Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
The Exorcist is a psychological horror film released in 1973, and it is based on the 1971 novel of the same name by the film's producer, William Peter Blatty. Directed by William Friedkin, the film depicts the apparent possession of a 12-year-old girl and the desperate attempt by her mother to use an exorcism by two priests to try and cure her. The film stars Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Jack MacGowran in his final film appearance and Jason Miller in his first. The film was plagued by problems on set during production, including accidental injuries to both Blair and Burstyn and a fire burning down much of the film's set, leading to speculation that the film was somehow cursed. Despite a mixed critical reaction at the time, the film was massively popular with audiences, although a number of incidents were reported featuring people fainting or vomiting during the film. The film has so far earned more than $441 million worldwide, making the film one of the most successful R-rated pictures of all time. Since its release, the film has become one of the most revered horror movies of all time, and it has made a lasting impact on popular culture. It was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry for its cultural, historic and aesthetic significance in 2010.
What's It About?
Actress Chris MacNeil is presently living in the Georgetown district of Washington DC while filming her latest movie, directed by long-time friend Burke Dennings. However, her personal life is in turmoil with her partner and father to her pre-teen daughter Regan has left the family, leaving Chris to raise Regan by herself and a small number of domestic staff. Unfortunately, Regan is displaying some truly odd behaviour including claiming to be able to contact a spirit using a Ouija board and uncontrollable spasms. Despite various medical tests, her condition gets increasingly worse and Chris begins to question whether Regan's condition is physical or something more sinister.
Across town, Father Damien Karras is experiencing his own questions of faith after the tragic passing of his troubled elderly mother. Finding himself alone and increasingly questioning his beliefs in the face of his psychiatric background, Karras is stunned when Chris approaches him about conducting a possible exorcism in a desperate attempt to rid Regan of her troubles. Initially dismissive, Karras is soon under no illusion that what is afflicting Regan is worthy of such an intervention and is soon put in contact with the venerable Lankester Merrin - the closest thing the Catholic church has to an expert on such matters...
What's to Like?
It occurred to me during this film that the Seventies were a true Golden Age for horror with a number of landmark films released during this decade. From the visceral torture of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the iconic slasher Halloween, there seem to be a number of films in a short space of time that established a number of horror franchises comprised of an outstanding or influential first film then followed by inferior sequels. The Exorcist is another example and frankly, it might be the best of the lot. The film is a masterpiece of building up an awkward tension in extremely subtle ways that make the movie's most graphic moments all the more shocking, the way a great horror film should. From the ominous opening scenes in Iraq of Father Merrin being plagued by statues of a grotesque demon (named in the book as Pazuzu but not in the film) to the increasingly unsettling appearance of poor Regan, the film rarely stops to ease up the pressure on your psyche. This is a film to experience, not merely just watch.
Beyond the creaky effects (which actually work in the film's favour - no CG cheating going on make them much more believable), the film's illusion is maintained by a number of fantastic performances. The understated Miller is perfect as the priest struggling to hold on to his faith, Burstyn is effective as the desperate mother searching for answers and Von Sydow brings a regal calm as Merrin, underneath some convincing make-up and prosthetics. But Blair stands out as the traumatised Regan who goes from wholesome cherub to the foul-mouthed, blasphemous demon-child with worrying levels of conviction. And yes, I know that the demon's growling voice and raspy breathing was provided by Mercedes McCambridge but personally, it adds to the performance rather than distract. Speaking of the strange and otherworldly noises heard in the film, they are just as effective as spooking viewers out as the scared, twisted face of Regan spouting inventive obscenities. In fact, it's the noises that got me first - from the moment Chris hears 'rats' in the attic, we immediately know that no rodent ever made a noise like that.
The reason why horror films these days hold no appeal to me at all is that they seem to other nothing beyond buckets of blood, gruesome murders and the obligatory 'final girl'. There is no imagination and crucially, no suggestion as to the horrors in the story because we immediately see them. What The Exorcist does brilliantly well is offer hints at something dark but little in the way of concrete answers. It even uses subliminal imagery such as the painted face of Pazuzu itself (actually played by an uncredited Eileen Dietz who was also Blair's stunt double) that flashes up in a few brief scenes to throw you off guard. It makes the film a hard one to forget once seen, no matter how hard you try. Frankly, I feel like I need to see something light and fluffy like Moana now as though I'm washing the taste away.
- The scene that caused the most audience reaction was actually that involving the first medical test Regan has at the hospital. It was a carotid arteriogram that involved a needle being inserted into the neck and blood pumping across her body in a realistic fashion. Since then, the procedure has been superseded by using a more distant artery instead.
- Speaking of that scene, the bearded doctor seen performing during the procedure is Paul Bateson who at the time was an x-ray technician at NYU Medical Centre. In 1979, he was jailed for the murder of film critic Addison Verrill but was released on parole in 2003, despite Bateson being implicated in the murders of a number of gay men and apparently confessing to the crimes while in prison - a case which inspired the Al Pacino film Cruising, which was also directed by Friedkin.
- The film was the first horror film in history to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. To date, the only other horror film to be nominated has been Get Out although films such as Jaws and Silence Of The Lambs do contain elements of horror. Adjusted for inflation, it was the highest earning R-rated horror picture until 2017 when It took the record.
- The set for Regan's bedroom was refrigerated in order to get the images of cold breath in the air, with temperatures sent down to as low as 30º degrees (-1º Celsius) and snow forming on the set before shooting commenced. Even today, Blair - who was only wearing a thin nightdress during these scenes - hates being in the cold.
What's Not to Like?
Of course, some of the film's special effects have dated somewhat and can look hokey at times. Take the famous "head twisting" sequence which doesn't look especially convincing and nor do the moments when Regan's bed begins rocking like it's falling down stairs... OK, poor choice of words! But in truth, I didn't mind the effects at all. If anything, the film's total lack of CG and reliance on practical visual effects makes the film feel much more real than the ubiquitous computer graphics we tend to see today. You can tell it's an old film but The Exorcist doesn't feel dated at all, in spite of the effects and the many moments that have been parodied ever since.
As for the film's shocking moments, these have dated a little as filmmakers have gotten more bold and less reserved about depicting such scenes. As Regan was telling Father Karras what to do with a certain part of his anatomy, I was reminded of the equally vulgar character Hit Girl from Kick-Ass in her schoolgirl outfit and pair of pistols. Have we gotten used to such profanity nowadays? Have films actually lost the ability to shock audiences now as films such as this have become more common? Back in the early Seventies, there is no doubt in my mind that devout Catholics and conservative audiences would have been stunned by the sight of a young girl masturbating with a crucifix but I'm not sure that such images would work these days. But this film isn't about mere shock tactics - it works anyway without such cheap sensationalism. At least you can say that the film offers viewers something it's unlikely they would have seen before.
Should I Watch It?
To the surprise of literally no-one, The Exorcist has retained nearly all of its troubling power to unnerve and unsettle the most jaded of horror film viewers. Eschewing today's standards of blood and guts, the film uses suggestion and implication to tell its terrifying story of demonic possession, desperation and ultimate redemption with stunning effect. For my money, this is simply one of the best horror films I can recall seeing and while I won't be watching it again thank you very much, fans of the genre can't call themselves such until they have seen this.
Great For: horror film fans, jaded Catholics, scaring the bejeezus out of you
Not So Great For: buttoned-up folk who take life too seriously, anyone who's lived a sheltered life, the squeamish, the sequels
What Else Should I Watch?
I am becoming increasingly convinced that the 1970s were the decade for horror films with a number of iconic films spawning their own franchise and introducing their own totem-pole character on which to hang. The year after The Exorcist, we had the arrival of Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which features much less claret than you might expect but is still a white-knuckle experience that stuns you with its sheer brutality. 1976 saw the release of another supernatural thriller featuring demonic children - The Omen saw the literal birth of the Anti-Christ in the form of Damien Thorn and it too was followed by a number of inferior sequels, spin-offs and even a remake. Halloween was released a couple of years later which John Carpenter used to propel the slasher genre into the mainstream and introduced the masked murderer Michael Myers to audiences everywhere. You could even make a case for the Alien franchise - starting in 1979 with Ridley Scott's Alien, the sci-fi horror remains a fantastically spooky space chiller with H.R. Giger's now-iconic beastie stalking the crew of the Nostromo in deep space and is certainly the scariest of the series so far. At least, in the positive sense of the word.
The horror trend continued into the 1980's but by now, the genre was getting over-crowded by what essentially boils down to supernatural serial killers and the film's started feeling generic and less inventive. The original version of A Nightmare On Elm Street may have had the unforgettable Freddy Krueger but I never really rated it as a horror film and the series quickly descended into a parody of itself. Likewise 1988's Child's Play which was soon overshadowed by the ever-present Chucky knifing people to death, even renaming the series after the murderous doll. The only horror film I would instantly recommend is the viscerally disturbing Hellraiser which was directed by the author who created the franchise Clive Barker. From the troubling appearance of iconic character Pinhead to the images of flesh being flayed and bodies ripped apart by chains, it's a vision of Hell with a worrying degree of plausibility.
Max Von Sydow
Father Lankester Merrin
Father Damien Karras
Lee J. Cobb
Lieutenant William Kinderman
William Peter Blatty*
Release Date (UK)
14th March, 1974
18 (1990 re-rating)
Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Actress (Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Blair), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Set Decoration, Best Film Editing
© 2021 Benjamin Cox