WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: When 12-year-old Regan MacNeil undergoes a sudden and violent personality change, her actress mother Chris and a host of doctors try to find a medical cause, without success. As a last resort, Chris calls on troubled priest Damien Karras to see if the archaic Catholic rite of exorcism will have an effect. A spiritual battle commences, with Karras calling on the experience of Father Merrin – no stranger to the Devil’s works – as reinforcement.
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is a perfectly ordinary girl. Although her father is not on the scene and her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is busy working as an actress, the reason they’re renting a big house in Georgetown, she seems to be balanced, pleasant and no trouble to anyone as she approaches her 12th birthday. However, noisy disturbances in the attic coincide with changes in Regan’s temperament, and after an unfortunate event ruins a house party she’s sent for a series of increasingly invasive medical tests, finally taking to her unstable bed as she becomes verbally crude and physically dangerous to herself and others; Police Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) even suspects she may have had a hand in the death of film director Burke Dennings.
When all else fails, Chris seeks out psychiatrist and priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and asks if exorcism might be appropriate. Karras is initially sceptical, not least because the decline and death of his frail mother has shaken his own faith to the core; but as he encounters and records the demonic sounds coming from the decaying young girl’s mouth, he has little option but to accept that she is indeed possessed. To carry out the exorcism ritual, the church calls on Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) to help. Recently returned from an archaeological dig in Iraq, Merrin has encountered evil – and has performed exorcisms – before; however, the power of the evil possessing Regan is sure to prove a terrifying test of the faith and constitutions of both priests.
Despite being a huge commercial hit on release and a Best Picture nominee, the main reason for The Exorcist’s notoriety in the UK is because it was not available on video for more than a decade, effectively (if not actually) lumped in with video nasties such as Cannibal Holocaust and so on. However, it’s not really a horror film, at least as I define the term; to my mind, horror films are over-wrought, fantastical and often very silly movies whose quality seems to be measured in the extremity of the nastiness put on screen, the number of deaths/dismemberments and/or pints of blood splattered around; they flaunt their excessive artificiality and cater to an audience who – like roller coaster fans – want to be manipulated into screaming.
The Exorcist isn’t that kind of movie at all. Largely eschewing blood, gore and the violin-based stings that gave people the creeps in Psycho, Friedkin tells the story in matter-of-fact style, only gradually increasing the intensity of the horror. There are deliberate scares – sudden jumps, loud noises, and a few disturbing single-frame shots of a demonic face – and the events of the last half-hour are frequently incredibly horrific; not because they show extreme or graphic unpleasantness, but because they derive their power from their realism.
Obviously, the film was made before CGI made everything possible, but the immense skill with which the effects – including the freezing-cold atmosphere of Regan’s room – are created mean that the viewer readily believes the events could really happen.
The sound is also brilliant; I’ve not seen the film at the pictures but can imagine how effective the combination of a large screen and loud speakers would have been in conveying satanic howls or a more general, buzzing evil. As the demon inside Regan and the priests finally square off against one another, the atmosphere becomes unbearably tense, helped by a script that always takes its subject seriously, and astounding work from Linda Blair no matter how much of the Regan we see and hear was actually stunt doubles, voice dubbing or dummies. The fact that the pre-possessed Regan is not brattish but fairly prepossessing (sorry) is an achievement in itself; her transformation into the vulgar, abusive creature she becomes is most impressive (and does it suggest that the real horror is not demonic possession but puberty?).
Anyway, The Exorcist isn’t all about Regan. A significant part of the film’s oppressive mood comes from the care taken by the script, and Jason Miller, to depict Father Karras as a man full of metaphorical inner demons. Karras’ hell is his own guilt about not being able to look after his mother – his disturbed dream where he cannot hear his mother across a crowded street is probably the best depiction of a dream I’ve seen in the movies. Karras’ turmoil adds an extra dimension to his encounter with Regan and makes the final resolution completely logical, whilst von Sydow’s Merrin is an impressive – if crumbling – pillar of authority.
With its unrepeatable language and scenes of head-spinning, pea-soup-vomiting and crucifix-(ahem)-placing, it’s little wonder that The Exorcist stays in the memory. But if you’ve not seen the film in a while, you may be surprised by how long it takes before the horror fully unfolds. Although context is absolutely necessary to increase our understanding of the characters, I do wonder if all of the Iraq sequence is relevant, or whether the time given to Kinderman’s ultimately irrelevant investigation (especially the coffee-drinking!) is justified. Whilst I’m being picky, Burstyn slightly overdoes the hysteria at times and there’s some indifferent acting by what I presume are real churchmen; on the whole, though, the film puts very few feet wrong in the course of its two (or two and a bit*) hours.
Almost thirty years on from its release, The Exorcist can be assessed without the hype which made headlines around the world for the way it terrified cinema audiences. I don’t think it’s the best movie ever made, or the scariest, and I don’t think it was ever intended to be, though should I ever get to watch the film on the big screen in the company of others I will gladly re-assess my opinion. I believe Friedkin set out to make the best possible adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel, and in doing just that he created a cultural phenomenon which even now retains a uniquely disturbing power.
NOTES: Just a note on The Version You’ve Never Seen, a longer DVD cut of the film which – like the director’s cut of Amadeus – expands upon the story without improving it one bit. Most of the reinstated scenes merely serve to make what was implicit more explicit: for example, an early medical examination in which a doctor raises the issue of the missing father; a slightly jokey epilogue in which Kinderman closes the case; and the famous ‘Spiderwalk’, an effective moment in horror terms but entirely unnecessary to the plot. It works so much better when Regan is more or less confined to her room and becomes the terror behind the door.
Oh, and don’t worry about listening to the commentary. Friedkin tells you what’s going on like an annoying bloke in the cinema explaining everything to his slightly deaf-and-blind mother.