In 1968, a young Frenchman changed the face of Horror by taking the devil out of the Gothic landscape of Medieval Europe and placing him in a small apartment building in New York City. ROSEMARY'S BABY was born, bringing supernatural terror into a real-world setting. Five year's later, another talented director by the name of William Friedkin would shock audiences the world over with THE EXORCIST, which many consider to be the scariest movie of all time! Adapted from William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel, THE EXORCIST follows 12-year-old Regan McNeil, who becomes possessed by an ancient demon, leaving it up to a pair of Catholic priests to rid the girl of the unclean spirit in order to save her everlasting soul. Regardless of one's religious affiliations, the shocking images and daring implications that THE EXORCIST represents are enough to shake one's belief (or disbelief) in God and the devil. Thanks to an incredibly talented special effects crew, Friedkin has created something so horrible, so truly terrifying, that it would stand to prove the existence of demons on screen. The sweet and sincere Linda Blair is slowly transformed into a foul monster that curses and defiles all that is holy. There is perhaps nothing more profane than watching a young girl stab into herself with a crucifix while shouting "Let Jesus fuck you!" Add to that the spinning heads, levitation, reverse crab-walk, and vomit-spewing, and the film becomes unbearably scary! Even the sound design is enough to make the skin crawl, most notably in the scenes where Regan begs for help by imprinting the words on her flesh and in the tape recorded sessions that Father Karras reviews at the monastery.
While the possessed Regan remains at the center of the action, the story is rather one of faith and redemption; it is the story of Father Karras. We learn very early on that Karras has lost his faith in a godless world, but that faith is restored in his personal encounter with the devil. It is almost as if the demon is used as a means of restoring him to the church, rather than he being the tool used to drive it out. Karras is brilliantly played by the late Jason Miller, who is dark, beaten, and completely unbelieving until the very end. Despite all of the alarming visuals, it is Father Karras' journey that we find the most captivating. The demon taunts him and tempts him, and at times, is able to defeat the wayward priest. If it were not for his reinstalled faith in God, the demon surely would have consumed Regan.
THE EXORCIST is often criticized as being an effects-driven spook show, but this is not the case. As mentioned previously, the performances of Linda Blair and Jason Miller, alone, lend legitimacy to the terrifying theme. In addition, they are met with equally powerful performances by Ellen Burstyn as the struggling mother Chris McNeil and the legendary Max von Sydow as the aged Father Merrin. Burstyn portrays a loving mother, but one that is having difficulty balancing her career and home life, while also dealing with the frustration of her daughter's uncaring father. She presents a character with whom the audience can relate, and she is very good in the role. THE EXORCIST is shot as if the camera is simply a fly on the wall as each of the frightening events take place. We feel intrusive, unwelcome. The camera takes us to places that we dare not go, and once there, it is unflinching as it barrages us with unspeakable horrors. Blatty's script can be often dry, however it is brought to life by the talented cast. The sinister special effects only work to elevate the already-chilling mood and captivating story. This is best demonstrated, again, in the monastery, where we jump out of surprise when the phone rings as Karras is listening to Regan's tapes. There is nothing frightening on screen. We are absorbed in the characters' plight, and we are scared.
THE EXORCIST is, in every way, a Horror classic. It is frightfully shocking, terrifying, and revolting; everything that the genre looks to be. But, it is also built on an excellent story, mood, and characters for whom we care deeply. For that, it must be considered amongst the best that the genre has to offer.
Movies like THE EXORCIST:
ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE OMEN, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, THE LAST EXORCISM, BEYOND THE DOOR, THE ANTICHRIST, EXORCISM.