The Exorcist

US (1973) Dir. William Friedkin

Another horror classic for which I am late to the party, but in my defence, it was banned here in the UK for a huge chunk of my youth and never shown on TV until after 1999, by which time I had moved on. A sign of the times, this review is based on the original banned theatrical cut which was shown on BBC 2 last night!

During an archaeological dig in Iraq, Catholic priest Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) is alerted to the discovery of a sculpture of the ancient demon Pazuzu, seeing it as an omen. Meanwhile in the US, 12 year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) admits to her actress mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) that she has been conversing with a friend named Captain Howdy via an Ouija board she found in the attic.

Shortly after, odd things happen around the house and Regan’s behaviour changes for the worst, until finally Regan is possessed by an evil spirit. Chris seeks medical help, but nothing can be done for Regan, leaving Chris with one option left – an exorcism. She is put in touch with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) who surveys the scene and with permission from the church, calls in Father Merrin to help save Regan.

This is probably one of those rare instances where a plot summary isn’t required but the rules of a review must be followed. As alluded to earlier, The Exorcist is one of the most infamous and controversial films, its legacy as the scariest movie ever made is carried with pride. By modern standards, it is pretty tame but in 1973, it seemed to upset a lot of people.

In the US, the “R” rating – a child can watch accompanied by an adult – was considered too soft with some states trying to ban the film outright. Here in the UK, religious groups campaigned against it but didn’t stop its release with an “X” rating in cinemas and later on VHS. However, in 1988 the BBFC feared the film’s notoriety would lead to younger audiences seeking it out and banned it, until overturned a decade later.

Whether it was that bad is a debate for all eternity although I suspect most people would agree young kids really shouldn’t be watching The Exorcist, not just for the horror but the religious commentary. Ironically, the one group you’d think would have kicked up a fuss but didn’t was the Catholic church – in fact, they acted as consultants for it, as they did for author William Peter Blatty, whose novel this is based on.

Blatty was loaned diaries and notes from the real life exorcism of a boy in 1949 he was dramatising. It was the church’s suggestion to change the victim to a girl to help protect the boy, who grew up with no recollection of the possession. This authentic background helps the exorcism scenes feel credible in terms of the details of the procedure, the verbiage, and the scriptures used.

For a horror, the first act is quite dull in introducing the main players, typical of films in the 70s. Karras visiting Regan is where the fun begins. The sweet faced 12 year-old girl has been replaced by a foul-mouthed, scarred face, ghoul eyed demon spewing green slime, and stabbing herself in the crotch with a cross. After years of seeing spoofs and homage to this film, it is nice to see the original and the context in which they came, and religious imagery aside, this is still a disturbing sight to behold.

Classic moments such as the levitating bed, vulgar blasphemy, spinning head, and the icy cold room have been much referenced but still have the power to chill after almost 50 years. One famous scene which was cut from this original version is the “spider walk”, where Regan descends the stairs whilst bent over backwards. Director William Friedkin felt it appeared too early in the story before Regan was properly possessed, although it was restored for the ironically labelled Director’s Cut in 2000.

Modern audiences might be bemused to learn this film caused vomiting, heart attacks, and even a miscarriages upon its original release, yet the culprit for this wasn’t actually anything involving the possession but the scene where Regan has an angiography, a tube inserted into her neck resulting in blood spurting out. Because this was not related to the supernatural, it is easy to see why especially as the recipient was just 12.

Of course, this has a lot to do with Linda Blair, who is utterly fantastic as the possessed Regan. Just 16 at the time, the nuance in her performance is incredible, be it the way her head moves (when not swivelling around), her facial reactions, the timing mouthing the dubbed dialogue, and general physical presence. And all buried under hideous but fabulously convincing make up whilst strapped to a bed.

Regan’s demonic voice was provided by Oscar winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, who went to great lengths to get the right otherworldly evil sound for her performance. A former alcoholic, McCambridge took up boozing and smoking again to get the harsh, husky sound as well as drinking raw eggs; whilst a terrifying and iconic delivery, that is a level of commitment I am sure actors today are glad they don’t have to emulate.

Plenty of other uncomfortable experiences occurred during filming – a set burned down, Burstyn injured her back, von Sydow’s brother died on the first day of filming, Miller’s son nearly died in a bike accident, and actor Jack MacGowran passed away shortly after filming ended. One might argue Blair suffered, as her acting career never hit the same heights as this role despite a forty-year career.

Looking at it objectively, The Exorcist does still have a claim to being one of the scariest films ever, even if its content been superseded by sicker films, but without The Exorcist, many of those films wouldn’t exist. An unquestionable classic.

3 thoughts on “Movie Review – The Exorcist

  1. Fantastic review! The best I’ve ever read on The Exorcist, you encapsulated it perfectly. And yes it may be tame by today’s standards but I completely agree it retains the “scariest movie ever” claims and is a complete and utter classic 🙂

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