I apologize for what is likely a tasteless bit of humor, but I can’t get past a silly wish that the tagline for The Exorcist had been “The Devil went down to Georgetown.” It just makes me giggle. And believe you me, since there are no giggles to be had when watching the movie (except for the creepy, possessed kind), a little humor might lighten proceedings. As I’m sure everyone is aware, The Exorcist is a horror film of the first order. Released in 1973, this tale of demonic possession captivated audiences, spawned sequels and copycats galore, and was even nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, the first horror film to be so honored. Today it is still considered one of the scariest movies of all time, full of iconic scenes, images, and sounds that can immediately strike fear into the hearts of anyone brave enough to press play.
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous movie star, currently filming a movie in Georgetown, DC, where she is living in a stately brownstone with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Regan’s a happy, reasonably well-adjusted child, but when she becomes sullen, distant, and starts telling strange stories, her concerned mother takes her to the doctor. Through diagnoses of depression and lesions on her brain, Regan’s condition continues to worsen. Meanwhile, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is struggling with questions about his faith and the death of his elderly mother. When all other answers have been exhausted, the possibility that Regan may be possessed leads Chris to Father Karras, who in turn requests permission from the Church to perform an exorcism. The Church summons Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who has experience in such matters, to perform the ritual, but at what cost will the two priests succeed in their goal to save a young girl from a horrible fate?
I think that in this day and age, audiences may have a particular notion of what makes a horror film. Generally speaking, they’re thin on acting, continuity, and plot, and heavy on gore. The Exorcist, interestingly, claims none of these characteristics. It’s an incredibly taut piece of work; dramatic, slow-burning, and punctuated by some truly impressive performances. The story, though straightforward, finds its strength in showing us the natures of the people who suffer through this ordeal, and how the experience shapes them.The normalcy surrounding the supernatural makes it that much more terrifying: the slow struggle of multiple doctor’s visits, painful tests, and baffled discussions gives the audience so much more depth than your average slasher. The normal skepticism of everyone involved, and the attempts to explain away the unexplainable keep the tension building throughout the first half of the movie; the exorcism that serves as the climax of the film comes as a relief, a deep exhale that lets us know we’re finally on the right track.
Perhaps the most surprising facet of this film is the acting. It’s all first-rate. Miller’s Karras is a tormented soul seeking answers, and Blair as Regan does an incredible job of navigating the horrors she both endures and perpetrates. Max von Sydow is somewhat underutilized, but his place within the structure of the story helps to explain that: he arrives when there are no more questions, when it is time for faith and action. He brings calm and strength to the proceedings, and in that he is superb. It is Ellen Burstyn, however, who is the star here. Her performance is awe-inspiring as she moves through the stages of Chris’s reactions to the situation: confidence to concern to full-on fear, hopelessness, and despair. Her deterioration mirrors that of her daughter, and is, in some ways, the more dramatic of the two in that she has no scary make-up or special effects to fall back on. The strength with which she convinces her audience that she is, first and foremost, a mother who will do anything to protect her child, is the emotional centerpiece of the film.
Director William Friedkin famously used all sorts of unorthodox methods (a special refrigerated set, firing guns to surprise his actors, and so on) to capture the look and feel of his film, and his attention to detail truly pays off. It is that precision that elevates The Exorcist and makes it a good movie, as opposed to merely a good horror movie. There’s very little left to be desired in the finished product: it can be a bit slow at times, although the extra exposition helps to drive the narrative and keep the tension up. Even the effects of the 1970s, often laughable in other features, are used judiciously and to success here. The major strength is, as stated, the adherence to reality in the face of the otherworldly. It makes the audience feel as though the same things could happen to them, and how would they know any better how to deal with them? How would any parent react to such a traumatic series of events surrounding their child? By keeping things simple and allowing our imaginations and emotions to run with the story, The Exorcist gets inside its audience’s head, stays with it well after the popcorn has been swept away. Even those who are not a fan of the genre will find things to admire about this particular example.