By today’s desensitised standards, this horror classic – often cited as the Scariest Movie of All Time – is kinda dated, kinda slow and not that terribly scary. But its most notorious scenes and moments still have a power to disturb.
The trouble with being a game-changing, iconic horror movie is that, after decades of homages, parodies and references in countless films and TV shows, it can’t possibly hit with the same revelatory impact as at the time of its release. The same is true of many other horror films from the 60s and 70s I’ve watched, but I felt the effects of time and changes in the cinematic tastes more so with The Exorcist, which reportedly left the unsuspecting audiences back in 1973 fainting, vomiting or leaving the theatre because the film was too much to handle.
Partly it’s down to my own personal preferences. I tend to be more affected by the horror movies with the touch of the surreal or otherworldly, whereas here the documentary-like approach of the director William Friedkin prioritises realism, though it’s not to say that the film is devoid of memorable imagery and tense, atmospheric scenes. I also couldn’t help but think that the movie could have trimmed a few scenes and subplots; I rarely have a problem with the slow pace of older movies, but here I wished on a few occasions that the film would just get on with it already.
When it sticks directly to its story of demonic possession, driven by one of the most extraordinary child performances ever captured on film, The Exorcist is still brutal and gripping as hell. The victim is Regan (Linda Blair), young daughter of a famous actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who stays with her mother in a house in Georgetown and takes up playing with an Ouija board whilst her mother is away filming on set. At first Chris is irritated by the strange noises in the attic, which she assumes to be some rat mischief, but then her sweet and affectionate daughter begins to exhibit erratic behaviour. She complains of not being able to sleep because of a shaking bed, and one night urinates on the carpet right in front of Chris’ guests.
Worried sick, Chris desperately seeks answers from doctors and psychiatrists, who first put Regan through gruelling and invasive medical tests, then psychological tests, to no avail. Finally one of the doctors suggests exorcism, not with an idea that Regan is literally possessed by an evil spirit, but as something that might work on a patient who genuinely believes that she’s possessed. At this point, Regan has turned into an unrecognisable grotesque thing with a bloated, scarred face, that has to be kept tied to the bed, growls like a beast and speaks in a hideous voice.
Chris turns to a local Jesuit priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), trained as a psychiatrist and initially almost amused by the medieval idea of exorcism. After meeting Regan, he is convinced enough to make a case for exorcism to the church, who assign a more experienced, elderly priest to the case. He is played by Max Von Sydow, whose aged appearance was at first disorienting after his cameo in The Force Awakens, where he looked almost exactly the same. The miracle of make-up!
There have been great many onscreen incarnations of the Devil, but it’s hard to think of one more disgusting. This is no sophisticated worldly gentleman from The Master and Margarita, this Devil spews out green vomit and shocking obscenities and does unspeakable things with a crucifix. Dated make-up or not, it’s still unnerving to see an innocent child corrupted and twisted by an evil spirit in such a vile way. Though Linda Blair probably didn’t do the demonic voice, she still had to deliver the physical performance and deal with the daunting role of a demented, foul-mouthed creature, and she did a disturbingly good job. The acting overall is top-notch across the board. Ellen Burstyn is heart-breaking and believable as a desperate mother pushed beyond the level of human endurance, and Miller’s priest is haunted, intelligent and sympathetic.
I imagine that a true Catholic would get more out of this movie than a non-believer like me, and appreciate its themes of losing and finding faith more. I still liked the fact that Friedkin’s film treats demonic possession with a deadly seriousness, with not a hint of campiness or wink in sight.
Even taking into account the slower 1970s pacing, The Exorcist is still way too long. The first hour especially really drags in places, drawing out its simple setup that could have been a third shorter and all the more effective for it. I’m also not sure if the movie’s prologue, set at an archaeological dig in Iraq, was even necessary. However, as The Exorcist closes on its tense final confrontation with the evil, it’s impossible not to find yourself on the edge of the seat (or sofa, in my case).