Editor’s Notes: Just in time for Halloween, William Friedkin’s horror classic returns in a new digital presentation for a special limited run at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
What more can be said about William Friedkin’s second masterpiece of the 1970’s (after 1971’s The French Connection) that hasn’t already been said? The film has been labored over for 40 years with sequels and prequils and countless imitators.
The film is of course written by William Peter Blatty from his own novel (and for which he won an Oscar). That sets the film apart right away because not only is it uncommon for a novelist to adapt their own work, it is even rarer that it turns out well. The story is that of film actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) who are temporarily living in Washington, D.C. while Chris is shooting a film. Regan becomes possessed by the devil and must be exorcised by local priest/psychiatrist Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and exorcism expert Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).
The early scenes depicting a loving relationship between mother and daughter are indispensable because it shows the marked changed in Regan’s personality and the combustion of Chris under the strain of having an ill child that medical science can do nothing for.
While that would be scary enough for a whole picture, the focus is not really on the exorcism, which only takes up the last half hour of the film. The focus instead is on the slow build to the realization that Regan’s problems are not medical. The early scenes depicting a loving relationship between mother and daughter are indispensable because it shows the marked changed in Regan’s personality and the combustion of Chris under the strain of having an ill child that medical science can do nothing for. They also help us to identify with the terrified child in the middle of all this horror. Cut together with sequences of Father Karras struggling with his position as clerical psychiatrist and a crisis of faith, along with the recent death of his mother, Friedkin and Blatty give us characters we are invested in long before the devil makes an appearance.
These characters and our investment in them is what sets this film apart from later exorcism films. In those, the focus is on the horror wrought by the possessed individual and how much the filmmakers can get away with making an innocent girl do (because it is almost always a young girl that gets possessed). You begin to feel terrible for Father Karras who witnesses one horror after another, all beating down his confidence and faith until he just can’t cope with it anymore. If he weren’t a priest, his uncle tells him, he’d be rich and his mother could be well taken care of. This weighs on him so much that he blames himself for his mother’s death, despite her age and the fact that she lives alone.
It has always seemed to me that Jason Miller’s performance was at the heart of this film, not Linda Blair or Ellen Burstyn or Max von Sydow’s. Miller, whose film debut this was, exudes all of the pensive angst that is required for the role and shows genuine talent as an actor. It is sad that his career wasn’t more fruitful, but that may be because he was never able to pull himself out from the shadow created by his tremendous performance in this film. He generates genuine sympathy for his character and is never felt to be unapproachable. He uses the conundrum of a science-minded priest to the fullest, always letting the audience know that Karras struggles with both sides of his life every day. The weight of his responsibility is visible in his face and he can do nothing to escape it, despite trying through rigorous physical exercise (Karras was once a boxer and trains like he still is one).
The astounding thing about The Exorcist is that it holds up after 40 years. It is still one of the most terrifying films ever produced and that’s saying something given the confluence of slasher flicks that have been the predominant force in horror since the 1970s.
That may be why the prequels both failed (there is a troubled story behind them as well, but it is not pertinent to this film). Both prequels deal with the backstory of Father Merrin, von Sydow’s character. While he is an interesting figure and one whose story should be fascinating, he was not The Exorcist’s main protagonist. Yes, he is the exorcist of the title and not Karras (a point of confusion to some) but it is not his story. Max von Sydow is fantastic as always in the Father Merrin role, and it is especially fun to see him taking on the devil after seeing him attempt to cheat death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and the violent lengths he went to in order to avenge his daughter in another Bergman film The Virgin Spring (1960) (which served as the basis for Wes Cravin’s 1972 film The Last House on the Left). As great as he is in the role, he never feels like more than a side character and that’s all he needed to be. He serves his purpose admirably and is a catalyst for Karras’ selfless act at the end.
Then there is also Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair. Both give some amazing performances, especially Burstyn as a mother at the end of her rope. Watching her go from cool, calm and collected high-profile movie star to quivering mass is really rather stunning to watch. Blair too gives us not only a nice little girl who wants a horse, but a truly evil soul that literally spits in the face of religion. Add into that the presence of veteran actor Lee J. Cobb as the homicide detective and the film has a stunning cast all working at top-notch levels.
The astounding thing about The Exorcist is that it holds up after 40 years. It is still one of the most terrifying films ever produced and that’s saying something given the confluence of slasher flicks that have been the predominant force in horror since the 1970s. The reason is that Friedkin went for suspense instead of surprise, something that Hitchcock always emphasized. Surprise will give you a fright for a moment and then you can go about, barely remembering that it happened. Suspense stays with you for long after because it is emotional instead of instinctual. The suspense and slow build of The Exorcist makes it as terrifying today as it was in 1973 showing us that although it may be rough to watch a film where the victims are bloodily tortured and mutilated, the shock quickly evaporates, but a film that makes you care about the people that are affected by the horrors being displayed haunts you for hours, days even years after the first viewing. The Exorcist has that haunting power and likely will have for 40 more years and beyond.
[notification type=”star”]95/100 ~ AMAZING. The suspense and slow build of The Exorcist makes it as terrifying today as it was in 1973 showing us that although it may be rough to watch a film where the victims are bloodily tortured and mutilated, the shock quickly evaporates, but a film that makes you care about the people that are affected by the horrors being displayed haunts you for hours, days even years after the first viewing. [/notification]