“When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.” — IMDb
Apparently I’m on a Blatty kick with my previous review of The Ninth Configuration and then doing a throwback to The Exorcist, but how can you blame me? The man is a legend. The Exorcist was based on Blatty’s novel of the same name (published in 1971), which itself was based on the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe (a pseudonym), a 14-year-old boy who was the victim of demonic possession.
It has achieved massive acclaim since its release: it earned ten Academy Award nominations (won two), became one of the highest grossing films in history (over $441 million worldwide in the aftermath of various re-releases), and is widely regarded as one of the best horror films ever made.
The overt religious themes and subtle creepiness start right at the beginning, with Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archaeological dig in Iraq. He finds an amulet that chills him… the scene where the scholar he is talking with mentions “evil against evil” and the pendulum of the clock abruptly stops… understated and yet awesome.
We then switch to a happy home in Georgetown, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., with actress Chris (the always fantastic Ellen Burstyn) and her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair). It doesn’t take long before Regan finds a mysterious ouija board — which she apparently uses to contact someone she calls “Captain Howdy” — and things start to descend from there, with Regan becoming more and more overtaken by some kind of mysterious, evil force.
Firstly, the music is all great, but “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield — what is now considered the “theme from The Exorcist” — is fantastic. I feel like you’d know it if you heard it, likely even if you hadn’t seen the movie before. (It may also remind you of the Halloween theme song, like it does for me.)
The movie is known, undoubtedly, for its more extreme scenes — Linda Blair projectile vomiting her pea soup bile into Father Karras’s face, her crab walk on the stairs, violating herself with a crucifix — but there’s so much subtle horror to be had as well, not to mention the deep symbolism and the obvious struggle to hold onto one’s faith, something that seemingly everyone is grappling with.
Not least of which is Chris’s frustration over the doctors’ inability to diagnose her daughter. We see her slowly but surely going mad and losing her ability to hold it together as she is faced with the same answers (or lack thereof), the same brush offs, the seeming lack of caring or passion to get to the bottom of what is a pretty dramatic mystery. Burstyn does such a fantastic job in this role — she gives you chills on more than one occasion with her raw emotion.
There’s also Father Karras’s guilt-laden relationship with his mother, made even more intense when she passes away, all but forgotten in her home for days before she’s found. His faith is shaken to the core for reasons even beyond this, and yet he can’t break loose from his obligations and his morals as a priest.
Ultimately, this movie made such a shocking impression for its more provocative moments — Regan’s head spinning around WAS pretty cool — but it’s worth sticking around for the characterizations.
The shot of Father Merrin arriving at their home all silhouetted in fog is just… killer. It’s such a well known shot for a reason — again, even if you’ve never seen the movie, it’s likely you’ve seen that one screenshot — and it is just brilliant. The mist surrounding him adds such an appropriately otherworldly feel, the house is ominous as it looms over him, and his brief hesitation to continue walking in… perfection.
I was surprised during the exorcism scene — again, the classic portion of the whole movie — of how little I was impressed by the oft-mentioned head spinning, but how much I LOVED when Regan’s eyes went white before she levitated. SO GOOD. The repetition of “the power of Christ compels you!” is full of so much intensity… these two men are wanting this exorcism to work for so many different reasons, and yet so many of the same ones. They are literally fighting against evil, hoping they have what it takes to draw it out and make it cower in fear while they are both still so unsure. The demon inside of her is using everything it can — particularly Father Karras’s very recent, raw pain concerning his mother — and the scene with his ghostly white mother sitting on the bed is chilling to say the least. And the ending… gah. Perfect.
Seriously, while The Exorcist may not be MY favorite horror movie of all time, it’s pretty fantastic and worth a watch (or two).