The Exorcist remains one of the scariest movies ever made. Nothing has left a greater impact on horror cinema. As a Christian, I knew I could only handle seeing The Exorcist once. It was years before I finally built up enough resistance to finally watch it. Rest assured The Bible was by my side the entire time (even now as I review the film). The Exorcist was originally a book written by William Peter Blatty. Although the book was fictional, it was inspired by an exorcism involving a 14 year old boy in the 1940’s. The Exorcist is terrifying because demonic possession is more real than people realize. I get chills just thinking about it. Blatty wrote and produced the film 2 years after his book became a bestseller.
He even managed to hire Oscar winning The French Connection director William Friedkin. The Exorcist was understandably a very difficult movie to get made. Casting big name stars was a nightmare, sets burned down, there were on set accidents, cast members died, and the movie went over budget. The Exorcist nevertheless became a huge success despite 1970’s audience members passing out, having heart attacks, or throwing up. Although Catholicism is the main focus, at least it got more people to go to church. The Exorcist was once the highest grossing R rated movie of all time and the first horror movie ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards…
The Exorcist is a modern horror classic, but a lot of people forget how much time is dedicated to build up and establishing characters. The opening is a very lengthy archaeological dig in Iraq that I never knew about. The sequence is meant to set up the evil demon Pazuzu as an ancient statue discovered by Catholic priest and experienced exorcist Father Lankester Merrin. Although A-list actors were difficult to secure, Max von Sydow was the most high profile star in the movie. Sydow is commanding, sincere, and brilliant at conveying the power of the exorcism, but we don’t see him again until the climax. Most of the film’s events take place in Georgetown, Washington D.C. The second and most prominent Catholic priest is Father Damien Karras. Karras is currently a Jesuit psychologist dealing with a crisis of faith. The guilt he feels over losing his mother is another big part of the movie I never knew about. Although Jason Miller was only a playwright at the time, he proved himself a worthy actor in the role.
The true focus is on fictional actress Chris MacNeil played by actress Ellen Burstyn. Chris is filming a movie called Crash Course on location with her daughter Regan MacNeil. Burstyn endured a lot while making the movie. Apart from convincingly playing a distraught mother, Burstyn suffered from a traumatic lifelong injury that was kept in the movie. Before passing away 11 months before the movie’s premiere, Jack MacGowran’s final acting role was as Chris’ alcoholic director Burke. Lee J. Cobb plays the officer investigating his mysterious murder and multiple real life priests play heads of the local church, but Regan is really the primary draw of The Exorcist. A 12 year old girl possessed by a demon was the most challenging thing to pull off. So many child actresses turned down the role thanks to a legion of understandably concerned parents. A 14 year old Linda Blair ended up being perfect for the now iconic role. Blair was surprisingly well adjusted before and after playing such a controversial character, but her disturbing mannerisms make all the difference. Regan is just a normal girl before making the mistake of messing with a Ouija board to contact “Captain Howdy.”
The possession is a slow process that gets gradually more disturbing as time goes on. Noises come from the attic, objects begin to move, and the church is vandalized. Regan’s behavior starts to change when she uses obscene language and pees in the middle of her mother’s party. Everyone from medical doctors to psychiatrists are consulted to no avail. Apparently a realistic cerebral angiography procedure disturbed some viewers more than even the movie’s supernatural occurrences. Regan’s bed violently shaking and her eyes turning white are just the beginning. The infamous crucifix scene alone should have insured an X rating. Yet the MPAA somehow allowed an R rating. Even by today’s standards a lot of the more brutal scenes are shocking. It’s at least fortunate that Eileen Dietz stood in for Blair during the more traumatizing moments. As well as physically portray Pazuzu in almost subliminal flashes of the demon’s face. Meanwhile, veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge lent her gravelly voice to the demon’s more profane and blashamous dialogue.
Makeup artist Dick Smith turned an ordinary girl in a nightgown into a terrifying monster with perpetually worsening scars. A disturbingly realistic puppet was used for one of two infamous head turning scenes. The “spider-walk” was initially cut since most of the horror takes place in Regan’s bedroom. The possessed Regan calling itself the Devil makes consulting a priest the obvious answer. Karras is skeptical, but eventually initiates an exorcism with the church’s approval. The first encounter is a battle of will with the demon taunting Karras and vomiting pea soup in another memorably disturbing scene. The church calls in the professional exorcist Father Merrin who enters the house in an iconic shot where his silhouette looks up at a light from the window. The image became the movie’s poster and the piano theme from Jack Nitzsche was just as effective. The exorcism is the ultimate battle of good vs. evil. The entire sequence was filmed inside a freezer with Regan spinning her head 360º and floating in the air.
Merrin and Karras proclaiming “The power of Christ compels you” is one of the greatest moments in horror movie history. SPOILER ALERT! Sadly all the stress and psychological torment gives Merrin a heart attack. So Karras makes the ultimate sacrifice by possessing himself in order to save Regan and throwing himself onto the equally iconic stone steps below. Regan thanks a priest with a kiss and all is well in the end. The Exorcist leaves a lasting impact that hasn’t been seen since its release in 1973. Parodies quickly followed along with imitators that never quite reached the quality of the original. The Exorcist won Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes, but I think the public wasn’t ready for a horror film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Oscars including Friedkin for Best Director, Burstyn for Best Actress, Miller for Best Supporting Actor, Blair for Best Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Film Editing. Only winning for Best Screenplay and Best Sound. The Exorcist is an excellent endurance of traumatizing horror.
Followed by: Exorcist II: The Heretic