Of all the horror movies that’s ever existed, surely William Friedkin’s legendary possession session, The Exorcist must be the most infamous motion picture of them all. Essentially creating it’s own subgenre overnight (one that’s never actually managed to escape from under enormous shadow), it adapted the novel by William Peter Blatty and immediately stepped into the realms of the immortal by becoming known as the most terrifying cinematic experience ever made.
That’s great praise indeed, but that was way back in 1974 and its legacy was further amped up by the fact that british censors only granted it a certificate for home release in the late nineties after claiming it was far too intense for audiences (despite it originally being released on VHS without a rating back in ’81). In a time of digital blood, countless ripoffs and a huge shift with what twelve year old girls were capable of on screen (Hitgirl from Kick-Ass, anyone?), can something like The Exorcist still manage to pack a punch when it’s most harrowing moments have been, for lack of a better term, regurgitated like so much pea soup?
Chris MacNeil is a single mother and an actress and lives in a well-to-do home in Washington D.C. with her twelve year old daughter Regan. Aside from some scrabbling noises coming the attic that she attributes to rats, Chris has a fairly good life that’s about to be torpedoed into a state of chaos that could literally be considered biblical.
After some unnerving happenstance such as Regan obtaining an imaginary friend from a ouija board named “Captain Howdy” and a local statue of the Vigin Mary being desecrated, Chris starts to fret that there’s something very wrong with her daughter after some startling personality shifts start to become something far more disturbing than a chemical imbalance.
Meanwhile, we also focus on tormented priest Damien Karras, a man of God whose faith has been steadily ebbing away and who feels agonising guilt after the death of his elderly, New York based mother – but he soon finds himself caught up in the orbit of the MacNeil family when he’s brought in the consult on Regan’s deteriorating state. It soon becomes apparent that the young girl has found herself possessed by a demon who is ravaging the child’s body and mind and is causing her to act in ever more violent and depraved ways.
Claiming it will reside in Regan’s body until she dies of starvation, it is soon decided that an exorcism is in order and while a horrified Chris looks on, a struggling Karras and an elderly expert by the name of Father Lankester Merrin engage in a battle of faith with the demon for the soul of an innocent child.
To expect The Exorcist to hit as hard as it did back in ’74 is kind of hoping for a little too much – after all, tales of people throwing up and passing out in the aisles of cinemas are legion – however, times are different and after nearly fifty years of inferior copies and clumsy spoofs, it’s impossible for a movie not to lose some of its edge. However, while some of the more recognizable iconography may not cause people to swoon in horror anymore, you can still take real solace in the fact that The Exorcist is still one of the most magnificently crafted movies ever made and is a genuine masterpiece that concerns itself about the importance of faith. Well, that and some projectile vomiting of course.
The sheer amount of existential dread Friedkin pumps into his movie should come with a medical health warning as the oppressive feeling becomes almost suffocating as something as abnormal as demonic possession gradually creeps into the loving relationship between a mother and her child. The director does this with a heady mixture of drama and an innovative use of editing that sees scenes bleed into one another instead of playing to an end and then moving on to the next one. The result is a tone and pace that keeps the tension levels high, even if nothing overtly disturbing is happening and causes more energetic moments to suddenly come to a jarring stop, leaving you completely off balance and utterly powerless to predict what is going to happen next.
What usually happens next is some of the greatest collection of performances seen during the decade that I truly believe can compare favourably to those seen in other 70’s classics such as Taxi Driver or The Godfather and heading up the charge is the incredible job achieved by Ellen Burstyn who literally put her health on the line (due to a back injury sustained thanks to Friedkin’s legendarily overzealous direction style) to give us a mother desperately trying to understand the trauma her child is going through. She’s basically the touchstone of every strong mother you ever seen in a horror movie since – let’s put it this way: no Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, no Toni Collette in Hereditary, it’s that simple. Elsewhere, Jason Miller is truly heartbreaking as a priest tortured by his spluttering faith and the gnawing guilt he feels over the lonely death of his mother and his arc is the true backbone of the film as his haunted visage is a sign of the self-doubt he radiates like a beacon. And then there’s little Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow as Regan and Merrin respectively, both encased in Dick Smith’s flawless prosthetics (can you believe Sydow was only 43 when he made this?), both polar catalysts to the harrowing journey Chris and Karris find themselves on and both are effortlessly iconic in obviously very different ways.
However, while all the head spinning, crucifix masterbating and puke spraying may seem slightly passé these days to audiences desensitizatised to such things (hearing a child say the c-word in ’73 was horrifying – you can hear it daily these days in memes), what still hits hard all these years later is the truly disturbing juxtaposition between the self harm Regan does to herself in the throes of possession compared to the tortures inflicted upon her by medical science while attempting to figure out what’s wrong with her when Ritalin fails to do the job.
However, possibly The Exorcist’s greatest achievement is, for all of its grim content, the fact that hope preserves and innocence is ultimately preserved. I’m not a religious dude by any means, but the scene at the end where Regan feels compelled to cheek the cheek of Father Dyer always gets me and I can’t help but legitimately shed a tear when Karras is being given the last Rites after his heroic sacrifice. This is the true power behind The Exorcist – oh sure, all the messed up possesion stuff is amazing, as is the skillful deployment of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, but after nearly a half-century of freaking people out, the best thing about “the greatest horror film ever made” is fittingly its sizable soul.
Still scary, still haunting – but it’s The Exorcist’s heart that proves to be the ultimate head-turner…
WHY DIDN’T YOU WARN ABOUT SPOILERS??