Horror

The Exorcist (1973)

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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 was banned here in the UK (when it came time to release on video)for years. Upon release at cinemas people threw up, ran out of the cinema and broke down in tears because they couldn’t handle the horror they were being subjected to. Nothing like this film had ever been seen before, and some people just couldn’t handle the images up there on that screen. Of course all these stories only gained the film more publicity and audience figures went through the roof.

I first saw this film with my parents when I was 18 or 19. Me and my dad had never seen this before, but my mum saw it at the cinema on release. Mum said she saw it with her friend who was a Catholic. The film disturbed my mum, but she said it really affected her friend more, and she was very upset by it. They both left the cinema trying to process what they had seen, and freaking out because they now had to walk home in the dark afterwards!

We all found this scary when we watched together and my dad has refused to watch this again ever since that time. I’ve managed to re watch it a few times, but it is a film that really unsettles me. 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 that when I’ve watched any other horror film. Weird stuff.

What I like about this film is that it really gets you thinking and affects you emotionally. You feel for Chris (Ellen Burstyn) as she reaches her wits end trying to help her daughter and get her help. You feel her fear and pain, because we as the audience have been just as distressed by what we’ve witnessed as she has. I also like how it addresses the struggle 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 Priests could find their faith tested.

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 this scene and it was taken out, along with the ending featuring the detective and other Priest. This 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 these scenes back in as part of the directors cut.

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 things and has no memory of doing them, and her bed (with her on it)keep violently shaking. Numerous tests and scans are carried out but no medical cause can be found. Regan deteriorates further and further and begins to transform physically into something monstrous. Things take an even more terrifying turn, when Regan claims she is the devil himself.

Chris (who isn’t religious)finds herself turning to the church for help. She meets with Jesuit Priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller)and explains the situation and begs him to help her. Father Karras agrees 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 things like brain tumors or emotional trauma have to be ruled out by doctors and priests before they’ll even contemplate performing an exorcism.

Once Karras becomes convinced nothing but possession could be causing her behaviour he asks for permission to perform an exorcism. Enter Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) a much older priest who has performed many exorcisms around the world. His last encounter took 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 the demons words or promises. This is easier said than done and Karras will struggle greatly as the two men battle for the soul of Regan.

When I first saw this, I was convinced Sydow was elderly. I hadn’t seen him in anything before this. I was astonished to learn that he was only in his thirties when he played Merrin! The convincing age makeup and his body language and weary look really make you believe he is old. Sydow has 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, and wisdom. He is 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.

Jason Miller is moving as the doubt riddled young priest. He is kind and approachable and tries to do his best, but despairs at the horror and violence he sees around him daily. I wish Miller had made more films 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.

Linda Blair gives an impressive performance for one so young. She does such a good job of creating the creepy facial expressions, and terrifying outbursts of her character. Her possession dialogue (which features some vile language)and disturbing screams were dubbed by actress Mercedes McCambridge(Johnny Guitar and Giant.)

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.

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.

The Exorcist remains a disturbing and scary film, decades after its original release. I prefer the theatrical version, but recommend the directors cut for the staircase scene between Merrin and Karras, and for the ending. There are two sequels to this. Exorcist II: The Heretic is truly one of the worst films ever made. It will have you screaming with laughter though. Exorcist III however is as disturbing and thought provoking as the original. George C. Scott portrays Lt. Kinderman this time around, and the film focuses on him investigating some brutal murders. It also focuses on Kinderman’s friendship with a priest featured in the original film.

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