The Exorcist (1973)
Dir: William Friedkin; Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb
There are some films that it’s considered a travesty not to have seen. The Exorcist is up there with The Godfather and Citizen Kane as one of the most seminal pieces of work every to have been committed to celluloid. Revolutionary, overwhelming brilliance. Groundbreaking, staggering works of genius. Eye-opening, inimitable game-changers. And I haven’t seen any of them. I know, I know, but I wasn’t brought up on films (I knew all that reading to the exclusion of all else would be detrimental) and I’m still working my way through everything that was produced before 1999. And so, the opportunity to see The Exorcist, Director’s Cut no less, on the big screen was not one I could pass up. Screened as part of Mark Kermode’s book tour, and introduced by the man himself as “the greatest film ever made”, the sense of excitement in the cinema was tangible.
The thing with ‘classics’ is that you can’t help but come to them with some kind of prior knowledge (unless you live in a cave with no access to other people, media or technology, and I’m pretty sure even Osama’s got internet access so that rules out everybody). And with prior knowledge comes pre-formed ideas about what to expect: I knew about that scene with the crucifix; I was aware of some of the special effects (the head spin, the levitation); I was ready for the streams of obscenities coming from Linda Blair’s mouth. I knew all of this, or at least thought I did, but I still found The Exorcist shocking, compelling and darn good fun.
What I didn’t already know was the extent of the religious context and the film’s implications, imagery and ideas, as we follow the story of 12 year old Regan (Blair), who is inexplicably possessed by Satan, and a Priest’s own internal battle with his religious beliefs as he works to save her. The seeds of fear to follow are sown in the opening scenes as Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin receives a disturbing omen whilst on an archaeological dig in Iraq, but it’s in Regan’s bedroom in a Georgetown house that the horror begins. It’s scary in an intense, slow-burning, quietly unrelenting kind of way, as sweet-faced Regan, to the shock of her increasingly desperate mother Chris (Burstyn), slowly but surely turns into a violent, filth-spewing monster. Chris turns first to medicine and psychiatry to try and cure her daughter but in the end seeks the help of world weary Priest, Father Karras (Miler) for an exorcism, which the experienced Father Merrin helps him perform.
With outstanding performances from the entire cast, particularly Blair, it’s a film that gets under your skin: you spend the whole film feeling uncomfortable and queasy. That there are no ‘logical’ or somatic explanations for Regan’s condition lead the audience and the characters to question the existence of higher powers, both good and evil. It’s a clever film because it doesn’t just throw the horror in your face; it makes you work for it, and is all the more scary disturbing because of it.
The Director’s Cut includes some deleted scenes, including Regan’s ‘Spiderwalk’ downstairs, which is one of the most frightening bits of the film, both for us and for poor Chris, as she sees for the first time something that cannot be explained by ‘reasonable’ thought.
That’s not to say I was terrified throughout, and I certainly didn’t stand up, vomit then pass out, as moviegoers did when the film was released. Bits of it were quite funny, but I can only imagine what it would have felt like to watch this film in 1973 with no prior experience of anything remotely resembling the horror it contains.