The Exorcist (1973)
“The movie you’ve been waiting for…without the wait.”
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair
Synopsis: When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.
Although I was too young to see The Exorcist at the cinema when it was first released in 1973, I remember some of the media reports about the way it was psychologically affecting susceptible members of its audience. There was talk of fainting and hysterics, and I clearly recall a newspaper report telling of how a young sailor committed suicide, apparently after watching the movie. It’s fair to say The Exorcist scared the bejesus out of me before I even saw it, and had I then, as a timid 11-year-old, been offered the opportunity to view the movie they would have probably have had to drag me out from under my bed to do so. When I did finally get to see it, sometime around 2000, I remember feeling a profound sense of disappointment. This was what I’d been so scared of, I asked myself as I emerged from behind the sofa? A potty-mouthed pre-teen with bad skin who couldn’t keep her dinner down? Now, having watched it for a second time without pre-conceived expectations, I’m probably able to offer a more balanced view of the quality of the movie, and was surprised at just how powerful it remains, despite most of its most shocking moments having been copied ad nauseum by countless films ever since.
The Exorcist doesn’t take long to get Regan (Linda Blair), its precocious thirteen-year-old victim, into the clutches of Pazuzu, who might sound like a Japanese cartoon character, but is in fact a malevolent demon. Exactly why Pazuzu has chosen Regan, or what it plans for her is never really explained, although we do know she’s been playing with an Ouija board. Once inside her, though, it’s not leaving again without a fight.
It’s not long before Regan’s mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), a movie actress filming in Washington, notices a change in her daughter’s previously sunny disposition. She begins to act strangely, predicting the death of a party guest before peeing on the floor, and crudely swearing at a doctor attempting to examine her. Then, in what seems like only a matter of minutes, Regan’s skin begins to rupture, and she’s performing a tortuous spider-crawl down the stairs with blood foaming from her mouth. Her condition baffles an army of doctors, one of whom finally suggests Chris consults the church about the possibility of performing an exorcism. It’s all mumbo-jumbo, he insists, but it’s been proven to work simply because the subject of the exorcism believes it is the solution. By now, Chris is understandably frantic with worry and ready to consider anything. Burstyn does a good job of balancing her mounting terror at what is happening to her daughter with an inherent rationality that insists whatever it is must be some psychological or neurological condition, regardless of the physical evidence that insists otherwise.
When Regan physically assaults Chris she finally concedes it’s time to take the doctor’s advice and contacts Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a catholic priest who counsels parishioners nearby. But Karras is suffering a crisis of faith and is initially reluctant to make a request to his superiors that an exorcism is carried out. However, when he discovers that Regan is speaking backwards and sees the words ‘help me’ appear on her stomach he is finally convinced and, with the help of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), arranges a confrontation with the demon…
The obvious difference between The Exorcist and the countless copies that followed in its wake is the fact that it’s an original. No film had ever come close to creating the tension and fear in an audience in the way that The Exorcist did, and as the first of its kind it had the luxury of taking its time in telling its story. Although Regan’s condition does seem to escalate with unseemly haste, once she is fully possessed the movie doesn’t rush to shock; it dishes out those key moments with a measured pace so that no matter how traumatic the events on the screen become the storytelling itself never grows hysterical and a forbidding atmosphere is allowed to prevail. Always, there is a sense that forces greater than we can comprehend are operating behind the scenes, on behalf of both good and evil.
It must have been difficult to cast the role of Regan, and one can’t help wondering what steps the producers took to ensure young Linda Blair wasn’t psychologically damaged by the role she played. She did go off the rails for a while, but whether that can be attributed to the part she played in The Exorcist is questionable. Plenty of kids go off the rails without starring in horror movies. Director Friedkin has her play her ‘normal’ scenes in an overly cute fashion in order to enhance the horror of what later happens to her, and she handles herself capably. Rounding out the cast in a largely superfluous role is Lee J. Cobb as a police detective who becomes peripherally involved when a director friend of Chris’s (Jack MacGowran) is found dead at the foot of a stone stairway near Regan’s bedroom window with his head facing backwards.
Those stories of the hysteria created by The Exorcist back in 1973 now seem quaint considering how much further the boundaries of horror have been pushed. What was shocking then seems relatively tame today, but thankfully the movie still holds up as a well-crafted and affecting piece of work. We can only wonder what those good folk of 1973 would make of a movie like The Human Centipede…
(Reviewed 14th April 2013)