Friday, June 21, 2013

Classic Review - The Exorcist (1973)

Something almost beyond comprehension is happening to a girl on this street, in this house... and a man has been sent for as a last resort. This man is The Exorcist.

When the subject of iconic horror movies gets brought up, there is one that almost always tops the list. 

When the subject of the most terrifying films of all time gets brought, it’s also pretty much guaranteed to top that list as well. 

When The Exorcist was released in 1973 it shook the very ground it stood upon. Nothing like it had ever been presented on the big screen, and people didn’t know how to react to it. It opened to mixed reviews, but the general consensus was the same. This was the scariest movie of all time. Critics didn’t know how to react to it, many of them claiming that it was a “claptrap” and nothing but “religious schlock” with one general direction: perverse scares. 

Call it what you want, The Exorcist did what every horror movie strives to do. It horrified, disgusted and revolted. It caused fainting and vomiting, it caused countless sleepless night and it continues to scare every subsequent generation since its release. While it garnered plenty of bad reviews, they did not carry the blow intended by the critics. Calling a horror movie disgusting, vile and perverse does nothing but to blatantly promote said horror film, and everything that these critics said was in fact true. It is a horrible film, but in that is what makes it one of the greatest horror films of all time. 

I will give a bit of a warning, this review will be long. This is the first major classic that I will be touching upon in this blog so forgive me, but I have no intention of making this a short one. 

Now, please read on.

Title: The Exorcist
Director(s): William Friedkin
Writer(s): William Peter Blatty (based upon his novel of the same name)
Producer(s): William Peter Blatty
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Mercedes McCambridge

This film holds an extremely important place in my heart. I would not be writing this blog, had it not been for this film. It is normal for young children to be petrified by horror movies, some people may never grow out of that, it’s natural. For most horror fans, there is always a film that changes that. You move from childlike terror to a state of childlike wonder. Instead of terror gripping your heart, you get a rush of adrenaline, I imagine the sensation would be similar to blood lust, and before long all you’re thinking about is the imagery of said film and which film you want to watch next. This was The Exorcist for me. 


The film opens in Iraq. Father Merrin, a Roman Catholic priest, is leading an archaeological dig when he discovers a small amulet. We learn that Merrin is recovering from a near fatal heart attack, which he must take medication for. This amulet resembles that of the demon Pazuzu, one that he has already come to battle with, who has returned for revenge and Merrin knows that this will end in life or death.

We are then taken to Washington DC, where the rest of the film will take place. We are introduced to Chris MacNeil, a successful actress, and her daughter Regan, a sweet 12 year old little girl. Regan and Chris are very close, and when Chris discovers a Ouija board in Regan’s craft area Regan informs her that she found it in the closet and she uses it to speak with Captain Howdy, “the one who gives the answers”. 

One morning, after Regan’s birthday, Chris is awoken in the early morning hours by a phone call and she discovers Regan asleep in her bed. When asked why Regan is there and not in her own bed, Regan replies that her bed shakes and she can’t get any sleep. Chris dismisses it as the work of a child’s imagination, but when Regan interrupts a party that Chris is throwing and urinates on the floor Chris takes her to the hospital to have some tests done. 

88 doctors and an unknown amount of time later, nothing is known of Regan’s condition, aside from the fact that it is getting worse. Regan’s voice is changing, her mannerisms are violent and sexually explicit, and at the doctor’s recommendation, Chris seeks the help of a local priest named Father Karras in the hopes of getting Regan exorcised. After collecting the needed evidence to justify an exorcism to the Catholic Church, Karras is approved to assist in the exorcism of Regan MacNeil, and Father Merrin is called in to perform it. 


When it comes to this film, there is one thing that you need to keep in mind. There was nothing like it before it was released. Yes, there were films involving the occult before, but nothing came close to something of this magnitude. I have a few friends who make claims of this film being overrated, not scary, etc. That’s fine, I understand that as times change desensitization becomes more prominent, but can one call this film over rated? I do not think so.

When the films open, we are greeted to dark ominous music and the sound of a man chanting. This sets up the film perfectly. We are in Iraq, where we meet Father Merrin and are also introduced to the cinematography and film style that is used in the film. Long drawn out shots, wide angles, little orchestral score and environmental ambiance. There is nothing to hide from, there is nothing to distract you from the events on screen. When Regan is possessed and the camera pans in on her face, you are staring directly into the eyes of evil. 

As the film draws on, you find more and more things to be unsettled by, although you’re not sure why, there’s nothing overtly scary not even necessarily creepy, but Friedkin found such a perfect way to set you up emotionally for the onslaught that is ticking ever more closely as the film progresses on. 

I think it’s time to focus on Regan now. Regan is a sweet, young and innocent girl of 12. She loves to draw, paint and make various clay sculptures. While her mother is on set, she plays with Sharon, her babysitter and is always excited for when mom comes home. When we first meet Regan, you can’t help but fall in love with her, and that is where the real terror of this film comes from. Seeing this little girl spew forth terrible profanities and do everything in her power to hurt those that are trying to help her. Linda Blair’s portrayal of Regan was perfect and I am reminded of this every time I watch the film. The mother/daughter dynamic presented in the film is equally great, and there are moments when you can’t help but think about how difficult these scenes must have been to film when you see Chris on the verge of mental breakdown, and Regan’s face being torn about by this demon that has taken residence inside of her soul. 

A week or two ago, I wrote a post about the Top 10 Themes in Horror. While Tubular Bells was included in the list, I believe that it is The Exorcist’s lack of score that amplifies its terror. As already mentioned, you don’t have anything to hide behind in this film. When Merrin and Karras wage war against Pazuzu, you are left with the vile things coming out of Regan’s mouth and Merrin’s prayers. When Regan isn’t spewing forth perverse and painfully revealing secrets, the sound of her breathing seems even worse. Even when there is a scene downstairs, you can still hear her raspy breathing resonating down the staircase. There is no escape. When there is a “score”, if you can even call it, it is often a conglomeration of odd noises and ambient tracks that serve as an accompaniment to the surreal imagery being displayed on screen. Whether it’s flashes of Pazuzu’s twisted face, or Regan writhing in blinding light before a graven image Pazuzu, you’re left with a feeling of absolute dread. 

Last but not least, I want to focus on the cinematography and imagery of this film. This film is a visceral assault to the senses, doing things that no other film had the courage to do. While horror films before this invited the approach of letting us use our imaginations to fill in blanks with violence, gore and especially evil, this one went the complete opposite direction and shoved our faces into it. It is not like The Omen, where the face of evil is disguised behind the sweet face of a child. In this one, we see evil tear apart the sweet face of a child. There was no beating around the bush, Friedkin and Blatty threw us headfirst into the thorniest bush they could find. 

If I had a complaint about this film, it would be that there was a lack of character development aside from the relationship between the MacNeils. We don’t quite understand the relationship between Chris and Father Dyer (as an example), especially considering Chris is an atheist, so it makes little sense as to why he would be at her party. It is very evident that this film had one intent, and that was to show the terror that befalls Regan. 

I do not feel that a P’s and C’s section is necessary with this one. After a review this long, I have already discussed many of the high points and the low, so I will close with this statement. There are not many horror films that I consider perfect, but The Exorcist… This is a perfect horror film. It holds every single element required to make a truly terrifying film, and there will never be another film that creates the same kind of impact that this one did at the time of its release.  

If you have a differing opinion, please, share. I invite intellectual debates about the finer points of horror films, and would love to get some interaction, especially revolving around a film as iconic as this one. 


Until next time, my friends.

-Rg Lovecraft

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