(1973) Horror (Warner Brothers) Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Rev. William O’Malley S.J., Barton Heyman, Pete Masterson, Rudolf Schûndler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Rev. Thomas Bermingham S.J., Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, John Mahon, Mercedes McCambridge (voice). Directed by William Friedkin
The devil is more concept than reality for most of us. We see the devil as a representation of our darker nature, the part that is less Godly, less good. We don’t see the devil as a physical, real being. At least, we didn’t before The Exorcist came along.
Based on a best-selling novel by acclaimed author William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist shattered box office records and caused a furor; some condemned it as a glorification of Satan, others as horror pornography. Others praised it for pushing boundaries. In any case, it re-defined horror movies from the stylized costume epics of Hammer and their ilk and brought realism into the genre. The shock waves it created reverberate today.
Regan Mac Neil (Blair) is the loving, sweet daughter of famous actress Chris Mac Neil (Burstyn) who is in Washington DC to film her latest movie. After playing with a Ouija board, strange things begin to occur around Regan; odd noises, suddenly using foul language (something she had never done before) and showing abnormal strength. When the bed she’s in shakes without apparent cause, Chris starts consulting doctors to see what’s wrong with her daughter. Nobody can find anything medically amiss.
Then Regan kills Burke Demmings (MacGowran), the director on Chris’ new film and a close friend. That prompts a police detective Lt. William Kinderman (Cobb) to investigate. Kinderman, a movie buff, is a little star struck but doesn’t let that prevent him from investigating thoroughly. What he finds is disturbing.
Father Lawrence Merrin (von Sydow) is a Catholic priest who was an exorcist earlier in his career. During that time he defeated a demon named Pazuzu. The experience so unsettled him that he hasn’t performed an exorcism in years. Now summoned by the Church to help the Mac Neil family which is running out of options, he is teamed with Father Damien Karras (Miller), a psychologist who has lost his faith in God since the death of his mother.
The two will face a foe unlike any they’ve ever seen, the tired old priest and the young disillusioned one but they are all that stand between Regan and a life of possession and horror. Can they stand up to something so powerful with only their faith as a weapon – and even that is eroded?
The Exorcist as I mentioned was not just a watershed moment in horror films but in cinematic history. The frenzy around it would predate future blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, which would lead Hollywood to the blockbuster mentality it has today, for better or for worse.
For its time, the scares were incredible. The actors reactions were often prompted by extreme measures; he fired off a gun beside Miller’s head in order to provoke a startled reaction, something Miller didn’t take too kindly to which led to an acrimonious dispute. He also put the women in harnesses and threw them around in order to show the power of the demonic entity; Burstyn sustained permanent spinal damage during one of these takes.
By modern standards, the practical effects are somewhat primitive but still effective. It’s refreshing to see images not made with computers but are still terrifying and realistic nonetheless. One of the things that made The Exorcist so frightening at the time was how realistic it was in terms of how it portrayed life in 1973. It could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in your neighborhood.
Von Sydow, who was only 44 when this was filmed, had already been a major star in Europe and was well-known in the States but this was a career maker for him. In the 70s and 80s he became a very popular actor, often as a villain. He continues to be very active today at 84. Burstyn, who was a respected actress whose performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore garnered her an Oscar nomination, never really did a part like Chris Mac Neil again but she is astonishing in it. Miller, a respected playwright, had a distinguished acting career following his work in the film
And as for Linda Blair, The Exorcist made her a household name. She will never be completely divorced from Regan; even now, a middle aged woman, she is associated with that little girl. Regan has haunted her career pretty much all her life, which is both a good thing and not. Her name was enough to get her some roles she probably would like to see forgotten; but it has also maybe made people not take her as seriously as she deserved to be as an actress.
For many, this is the ultimate horror movie, the one by which all others are measured. There are also those who would argue for other films, but a very compelling argument can be made that The Exorcist is the most important horror movie of all time, not merely of its generation and those of us who are old enough to remember when it was released (I was 13 at the time) will be affected by the frenzy that accompanied it. For any horror fan, this is a must-see.
WHY RENT THIS: One of the greatest horror movies ever. Standout performances from virtually the entire cast. Intelligent and realistic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find it too intense; others too bland.
FAMILY VALUES: Extremely foul language, scenes of terror and horror, some disturbing images and violence. There are also some graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is The Exorcist the highest-grossing Warner Brothers film of all time (adjusted for inflation) but also the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time (again, adjusting for inflation).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains both the original 1973 version and a 2000 Director’s Cut by Friedkin. There’s also a featurette on some of the locations from the movie; what they looked like back in 1973 and what they look like now as well as a featurette on knock off versions that were made after The Exorcist became so successful. There’s also a feature-length documentary on the making of the film. The 40th anniversary Blu-Ray edition includes all those as well as a featurette on author William Peter Blatty, a featurette on the original incident that inspired the novel and an interview with the man who brought it to Blatty’s attention as an undergraduate at Georgetown and a hardcover book including excerpts from Friedkin’s memoir.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.3M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Omen
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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