William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is one of only two horror films to ever be nominated for the Best Picture award at the Oscars, and this only if we accept the occasional labeling of Jaws as a horror film, which is debatable. There’s no such debate with The Exorcist, as its distinctly diabolic theme puts it firmly into not just the horror category, but the supernatural horror category.
It’s also a film that — as with last week’s review of Scanners — is fairly well-known for a particular scene, even among people who haven’t seen it. A 360 degree head turn and a gusher of pea soup evidently make a lasting impression on the public.
While the film certainly delves into the grotesque, it isn’t just the grossness of the situations that make this a horror film (something some modern horror filmmakers forget). There’s a deep and unsettling wrongness in these actions, both the overtly supernatural and the strictly behavioral, coming from a young girl. Even if one has a strong stomach, a lot of it is genuinely creepy, and that’s even before Linda Blair starts ratcheting her neck around. Ellen Burstyn plays young Regan’s mother, and there’s a concerted effort to play on the adult fear of something being wrong with one’s child. She doesn’t know what’s wrong her daughter, only that there is something wrong. The horror of watching a child seemingly go insane is disconcerting in its own right, and while the audience knows that’s not the ultimate truth of the situation — one does not call in an exorcist for a brain injury — it’s still effective for building the mood before the complete revelation is made.
Once it comes, it brings with it an interesting character study in its own right, and it’s no doubt this that brought it to the Academy’s attention. After all, despite Linda Blair’s highly capable switching, there’s not exactly any character development in Regan; the demon is just a demon, and the little girl is just a little girl. The mother gets a bit of development as her concern grows, but that alone wouldn’t be notable. Even Max von Sydow, as the exorcist of the title, is mostly a stoic man of God with an interesting back story. But in junior priest Father Karras, played by Jason Miller, there’s a strong character narrative. He’s both priest and psychologist. His initial inclination is to assume mental illness, and he has to be convinced of possession before calling in the exorcist. It’s not an easy thing for him to face, as he’s recently had his own faith shaken.
Had The Exorcist been a simple story of a girl being possessed and then exorcised, it would be little more than an early entry in the demonic possession horror subgenre. Just a pedestrian story, even if well-crafted on a technical level. But by having a man face a demon just as he’s on the verge of losing faith in God, it adds an extra layer of drama to the whole thing. The basic plot gives the audience a cursory reason to care about Regan and her mother; the character development gives them a reason to care about Karras.
The film may not be for everyone; certainly those with weak stomachs should probably avoid it. But by giving the audience an interesting personality to watch and root for, The Exorcist elevates itself above many of its spiritual descendants.
Note: This is a “Rewind Review” of a film viewed during the blog’s hiatus. The film was watched on March 14, 2014. The review is based on my notes at the time and my thoughts reflecting back on the film without a second viewing.