Based on an equally scary novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, the 1973 best picture nominee The Exorcist is one of those films that has become so iconic that even people who have never seen it know what the movie is about. Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an agnostic actress who is shooting a film about student protestors on a college campus. Her 12 year-old daughter, Regan (played by the future Grindhouse queen Linda Blair), spends her time playing with a Ouija Board and talking to her friend “Capt. Howdy.” Unfortunately, Capt. Howdy is actually a Sumerian demon who proceeds to posses Regan. Soon, Regan is levitating, cursing, and masturbating with a crucifix. After trying (and failing with) all the conventional methods of treatment, Chris desperately turns to the God she doesn’t believe in and tries to convince a troubled priest (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on Regan. Unfortunately, this priest has begun to question his faith and he fears that he might not be strong enough to “cure” Regan. An elderly priest (Max Von Sydow) is called in to help with the exorcism and, faster than you can say, “The power of Christ compels you,” the two priests are locked in mortal combat for Regan’s soul.
The ultimate test of any horror films is whether or not it’s still unsettling even after you already know what’s going to happen and when all the evil is going to come jumping out of the shadows. In short, the test is whether or not the film holds up to repeat viewings. This is a test that The Exorcist easily passes. I’ve seen this film enough times that I now know exactly when Linda Blair’s head is going to do that 360 degree turn and I now know exactly when to divert my eyes so I don’t have to see possessed Regan puking on the priests. (For all the terrible physical manifestations of Regan’s possessions, it’s always the vomiting that gets to me.) Most of the film’s “shock” sequences aren’t that scary any more because we’ve all seen far worse. However, watching this film remains, for me, a truly unsettling experience. This is due largely to director William Friedkin. Today’s aspiring filmmakers could learn a lot from Friedkin because, for all the attention the film’s grotesque effects received, Friedkin actually devotes more time to setting up the situation and establishing a palpable atmosphere of doom. This is a film full of grainy, almost gray images, the perfect visual suggestion of a world that has perhaps been abandoned by its God. It takes more than an hour before Ellen Burstyn meets Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow doesn’t show up until the final 30 minutes of the film. At first, it seems as if the movie itself is moving slowly but, by the end of it, you realize that what Friedkin has done is that he’s sucked us into the reality of his film. For all the special effects and metaphysical concerns, The Exorcist almost feels like a documentary. He’s also helped by a talented cast that makes the situation feel real, regardless of how extreme things may get. I’ve read that a lot of people decided they needed to be exorcised after seeing this film and I can understand why.
The Exorcist is a film that benefits from debate and it’s also one that is open to multiple interpretations. Quite a few critics have argued that the Exorcist is actually a very reactionary film in that Regan’s possession can be seen as a metaphor for adolescent rebellion and her exorcism is actually more about the establishment regaining control than any attempt to save her eternal soul. I actually think this interpretation is pretty much spot on correct though I also don’t think the filmmakers were intentionally trying to deliver that message. Instead, I think that the Exorcist — like all great films — is simply filled with the subtext of its time. While the filmmakers may have unintentionally created a document of then-contemporary fears, I think the film is even more interesting as an argument about the origin of sin and evil.
Ultimately, for a horror film to be truly timeless, it has to do more than just scare you. The supernatural and/or otherworldly forces have to serve as more than just a cinematic threat; they have to stand-in for our own universal fears and concerns. The Exorcist attempts to answer one of the most basic questions: why is there evil in the world and why do people sometimes behave in such terrible ways? For all of the film’s notoriety, the answers it provides are surprisingly simple. Evil is because of the devil and people behave the way they do because they’re not individually strong enough to resist the lure of sin. The only way to defeat the world’s demons is through sacrifice, suffering, and martyrdom. You don’t have to come from a Catholic background to “get” the Exorcist but it helps. (To be honest, it probably helps even more to be a “fallen” Catholic because wow, this movie really knows how to exploit all that lingering guilt.) Thanks to this film, it sometimes seems the only time that priests (and Catholicism in general) are portrayed positively in the movies is when they’re exorcising someone (which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t really happen all that much). Fortunately, you don’t have to agree with the answers provided by the Exorcist in order to find both the questions and the film itself to be intriguing.