REVIEW: The Exorcist
Produced by: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay by: William Peter Blatty
Edited by: Jordan Leondopoulos, Evan Lottman, Norman Gay
Cinematography by: Owen Roizman
Music by: Various; Theme by Mike Oldfield
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Mercedes McCambridge, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Father William O’Malley, Vasiliki Maliaros
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist is yet another movie on my list of movies that I don’t know how I managed to not watch until recently. Unlike, say, The Godfather (put your pitchforks down, I saw them all years ago, but still after a while) or Braveheart, however, the reasons for not seeing it wasn’t simply because I was tired of hearing people talk about how great it was, but rather due to the fact that the subject matter and reputation The Exorcist had for being one of the most terrifying horror films of all time really freaked me out. As some of you may know, I was never really a horror film fan in the first place until I started writing this blog and forced myself to watch films from the genre for the month of October, and while this was partly because I thought less of the genre than I should have, I’d be lying if there was some part of me that was genuinely terrified of certain movies – and chief among them was The Exorcist.
I spent a good deal of my life growing up thinking that watching something depicting evil was automatically a bad thing. This led to frequent conflicts of faith regarding quite a bit of media, but as I grew up, grew in my faith as Christian, and grew in my interest of film, I began to rethink this mindset. Honestly, it’s kind of ridiculous to think that way, since the Bible itself has plenty of depictions of evil, so why should I automatically rule out anything that did the same? And so I came to realize that “depiction does not equate to glorification.” This also eventually evolved to a belief that even if some work of art was “glorifying” something I disagreed with, there was no sin, still, in watching it through my own lens and accepting it as is while taking the time to understand it. I still didn’t necessarily take the time to understand The Exorcist, however, and still feared its subject matter. Tales from my childhood about how films like this or even Poltergeist would literally invite demons into your home still dogged me, even if I didn’t actually believe that to be the case anymore. The movie remained in my queue for some time before I finally watched it. What prompted my sudden decision? Well, it’s actually pretty mundane: Netflix was going to lose the streaming rights at the beginning of the month, and I figured now was as good a time as any. (I suppose some of you will assume that’s a sign of where I am in my faith. So be it.)
As pretty much everyone knows by now, even if they hadn’t seen it, The Exorcist – based on the book by William Peter Blatty, who also worked on the film as producer and screenwriter – follows the story of a young girl who is possessed by a blaspheming, sadistic demon, which must subsequently be exorcised from her by a priest. That’s a plot that pretty much everyone knows by now, particularly thanks to decades of parodies and references in other media, including stuff aimed at families. The film is so ingrained in pop culture by this point that when someone goes off on an angry tirade, we will offhandedly joke about spinning heads and vomiting pea soup and know exactly what film we are referencing. This summary, however, does the film a great disservice, and it’s that kind of gross oversimplification that gets perpetuated by those who choose not to think to critically about the things they watch, regardless of whether they enjoyed it or not. This face value perspective, however, often mars the understanding of much more complex films that dare to address dark and controversial subject matter.
The Christians who have discussed it with me in the past who disparaged the movie for its content had this very same understanding of the film, but so have several fans of the film, as well. Oddly enough, despite disagreements about the film’s merits, both groups are usually focused on the same things: “Look at how disgusting it is!” “Listen to the things they make the little girl say!” “The demonic effects are so realistic!” And so on. However, what they never talk about, and what I never even knew about the film, was that The Exorcist is a lot less exploitative than its reputation would have you believe. It’s really not an exciting rollercoaster ride of demonic thrills and chills. At its core, The Exorcist is actually more about the balance of faith, progress, and skepticism than shock value entertainment.
While the film seems to more or less confirm by the end that the little girl, Regan MacNeil, was actually possessed by a demonic spirit, it’s careful to also address the progress we have made in understanding mental illnesses, with Regan’s agnostic single mother, Chris, first turning towards medicine to figure out what is going on with the only family she has after a nasty split with Regan’s neglectful father. However, Regan’s impossible strength and strange, impossible occurrences such as the furniture moving seemingly on their own point towards something that science can’t adequately explain. Desperate, she turns to a local Catholic priest, Father Damien Karras. Karras, however, is having a crisis of faith, particularly after the sudden death of his mother after she is admitted into a psychiatric hospital. He, too, recommends psychiatric help for Regan, as the church has itself largely moved on from the practice of exorcisms in light of scientific understandings, a process that would require approval from fairly high up in the chain of command. After agreeing to look into the matter, however, the unusual situation begins to weigh on Karras, and he begins to doubt whether he has the faith to handle the matter himself.
I really found it fascinating how well the movie explored these concepts. This can be contributed to the fact that the film doesn’t just dive into the scary stuff but rather builds it up over time while letting us get to know the characters and their individual struggles, well before the possessed Regan even begins to spin her head – I didn’t time it, but I would guess that most of the iconic images from the film don’t even begin until about the last half hour or so. We don’t even actually see the three central characters until several minutes in, as the film begins in Iraq, where we meet Father Merrin, an archeologist and elder priest who makes a discovery at the site and who is the first realize that the demon, Pazuzu, has manifested itself in our realm once again. The film is skillful at developing the story and its characters by alternating between the separate lives of the MacNeils and Father Karras before they fatefully intersect. This intersection is something I’m actually kind of shocked that most Christians don’t focus on, as both Chris and Karras’ beliefs are challenged by the events, with both either steered towards belief or having their beliefs affirmed as a result of the ordeal. Isn’t that something we learn in church all the time? I’m guessing the literal manifestation and acknowledgement of demonic forces was just having the opposite of the intended effect on those who either see depiction of evil as being itself inherently evil or those who see any type of art as being synonymous with mere entertainment.
The Exorcist received an unprecedented number of accolades at the time for a horror film, being the first to get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, in fact. The effects have also gone down in history as being incredibly convincing, particularly for 1973, and they still hold up incredibly well, though I can honestly say that the film’s reputation and notoriety in pop culture has admittedly dulled the fear factor for me just due to overexposure. This can hardly be blamed on the filmmaking itself, however, and, as I’ve been stressing throughout this review, that’s almost beside the point when it comes to The Exorcist. I can imagine that someone expecting a series of doled out scares throughout the runtime will likely be disappointed in that regard, as this could have easily dropped the more overt demonic imagery and still achieved greatness through the expertly crafted atmosphere, storytelling, and performances by everyone involved – yes, including Linda Blair, who, as a young teenager, was given the responsibility of performing some really intense and depraved material, not to mention the makeup process she had to go through. (I’m not disparaging haunted house-style scary movies, by the way, just pointing out that The Exorcist isn’t in line with that, given its reputation as “scariest movie ever.”) I may have watched this film after years of trepidation before making the decision to finally watch it for an admittedly silly reason, but I’m actually glad it took me this long to do so. I really don’t think the younger me could have watched it with as much discernment as current me, and I possibly could’ve had an unjustly tainted perception of a truly exceptional film for the rest of my life.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5