The Exorcist

Exorcist Poster1973 Best Picture Nominee

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.

Rating: 4 Pumpkins

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.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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8 Responses to The Exorcist

  1. Scophi says:

    I agree that the film has multiple levels. I also think this film raised horror/supernatural to a level never before and rarely since achieved. Not just with the truly unique effects (“help me” skin, crab-crawl down the stairs), but with the ice cold tone of the film. I have this listed as my top horror film.

    1. The Exorcist
    2. Poltergeist
    3. Paranormal Activity
    4. The Conjuring
    5. The Amityville Horror / The Omen (debatable)

    I’m glad to see high praise from others about this one. I know that some on my list are debatable, but I don’t know a single horror fan that doesn’t have this one in their top 5. Thanks for the review.

    • Yeah, it’s a worthy contender, all right. It’s effective in setting its tone, which so many films in the genre aren’t; for example, I found Paranormal Activity to be boring to the point of almost nodding off. I’d agree with the Conjuring being in contention as well, though. Still need to see Poltergeist and The Omen… and you’ll see my thoughts on Amityville in a day or two. 🙂

      • Scophi says:

        I know that Paranormal is debatable. Some love it, others hate it. It struck me right when I watched it. It was the first “found footage” film I ever saw and makes Blair Witch look like a spoof by comparison. It also uses negative sound better than any other film I have seen. The first one was unique in my book, and for that I give high marks. (Subsequent Paranormal films have only tarnished the original’s impact…as is the case with almost every horror franchise.)

        Poltergeist is great because it initially comes across as a typical Spielberg family film, then scares you once you’re sucked in. You don’t put up any defenses in the beginning and are then hit hard once things turn. At least I certainly was when I saw jt the first time. Of course, I was only 12 in 1982. Additionally, Spielberg is a master of lighting, which goes a long way to setting the mood. I give it high marks because even as a PG family film it has a high other-worldly creep factor…something that few true R horror films accomplish.

        I go back and forth on Amityville and Omen. Amityville is a stronger film, but Omen adds in religion and an end-of-days plot that broadens the scope. Too bad they didn’t go anywhere good with the sequels.

        • I haven’t seen all of Blair Witch yet; I watched the first 20 minutes before I started blogging, got bored, and switched it off. I’ll give it a full chance one of these days, but I don’t have high hopes for it.

          I’m looking forward to seeing Poltergeist one day simply because it is Spielberg.

  2. Nostra says:

    As I’m not a fan of horror it’s a movie I still haven’t seen…

  3. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Morgan. One of those rare horror movies from back in the day that still works in today’s day and age. Mostly cause it’s downright terrifying.

    • Thanks, Dan. Truthfully, I think most horror movies either still work later, or never really worked in the first place. Mostly. I obviously differ from some in that I found The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be monotonous, for example, but I think most of them that were truly respected back then still hold up. It’s just that in the case of horror, a film doesn’t have to be respected to still be remembered.

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