Director: William Friedkin
Writer: William Peter Blatty
Studio: Warner Bros.
Box Office: $402m
Release Date: 26 December, 1973
IMDb Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
UK Blu Ray release? Yes
Ellen Burstyn – Chris MacNeil
Max Von Sydow – Father Merrin
Jason Miller – Father Karras
Linda Blair – Regan
William O’Malley – Father Dyer
Lee J. Cobb – Lt. William Kinderman
Plot According to IMDb
When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.
In the year that the UK joined the European Economic Community, the Watergate scandal rocked America and the Second Cod War raged across the North Atlantic, a horror film unlike no other ensured that the history and horrors of 1973 were all but forgotten when, on December 26, it landed in cinemas to turn heads and stomachs, cementing itself as one of modern horror’s greatest films.
Based on the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty who serves as screenwriter on the film, The Exorcist provides an intelligent and empathetic depiction of mental health whilst simultaneously enabling you to evacuate your bowel by means of pure terror.
The film opens on a hot and dusty archaeological dig in Iraq. Father Merrin, the eponymous man of God, is alerted to a discovery that bares the image of the demon Pazuzu. This discovery has a visible effect on him, and it’s not until Father Merrin stands face to face with a giant statue of Pazuzu in the Iraqi desert that we understand the magnitude of what he – and us – are about to face. He stands astutely, prepared for battle.
From golden sand and dry heat we’re taken to the leafy suburban streets of Washington where we’re introduced to Chris MacNeil, acclaimed actress and single mother to young Regan MacNeil. As she walks down the street we hear tubular bells for the first and only time in the film, it’s eerie and now iconic rhythm setting the tone for what is to come. As Chris and Regan’s lives are established, we then meet Father Karras, a man struggling with his faith and the mental illness that his mother is suffering.
This the beauty of The Exorcist; it takes its time with introducing its characters to the audience and establishing their credibility. There are no cheap jump scares or attempts at reminding us that we’re watching a horror film. For us to believe what has happened to Regan, we must believe in the MacNeils and their innocence; in Father Karras and his battle with faith; in Father Merrin and his long-established history with Pazuzu.
Regan’s possession is slow and almost mundane. There are no flickering lights or chilling whispers. The Ouija board and Captain Howdy are mentioned almost in passing, as though they bare no significance and it’s this subtlety that makes her possession and her mother’s struggle to accept what is happening to her daughter more believable. This is testament to Friedkin’s experience with directing documentaries; his skill in this field is what gives the impending exorcism a chilling reality.
It’s not until half an hour in to the film that we get any sense that something is wrong. We witness Regan acting strange at the doctors, but the most shocking behaviour is not what we see but rather what we hear from the doctor, who describes her outbursts that even we know – after a short amount of time – is out of character for her. The infamous party scene in which she urinates on the carpet after telling an astronaut, “You’re going to die up there” is chilling, but there’s worse still to come.
The film really takes the time to depict the attempt at a medical explanation for Regan’s behaviour, showing us the procedures that she’s going through whilst giving us a few one-frame glances of Pazuzu itself. The filmmakers are providing a rationale for the sceptics in the audience, leading them to believe that this is real; that medical science has been explored and offers no rational explanation. Like Chris, we don’t need to suspend our disbelief; we’re well and truly of the belief that this is really happening. This, in part, explains audience reactions at the time of the film’s release.
And just as soon as medical science is running out of answers, the possession steps up a notch. The film is ground-breaking for its shock value. The crucifix masturbation scene and foul-mouthed tirade, coupled with Regan’s visible deterioration in a cold, dark room really hammers home the reality of her situation. These scenes are so shocking, but they happen so quickly and seemingly out of nowhere that just as soon as you’re trying to quantify it, we’re on to the next scene and you’re left wide-eyed and panting. The now infamous spider walk scene was cut from the original release as they were unable to remove the wiring from the image, but I genuinely think that that terrifying 10 seconds would have finished off audiences who were already vomiting and passing out. There is something about the animalistic way in which Regan does this that sets your teeth on edge.
And it is so visually stunning the first time that Father Karras, a man on the edge of faith, meets Regan. Her face, tone of voice, the different voices and languages coming from her; the marks on her skin. Through our journey so far we knew it was building to this, and yet her condition is still hard to comprehend. The truest test of Karras’ faith is upon him.
The exorcism the film’s title refers to and the entire film has been building up to happens 20 minutes before the end, a testament to the time the film takes to make this scenario believable. Father Merrin is recruited for his expertise and previous encounters with Pazuzu, and from the moment he and Karras enter the room the film’s score all but disappears. There’s no orchestra or piano trying to rouse our senses; the sheer power of good versus evil does everything to raise the goosebumps on your arms.
The exorcism scene, void of any music with its bare mise-en-scene, feels long. It feels dirty and it feels real. They say “The power of Christ compels you!” over twenty times. Modern films would’ve had it in there a couple of times for set dressing and then moved on to the next jump scare. But with Friedkin’s skill he grounds the film in reality, the monotony of the chanting making us feel like we’re there in that room. Imagine that in a cinema.
The brutality of the exorcism is that there are no real winners. Though Pazuzu is exorcised and Regan is saved, there are sacrifices. Father Merrin finds himself at the end of his arsenal against Pazuzu; Father Karras has his faith restored during his battle with the Devil but to what end? His sacrifice is the ultimate one.
The film ends with Chris and Regan leaving Washington, Regan none the wiser about her encounter with the devil. Father Dyer and Lieutenant Kinderman are left with questions as they leave, only able to ponder the mysteries of their respective encounters as they stare at the staircase where more than one character met their end.
The Exorcist is 44 years old this year, but is still as chilling and psychologically effective as the day it was released. There’s often a lot of hype over the films that once saw audience members running from the cinema or requiring St. John’s Ambulance to be on standby. Films like The Last House on the Left, though boundary changing at its time, doesn’t really hold up over time. There initial shock value wears off and what we’re left with is an analytical look at how these films affected audiences back then.
But with The Exorcist, that hype is lived up to this day. The first time I watched it I was petrified, and that was with the hype and the passage of time fully engrained in me. Even on re-watches it still has those moments where I’m jarred or bringing a hand up in front of my face. It’s also a film where you find yourself spotting something you never really saw before, like the subtlety of Captain Howdy or those one-frame shots of Pazuzu throughout the film.
And its legacy lives on. Despite the disappointing sequels, last year saw an incredible extension of the original film in a superb television series from Jeremy Slater. It survived cancellation by the skin of its teeth and is currently airing its second series. And like the film, the TV series explores its characters and invests time in their development, making the horrors they experience even more frightening.
The Exorcist still frightens audiences and tops horror polls all over the world, its legacy as timeless as the Devil himself.
Inertia’s Ideal Score (★ out of 5)
- The Exorcist was the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Award at the Academy Awards
- The spider walk sequence was removed from the film because Friedkin thought that it was too much of an effect too early in the film; they were also unable to remove the wiring from the shot
- The bedroom set had to be refrigerated to provide the authentic icy breath
- Initial audience reactions created the best kind of advertising – fainting, running out and condemnation from the church
- Father Merrin’s lamppost scene is inspired by the 1954 painting “Empire of Light” (L’Empire des Lumières) by René Magritte.
DEMON: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
DEMON: I’m not Regan.
FATHER KARRAS: Well, then lets introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras.
DEMON: And I’m the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps.
All images courtesy of Blushots
Tomorrow: Night #2 – Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)