This is my first review of such an iconic film and I am hesitant to write about such a well-known film. (I am doing so now because on my move to Sweden I didn’t pack many films, most of which turned out to be vampire films and I couldn’t justify three vampire reviews in a row to myself!) Most people have heard of The Exorcist and are aware of the now infamous pea-soup and 180⁰ head turning but The Exorcist has a lot more to offer. The film was adapted by William Blatty from his novel of the same name which was inspired by the true event that took place in the 1940s.
The film opens in Iraq following an archaeological dig run by an elderly catholic priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, Minority Report) who discovers a series of unsettling omens including a demonic looking statue. What I particularly like about this sequence is that unlike many modern films the action actually takes place in the language of the country rather than English, although I don’t fully understand how the dig relates to the possession of a twelve year-old girl thousands of miles away. It is not until about fifteen minutes into the film that we meet the unfortunate Regan, a seemingly naïve girl on the cusp of adulthood, played by Linda Blair (Airport 1975) and her mother, Chris played by Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) an actress currently working in Georgetown, Washington DC.
Director William Friedkin (The French Connection) spends just the right amount of time setting the scene and introducing the characters and their back stories, there is enough information to understand people’s motivation but not so much that the film drags. We see the deterioration in Regan as the demon takes hold and the battery of medical tests (that are traumatic in their own right), the doctor’s puzzlement and the clutching of straws that leads Chris to the Catholic Church to ask for an exorcism. Chris turns to Father Karras portrayed by Jason Miller (Rudy) currently in the midst of a crisis of faith who initially refuses to believe that possession even exists. However unnatural events including Regan speaking in several different languages and voices, telekinesis (moving objects with her mind) and finally a scar appearing on her stomach saying “help me” convinces Father Karras to seek permission to perform an exorcism. The eponymous exorcist is Father Merrin (who was introduced at the start of the film in Iraq) and has one of the most recognisable entrances in cinematic history. What unfolds when the exorcism takes place is cinematic history which keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.
One of the best things about The Exorcist is the amount of time and effort spent on the special effects. There are obvious parts where special effects have been used to great effect, such as the head turning but it is the subtle ones that make it a great film. For example, von Sydow was actually in his forties but was made to look thirty year’s older thanks to make-up and you can’t tell. Friedkin went to extreme lengths to create his vision including keeping the room refrigerated to get realistic cold breath during the exorcism and many of the reactions in the film are genuine.
The Exorcist is an iconic film for a reason, although some of the fame derives from associated intrigues, such as the alleged use of subliminal messages to scare the viewer, and nevertheless it is well worth watching in its entirety.
Fun Fact: As an example of the film’s success The Exorcist was the first horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and when taking into account inflation is Warner Brother’s highest grossing film.