Movie Number– 3
Title– The Exorcist (1973)
Running Time– 132 minutes (“R”)
Director– William Friedkin
Writer– William Peter Blatty (novel and screenplay)
Starring– Linda Blair, Jason Miller, and Ellen Burstyn
It isn’t every day that one is lucky enough to sit down and watch a classic. In fact, it’s because it happens so rarely that makes it memorable and special. What defines a classic will vary from person to person, but it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” situations, and we have all been lucky enough to enjoy a few of these in the film world. Having not seen The Exorcist since middle school, which seems like forever ago, it was as if watching with new eyes, for the first time. The scares were fresh, the terror-level high, and the shocks shocking. What makes this special, though, is the fact that I have seen The Exorcist before, and it still managed to terrify. In other words, The Exorcist passed the film world’s most difficult tests: the test of time, and repeated viewings.
Regan (Linda Blair) is a twelve-year-old girl who enjoys horseback riding, drawing, and her mother, Chris’ (Ellen Burstyn) company. Chris McNeil is a movie star, filming a movie in Georgetown for director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). Chris begins to notice changes in her daughters behavior, and decides to take her to a doctor for a check-up. In the meantime, Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest who specializes in psychology at the local church, is struggling with his current occupation, and his faith in God; Damien’s mother falls ill, which only adds to his problems. As Regan’s situation gets worse, Chris begins to fear that she may be possessed by a demon, which leads her to seek out Damien for an exorcism.
By now, this tale seems derivative, but that is because of this film, which stands on top as the originator. The success The Exorcist managed in theatres, when it was released the day after Christmas in 1973, was staggering. It earned $66 million in 1974 (making it the second highest grossing film of that year). Today, The Exorcist has grossed well over $232 million worldwide, and is one of the top 10 highest grossing film series of all-time. I only bring this up to show how successful this film has been over the years, which helps to explain why the plot has been used, and reused, so often over the years. Filmmakers understand the dollars and cents side of things, and want to make movies that will sell (which is why we are seeing an influx of horror movie remakes these past 5-10 years). Yes, the story is old news, but the reason The Exorcist is a cult classic, and revered by fans today, is because of the way (writer) Blatty and (director) Friedkin tell that story.
What is needed for The Exorcist to succeed is the audience’s emotional connection with Regan. This is built wonderfully in the first 1/3 of the film by showing her love for animals, and pounding home how innocent she is (after all, she’s just a 12 year old girl). Linda Blair does an excellent job helping this along, and her performance goes down as one of my favorites by a young star in a horror film. Blatty builds Regan and Chris’ relationship believably, just as his portrayal of the imperfect priest Damien. The characters are filled with problems, but so is everyone watching, allowing the audience to find a connection with all the main characters in the movie. Once that connection is established, and the audience cares about what happens to Regan and the others, Blatty then brings in the possession, and Regan’s character takes a complete turn. Director Friedkin is to be commended as well, because he allows for this “slow burn” to take place instead of just rushing to the creepy parts (like we see in a lot of horror films today).
William Friedkin manages beautifully shot scenes filled with disturbing and scary images. The scares are always allowed to muster, and the sense of impending doom is evident throughout the first half of the film. One of my favorite scenes, and the one that was most effective for me, was one not originally seen in theatres: the spiderwalk scene (I would include a YouTube link, but it isn’t nearly as effective without the context of the entire movie). Only present in the newly-released Blu-ray and DVD editions, as well as the Complete Anthology, the spiderwalk scene is one of the scariest of the bunch. I can see why film purists complain about the scene, but from a purely cinematic standpoint, this scene was an added punch that the movie needed. The famous art from the poster comes directly from a scene in the movie, and although short, it is iconic, and lit beautifully with a perfect mix of fog and shadow.
Jason Miller (Damien) has one of the better performances in the film, and overshadows Ellen Bursty (the mother), who forces some of her high emotional parts a touch too much. Miller, who does look like a slimmer Rocky, as the film suggests (they say he looks like a boxer in the script), has the more interesting character of the two adult leads, and fills the role well. His partner in the exorcism, Father Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, bookends the film well, and is an extremely gifted actor. The most impressive minor character, though, has to be Lee J. Kobb, playing Lt. Kinderman. Kobb, known from 12 Angry Men, and On the Waterfront is a joy to watch, and makes his minor character one of the most memorable in the movie. Young (at the time) Linda Blair is eerily believable as Regan, the possessed 12-year-old, and watching her perform in the more gruesome scenes is as uncomfortable as it should be. There are just some things we don’t need to see a 12-year-old child do, and this movie touches on most of those, but this is part of what makes The Exorcist so memorable and effective.
Most horror movies from the 1970s, and even the 1980s, will get laughs from the modern horror teenage audience, but I can’t imagine that is the case with The Exorcist. Thirty-seven years later, this movie is still scaring people across the globe, and I can’t imagine it any other way. The Exorcist is more than a must-see cult movie: it is an epic horror classic.