Horror, Page To Screen

The Exorcist (1973)

Where to begin with this film? For decades The Exorcist has been called the scariest film of all time. It’s not hard to see why it has earned that title. It is a very disturbing and shocking film. It was banned here in the UK for years when it came time to release it on video.  

Upon its release at cinemas people threw up, ran out of the cinema, and broke down in tears because they simply couldn’t handle the horror that they were being subjected to with this film. Nothing like this film had ever been seen before and some people just couldn’t handle what they were seeing up there on that screen. Of course all of these reaction stories gained the film more publicity and audience attendance figures went through the roof.

Why does this film affect people so much? I think part of it is due to the fact that the possessed character is a child. It would be one thing to watch an adult go through what we see in this film, but seeing a child undergoing  such things is very disturbing. At the beginning of the film we also get to see this child as a pure, bubbly, sweet and happy girl, and then when the transformation comes we are shocked because we’ve gotten to know her personality and how she is later is such a shocking change to how she was at the beginning. The transformation is also depicted as happening in a gradual way, I think that makes us more scared of what we are seeing because it is happening in stages and we are not sure quite what we are witnessing or what the final result will be. 

I also think that whether or not you are a religious person, it can’t be denied that the concept of the devil is something that strikes fear into most people. In this film the thing taking over the child claims to be the devil himself and that is very frightening because you think there is no way she can be saved or he stopped. I also have to say that I find it odd that many religious people have been so opposed to this film over the years. The film shows the Catholic church in a positive light and has them as the heroes of the story. The Exorcist certainly is dark, frightening and even disgusting at some points; but it is also without a doubt one of the best good versus evil films that has ever been made.  

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Chris is terrified. Screenshot by me.

Today some younger viewers more accustomed to gory films, say that they find this film to be laughable. The film has been terrifically parodied in the Scary Movie films, which sadly means that people who have seen those films first may laugh at the actual film when they see it. Personally though I don’t see anything in The Exorcist to laugh about. It is a scary film and it messes with the audience in a psychological way quite unlike any other horror film ever has. 

I first saw this film on video with my parents when I was 18 or 19. Me and my dad had never seen this before. My mum had seen it at the cinema upon its original release. Mum said she saw it with her friend who was a Catholic, the film disturbed my mum, but she said it really messed her friend up more and that she was very upset by it. They both left the cinema trying to process what they had seen, and they were freaking out because they now had to walk home in the dark afterwards!  We all found this scary when we watched it together and my dad has refused to watch this again ever since. I’ve managed to watch it again a few times but it is a film that really unsettles me and I don’t know why. Do you know that feeling you get where you’re aware that someone is standing behind you, but you can’t see them? Well, that’s the feeling I get if I watch this on my own. I never feel like this when I watch any other horror film. This film really unsettles me like no other ever has.

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Father Karras. Screenshot by me.

What I like about this film is that it really gets you thinking and it also affects you emotionally. I really feel for the mother and how she reaches her wits end trying to help her daughter; I feel her fear and pain, because we in the audience have been just as distressed by what we’ve witnessed as she has. I also like how it addresses the crisis of faith that Father Karras is undergoing. I imagine this issue must have disturbed some Catholic viewers who didn’t like to accept that even their devout Priests could find their faith being so severely tested at times.

This film also makes you question why do bad things like this happen to good and innocent people? As Father Merrin says (in my favourite scene from the directors cut)”I think that the point is to make us despair. To reject the possibility that God could love us.” This dialogue comes from a scene that William Peter Blatty (the screenwriter, and author of the novel the film is based on)was desperate to be included in the theatrical release. It was a scene with Merrin and Karras taking a break from the exorcism and Karras asks Merrin “Why this girl?”. You see both men are really shook up by what they’ve just seen in the room, and you can see that even the older man is shocked to his core. The director William Friedkin refused to keep the staircase scene in, and it was taken out, along with the ending featuring the detective and the other Priest. This cut final scene shows us that there are still nice things happening in the world, as well as all the bad things. Years later Friedkin put both of these scenes back in as part of the directors cut.

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Father Merrin arrives. Screenshot by me.

The film is based upon the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty. The novel was inspired by a real exorcism case that Blatty heard about. The real exorcism happened to a little boy in America in 1949. In the film version the possessed individual was changed to a twelve year old girl.

Director William Friedkin knew what he was doing when he made this film. He builds up the horror and suspense slowly as the film goes on. He does such a terrific job of focusing equally on the performances, the character development and the horror. He shoots the horror scenes in such a way that you are drawn to the screen, even when you really want to just look away in fear.  I also like that music is used sparingly in this film. All too often in horror films music accompanies the scary moments and sometimes that can take me out of the horror I’m watching, but the lack of music in most scenes in this film makes what is happening on screen seem more real in a way. 

Georgetown, Washington DC. Film actress, Chris MacNeil(Ellen Burstyn)is distraught when her twelve year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair)begins exhibiting strange and frightening behaviour. Regan says vile and disturbing things, she does unusual things and has no memory of doing them, and her bed (with her on it)keeps violently shaking. Numerous tests and scans are carried out but no medical cause for her behaviour can be found. Regan deteriorates further and further and then she begins to transform physically into something monstrous. Things take an even more terrifying turn when Regan claims she is the devil himself.

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Regan fully transformed. Screenshot by me.

Chris (who isn’t religious)finds herself turning to the church for help. She meets with Jesuit Priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller),and she explains the situation to him and begs him to help her. Father Karras agrees to help as he can see how distressed she is. Karras visits Regan, talks with her and also studies her to see if she could be mentally ill. I like this section because in reality it is rare for an exorcism to actually be performed. Mental illness and conditions such as brain tumors or emotional trauma have to be ruled out by doctors and priests before they’ll even contemplate performing an exorcism. If no explanation can be found for the behaviour that is when a priest will step in.

Once Karras becomes convinced nothing but possession could be causing her behaviour, he asks for permission from church superiors to go ahead and perform an exorcism. Enter Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), he is a much older priest who has performed several exorcisms around the world. His last encounter took quite a toll on him and weakened his heart considerably. Merrin prepares Karras for what they will be encountering and tries to warn him not to listen to anything the possessed girl says to him. This is easier said than done and Karras will struggle greatly as the two men battle evil for the soul of Regan.

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Father Merrin speaks to Chris. Screenshot by me.

When I first saw this film, I was convinced Sydow was actually an elderly actor. I hadn’t seen him in anything before this and I was astonished to learn later that he was only in his thirties when he played Merrin. The convincing age makeup and his body language and weary expressions really do make you believe he is an old man. Sydow has since become one of my favourite actors and I love his performance in this film a great deal. He gives his character an aura of worldliness, kindness and wisdom; he is certainly distressed by what he sees, but he knows how to keep a lid on his reactions of disgust and distress. Merrin is experienced in these matters and knows how to not let himself become affected by what he hears and sees. He tries to keep an eye on Karras and help him not feel so alone during the exorcism. Sydow’s performance lingers in the mind long after the film has finished. I love how reassuring Merrin is and how he makes Chris (and us) feel reassured and safe when he walks into the MacNeil home.

Jason Miller is moving as the doubt riddled young priest. He conveys that Karras is kind and approachable and tries to do his best, but how he despairs at the horror and violence he sees around him daily. I wish Miller had made more films after this because he is very good here.  

Ellen Burstyn is excellent as the mother who can’t believe what is happening to her daughter. Burstyn lets you feel her fear and sadness. You pity her and admire her for staying with her daughter in spite of what is happening to her. Ellen suffered a bad back injury during a stunt in this film. A stuntman pulled too tightly on a back harness she was wearing for the scene where Regan slaps her and the force of the slap sends her across the room.

Linda Blair gives an impressive performance for one so young. She excels at the creepy facial expressions and terrifying outbursts of her character. She also does such a good job of conveying the innocence and sweetness of Regan in the beginning of the film, this allows us to then become utterly terrified by her personality change later in the film once she gets possessed. Regan’s possession dialogue (which features some vile language and disturbing screams) were dubbed over for Linda by the older actress Mercedes McCambridge(Johnny Guitar and Giant.) Mercedes vocal performance is chilling.  
Lee J. Cobb provides solid support as Lt. Kinderman, a detective whose investigations into a suspicious death leads him to investigate Regan. He becomes convinced Regan is responsible for the case he is investigating.

Dick Smith’s pioneering makeup work on the film is to be applauded. The makeup for Regan’s transformation is horrifying and very effective indeed. Smith did more than just apply makeup though, he mixed makeup with practical effects (such as making welts on Regan rise up on the skin)which made the makeup very realistic indeed.  

My favourite scenes are the following. Chris meeting Karras in the park and begging him for help. Merrin and Karras staircase talk. The shadow of Regan walking past her bedroom window(when she is supposed to be tied to the bed). Merrin arriving at the house and speaking to Chris, I love how gentle and comforting he is with her when they speak. The entire exorcism sequence. The head spinning scenes. Chris going into the attic and getting scared. Cracks appearing on Regan’s bedroom door.

The Exorcist remains a disturbing and scary film decades after its original release. I can think of no other horror film past or present that has ever had an impact on the audience the way this film has. I prefer the theatrical version of the film, but I recommend the directors cut for the staircase scene between Merrin and Karras and for the ending. The directors cut also includes the infamous spider walk sequence.

There are two sequels to this film. Exorcist II: The Heretic is truly one of the worst films ever made. This sequel will have you screaming with laughter though because it is so bad and is not remotely scary. I think I would have been so disappointed if I went to see this at the time it was released thinking I was going to get what the first film gave us. Exorcist III however is as disturbing and thought provoking as the original. George C. Scott portrays Lt. Kinderman this time around and the third film focuses on him investigating some brutal murders which may be being carried out under demonic influence. It also focuses on Kinderman’s friendship with a priest who featured in the original film.

What are your thoughts on this film? Please leave your comments below.

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