Though long considered "the scariest film ever made", it's not hard to argue that William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) is perhaps the greatest horror film ever made. 30+ years after audiences passed out or fled theatres in fright, The Exorcist retains its visceral power and, even beyond the shocking effects, the film stands as one of the finest cinematic studies of man and his place in the universe.
In a lengthy prologue set in Northern Iraq, we meet Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), an aged Catholic priest participating in a massive archaeological dig. Merrin unearths a statue bearing a demonic face- the statue's meaning (and whether it portends good or evil) is never revealed; almost immediately, however, Merrin finds himself not only surrounded by eerie omens (the hearse-like carriage, the dog fight, the stopped clock...) but also face to face with another demonic statue. The image of Merrin and the statue squaring off across a rocky divide is one of the most important (and artistic) shots in the film.
In that single image, Friedkin sums up the theme of the film in its entirety: there are forces at work that are larger than ourselves; there is good, there is evil, and mankind generally finds itself somewhere in the middle, struggling for identity. I've labeled the picture to help you wrap your head around this lofty notion.
While many consider the opening Iraq sequence to be dull and completely extraneous, I find it to be quite the opposite. The questions raised- what exactly has Father Merrin unearthed? What does the statue represent?- remain unanswered at the film's end. In fact, thanks to an unusual narrative timeline, we don't even learn that the old man in Iraq is Father Merrin until much later in the picture. The Exorcist does not present a rational, ordered universe; if anything, it leaves the viewer feeling rattled and uncertain, a feeling exemplified in the opening reel.
From Iraq, the action moves to Georgetown where the actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is in the midst of filming a movie. She's set up house with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair), by all accounts a happy, healthy 12-year-old.
After finding a Ouija Board in the basement, Regan begins communicating with someone she calls "Captain Howdy". Before long, Regan begins acting, to put it mildly, unlike herself: she mouths obscenities that make me look like a prude, she's physically abusive to her mother, she suffers uncontrollable seizures, she can...uh...move large furniture using only her mind, and she infamously masturbates violently with a crucifix.
During countless visits to various doctors, Regan is subjected to myriad painful, invasive medical and psychiatric tests. Despite all the spinal taps, EEGs, blood tests, and psychological exams, however, there is no accounting for the changes in Regan. Where science has failed, perhaps religion can help: an exorcism is suggested, and while Chris doesn't want her daughter treated by a "witch doctor", Regan's condition worsens and she's left with few options. She seeks the aid of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a psychologist and priest who has lately been questioning his faith.
Karras is reluctant to offer any help beyond the psychiatric, but after spending some time with Regan (now strapped down in her bed), he determines that an exorcism is indeed in order. Together, Fathers Karras and Merrin face down the demon possessing the young girl, a demon who claims to be Satan himself. During the long ceremony, Merrin's heart eventually gives out and he dies. Karras loses control and, giving up on the bible, begins to pummel Regan. He commands the demon to "take him instead", a request which the demon quickly obliges. Karras regains his humanity long enough to leap out Regan's window and, after falling down those long, long steps, he dies, taking the demon with him.
Regan is soon a regular 12-year-old girl again, retaining no memories from her ordeal, and she and her mother quietly leave Georgetown.
Ask anyone about The Exorcist and most likely their reply will deal with the shocking moments: the pea soup, the head spin, the levitating, the crucifix masturbation, the mothers sucking cocks in Hell. These images become indelible once seen not only because they're completely inappropriate, but also because of the way Friedkin presents them: matter-of-factly and believably. Friedkin's camera is a stoic, objective observer throughout the entire film, taking a documentarian, unsentimental stance. From the exotic landscapes of Iraq to the monstrosities in the doctor's office to the final showdown in Regan's bedroom, the director establishes a methodical, removed approach to the proceedings- there's no commentary, he simply presents events as they unfold. For all the "fireworks" in the final reel, The Exorcist is remarkably not an exploitative or manipulative film.
The distance from which we see Regan undergoing her medical tests, for example, heightens our innate fear of invasive medical procedures. As Regan cowers and shakes, a tiny figure beneath massive, clanking machinery, we genuinely feel for her and her mother. Sympathy for both of them is hugely important to the proceedings, and Friedkin evokes that reaction in the audience without telling us we should feel sympathetic. It's a subtle distinction that points to the masterful hand at work.
This detached view, accompanied by a very slow build to the climax, also makes the outrageous events that transpire seem realistic. Regan's transformation takes place over at least an hour in the film- she gradually becomes more grotesque in appearance as she becomes more violent. Had she simply gotten out of bed one day all crusty and wild-eyed, the audience would pull away immediately. It's a lengthy evolution, though, and this allows for a suspension of disbelief to an extent that's rare in film. By the time Regan is going head-to-head with Father Merrin, we believe she really can levitate and spin her head around 360 degrees- that makes for an incredibly effective horror movie experience.
For my money, the most shocking moment in the film isn't the levitating or the head spin, but rather it's a small one: Regan still looks and sounds like a normal young girl and the cause of her behavior is still assumed to be a brain lesion. In the throes of particularly violent and obscene fit, however, Regan lies back on the bed and this happens:
We also hear, briefly, the raspy voice of the demon, and we finally know that this is not a simple brain lesion. There's some evil fucking juju at work here, and it's terrifying.
I'm not sure why the religious community has always been so up-in-arms over The Exorcist; has there ever been a more religious, moral film? Science and psychiatry fail the MacNeils- it's religion that saves them, despite the fact that they hold no religious beliefs. Father Karras questions his faith throughout the film, only to rely solely on his faith in the end. The Exorcist was made during one of the most turbulent eras in American history- the 'peace and love' ideals of the 1960s were over, the Vietnam War was raging, an energy crisis was just over the horizon- and one could easily read the film as presenting a solution to those societal ills: getting right with God. In tough times, many people turn to religion for solace and that's exactly what happens here. Take that idea to the extreme, and one could reason that the film allegorically presents rediscovering a "moral code" as the answer to burgeoning troubled teen years. Is your child wantonly cussing, masturbating, and acting out? Get that child some morals, pronto!
Audiences are largely divided into 2 camps: those who find The Exorcist scary, and those who don't. Personally, I fall decidedly in the former; the sounds and images in this film still burrow under my skin so deep I need to actively think about other things after I've watched it. How awesome is that? What else could I ask for in a horror film?
Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for The Film Club Coolies!