Dir. William Friedkin (1973)
A little girl is possessed by a demon, which is understating things a bit.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
The year was 1973, and the world was simply not ready for what was coming in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Scholars debate whether things have improved since then. The film tops many, many, many, many Scariest Movies of All Time lists, and while it is not my favorite horror movie, it is undeniably terrifying for anyone who has been exposed to religion, the eternal struggle between good and evil, and split pea soup (which is delicious with a little bit of ham.) The film is, to put it mildly, a classic, and one of the only horror movies ever made that got international critical acclaim to the extent that it did. It won two Oscars, which is something horror movies simply are not allowed to do, taking home the nods for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay, having been adapted for the big screen from William Peter Blatty’s novel about religious evil. I haven’t read the novel, but I have seen the movie a number of times, and each time I come away with something different than I discovered the first time, usually some horrific realization that I’d rather not have.
When an archaeologist who is most decidedly NOT Indiana Jones discovers an ancient relic of a god/demon type creature named Pazuzu, shit goes haywire and the demon ends up possessing the body and spirit of a little girl named Regan. Pazuzu is also the name of the little girl in It’s a Wonderful Life (that may not be correct), but the demon in this film is at least twice as scary. Regan gets possessed after communicating with a presence named Captain Howdy through a Ouija board, and the world was not prepared for the consequences of her actions. When her bed starts shaking and strange noises are heard from the attic, answers must be sought and things must be explained, no matter how scary things become.
And they DO become scary.
The film is filled with religious imagery, sacrilegious and otherwise. It must have been quit a shock to audiences of the day, as these things were typically not shown in media, but it was also, for all of the protestations of the general public, a fairly pious portrayal of religion and the exorcism practices of the Catholic Church. It portrays the attempts to explain Regan’s predicament through means other than religious as quite thorough, and when no means of science can provide answers to the questions, religious answers are all that are left. The confusion faced by the family is palpable, and any parent of a child can understand the desperation that could lead Ellen Burstyn to seek help through whatever means necessary. In this instance, those means are an exorcism performed by Father Damian Karras through an expert performance by Jason Miller. Fun fact: did you know that Jack Nicholson was on the short list of people who would’ve been cast to play Father Karras?
Seen here giving his best Pazuzu impression.
The film has an haunting score that will be the background for your nightmares for years to come, equaling Halloween for the most iconic score of all time. The acting is incredibly, with every single part being played as if the actors’ lives depend on it, especially Linda Blair’s Regan in a role that made her career. It blew away the box offices, and would be the highest grossing R-rated film of all time if adjusted for inflation. You know how a lot of horror movies from that era would brag about how many people had to be carted out of viewings, inflating and embellishing health conditions caused by their movies? The Exorcist actually did that shit. Paramedics had to be called a number of times to help theater goers who couldn’t handle the terror they experienced during The Exorcist. And it makes a certain amount of sense. This movie premiered two years before we got out of Vietnam. 98% of American identified themselves as belonging to a religion. And then The Exorcist came along and pushed that number up to 99% the following year. That one percent was like nah, fuck that, I ain’t getting possessed.
Friedkin handles the film as if he’s Kubrick, taking what could have been a standard possession movie if helmed by a lesser director and transforming it into a legendary film that pushed the boundaries of the depiction of religion on film. He sought to deliver a film that could make people find religion, and he worked closely with Blatty to deliver a movie that would do just that. It’s truly an outstanding film, and it’s a hard watch even today. Linda Blair is an icon just because of this film, but it is hard to imagine that I would be willing to let my child daughter perform in a film like this and say and do the things that she did. The world is all the better for it, however, as The Exorcist is exactly as momentous of a film as it should be. It’s arguably the best horror movie ever made.
Who this movie is for: All horror fans, Fans of classic American movies, Lapsed Catholics
Bottom line: The Exorcist is perhaps the greatest American horror film ever made. It has the respect of everyone from casual movie observers to film theory professors, from Academy voters to Catholic priests. It’s a doozy of a film, and one that must be seen by anyone who claims to be even a moderate horror fan. The Exorcist belongs on an all-time greatest films list, not an all-time greatest horror list, though it certainly deserves its spot on that list as well. It’s a great movie, and it’s scary as hell. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to reconsider your life choices and get on it post-haste.