The Exorcist

Director: William Friedkin

1973

I remember watching The Exorcist for the first time on my 15th birthday party – the night it first aired on terrestrial television in the UK – with a group of my girlfriends and just being terrified! However just a few short hours later we were all peacefully asleep so it couldn’t have been as scary as we thought … either that or there was safety in numbers.

“After a lengthy prologue that is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the book, the first half of the film develops the essential character relationships and establishes the crisis situation.” (Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 570) The first 30 minutes basically set the scene for the film but are pretty tame without anything sinister  happening. The normality of Regan and her relationship with her mother makes the change all the more powerful. In this half hour of the film we also see the disillusionment of the young priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) , who questions his faith. Indeed it is 20 minutes into the film before we have any mention of anything disturbing, which comes with the appearance of the Ouija board and the mention of the mysterious Captain Howdy.

Linda Blair’s Regan is the picture of innocence with wide eyes, a ready smile and the slightly chubby face of a child. This makes the transformation during her possession all the more dramatic. The make up is excellent. As are the special effects, especially when you take into consideration the fact that the film was made in the early 70s. Ellen Burstyn plays what it must feel like to be terrified of your own daughter spectacularly. The relationship between Father Karras and Regan is oddly companionable. He talks to her with an ease though this may be because he is a psychiatrist.

The dramatic lighting used throughout gives it the classic horror feel. There is a jump in the story when Regan is undergoing tests in the hospital. The change in her behaviour does not seem to necessitate the testing as there has only been one mention of her bed shaking at this point. Father Merrin’s (Max von Sydow) arrival on a misty night is now one of the most widely recognized images in cinema history.

There is an air of expectation when I watch this film but I wonder if that is because the story is now so iconic that you already know what is going to happen and you are just waiting for it. I find it more disturbing than jump out of your seat scary. Super quick flashes (barely more than a couple of frames) of a demonic face make you question what you are seeing. Many of the possession scenes are brutal – especially the scene with the crucifix. The spider walk down the stairs is one of the most disturbing images in horror cinema.

“The film not only gave rise to a slew of lesser-quality sequels, imitations, and variants on the possession theme, it also made the child with malevolent powers a dominant motif in horror cinema.” (Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movie You Must See Before You Die, 571) The fact that Regan is only a child makes this film far more disturbing than if the possessed was an adult. You have to wonder what the performance took out of Blair and how it affected her once the film wrapped. Indeed the horror films that have scared me the most have all had at their core a “child with malevolent powers.” Though I have to say that Japanese cinema has cornered the market on terrifying horror movie kids. The Exorcist as been parodied a number of times. The parody used in Scary Movie (2000) reduces the effect of the original, but takes something that is iconically horror and uses it as a form of shorthand, so the audience knows what’s coming next.

For all that Tubular Bells is now synonymous with The Exorcist it is hardly used in the film, playing very briefly 15 minutes into the film, creating the feeling that something is not quite right, and during the end credits. It is worth mentioning that Tubular Bells was a massive hit in its own right at the time and therefore has a different resonance with different generations. Indeed my parents associate Tubular Bells with its artist, Mike Okenfield, while I automatically associate it with The Exorcist.

This is one of the best horror films in my eyes and I recommend it to everyone – though I have yet to persuade my sister to watch it.

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