Exorcist, The (1973)
Release Date: December 26th, 1973 MPAA Rating: R
Director: William Friedkin Actors: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller
ver four decades since its opening (ironically, the day after Christmas), “The Exorcist” is still extremely disturbing in nature and undeniably shocking in appearance. Although there are several separate stories pulsing through the script, they all collide with preteen Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). Regan suddenly begins to act uncontrollably, swearing and exhibiting unusual strength, much to the confusion of the top psychiatrists in the Washington, D.C. area. When no specific affliction can be pinpointed, the archaic religious practices of exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) are called upon for help, aided by Father Karras (Jason Miller), whose own faith steadily wanes after the death of his mother. Vividly grotesque and strikingly creepy, especially with several added scenes for subsequent theatrical rereleases (including the notorious inverted descent down a staircase, known as the spider-walk), this expertly helmed film relies on unbearable suspense and chilling visuals to captivate its audience – resulting in a momentous ten Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and the distinction of second-highest grossing film of 1973.
Director William Friedkin originally intended “The Exorcist” to be a psychological thriller, but with its intensity and constant unnerving depictions of demonic possession, the film is now commonly considered the scariest film of all time. While the formula is often copied, few have been able to obtain its masterful eeriness, primarily because filmmakers rely too heavily on gore and special effects. Frequent jump scenes also pad recent horror flicks, which add instant scares but serve chiefly to distract the viewer from the fact that no intelligent storyline exists. While there are dismaying non-supernatural moments here, such as a particularly unpleasant medical examination as Regan undergoes physical testing for her condition, and the suspicious death of Chris’ boss Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), the film relies on mental and emotional terrors, abnormal behaviors, and psychosomatic happenings – all involving an innocent child. This motif has peppered a large percentage of subsequent shockers, evidencing the substantial influence “The Exorcist” had (and still has) on the genre. That main concept remains routinely sinister, though it has been regularly overused and dulled down by poor dialogue, bad acting, and underdeveloped character backgrounds.
Superbly adapted for the screen by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, loosely based on actual reported events from the late ‘40s he had researched, “The Exorcist” dares to show an imagery-heavy horror film with proper character development and a detailed storyline. The various beliefs in the film are individually examined, taking care not to approach the notion of expelling malevolent spirits as a contrived, commonplace concept – most obvious when Chris confronts Karras on how to acquire an exorcism, prompting an utterly perplexed response. Even to a man of faith, such a rite is an unprecedented, last resort solution. It is this skepticism and concern that infuses a sensational degree of realism to a subject some viewers might immediately interpret as ludicrously fictional.
By the end, a truly epic feel surrounds this battle between Good and Evil, which can be principally attributed to the scholarly approach to the subject matter and technically proficient design and execution. This has also led to “The Exorcist” having aged incredibly well, despite the significant advances in technology and computer graphics. The makeup is still top-notch and spectacularly chilling (for both Sydow and Blair), paired perfectly with puppetry and repulsive props for several of the most alarming cinematic shots, including a spinning head, levitation, and projectile vomiting. Those unforgettable sequences helped define the most popular beliefs about exorcisms in film, while smartly employed ominous lighting, evocative cinematography, and an arrangement of modern classical compositions for the soundtrack further establish the electrifying tone of dread. As a whole, “The Exorcist” is a one-of-a-kind, peerless high point in contemporary horror filmmaking.
– Mike Massie