I’ve always considered THE EXORCIST (1973) the scariest movie I have ever seen.
It’s not a jump-scare suspense thriller, nor is it a special effects gore-for-gore’s sake bonanza, although sure, it does contain very graphic scenes that are certainly not for the squeamish. THE EXORCIST is the scariest film I have ever seen because of the story it tells.
Its story of a young girl possessed by— not just a demon but the Devil himself— is so disturbing, that even if you’re not religious you are sure to be moved by it all.
It also doesn’t hurt that everything that happens in the movie seems so convincingly real.
THE EXORCIST not only gets the storytelling right, but it also gets the Catholic Church right. So many films featuring demons and exorcisms mess up the religious aspects of their tales, often featuring priests who aren’t realistic at all and exorcisms that resemble something out of a Steven Spielberg film with special effects galore.
Not so with THE EXORCIST. The movie has always seemed authentic and real.
When THE EXORCIST first came out in 1973, I was only 9 and too young to see it. I first saw it on HBO when I was in high school, probably around 1980, and it was late at night, and it really got under my skin. I still remember to this day going to bed, closing my eyes, and being unable to erase the image of Linda Blair’s possessed face from my mind. Her eyes kept staring at me. Long into the dark night and wee hours of the morning.
THE EXORCIST pretty much tells three stories which all converge in the film’s third act. The main story features prominent actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who’s having trouble with her 12 year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Regan has been acting strangely, and when things get worse and really bizarre, as in her bed shaking and her body becoming grotesquely mutilated, the doctors are at a loss and eventually advise Chris to seek religious guidance and perhaps request an exorcism.
The second story concerns Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest who is guilt ridden about the death of his elderly mother, since he was never there for her. Chris turns to Father Karras for help, and he tries to steer her away from an exorcism, saying instead that she should rely on the medical profession, but when Chris breaks down saying she has taken Regan to countless doctors, and they failed to help her and actually suggested an exorcism, she feels there is no one to help her daughter, and so Karras agrees to see Regan. After he does, he changes his tune.
The third story revolves around Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who we see in the first few minutes of the movie in the middle east seeking out religious artifacts. Merrin is an exorcist who has had experience fighting demons, and eventually the elderly priest is called in to perform an exorcism on Regan, setting up the film’s exciting climax.
THE EXORCIST is one of those rare horror movies where nearly everything works. It’s no surprise then that THE EXORCIST was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It didn’t win, nor did Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, or Linda Blair, or director William Friedkin, who were all nominated that year. But it did win two Oscars, for best adapted screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel, and for Best Sound.
The acting is phenomenal throughout. Ellen Burstyn delivers a powerful performance as Regan’s mother Chris. She goes through such an emotional roller coaster ride trying to save her daughter, it’s both moving and terribly painful to watch. It’s certainly an Oscar-worthy performance.
Jason Miller is just as good as Father Karras. He’s the epitome of a struggling Catholic, a priest who questions his faith and his own actions as a human being. He needs every bit of strength and faith he has when he eventually has to confront the demon inside Regan.
Likewise, Max von Sydow is just as convincing as the elderly Father Merrin. It’s an impressive performance, mostly because von Sydow was only 44 at the time, and he is completely believable as a much older man, a testament both to his performance and the superb make-up job by Dick Smith.
Of course, there’s Linda Blair as the possessed Regan, certainly an exceedingly challenging role for a child actress. But she was helped immensely by Mercedes McCambridge who provided the memorable voice of the demon inside Regan.
Director William Friedkin made a horror film for the ages. The best thing about THE EXORCIST is that it doesn’t play like a traditional horror film. It plays instead like a serious drama, only its subject matter of a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon is horrific. It’s incredibly disturbing.
The “horror” scenes in THE EXORCIST are legendary: Regan’s head turning completely around, the green “pea soup” vomit, the infamous masturbation scene, and the words “help me” on Regan’s stomach.
The film is chock full of unnerving images, from the subliminal flashes of the white-faced demon to Regan’s monstrous stare.
The sound effects are just as ominous. It’s one of the more innovative uses of sound in a horror movie ever.
And I’ve always loved the scene where Father Merrin first arrives at the house, in the fog and creepy lighting. It’s never been referenced as an influence, but Friedkin’s shot of Merrin’s arrival has always reminded me of Terence Fisher’s shot of Peter Cushing entering the windmill at the end of Hammer Films’ classic THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) thirteen years earlier.
And who can forget the line, “The power of Christ compels you!” spoken by both Father Merrin and Father Karras during the climactic exorcism scene.
If you’ve never seen THE EXORCIST, it’s a must-see movie for all horror writers. It will continue to haunt you long after you’ve watched it.
It’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.