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This is the scariest movie ever made. It still retains its power to creep me out after so many viewings. Why is this of all the horror films so haunting? It’s the balance between the real world and the fantastic. Oscar-winning writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin paint a normal world that we recognize and then let the devil creep into the shadows and our private spaces.
The story begins in Iraq where the elderly Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, THE SEVENTH SEAL), encounters an ancient evil. The fear on his face makes us uneasy. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) is an actress working in Georgetown, where she lives with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair, AIRPORT 1975). When Regan gets ill, Chris takes her to all the best doctors, but they’re stumped. Meanwhile, Father Karras (Jason Miller, 1984’s TOY SOLDIERS) is struggling with a crisis of faith, due to the passing of his mother. When a freakish death occurs, Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb, 12 ANGRY MEN) calls on the priest for advice. At the same time, Chris is becoming increasing furious with her daughter’s doctors who suggest that she might consider requesting an exorcism for Regan.
The story takes its time as it increases the ghoulishness of Regan’s condition. Yet, the unusual occurrences are nonetheless unsettling. The first time the bed shakes violently, it’s shocking. Like a noise in the middle of the night, our minds might jump to extreme fears, but will soon settle on a more rational explanation. Chris looks into Earthly reasons for her daughter’s condition, hoping for some reassurance. Even Father Karras doesn’t jump to the supernatural, suggesting a psychiatrist over an exorcist at first. This doubt only makes the unnatural actions of Regan all the more disturbing. Along the way, Friedkin injects flashes of evil in the corners and shadows of the frame, making the viewer truly fear what could be lurking behind the door of Regan’s confined room.
Like JAWS, THE EXORCIST exploits our common fears of the unknown and the out of place. With the natural performances of the cast, especially Oscar nominees Burstyn, Miller and Blair, the characters are not facing a cartoon villain, but an unexplainable phenomenon. While, Father Merrin and Karras go head to head with the devil that’s inside the girl, the plot feels more like man versus nature than man versus man. These men have little control over a force that is clearly greater than them. That’s why the central character arch of Karras struggling with his faith is so powerful. In the face of an unnatural force, faith seems like the only weapon left. Will Chris and Karras be able to summon enough faith, where there was none before, in order to defeat this all-powerful evil?
I talk about pacing a great deal in my reviews. This jolting film is a perfect example of what I preach. Nominated for an Oscar for their editing, John C. Broderick, Bud S. Smith, Evan A. Lottman, and Norman Gay, through the direction of Friedkin, meticulously build this film. Like a good roller coaster, the viewer goes clunk, clunk, clunk slowly up the hill then the bottom falls out as they rush down the hill and are yanked around a turn at the bottom and then before you know it, it’s all over. The editors leave the viewer often wondering what just happened. Then you add in Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman’s Academy Award-winning sound work. Their choices are brilliant in how they isolate the unnatural sounds as if they are taking over the scene. Combine these elements with the Oscar-nominated work from cinematographer Owen Roizman, production designer Bill Malley and set decorator Jerry Wunderlich, THE EXORCIST, for the most part, is a collection of unsettling bursts within an environment that is supposed to be a safe place — a child’s bedroom.
Some of the content in THE EXORCIST is blasphemous to the religious ears and eyes. Blood, crucifixes, vomit, puss, foul language, are all used to provoke. It’s amazing that the material remained in a R-rated film. But it was all there in 1973 and it’s all part of the story. It’s shocking to the audience, but it’s also shocking to the characters. Friedkin and Blatty had courage in waging this epic battle between good and evil. The demon wants to shake the characters’ faith and in the process it does the same to us. While now in retrospective, some can look at the film with a feeling of campy cynicism, but that’s not how it was made. That’s why this film is frightening and haunting and brilliant and all the poor contemporary posers wallowing in gore are just making torture porn. THE EXORCIST had faith in something better.
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