Directed By: William Friedkin
Written By: William Peter Blatty (based on his own novel The Exorcist)
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow
The Exorcist is a lived experience. I found it initially difficult to place what it is that makes The Exorcist so terrifying, what makes it so enormously powerful and evocative. It isn’t a horror in the mould of its 1970’s compatriots. There isn’t a knife wielding stalker hidden in the dark. It doesn’t rely on gore or a saturation of jump scares, or any of the hefty gimmickry we have come to associate with the genre. There are shocks of course. There’s repulsiveness. It’s a challenging film, but there’s a unique intelligence to it. The Exorcist is so powerful because it speaks to us in ways that we’ve never previously been spoken to.
What it does is blend ideas and emotions that are familiar and universal, and explores them through a situation that is completely unfamilar, resulting in something truly uncanny and evocative. It’s emotions revolve around a mother’s unconditional love for her child. It revolves around a man disillusioned with the world. It concerns guilt and anger. Fundamental human thoughts, which are then challenged by a crisis that is so unlike anything else.
The story is a supernatural one. It details a famed actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) as they temporarily live in Georgetown during a shoot. The MacNeil’s are a fractured family. There is a father tucked away in Europe somewhere that we never meet and who indeed will never even learn of what it is that’s happened to his daughter. Regan’s personality begins to transform. For the first time she’s swearing and her mood is spasming. She grows mean. Purely a matter of nerves though, an output of depression brought on by her broken family life. The problems become more extreme however. Now it must be a lesion on the brain. Director William Friedkin will soon leave us with no doubt that this is no physiological or even psychological issue. There is something more spiritual going on, a truth apparently as laughable as it is obvious.
In her desperation Chris turns to psychiatrist and priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller). He himself is troubled, his mother has just passed away, for which he in part blames himself. His own faith is shaken when Chris comes to him and proposes an exorcism. Even Karras finds the idea absurd. He tells her in order to perform an exorcism the first thing he’ll need is a time machine back to the 16th century. The proposal will soon however become a matter of deep reconciliation , as Karras and the weary but incontrovertible Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) are employed to confront the evil.
It seems, then, that faith is the central preoccupation of the narrative. The script was written by William Peter Blatty (adapting his own highly regarded novel), a man who himself was of the upmost faith as a devout Catholic. But this film must never be mistaken for Religious porn or some sort of deformed sermon on the value of God. Religion of course figures prominently, but it’s rather about a lack of faith within ourselves; with each other.
Released in 1973, the film comes at a time when America was fast becoming disillusioned with itself. It’s a notion other horror filmmakers of the time touched on, like Wes Craven with his grimy, morally ambiguous bloodbath The Last House on the Left. It was a time when America was coming face to face with its own demons. You can contextualise The Exorcist within the My Lai massacres over in Vietnam, or the Kent State shootings, or the Watergate break-ins. Friedkin’s horrific, theological war is very much awake, in a time that so too was the evil that lived within us all.
Perhaps Regan’s inner entity is a manifestation of this disillusionment. A test for Karras’ muddled beliefs.
The film is crafted with precision. Friedkin’s pacing is terrific and confident. He takes his time, making the journey a patient one, and all the more authentic for it. Ellen Burstyn is also wonderful in her portrayal of an angry, desperate parent. She’s a terrific heroine in how unwavering her affection for her daughter is.
I was worried that upon seeing the film that its trademark effects would now seem hokey. Not so. It is a truly distressing vision. It’s as though Friedkin has lifted visuals from our own nightmares and hurled them back at us in reality. The now iconic ways the demon contorts Regan are tremendously unique. It is so unlike anything else. And its gratuitousness isn’t senseless. Rather it transports us. It confronts us in ways that for all its extremity and excessiveness, feel completely real even if it is entirely unknowable. It communicates with us, it draws us in and absorbs us in its action. We are there on Georgetown, this struggle becomes our own as we see it be fought.
This type of film must have been unfathomable in its own time. It doesn’t feel any less rare now.