Written by: William Peter Blatty
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran
Belief in things out of your own personal control can hang on the most delicate of threads in life. It can sway in any direction based on new evidence becoming apparent and it drives the character perspectives within the ever-haunting but emotionally effective The Exorcist. Deemed one of the scariest films ever made and with good reason.
While in Washington D.C. for a project, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) sees her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) acting strangely after playing with a Ouija board. With scientific probes and attempted diagnostics, Chris begins to realize that perhaps her daughter has been possessed by the devil and needs the help of the church to end this misery.
Famously known for the scenes during the actual exorcism, this film truly finds its horror from the battle of actually getting to this scenario. Chris does not appear to be religious, which ensures she will head towards the scientific community for assistance first. The actions of Regan cannot be deciphered even by the top doctors and psychiatrists because no scientific answer exists for the poor suffering this girl is experiencing. It becomes the dilemma of it being scarier not knowing the affliction rather than at least having an idea of what this poor girl must take on. Through this whole process, the audience gets put right in the perspective of Chris as she wants to help her daughter but no expert can provide her with concrete answers. I cannot fathom the pain of going through this situation, and Burstyn channels this so well through her performance with the struggle of the biopsies needing to be done to her poor daughter.
The pain Chris must endure matches up well with the other main perspective of the feature, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). His presence in this feature serves as the blending of science and the power of religion. Serving both as a priest and psychiatrist, he knows very well how unlikely it will be to prove Regan actually got possessed by the devil. It becomes a crisis of faith with him, which ultimately gets utilized within the exorcism itself.
The Exorcist ensures to rule out every other rational explanation for what has been occurring to Regan smartly and having it come from a secular person like Chris only gives the narrative more credence. The plea for the church to get involved essentially comes as a last-ditch effort to save her daughter because nothing else has been working. She even gets the idea by doctors almost jokingly referring her to the church, which says plenty about the way they feel about this particular circumstance. With mental health disorders becoming something we have more knowledge of, jumping to a disturbance being caused by a demonic possession rightfully must clear a higher bar than the past. This film rules everything out and then brings in the clergymen to take on this ultimate challenge.
Horrifying imagery from this film has continued to permeate popular culture and all other exorcism films and it proceeds to hold up remarkably well. The direction of William Friedkin in these horrifying moments remains so intriguing considering the number of times it has been copied and spoofed. It feels like I watched every spoof of what occurs during the exorcism before seeing the actual film itself. These moments carry emphasis in the story but it occurs in such an impactful manner without being the complete center of it. Take the inverted crawling down the steps, which has been overdone in recent films. It occurs seemingly out of nowhere and has such a devastating impact based not on the action itself but rather how it impacts Chris. Then there are the famous moments of the head-turning, the vulgarity of the language, and all of the terrifying imagery depicted during the exorcism. It certainly leaves a mark because we know Regan from when she was a sweet child and what she turns into when possessed by the devil horrifies in comparison. The stakes get higher and higher until the biggest decisions need to get made.
Visually, this film contains plenty of iconic shots including the best of them being Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) standing right outside the home with Regan’s window shining down on him. It aptly gets used as the poster for the feature as it communicates so much about what this man is about to walk into. A figure about to embark on a dangerous situation calling to him. The levitation scene imbues so much dread in depicting the power the devil has over this poor girl and how much of an adversary it proves to be to these two priests. It demonstrates excellence by William Friedkin in every single way directorially with how he puts together this narrative.
Aging like fine wine, The Exorcist delivers plenty of thrills while also digging into the emotional trauma involved with trying to combat the devil. The film delves into trying to decipher the puzzles even the most advanced science could ever achieve and provides plenty of chills because Chris’s financial situation allowed for top-notch care. You can only imagine how this would look with a less financially prepared home. Horror at its finest and some of the best work done within the genre.