THE EXORCIST, 1973
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
A 12 year old girl living with her mother in present day Georgetown, Washington DC, undergoes behavioral changes that increase in severity over time.. After taking her to the doctor, then a psychiatrist, her mother starts to accept the fact that her daughter may be possessed by a malevolent spirit. As a last ditch attempt to cure her, she turns to the Catholic church, specifically a young priest who’s undergoing faith issues himself.
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The DVD cover of THE EXORCIST calls it “The scariest movie of all time”. That’s a pretty tough statement to live up to, and many people watch this film and wonder what all the fuss is about. I have a few theories as to why people don’t find it scary. For starters, THE EXORCIST was released almost 40 years ago. Since then, there have been scores of movies with much more sophisticated special effects that have conditioned the public into having “seen it all”. Another reason is simply because many don’t believe this claptrap of a demon possessing a person’s body.
Count me in as one of those who consider it the scariest movie of all time. To me, and countless others, it works on many levels. Kudos must be given to William Peter Blatty who brilliantly wrote an intelligent, shiver-inducing book. His original screenplay for THE EXORCIST was four hours long however, and totally undecipherable (Funnily enough, his only other screenplay was a comedy with Peter Sellers called A SHOT IN THE DARK. Talk about contrasts).
But the real genius behind this film was director William Friedkin. He took Blatty’s four hour screenplay and told him to cut it in half, put the book’s intro that takes place in Northern Iraq back in (talk about choosing the right country that a demon should come from!) and keep all the really scary stuff for the end.
Not that the film isn’t scary from the beginning. The whole film is filled with a sense of dread and foreboding. It feels heavy as it slowly and purposely plods through the uneventful life of movie star Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn in a perfectly realistic performance) until suddenly, the audience receives a shock. Then it slows down again, then comes another shock, but this time it’s been notched up a level. Soon, you are thankful for the long uneventful moments because you know at any second you will be confronted with something totally unexpected.
And those unexpected scenes lead up to the horrific masturbation scene, which is really more of a mutilation scene. The make up that slowly changes darling 12 year old Regan MacNeil (played by Linda Blair in the role that was impossible to top) turns her into a hideous monster. And once her transformation is complete, the disturbing scenes of the exorcism, left for the final 20 minutes of the film, come at you so quickly that it barely gives you a chance to react to them.
I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (1963) again recently, and couldn’t help noticing similarities in style between that film and THE EXORCIST. The way the camera slowly tracks, the lack of music in the soundtrack (except for the “Tubular Bells” section), replaced instead by dissonant noises, the semi-darkness in which it’s shot, and that same feeling of dread throughout the whole movie. Long slow scenes, interspersed with quick shocking ones, specifically the scene in THE BIRDS when Jessica Tandy finds a corpse with his eyes gouged out is strikingly similar in setting to the infamous masturbation scene, makes me feel certain that Friedkin too had Hitchock’s THE BIRDS in mind when filming THE EXORCIST.
After seeing THE EXORCIST more than once, I still can’t shake off the creepiness it leaves me with. None of the effects back then were computer generated as they are today, and that only lends to its realism. The icy, breath from the priests’ mouths as they exorcise Regan in her bedroom was real, not computer generated as they would do today. The head-twisting, the eyes rolling over, the neck engorging, the furniture moving... all that was actually done for real and shot on set with physical props and effects, not out of a computer. That’s specifically why the film feels as though the events are actually happening before your eyes.
The performances of the actors, Burstyn, Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow, are so good you aren’t even conscious of their performances. When I first saw THE EXORCIST back in 1974, I was a teenager and one of the many shocked ones, which only made me want to see it again and again. It was the second film (after THE GODFATHER) to break 100 million dollars at the box-office, and it’s no wonder. THE EXORCIST isn’t so much a movie as it is an event. If it doesn’t scare you, I congratulate you, but it’s a shame you couldn’t participate in the visceral thrill of the ride it takes you on.