Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Directed by William Friedkin and adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, The Exorcist is the story of Reagan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the daughter of actress Chris (Ellen Burstyn). Reagan begins acting strange and violent, her personality completely different from the sweet young girl she'd been. When doctors and psychiatrists fail to help her, Chris turns to a Jesuit Priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) for what she believes to be her only hope: an exorcism to drive out the demon possessing Reagan.
The summary doesn't do the plot justice because it's only the last 20 minutes or so that the actual exorcism occurs. The Exorcist does not rush to the supernatural showdown between good and evil. True, the final confrontation in Reagan's bedroom, with Karras assisting the older priest Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) with the ritual, is a tour-de-force of atmosphere, climax, and special effects.
The Exorcist concerns protagonists who find their faith in the face of such evil. Chris is an admitted non-believer. Why the demon chooses her daughter is never explained, and when science and medicine failure her, she turns to the church for help. Meanwhile, Karras himself has lost his faith. He tells Chris the best way to receive an exorcism is to go back to the 1600s because diagnoses of mental illness have replaced belief about demonic possession. He was already waining before his mother died, but after she passes, he's practically an atheist in a clerical collar.
Friedkin shoots the film with a documentary sense of realism, his camera in the middle of all these wild experiences, so the viewer feels uncomfortably close to all of it. The bedroom, where the supernatural stuff occurs - the flying dressers, the spinning heads, etc. - becomes a harsh, desolate , almost otherworldly realm, a place so cold the characters shiver and frost is visible on their breath. Meanwhile, Chris and the others affected by the transformation of Reagan are physically and emotionally battered. When she first meets Karras, she wears sunglasses to conceal a black eye and is on the verge of hysterics.
The demon, despite demonstrating the ability to levitate and great strength, prefers not physical pain but emotional and physical. As Father Merrin explains, the demon is a liar but will mix truth with lies for desired effect. This is especially true when the demon uses Karras' guilt about his mother against him.
And of course, that voice. So chilling. So evil.
The Exorcist is cited in many polls as the scariest movie ever made. I don't think I'm qualified to make that judgment, but it definitely belongs in the running. It grabs the audience and shows no mercy. The experience of watching it will have you questioning everything: life, death, good, evil, faith, the meaning of it all. It's not a "fun" horror movie, like say the thrill ride of a Halloween. It shocks and disturbs. It really does.