THE EXORCIST (1973)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Disturbing Images

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: William Peter Blatty

(based on the novel THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty)

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn & Jack MacGowran

Of all the genres to win Academy Awards and be critically acclaimed, horror seems to frequently get dealt a raw deal. The horror genre is often seen as a bit of a black sheep among other cinematic genres, lending itself more towards exploitation and ridicule than its competition. However, there exists a crowning achievement of a horror movie that gained wide critical acclaim, won prestigious awards, and is celebrated as one of the greatest films of all-time. This groundbreaking title is William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST.

After a strange artifact is unearthed at an Iraqi archeological dig, elderly Catholic priest Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) braces himself for an inevitable supernatural struggle between the forces of good and evil. Meanwhile in Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has become deeply concerned over her 12-year-old daughter Regan’s (Linda Blair) increasingly strange behavior. Little Regan has been doing all sorts of crazy things, like: violently cussing out random folks, spider-crawling down the stairs, and masturbating with a crucifix. It appears that Regan has been possessed by a demon…or she might just have a serious mental disorder…but it’s most likely a demon. All the while, boxer-turned-priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) looks into the possibility of an exorcism for Regan.

Besides being scary as hell (I’ll get to that in a moment), THE EXORCIST is a very powerful film. The characters are fleshed out in ways that make the viewer feel connected to each of them for different reasons. The mother-daughter relationship between Ellen Burstyn’s Chris and Linda Blair’s Regan is believable and touching. This is the film’s heartfelt center, though it certainly isn’t the only big story arc. Jason Miller’s Karras receives a great storyline as a psychologist-turned-priest who finds his faith tested in big ways. Karras’s journey is a deeply emotional one and arguably has the greatest resolution in this film. Also, there are hints that Max Von Sydow’s briefly seen Father Merrin has encountered this demon before and his entire life has been leading up to his priest-vs-demon confrontation.

Another subplot that weaves its way in and out of the main storylines (Karras’s struggle with faith and Regan’s demonic possession) involves a curious detective looking into a strange death. I don’t want to reveal too much about this subplot because it unexpectedly arrives at a certain point in the film, but this storyline plays a major part in the proceedings as well. Lee J. Cobb (who I mainly know as ON THE WATERFRONT‘s scummy villain) plays Detective William Kinderman. Even though there’s a demon possessing a small child and plenty of horror comes from that alone, Cobb’s curious cop adds an extra layer of suspense to the already tense proceedings. The way he interacts with major characters is entertaining to watch and the stunned look on his face during his final scene is priceless.

THE EXORCIST is beautifully executed in its connected plotlines and complex characters, but this is also a horror film and it’s a very scary one at that. The film utilizes both subtle terror and effects-heavy frights. The more subtle moments come in bits of editing that occasionally flash demon Pazuzu’s pale face across small bits of the film. There’s also a moment involving a Ouija board that sure to creep viewers out, even though the scare is seemingly insignificant. The film’s bigger frights involving shaking furniture, Regan’s spinning head, and (arguably) the film’s scariest visual features a freaky message appearing on Regan’s skin. THE EXORCIST’s best sequence is one of the most famous horror scenes of all-time: a lengthy exorcism that dominates the film’s final third.

THE EXORCIST remains chilling to this day and practically birthed an entire subgenre (though the other films in that subgenre are of a much lower quality). This classic doesn’t simply function as a frightening scary movie though, because there’s plenty of genuine human drama thrown into the mix as well. Like all of the best horror films, THE EXORCIST gets the audience invested in its characters and storyline, and then proceeds to scare the living shit out of them. The film also has an undeniable entertainment factor as the foul-mouthed possessed Regan (overdubbed by radio actress Mercedes McCambridge) utters infinitely quotable, filthy lines of dialogue. With all of these phenomenal qualities taken into account, THE EXORCIST holds its place as a must-see cinematic masterpiece!

Grade: A+

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