“The Exorcist” stars Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair. Released on December 26, 1973, the film has a mother teaming up with a couple of priests to rescue her daughter from a demon.
The film was directed by William Friedkin, who also directed films such as “Good Times”, “The French Connection”, “The Guardian”, “Rules of Engagement”, and “Killer Joe”. It is based on the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote and produced the film. It’s that time of year again. The weather’s getting cold, the leaves are changing colors, and everyone is setting up their spooky decorations. That’s right, my friends, it is once again October, which means Halloween is just around the corner, which means I now have the urge to watch some of the creepiest films and shows that I could find on television, including the one that I’ve been waiting to talk about since the day I reached the age of 17. Horror films in general have been quite popular nowadays thanks to the involvement of producer Jason Blum and his production company, but some of them weren’t able to capture the spine-tingling spirit that the others accomplished back in the 1970s. Before we had the likes of Mike Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Kruger haunting people’s nightmares, there was this one person that’s so terrifying, so nightmarish, and so disgusting that it gave people chills every time they think about them. That, my fellow readers, is a demon in a 12-year-old girl's body. If you thought that monsters and ghosts were scary, try having a supernatural demon control your actions. That will surely keep you awake for days. There are plenty of films that deal with demonic possessions, but none of them came close to the one that started the trend, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, the film that made everyone peed their pants with fright and vomit all over the place. Despite a troublesome production and multiple concerns over its content, the film became a commercial success with multiple people waiting in long lines during the cold winter days to experience it either for the first time or more than once. I guess people wanted to celebrate the day after Christmas by watching a horror film that involves a possessed girl vomiting on a priest. I’m beginning to think that she’s not the only one who needed to be exorcised. Its success lead the film to become the first horror movie to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and spawn a franchise that consists of two sequels, two prequels, and a television series that lasted for two seasons. It also went on to become a horror classic among critics and audiences many years later and a major influence on pop culture. Now, here’s the thing about my experience with the film. I have heard a lot of great things about it, but I haven’t actually watched it from start to finish until now. Maybe I was too nervous or I just didn’t have the time to see it for myself. My mind works in mysterious ways. Since I got nothing to do this week, I figured now would be the best time for me to finally see if it actually deserves the title “horror classic”. Plus, it would give me the opportunity to review more horror classics later down the road. And now, without further ado, let’s get our freak on.
The story follows Chris MacNeil (Burstyn), a single mother who lives in Georgetown with her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Blair). Chris is working as an actress for a film helmed by her friend/associate Burke Dennings (MacGowran). One day, Regan begins to act strangely after coming into contact with a Ouija board, and by strangely, I mean using obscene language, speaking backwards, and having abnormal strength. After consulting a number of physicians, including Father Damien Karras (Miller), Chris later discovers that Regan is possessed by an ancient demon known as Pazuzu. With the help of a veteran Catholic priest Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), Karras must perform an exorcism to rescue Regan before her soul is lost forever. I was hoping that I would watch it on one of the streaming services for free, but I wasn’t able to find it anywhere. So I decided to rely on one of the cable channels to view it. Despite having to suffer through a bunch of commercial breaks and edits made for television, my first experience with it was pretty much what I expected it to be. Creepy, but satisfying. Rather than being a straight-up horror film with jump scares and gore appearing every few minutes or so, “The Exorcist” comes across as a dialogue-driven supernatural drama that involves the characters’ perspectives of this frightening situation and happens to have horror elements in it. This could test the patience of those who wanted to get to the good stuff right away, especially since the film is two hours long, but it also gives the audience time to get to know the characters before they’re sent to face the demon in the finale. You have Chris and Regan whose relationship with one another changes after the latter becomes possessed, and you have Damien Karras who is struggling with his faith in God. The film was able to explore these characters and their relationships with each other in a tolerant and engaging matter without rushing into the scary stuff head-on, which was something that most supernatural horror films in recent years failed to accomplish. Now you may be wondering what caused this film to still have an everlasting impact on a lot of horror fans since its initial release. Was it the eerie atmosphere, the practical effects, the music, or the unnerving sequences? The answer is all of the above. William Friedkin proved to be a talented filmmaker when it comes to the quality, but he also proved that he can provide elements that are unsettling and realistic rather than cheesy and intolerable, such as the performances from the cast and its alarming sense of eerie and dread. Ellen Burstyn was fantastic in her role as Chris as she was able to deliver an uncomfortable, but fulfilling, range of emotions without coming off as laughable. Jason Miller and Max von Sydow also delivered some great performances as Karras and Merrin respectively. Linda Blair as Regan was also the best part of the cast because of her reactions while being possessed. Similar to Burstyn’s performance, Blair’s emotional range was both haunting and effective in terms of the film's tone. There were some sequences that still proved to be quite alarming as of today thanks to some convincing special effects and its atmosphere, such as the cerebral angiography scene and the exorcism sequence in the third act. If you have read the fact that people wound up fainting or vomiting after viewing those sequences, that’s how you know how shocking they were. When I watched the cerebral angiography sequence for the first time in its entirety, I didn’t feel sick or faint at all. All I felt was uneasiness and nothing else. I can understand that it’s unnecessary, but I can also understand that it adds to the disturbing tone that the film was going for. If you get queasy very easily, I would advise you to not watch that scene. I would also give props to the sound editing and Jack Nitzsche’s musical score for emphasizing the scares and the atmosphere. The sound effects, in particular, weren’t as technical as they were today, but that’s what made it so terrifying (and nostalgic) to begin with. Whether it’s the characters yelling in pain or the demon’s voice, the sound editing had a proper amount of creepiness that’ll get stuck in your brains for quite a while.
Overall, “The Exorcist” is an unnerving, yet riveting, experience that should be viewed by every horror fan in existence. The fact that it’s more dialogue-driven than scare-driven may test some people’s patience, but aside from that, it’s still an effective horror film that cares more about story and characters rather than having cheap jump scares appear every few minutes. The cast was great in their roles, Friedkin’s direction was impressive, and the scares were still effective to this day in terms of the practical effects and the atmosphere. It’s too bad that I wasn’t able to watch the uncut version of the film, but I have to take what I can get because I had been neglecting it for far too long and I really wanted to share my experience with you guys. Maybe someday I’ll take another look at it once it’s made available for free on one of the streaming services. Until then, the television version that I watched will have to do for now.
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