The Exorcist (1973)

19 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Exorcist” is regarded as a classic in the horror film genre. People always remember the shocking moments—the projectile vomiting, the spinning head, the floating-above-the-bed, and especially the horrifying appearance of a demon-possessed little girl whose image is still being used to frighten people. Yes, “The Exorcist” has its freaky scenes and real effective scares, but that’s not the main reason it’s hailed as a classic. It’s because it’s so grounded in reality and initiated on characters and story, so that the horror elements take great effect. It was shocking in 1973 and it’s still shocking now.

“The Exorcist” presents a story about a girl being possessed by a demon, and the fight to relieve her from it, in a surprisingly plausible way. It features realistic characters we can sympathize with and root for. It’s directed and lit in such a way that the atmosphere allows the movie to suck you in. And also, it’s as if it doesn’t try to be horrifying. It tells its story in the way that a demon possession, and an exorcism, possibly could happen. The horror mainly comes from what the characters go through; they all have issues and preoccupations. There are two in particular that we focus on. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is busy keeping her career going and raising her only daughter Regan (Linda Blair), but now has to struggle with Regan’s new illness (more on that later) that just seems to get worse and worse; and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) seems to have lost his faith recently and is constantly tending to his sick mother. Throughout the movie, Karras has to struggle with his faith—whether or not he can gain it back.

Regan is not well, to say the least. At first it just seems like she’s slightly ill—she swears up a storm and acts a little funny. It only seems like stages of puberty at first, but doctors suspect something a little more serious than that, and give her all sorts of medical tests. But while they show nothing out of the ordinary, there is definitely something wrong not only with her, but around her. Her bed is shaking violently with her on it, there are strange noises in the attic, and other little strange things start to happen, including unexplained movements and even deaths that are possible murders.

Regan’s personality changes (as does her voice, for which actress Mercedes McCambridge takes over), and she even states that she is the Devil taking control of Regan’s body. There’s no doubt that Regan is possessed, and when things get even worse, the situation calls for an exorcism to save Regan and be rid of whatever is controlling her. Chris consults Karras, who agrees to look into it with psychiatry, though he doesn’t believe in exorcism necessarily. But despite his doubts, he calls for help from an experienced exorcist, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), to perform the exorcism.

The setup is extremely well-done, as it slowly but surely sucks you into the tension of the story. Take the early scene in which Chris hosts a party at her house. The guests are gathered around the piano, singing off-key and unrehearsed to the tune being played. That’s as normal as you can get, and then it eases you into the unsettling moment in which Regan comes in and interrupts by saying in a deadpan tone, “You’re going to die up there,” and then urinates on the floor. What I’m getting at here is that “The Exorcist” eases you into the shock elements by taking relatively normal situations and transforming them into sure unsettlement, so that when the real terror comes, it feels like we’re there and that makes the film more terrifying.

I like that “The Exorcist” keeps this grounded to just here and now. Instead of the whole world and mankind that Merrin and Karras have to fight for, it’s the mind, body, and spirit of this poor little girl that must be won. This leads to the climax, in which Merrin and Karras carry through the exorcism. You’d think this would be the low point of the movie—just a special-effects extravaganza with no real thought or tension. But you’d be wrong. While there are neat effects (the head-spinning and the mystic floating, as everyone knows of), the sequence keeps the edge of everything that has occurred before by adding elements such as the temperature of the room, the intensity of the situation, and no music score to tell us to be on edge. The best part—we’re not sure of the outcome.

Also, have you noticed that it’s not quite clear exactly who or what is inside with Regan? Is it the Devil? Is it one of his followers? Who knows for sure? We only know what the characters know, and it adds to the brilliance of the screenplay.

The acting is excellent all around. Ellen Burstyn turns in a great performance as a mother whose sole concern is the welfare of her child. Max von Sydow is great as Merrin; very solid work here. If I had to pick the best acting job, it wouldn’t be Linda Blair (who, don’t get me wrong, is more than convincing as Regan—in fact, she stands out, even before she’s possessed). It instead would have to be Jason Miller as Karras. He struggles with knowing that he is a man of God who has lost his faith, and keeps most of his pain inside. Miller is utterly convincing in this role. My favorite scene of his is when he meets Regan for the first time, while she is strapped to the bed. He casually introduces himself, in a way a psychiatrist would, to which Regan responds in the demonic voice, “And I’m the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps!” Karras just keeps his cool and plays along, “If you’re the Devil, why don’t you make the straps disappear?” It’s more of a battle of wits between him and Regan (or Regan’s demon) before the exorcism.

“The Exorcist” is without a doubt one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s right up there with “Psycho” and “Halloween”—movies that scare me, but also make me think and admire its craftsmanship. With great acting, a realistic atmosphere, and memorable images (my favorite, of course, being the shot in which Merrin stands in silhouette, under a street lamp, looking up at the house where he will perform the exorcism), “The Exorcist” is a brilliant and more-than-effective horror film. Something wicked is inside Regan…and we believe it.

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