiting. "The Exorcist" affected audiences in a way that hadn't been seen since Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960). It was an immediate, visceral experience that has lost little of its impact today, even on jaded moviegoers. Although the contradiction between its religious elements and its gross-out aesthetics was the primary complaint voiced by most critics (most notable Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby of "The New York Times"), it is precisely this interplay between the ethereal and the physical that gives the film its impact.
Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his runaway bestseller (which was inspired by an actual event that took place in 1949 and was widely reported in the media), "The Exorcist" tells a supernatural story that is firmly grounded in the everyday. Many have noted the film's documentary qualities, which was very much the intention of director William Friedkin ("The French Connection"), who started his career making documentaries. Like Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), Friedkin spun his tale of demonic horror in a place his audience would recognize, thus making it all the more believable. Shocking events are much more shocking when they take place in the arena of the mundane, and Friedkin exploits this to great effect.
Ellen Burstyn stars as Chris MacNeil, a successful movie actress living in Georgetown, Washington while she films a movie. Her husband has recently left her for another woman in Europe, so she lives alone in comfortable affluence with her round-faced, cheeky 12-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Regan is a normal, everyday pre-teen girl, and the early scenes in the film depict her and her mother's life as normal and uneventful. The beginning stretches of the film are purposefully slow, although some of the scenes are cut unnaturally short, giving them a somewhat ominous quality that foreshadows the horrible events to come.
When Regan first begins to show signs that something is wrong, Chris believes the problem is physical. Doctors and psychiatrists run batteries of tests, none of which show anything. Meanwhile, the signs that Regan is being tormented by a supernatural force increase: her personality changes, she becomes unnaturally strong, she mutilates her own body, her room appears to be haunted as her bed shakes and objects fly about the room.
When all the medical and scientific possibilities have been exhausted, Chris (an agnostic) finally turns to religion, in the form of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who is also a Harvard-trained psychiatrist. Father Karras is dealing with problems of his own, including the recent death of his elderly mother, which he feels responsible for, and an erosion in his faith. The first half of the film's narrative cuts back and forth between Regan's life and Father Karras', thus establishing a link between the characters.
Although at first he is skeptical about the notion of a modern-day possession, it doesn't take Father Karras long to understand what he's up against, and he realizes he will not be strong enough to exorcise the demon alone. The church calls in Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an older Jesuit priest who has previous experience with exorcisms. Father Merrin is a mysterious character, and he is given intense gravity simply because he is played by von Sydow, who had already waged many spiritual battles as an actor in the films of Ingmar Bergman. "The Exorcist" opens with a sequence where Father Merrin has some kind of a face-to-face meeting with a demon in the form of an ancient statue at an archaeological dig in Iraq. This opening sequence doesn't work as narrative because it's confusing to anyone who has not read the book, but it does work as character-building, setting up Father Merrin as a man of great religious experience.
There are numerous memorable and gut-wrenching scenes in "The Exorcist," and the film is constructed in such a way that each scene gradually increases in terror and intensity. The door to Regan's room, so ordinary and unassuming, becomes a symbol of terror as the film progresses because Friedkin turns it into the boundary between the normalcy of the rest of the house and the supernatural entity that has taken over Regan's room. Several times, Friedkin uses point-of-view shots when Chris enters the room, allowing us to discover along with her character what horrible events are transpiring in this little girl's bedroom.
The actual exorcism sequence that is the climax of the film is a marvel of acting, directing, and editing. One doesn't have to watch much of the film to understand what an ordeal Linda Blair must have gone through playing the demon-possessed girl. Not only did she have to endure hours of make-up by Dick Miller, but she had to give a painfully frank performance, which included her yelling grotesque obscenities, spewing green vomit, and masturbating with a crucifix. In effect, she had to act out all the most blasphemous things one can think of, and she is never less than convincing.
That "The Exorcist" is an outstanding technical achievement is a given. It won a richly deserved Oscar for sound effects. Sound designers Robert Knudson and Chris Newman created a plethora of skin-crawling sounds, including a mysterious scratching in the attic, the gross creaking as Regan's head as it spins all the way around, and the distortion of actress Mercedes McCambridge's vocals for the demonic voice. Friedkin used physical special effects almost exclusively, meaning there were almost no optical effects. Everything was done in-camera. For instance, in order to see the actors' frozen breath during the exorcism sequence, Friedkin had the entire set refrigerated so that it was well-below freezing for days on end.
However, technical merit is not enough to defend a film of this nature--one that deals with great spiritual matters that are at the heart of the belief systems of millions. This film can only be defensible if it is honest about its subject matter, and I think it is. That the subject matter is inherently sensationalistic is not the fault of the filmmakers.
Blatty annoyed some critics during the time of release by perhaps taking himself too seriously (at one point, he called his book "apostolic"), but "The Exorcist" is, nevertheless, a haunting film because it has the conviction to deal with its subject honestly. For those who do not believe in Judeo-Christian religions, the notion of demon possession and exorcism will seem silly, nothing more than superstitious ammunition for a horror film. However, for those who do accept the idea as plausible, it is hard not to feel that "The Exorcist" portrays its events in a believable, thus horrifying and sometimes nauseating manner.
The underlying strength of the film is that it never suggests that Regan's possession is anything other than supernatural. The ending of the film makes it obvious that this was a demon taking over her body, and not a neurological illness. Thus, Blatty and Friedkin give the film epic proportions as a struggle between good and evil. And, although Blatty was upset that the ending of the film was vague, possibly suggesting the triumph of evil over good despite intentions to the contrary, I think this gives the film an added dimension.
At the end of the film, the demon is exorcised, but by leaving that victory somewhat dark, the film suggests that it was a small victory in a much larger war. Evil will continue to hold its grip on the world even if Regan is saved, and that is the feeling with which the final frames leave its audience.
©1999 James Kendrick