SOMETHING BEYOND COMPREHENSION IS HAPPENING TO A LITTLE GIRL, ON THIS STREET, IN THIS HOUSE. A MAN HAS BEEN CALLED FOR AS A LAST RESORT TO TRY AND SAVE HER. THAT MAN IS THE EXORCIST.
Today it’s difficult to understand the impact The Exorcist had on people upon its release in 1973. The film followed in the footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but its depiction of the Devil’s wicked ways was much more terrifying. In fact, it was so convincing to many in the audience that even the famous evangelist Billy Graham believed that Satan was responsible for its success.
William Friedkin’s work remains potent, not least because of the raw, cold atmosphere that cinematographer Owen Roizman has created, which is similar to what he did for Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971).
The film builds slowly but effectively, starting in northern Iraq where Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) witnesses several events that make him feel uneasy; a small stone head portraying Pazuzu, a demon god, is also found. In Georgetown we’re introduced to Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) who’s caring for his terminally sick mother; lately he’s begun to question whether God exists at all. His great challenge comes when he’s contacted by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a famous actress. Her twelve-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) has been going through disturbing changes that can hardly be described as typical for puberty; she’s unusually strong, speaks in a strange voice and has been seen levitating. Perhaps Father Damian, who is also a psychiatrist, can find an explanation and treatment that all the previous doctors are too narrow-minded to see?
After meeting Regan, the priest is unable to come up with any other option but to try an exorcism; either she’s demonically possessed, or she thinks she is, and an exorcism might help in any case. He enlists the help of Father Merrin, a veteran of previous exorcisms; together they prepare to face the demon that seems to hold Regan in a firm grip.
Split-second images give way to full-throated horror
In the beginning, Friedkin uses small means to make us feel uncomfortable. Clocks stop, two dogs are fighting, Merrin’s knowing look in his face… Split-second images of white-painted horror figures here and there… All eerie incidents that eventually give way to full-throated horror as Regan’s face turns decidedly demonic, she finds the ability to turn her head 180 degrees and starts using projectile vomit as a way of attacking the priests. Very powerful stuff, but it’s not all about the special effects and Dick Smith’s brilliant makeup (he also made von Sydow look 30 years older) – there is something utterly shocking about watching a child stab her genitals with a crucifix while saying “let Jesus fuck you” and it invades your mind just as forcibly as the mask on Blair’s face.
There isn’t much music, a fact that only reinforces the sense of realism; the first tune of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” is used occasionally, a now-classic ingredient. Von Sydow delivers his most famous performance as the decrepit exorcist, Burstyn is incredibly intense as the suffering mother, Miller touching as the priest who becomes the ultimate weapon against Satan, and Lee J. Cobb (in his last performance) amusing as the movie-crazy cop.
In 2000 a new version of this film was released and it reinstated a talked-about but ultimately rejected sequence where Regan walks down the stairs like a spider, upside-down. That’s a great scene, but few of the other additions are necessary. The original version was perfectly paced; padding only risks making it a less frightening experience.
The Exorcist 1973-U.S. 121 min. Color. Produced by William Peter Blatty. Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay, Novel: William Peter Blatty. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Makeup: Dick Smith. Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Lankester Merrin), Linda Blair (Regan McNeil), Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn. Voice of Mercedes McCambridge.
Trivia: Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn were allegedly considered for the part of Chris; Stanley Kubrick considered directing the film. John Boorman was allegedly offered to direct the film, but refused because he thought it was “cruel towards children” – he then went on to direct the sequel. Followed by two sequels (starting with Exorcist II: The Heretic (1975)), two prequels (Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005)), and a TV series, The Exorcist (2016-2018). Later a stage play.
Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Blair).
Quote: “The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, but powerful. So don’t listen, remember that, do not listen.” (Von Sydow instructing Miller)
Last word: “To me, ‘The Exorcist’ was a story about the mystery of faith, and I tried to depict that as realistically as possible. I had read the files in the Jesuit archives in Washington DC of the 1949 exorcism case that prompted Bill to write his novel. You can Google it, it was on the front page of The Washington Post. Then I spoke to the president of Georgetown, which is a Jesuit university, about that case and what he knew about it, and I was convinced that what had happened was something that was beyond our general understanding of illness and how to cure it. This was not simply a scary story, this was something of the supernatural in the natural world. And that’s how I approached the film.” (Friedkin, Time Out)