The Exorcist (1973)
Ah, The Exorcist: a film that needs no introduction. The film that has been ranked as the scariest ever made by more than one magazine, website, and critic. The film that scared an entire generation of lapsed Catholics back into church. The film that made an overnight "scream queen" out of fourteen-year-old Linda Blair, to the point where her career outside of horror movies suffered for it. And the film that, despite me watching it with four very chatty and snarky friends in an online chat room at an ungodly hour, got me to believe the hype. The Exorcist isn't a film built around shock horror, though there's more than enough pea soup vomit and spider walking to go around for that. Rather, it's a film that, through great characters, writing, and direction, digs under your skin, making you believe that you're watching a real battle between good and evil unfold in this Georgetown house. It's a film that wears down your faith in what you know to be true just as it does its characters, getting you ready to accept that a little girl can have the devil inside her. The Exorcist is a masterpiece, and an example of what happens when truly talented filmmakers are allowed to take a stab at horror with a big Hollywood budget behind them.
The story is familiar territory by now, having been ripped off by countless lesser demon movies in the forty-two years since it came out. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), an actress living in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Georgetown, has started noticing that her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is acting strangely. She talks about an invisible friend named "Captain Howdy", she complains about her bed shaking at night, and when she's taken to the doctor, she lashes out with unspeakable obscenities. Furthermore, a director named Burke Dennings died at a party Chris was hosting, and Regan was the only one in the house at the time. The doctors can't find anything physically wrong with her and are stumped by her behavior, the psychiatrist can't figure it out either, and so Chris is forced to consider what ought to be unthinkable in this modern age: that ancient superstition known as demonic possession. The priest she turns to, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), is having his own crisis of faith at the moment, having just lost his aging live-in mother and feeling that he's not cut out to lead his flock. Together with an older priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who seems to have his own history with this particular demon (known as Pazuzu), Karras sets out to defeat the monster inhabiting young Regan's body.
What sets The Exorcist apart from other possession films is that, while many of them use the trappings of Catholicism merely as set dressing to help scare the viewer, this film is fundamentally about the faith. There's a reason it's not called The Exorcism, The Demon, or The Possession -- the priests are as much the main characters as the possessed little girl, the desperate mother, or the demon itself. Karras' battle with the demon occurs against the backdrop of his own faltering faith. Much to Chris' consternation, he doesn't automatically rule out more mundane explanations, lest he do more harm than good and perform an unnecessary, dangerous ritual on a young girl who might need psychiatric care rather than a priest. More importantly, though, there's a deeper reason for his reluctance -- his own lack of faith has him believe that he isn't remotely cut out for wearing the black collar at all, let alone performing an exorcism. The demon, of course, knows this, and uses this knowledge to play mind games with Karras, telling him in the crudest possible terms that, for example, his mother is in Hell getting raped by demons because he chose to be a priest and thus couldn't afford her medical care. Likewise, for Chris, the real horror isn't in the fact that she has a demon living in the house, but rather, the fact that she's losing Regan and nobody -- not the doctors, not the police, not even the priest initially -- can figure out what's wrong with her, let alone fix her. Her seemingly rational worldview is crumbling before her very eyes in the face of this ancient evil that's after her daughter. The battle between Karras and Pazuzu is merely a visual representation of the real battles in the film -- those of Karras and Chris with their faith, or lack thereof.
That's the real horror that William Peter Blatty, writer of both the script and the book upon which it was based, brought to life with The Exorcist: not the supernatural monstrosity that's taken over Regan, but what it represents. It's the idea that everything you thought you knew about how the world worked was wrong, just a lie you told yourself to go to sleep at night. That's why this film hit home as hard as it did back in the '70s, a time when, between the malaise, the oil crises, and the rise of the counterculture, the whole world seemed to be undergoing a "crisis of faith" of its own. On their own, the foul-mouthed demon, the flying objects, the shaking bed, the vomit, the head spinning around, Regan's possessed face, and the brief, near-subliminal flashes of Pazuzu would've been plenty scary. But all of it comes wrapped in a very Catholic take on an H. P. Lovecraft story. Merely knowing about the existence of demons is enough to drive people like Chris and Karras mad, destroying everything they took for granted, and the old-time religion, far from an obsolete superstition, is their only shield against those dark forces. Even though Pazuzu is vanquished in the end, he's still taken a heavy toll on the cast.
And it wouldn't have worked nearly as well as it did without such incredible talent in front of and behind the camera. Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller are both wonderful actors, and they display that vividly here, from Burstyn's slow breakdown at the thought of losing her daughter to Miller's battles with the monster that's after more than just Regan's soul. Max von Sydow makes an excellent foil to Miller as Father Merrin, who has his own personal reasons to go after Pazuzu. He was only 43 when this was filmed, but even without his old-age makeup, he still felt appropriately weathered, like a veteran who's already been through this once before and is itching for round two. Linda Blair, of course, supplied most of the pure frights in this film, playing Regan as both a precocious adolescent girl and as the puppet of the legendarily profane demon inhabiting her. I'm still surprised at how, much like Chloe Grace Moretz playing Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, playing Regan/Pazuzu didn't scar the thirteen-year-old Blair for life -- though I'm not surprised at how her career outside of horror movies suffered as a result. One of the friends I watched this with says that his mother was the butt of many Exorcist jokes when she was a kid, simply because she looked like Blair; I can't imagine what it must have been like for Blair herself growing up. Finally, we come to director William Friedkin, whose work here perhaps best illustrates the difference between this film and many of its second-rate imitators. Friedkin manages to deftly walk the tightrope between the character drama that elevates this film above its peers and the terrifying situations that make it a horror movie, combining the two into a blend whose elements reinforce one another, making the frights that much scarier and the characters' struggles that much more meaningful. It's the quintessential "New Hollywood" '70s film-geek horror movie, still looking like a million bucks today and better filmed than any modern supernatural mess full of false jump scares and poor lighting (take your pick).
Score: 5 out of 5
The Exorcist wrote the blueprint for forty years' worth of movies about ghosts and demons, and to this day, not one of them has matched it. It is suspenseful and thoughtful in equal measure, a magnum opus for '70s horror that enjoys its high stature for a very good reason. Is it truly the scariest movie ever made? I wouldn't say so, but it's certainly one of the best scary movies.