The Cinefessions crew loves sharing their opinions on films, but not every movie can get the attention it deserves with a full review. Enter the Cinefessions’ Capsule Reviews. These capsule reviews cover five of the most important aspects of a film, which allow the crew to deliver their opinions on any movie clearly, decisively, and with brevity. These are not our full thoughts on any film, just a highlighting of the major pros and/or cons.
This is the first of my ’70s horror film reviews for October this year. I grew up on a healthy dose of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s horror and sci-fi, but like everyone, there are older films I’ve missed. I picked two films I’d seen before, and three that I hadn’t, to review, and decided to start with The Exorcist before it left Netflix. Look for another I’ve seen before, and three more that I haven’t this month on Cinefessions!
Story & Script
Twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil begins to adapt an explicit new personality as strange events befall the local area of Georgetown. Her mother becomes torn between science and superstition in a desperate bid to save her daughter, and ultimately turns to her last hope: Father Damien Karras, a troubled priest who is struggling with his own faith. Karras isn’t quick to believe that Regan is actually possessed, and, in fact, goes about trying to disprove it, as exorcisms just aren’t done anymore as the world has moved onto psychiatric help. It becomes evident, though, as Regan knows things about the faith-shaken priest she shouldn’t know, and he launches a more fleshed out investigation. The investigation leads to a full blown exorcism with the Catholic Church bringing in Father Merrin, one of the few priests who’d performed an exorcism within the last twenty years.
The script in this, written by Blatty, who penned the novel the film is based on, is rich and fleshed out, and the characters all feel like three dimensional people. It’s what gives the film its weight. You care about these people, and the ordeal they’re going through as the film goes on, and that’s where a lot of the actual horror of the situation comes in. It has become the blueprint for a slew of exorcism and possession films that tried to emulate it, so while you may have seen one like it before, this is really the originator, and the story works so well on many levels because of it.
The casting for The Exorcist is just about perfect. Linda Blair’s portrayal of Regan, both before and after possession, coupled with the voice overs done by Mercedes McCambridge, are equally convincing, unsettling, and in a few parts, still downright terrifying. Jason Miller’s portrayal of Father Karras, a man struggling with his faith as he’s had to watch his mother suffer through her later years, and dealing with Regan and her possession is spot on, and fantastic. Max von Sydow’s stoic performance as the elder Father Merrin is probably the one I always think of first whenever his name comes up, before I think of any other of the films I’ve loved him in. He may have been 44 when they filmed this, but he’s very convincing, along with the make-up, as someone who’s far older than that. Lee J. Cobb as the police officer investigating a murder that happens near Regan’s home early on in the film feels like your stereotypical police detective from a ’70s film, but he has a great charm to him as well. The only weak link in this chain is Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s mother. While I like most of her performance throughout the film there is a tinge of over the top melo-drama to it, but at the same time it fits with the crazy situations going on, so it’s easy to overlook. This is exceptionally acted throughout, and really has helped the film keep its edge over the long years since its release.
There’s some great information about the lengths and stunts William Friedkin went to to get genuine reactions from his actors. What we ended up with, though, was not only some amazing shots, but some really great reaction shots throughout the film, and some really well done practical effects that still hold up for the most part, enhancing the story instead of overpowering it. Hell, one of the shots is so iconic it’s been replicated in a lot of other films, some parody and some not, and was even used as the film’s poster artwork. The pacing and editing are fantastic in the theatrical release, and while I liked the re-release from a decade or so ago with some new shots, I prefer the theatrical version as it’s spot-on for timing and pace to let everything develop.
You would expect this to be a slow burn, and it is, but this manages to keep that burn interesting with the different things going on, and takes the time to develop and establish the characters. While we may not like all of them, we at least understand them and their motives. It’s great storytelling. The film is also masking an underlying theme about faith and dealing with losing it, and also trying to rediscover it. I didn’t honestly catch that for years of having watched the film when I was younger, but caught it this time, and it’s really an interesting subtext throughout the film.
I watched this I don’t know how many times as a kid growing up. It was a Halloween staple for years in our house, and I’d pop it in the video disc player (yes, I had one of those) to watch over and over again at different times. While I may have put thirteen years between my last viewing, the film is still excellent. Some of the shock may where off on repeat viewings, but there’s something to be gained just from the depth the film’s script has built into it. I caught things this time around that I’ve never latched onto before when watching it, so that’s amazing.
While some of the acting has a bit of a melodramatic tinge to it, the effects work, the editing, the strong characters and acting from Linda Blair and Jason Miller, and the equally solemn Max von Sydow seal this one as a classic film. It works as a supernatural and faith-based drama, and is also an excellent build-up style horror film. This is a slow burn, but if you can handle the slow build-up, the actual exorcism itself is a complete payoff for it. Honestly there hasn’t been an exorcism in film since that hasn’t been compared to this one, and there’s only been one other one that I would consider equally as amazing. Definitely a must-see ’70s horror film, and one I’d recommend to just about anyone for its complexity in dealing with faith, while still delivering an excellent and horrific punch to the gut.