Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: William Peter Blatty
Starring: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn & Lee J. Cobb
Reviewed by: Brett H.
ďWhat an excellent day for an exorcism.Ē
I was 12 years old the first time I saw The Exorcist, and the way I viewed horror films would never be the same again. Throughout childhood, caricatural video boxes usually persuaded me into rentals and although they were wonderful films, I didnít realize how delightfully shallow a lot of them were. One day I turned it to A&E and they happened to be running a double feature of The Exorcist followed by Kubrickís vision of Stephen Kingís The Shining. It occurred to me just at this moment of writing that I had been watching a Bigfoot documentary before the films had aired and that was the reason I even stumbled upon the broadcast. My mother told me her Exorcist story and in reality, it pretty much proved to be the established tale of kids laughing the movie off during the opening and paying for it dearly when heads started to spin. Needless to say, I was entranced by the film on A&E and immediately rented the video and was even more scared that time around. Through repeated viewings (along with a directorís cut labelled, The Version Youíve Never Seen), the film began to take a whole new meaning in terms of depth and feeling. Strap yourself in, and ignore the shaking bed. This is only a movieÖ right?
At an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq, an old man discovers a centuries-old sculpture of an ancient demon. The man also finds a medallion regarding St. Christopher, and immediately he takes this as an omen and leaves the dig, citing reasons simply that there is something he must do. It turns out that he is a priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), and we eventually learn that what he must do is take a journey to America and drive a demon out of the body of a young girl named Regan (Linda Blair). Just down the road from where Regan MacNeil lives resides Father Karras (Jason Miller), who has had about enough of his role as a priest and psychiatrist. His mother is old and alone and he gets the feeling that he should be spending more time with her rather than living through life preaching things he himself isnít certain he believes.
Regan seems like a nice kid, but lately her personality has changed and things out of this world seem to happen all around her. Her bed shakes violently with her on it and she becomes increasingly erratic and questionable. Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) takes her to doctors and shrinks, where Reganís behavior takes a step towards the obscene when she berates a doctor with harsh vulgarities. Medical science figures that Regan believes she is possessed by a demon and thus they should contact religious personnel. They donít think she is really possessed, but the process would bring closure to the ordeal in her own mind and spell a cure. When she meets up with the still-struggling Father Karras, he observes the situation and discovers that these events arenít a laughing matter. Regan is really possessed by a demon not of this world. The Catholic Church grants permission for him to perform the ancient and nearly unheard of in this day and age rite of an exorcism. They send him some help in the form of Father Merrin, and when The Exorcist arrives, the ultimate battle of good vs. evil truly begins.
The Exorcist is an immersive and emotional journey through tribulations and consciousness as much as it is about excising a demon. In 2000, the film was re-released with additional background information along with extended scenes, including the highly-touted spider-walk scene. To address these right off the hop, the bearing they have on the film is minimal. Regan gets a spinal tap in one scene that will have people like myself that are afraid of needles damn near passing out, a nice chat with Merrin and Karras regarding the demon, along with a slightly different ending that probably hurts the film more than it helps it. The spider-walk scene stands out and is a favorite to a lot of people due to the surrealism and downright strange vibe that it encompasses, but at the same time, it just comes right out of nowhere. Is the scene effective? Damn rights, but it spoils some of the building to the more elaborate effects that would come later on. If anything, it would have been more suitable towards the end. Having said that, the shock of the scene for the first time is a treat, and the regular version isnít hard to come by if you want to see how things originally played out.
The film presents itself as a constant barrage of questions that canít be answered, and if they can be, the answers always lie within. The MacNeil family resorts to doctors who really are helpless to them, when it turns out religion is the answer and Father Karras struggles with human nature and how religion isnít necessarily the answer. Juxtaposition plays a huge role in the film in regards to matters such as this, silence alongside destruction and particularly the opening scene at the archaeological dig where Father Merrin finds the St. Christopher medal (a symbol of safety when it comes to travels or journeys) alongside the demon sculpture. Father Merrinís arrival at the MacNeil home is as iconic as anything ever done on film and seeing as heís experienced demonic possession before, the interactions between the veteran and the God-doubting rookie Karras is also great to ponder. The dramatic portion of the film pulls its weight as Karrasí struggle with his faith and his motherís death is probably the most interesting identifiable subplot of the film.
The real attraction in atrocity with the demonic entity in the film is not so much the fact that itís grisly looking and possesses enormous powers. The mischievous demon takes pleasure in stabbing at open wounds with insults and curses, but itís not the overblown aspects of Reganís possession that gives the movie credibility so much as the emotions that come because of it. The sexually disturbed religious imagery, vomiting and head spinning all have an exploitive quality about them, but their presentation sets them apart from the various clones that have gained attention. Other films cut at the surface, but nothing comes close to the demon insulting Father Karras down to his soul regarding the treatment of his mother and his questioning of faith. There are numerous potent and influential scenes in the film that are displayed in such a way that you actually feel like youíre in the room with the Exorcists and witnessing something that the mind doesnít consider fathomable. When Regan levitates from her bed up into the air, thereís a feeling of awe that befalls you that relates more to an experience than a movie scene. There are a few of these situated here, especially in the ending, and each of them is as enthralling as anything Iíve ever seen in a horror film.
Somewhere along the line, younger people began considering The Exorcist a more laughable affair, and the Italian profiteering in The Antichrist and The Eerie Midnight Horror Show certainly played a role in this. The film does occasionally bring you to chuckle aimed at a lack of grace, but before you can blink an eye, the gift of exquisite characters reels you right back in. This is not to say the outrageous qualities of the film merely momentarily shock without leaving a mark, the images definitely stick with you, but the dialogue is what lends itself to the realm of absurdity. The direction is involving and really gives the viewer all he or she needs to be pulled right into each and every scene. The score is fantastic and there is nay a poor performance from the cast. Warnerís Version Youíve Never Seen DVD lacks some quality special features from the classic versionís release, but includes a director commentary and an assortment of trailers and radio spots. In addition, the anamorphic widescreen video quality is great with a bit of grain and some scenes literally looking like they were filmed yesterday. The 5.1 track is equally impressive as the sound really fills your room with the howls of winds, satanic chants and demonic thrashing about. It pains me to say that viewers of today arenít taking too kindly to the character driven lead up to complete devastation this classic has to offer, and I canít say Iím shocked so much as I am saddened. The Exorcist is among filmís all-time elite and definitely is one of the scariest films of all time. Essential!
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