(Release Date: December 26, 1973)
(Release Date: September 22, 2000 [Restored Version])
Well, looking at the resulting film from the vantage point of the future, the answer seems to be a no-brainer! At the time, however, a lot of major directors passed on the opportunity to make The Exorcist, some even dismissing the idea as JUST some horror movie.
The Exorcist isn't "just some" anything. In fact, under the skilled direction of William Friedkin (brought on board after the success of The French Connection), the film became not only a box office success (one of the biggest grossing horror films in history) but also a critically acclaimed feature film. While there were a few bad reviews out there, its two Oscars (out of a total of ten nominations) and four Golden Globes (out of a total of five nominations) pretty much shut those blasphemers up pretty quick, am I right?
It's hard to pinpoint just why this film became the success it did (controversy could only propel it so far and there are no Oscar categories for such things). To be sure, this isn't the most accessible film ever made. Many audiences can't even make it through the entire film without checking out early (or other major issues). However, it's hard to dispute the fact that The Exorcist is superbly realized from excellent plans, starting with the very novel it was based on. At core, The Exorcist is far from just another horror movie! At core, this is a drama and is treated as such throughout. Friedkin's interpretation of Blatty's script focuses not on disturbance and terror, but on reality and tangible issues of real people being torn apart by something they can't fathom. By the time the blood, gore, vulgarity and nightmarish imagery begins (and brother, it does) the drama is already unfolding and we, the audience, are all the more disturbed by the fact that we've been engrossed by these realistic, well-established characters.
Chris MacNeil (well portrayed by Ellen Burstyn) is an actress filming a movie in Georgetown. She's estranged from her husband and is wrapped up in her career, but also adores her only child Regan (Linda Blair). Regan is a pretty well-adjusted kid, happy and fun, until she starts having seizures and exhibiting strange behavior including, but not limited to the kind of profanity that could make any Tourette's sufferer blush!
Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman) first tries Ritalin, then some truly depressing hospital tests to see just why Regan is acting this way and is able to display superhuman strength to the point that her bed shakes like a supercharged low-rider!
What's a devoted parent to do? Especially when Regan keeps getting weirder and weirder, spitting blood, looking like an apparition and crawling upside down on the stairs... not to mention speaking in a scary new voice.
Soon family friend Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) turns up dead after caretaker Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn) leaves him to watch Regan! This causes Police Lieutenant Bill Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) and his new buddy Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) to investigate his death as having a link to recent Church Desecrations.
Once these things coincide with Regan's most shocking behavior (read: not even I want to print it here, and that says something), Chris approaches Karras for an exorcism. The problem is, Karras (also a psychiatrist) is in way over his head and way over his faith.
This brings us to our title character, an archeologist named Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow in very convincing Old Age makeup). Did I mention the man is also a priest... and possibly the only man who can still be considered an expert on exorcism? (At least according to this film!) Luckily, Father Dyer (Reverend William O'Malley) and the other priests in Karras' Parish have a line on Merrin!
The trick is GETTING him there and getting anyone else to believe that Regan really is possessed and that this "Captain Howdy" is more than just the delusion of a disturbed girl.
Disturbance, of course, is the name of the game here. Regan is all cut up and demonic and speaking in one of the scariest voices you could ever hope or fear to hear (courtesy of Mercedes McCambridge)! Most everything in this film has become the stuff of Horror Legend, from the spinning head to the target projectile vomited Pea Soup! The truth is that all of this could have (and since this film's debut, HAS) appeared in lesser films, but the fact that these amazing (and deeply twisted) moments were done so well here is a credit to this film and a credit to how well it has been received.
Dick Smith's makeup design is incredible! Take a look at Regan's deteriorating face from the first signs of oddity to the last moments on screen. And that's just a sample when compared to the impressive makeup on Von Sydow, who was forty-four at the time, but playing a man in his seventies. Smith actually made Max Von Sydow look as he actually would in his Seventies! It's amazing. Blair's lips are perfectly synched with McCambridge's amazingly scary voice. The terrifying flashes of the demonic face of "Captain Howdy" keeps the audience uncomfortable and susceptible to the biggest of frights, very few of which are ever cheap or startling.
While the writing and the directing are both exceptional here and make The Exorcist a Drama with deeply horrifying elements, rather than a horror film with dramatic undertones, the best successes here can be seen in the acting. Burstyn is excellent as the concerned mother, who is moved to anger over little things about her daughter and is destroyed over this horror. Miller was a stage actor, never having had a part in a film and he does a remarkable job here as the toughdepressed man walking the line between science and faith (and even... doubt). Of course, especially for a child actress, Blair was exceptional here as each aspect of her character: the happy Regan, the sad kid who doesn't know what is happening to her and as the menacing demon who performs some horrible acts and says things that are even worse. It's amazing how consistent Blair is even when her character is anything but consistent. Above all this and though he actually has a relatively small amount of screen time for such a pivotal part, Max Von Sydow steals the show as the Exorcist himself. The man is brilliant in this role and anyone could believe that he is the age called for by the script. I might add, it is real credit to Jason Miller that he shared so much screen time with Von Sydow and still held his own for a great performance.
Then again, this is an all around excellent film with all the facets covered and multiple layers attended to at once. It still holds up perfectly today and manages to be just as brilliant and just as terrifying now as it was then. What would one expect from William Friedkin, though?
True, while this is a quality drama that has the nominations and acclaim to back up its excellence The Exorcist, by its very nature, is not for all tastes. Friedkin and company dare to ask a lot of the audience and their constitutions, because so very much is calculated to distress and cause discomposure. However, make no mistake, The Exorcist is an excellent film, worth every second of the effort it takes to watch and worth no less than Five Stars out of Five! Catholic Horror has been given its finest hour, unsurpassed to this day. It is what it purports to be... no less than one of the best horror films... one of the best films... of all time.
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