William Friedkin, 1973
Starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller
“Your mother sucks cocks in hell.”
The Exorcist was essentially my introduction to the world of horror. Not the film, but rather William Peter Blatty’s novel (1971), which I read in third grade under my desk. At that point, I had never encountered anything more terrifying and still remember trying to process the scene where Regan masturbates with a bloody crucifix. Shocking stuff, certainly to an eight year old and apparently to the entire country upon its cinematic release in 1973. The Exorcist, along with Jaws, effectively put horror on the mainstream map. It was incredibly financially successful and remains one of the highest grossing films of all time. In addition, it was nominated for ten Academy Awards and was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.
Father Merrin is on an archaeological dig in Iraq when he discovers an amulet of Pazuzu, a Sumerian demon. This makes Merrin nervous, because many years ago he performed an exorcism on a child to drive out the same demon and he assumes the discovery will mark Pazuzu’s return. Across the world in Washington D.C., a famous actress, Chris MacNeil, is renting a house with her young daughter while she works on a film. Her daughter, Regan, begins acting strangely and Chris takes her for a number of tests. The doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong and Regan gets worse, curse, injuring herself, exhibiting increased strength, and her bed shakes and levitates.
Regan’s situation becomes so hopeless that Chris, despite being an atheist, contacts a local priest, Father Famien Karras, who is also a psychiatrist. Karras is having a crisis of conscience, due to the recent death of his mother, and his belief in God is faltering. Karras eventually agrees to do an exorcism on Regan and Father Merrin, one of the few living priests with exorcism experience, arrives to lead the ceremony. The two priests engage in a violent battle with Pazuzu for Regan’s life.
Certainly one of the most memorable elements of The Exorcist are its scenes of outright horror with some great effects that hold up 40 years later. Make up artist Dick Smith did a fantastic job and unlike the majority of other ‘70s horror films, The Exorcist does not look dated. Regan’s transformation is stunning, though arguably the early scene where she interrupts her mother’s party to tell a guest, “You’re going to die up there,” and then pisses on the floor is scarier than the famous pea soup vomiting scene. The scenes of Reagan being tested in the hospital are equally as gruesome and there is an undeniable element of body horror about the film. Also keep in mind that Smith transformed the 44 year old Max von Sydow to look like he was in his 70s or 80s. This is probably part of why von Sydow has always just seemed eternally old to me.
The film benefits from some truly great performances, namely from a young Linda Blair as Regan and Jason Miller in his screen debut as Father Karras. Though Miller’s film career basically began and ended with The Exorcist, he gives an incredible performance here as both the emotional and rational center of the film. Blair would go on to ruin her career with some truly ridiculous films (chief of which is Exorcist II), but is completely committed to her role her and its occasionally difficult to believe that they found an actual young girl to play the role. Ellen Burstyn is solid as Regan’s panicked, exhausted mother Chris and the wonderful Max von Sydow is memorable as Father Merrin, though I’ve always wished he had more screen time. There are some nice supporting performances from Lee J. Cobb (On the Waterfront) as Lietenant Kinderman, Father William O’Malley as Father Dyer (yes, a priest playing a priest), and radio actress Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of Pazuzu, among others.
Blatty based The Exorcist on the real life story of Roland Doe, who was allegedly possessed in the ‘40s and given weeks worth of exorcisms in Maryland. Read more about it here. Blatty learned about this while he was at Georgetown and used newspaper articles, as well as the priests’ journals and documentation from Doe’s doctors as a resource for his novel. Director William Friedkin was given access to these materials as well during filming. Though Warner Bros. was set on another director, Blatty championed Friedkin after seeing The French Connection and he eventually got his way. I wonder what he thought of Cruising a few years later? Personally, it’s my favorite Friedkin film.
The production was notoriously difficult. Friedkin spread rumors that the film was cursed and often abused his actors openly. Both Burstyn and Blair were injured during some of the effects scenes and Friedkin kept their very real cries of pain in the final print. He slapped Father O’Malley in the face to make him look surprised during a scene and frequently asked priests to come bless the “cursed” set to ramp up publicity. Among other insane behaviors, he also randomly fired a gun on set to surprise Jason Miller and put him on edge. He may have been a real bastard, but the film has some great performances. If you want to learn more about Friedkin, read this interesting recent interview about his memoirs.
Anyone expecting a fast paced, gory horror film is going to be disappointed. The Exorcist is a carefully paced film with a somewhat flawed narrative structure. The opening presents us with a mystery, rather than outright horror. The scenes in Iraq with Father Merrin are slow, but effectively creepy and it takes a significant amount of time to figure out what an archaeology dig in Iraq could possibly have to do with an actress’s house in Georgetown. If you can stick with it, it’s easy to ignore the script issues and become sucked into the effects and scares. They may approach gradually, but they hit hard. (Still not as hard as Cruising, though.)
I’m reviewing The Exorcist Complete Anthology collection, which includes both the original version of The Exorcist and the director’s cut, The Exorcist II, The Exorcist III, and the two prequels, Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. There are also numerous special features, including a BBC documentary, The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist. Both versions of the film are also available on Blu-ray and I strongly encourage you to check out Blatty’s novel. For the curious, the extended cut doesn’t really seem all that different. There are some negatives, such as the famous “Spider Walk” scene, really the only effects sequence that is dated and cheesy, which is why it was cut in the first place. There is some additional dialogue, such as a nice scene where Merrin and Karras sit on Chris’s stairs together between exorcisms, but the changes are mostly small. I can’t imagine a world in which someone hasn’t seen The Exorcist, but if not, the power of William Friedkin compels you.