The tubular bells musical piece, the dizzying staircase, the silhouette image of Father Merrin standing outside the house looking at his destiny, the insets of the demon Pazuzu, the pea soup, the head turn, the crucifix scene, the exorcism… so many things make this film stand out.
As I work my way through the 101 Horror Movies, I have finally reached my favorite horror film of all time… In a short wile we’ll hit my favorite movie of all time, but The Exorcist is my my favorite horror film.
There’s honestly not much I can say about this film that hasn’t been said before.
This was the movie that showed Hollywood that you could make an A-List horror film, the genre did not have to be relegated to B-movie genre fare. Here was a film that could talk about the concepts of good and evil, belief, fear and faith. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Actress, and Leading Actress. In the end they walked away with Best Sound and Best Screenplay, both well-earned.
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, the film treats its viewers with respect, never pandering to the audience, building the characters and story so that when when this seemingly normal world is turned upside down by something so unbelievable you accept it. And not only that, it scares you.
That’s what is most frightening about it, and in one of my other favorite horror films films (subtle hint there), it’s the grounding of the film in a concrete reality, in this case a single working mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), confronted by the odd things that are beginning to happen to her daughter Regan (Linda Blair).
She’s not a believer, but finally her fear and her love of her daughter drive her to embrace the ideas that there are things out there beyond us, god and the devil.
Pushed to her limit, she turns to a Jesuit priest, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) who is going through his own personal crisis of faith and the loss of his mother.
He in turn is aided, and rediscovers the strength of his beliefs, by Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow).
All four actors bring amazing performances to the story, Blair, in a sign of her trust in director William Friedkin, gives her all, doing things that no child her age should know or say.
In Friedkin’s cut there is a wonderful dichotomy of science and faith, as we see Regan undergoing a battery of medical exams that the doctor and Chris talk about afterwards, the odd behavior, the foul language, lying. The doctor, advises medication, and not to worry too much…
Yes, in the end, it’s faith, something Chris doesn’t have and Karras rediscovers, that saves her. But at what cost? You haven’t seen the movie, I won’t tell you the price that is paid, but I can’t promise others will be so kind to you, so make an effort to see it before someone spoils it for you.
And while there are homages and nods to it everywhere throughout popular culture, it somehow does not dilute the emotional impact of the film IF you let yourself get into it. Something I have never had a problem with, though I’m not quite sure what my own beliefs about these things are.
Paired with the quick insert cuts of Pazuzu, the menacing white face leering out of the shadows, there’s nothing about this film that can’t terrify you.
Much like one of my other favorite films, Alien, the entire first half of the film is set-up and character building, investing you in each of the characters, showing Regan’s descent from a normal young girl to a possessed, tortured and physically deformed monstrosity.
The realm of science, via the doctors involved in the case, keep trying to come up with rational explanations for everything, this time they come up short, and in fact they recommend an exorcist, not as a religious process, but as a scare tactic, a shock to the system.
Enter Karras and then Merrin into her and Regan’s life, performing their own tests before finally committing to the idea of performing an exorcism. This launches us into the confrontation between good and evil, in a fantastic climax, all while Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) circles trying to solve the cause of death of Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), Chris’ director.
The film is brilliant, often feeling like a documentary in the way some of it is shot, the medical exams, the archeological dig, the plain objective view it gives us in Regan’s descent.
This is one of those horror films that comes along, that stands the test of time simply because the story tenants are so constant, and so primal. Of course it helps that it’s told so well.
I can’t think of a single horror movie that could ever topple this as my number one horror film… yes there are other classics, many of which I love, but this film, the setting is commonplace, familiar to us, allowing for us to buy into the story that much more easily… it could be us, our family, and that, in the end, is one of the things that makes it truly scary.
If you haven’t seen it, see it, if you have… what do you think of it?