“The Exorcist” (1973): a horror movie that’s actually scary

From official Warner Brothers site

Fear is a subjective thing. Something that scares a certain person might not scare another. However, most people are afraid of what they don’t understand. We as humans are scared of the unknown. The 1973 film “The Exorcist” is still considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time because it feeds on that fear. It relies on striking images rather than having things jump out at you.

An innocent little girl named Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is the one to be possessed, terrifying her actress mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn). The shift in Regan’s behavior is swift. She cusses like a sailor, talks back and is abnormally strong. One jarring sequence shows Chris running up to her screaming daughter’s room, finding her bed shaking wildly like a carnival ride. They go to various doctors, and take awful (and ultimately unnecessary) diagnostic tests that are presented as just as grotesque as the possession.

Parallel to this, we are shown Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest who will eventually become one of Regan’s exorcists. Karras’ mother dies alone in her apartment, leading Karras to a crisis of faith. Miller gives my favorite performance in the film as Karras, as you see all of his emotions and fears etched onto his face and in his eyes. Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) is an elderly priest who has been on an archeology dig in Iraq. When he returns, he will become Karras’ partner in exorcising Regan, and Merrin is revealed to have a history with the demon possessing her.

The images the film creates are what stuck with me after watching it. As Karras visits his mother in a mental ward, mentally gone and weathered women stare at him as he walks past. At various points, the demon’s true face flashes on screen, making you flinch. A possessed Regan stabs herself in the legs repeatedly with a crucifix. The many shots of the large flight of stone stairs that leads to the MacNeil home. In a silent dream sequence, Karras and his mother call out to each other from opposite sides of a street, but are never able to reach each other.

Even with the limited special effects of the time period, “The Exorcist” makes do with what it has. Regan becomes horribly ragged and scarred as her condition worsens, and the make up is near perfect. Regan repeatedly spews green bile, and it looks like you can imagine it would. She spins her head all the way around and floats above her bed, all without showing the trickery behind it. Even if some scenes (such as the shaking bed) look a little too fake nowadays, it’s still effective.

The actors are all very good. Young Blair is put through the ringer as Regan, and she greatly overcomes the physical challenge of the role (she was nominated for an Academy Award for this role). Burstyn is affecting as a mother who simply wants to help her child, but has no idea how to do it. Miller is fantastic, as I noted above. Von Sydow is great as always, and although he is playing older than he was when he filmed it, he is still solemn and subtle.

Although horror is a genre I typically stay away from, “The Exorcist” is something that I would re-watch. It is simply superb in its atmosphere and in the way it plays with our fear. It is among the best of its kind, and although there have been sequels and imitators, the effect of this one film is something that cannot be replicated.


 

Final Verdict: 9.5 out of 10

“The Exorcist” is available to watch on Netflix streaming and on DVD.

Rated R for strong language and disturbing images

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, William O’Malley, Mercedes McCambridge.