"I'm the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps."
Horror films very often catch a bad rap, particularly from the "mainstream" film community, whatever that even means. The bottom line is, they are often considered no more than dispensible B-movies, the equivalent of pulp novels or comic books. Good for a thrill and a little fun, but then quickly forgotten. Needless to say, there are legions of serious horror fans who can tell you that this generalization is ridiculous, but it's rare that the casual movie-going audience is made to understand that horror can deliver some high-quality work--films that can stay with you not just on the basis of how frightening they are, but simply by virtue of how great they are as cinema.
The Exorcist was one of the first films of the modern era to really do this, to cross over into the mainstream consciousness and be recognized as a fine piece of film-making in its own right. To a certain extent, Rosemary's Baby had paved the way a few years before, but The Exorcist is far and away the superior film, and it forced critics and audiences alike to rethink their stereotyped opinions of horror in general.
Nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Exorcist is the work of William Friedkin, one of the geniuses who led the way during the formation of the new, auteur-driven Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just the fact that he had agreed to helm the picture gave it instant credibility, and the talent he brought to the table helped transform William Peter Blatty's potboiler novel into one of the most important pieces of 1970s cinema.
The Exorcist is not only a superbly made film, but it also succeeds as horror because it is supremely scary. Granted, such a quality is largely subjective, but the fact remains that The Exorcist is more often than not the film that gets mentioned whenever anyone is trying to determine "the scariest movie ever made." It may not be so for everyone, but just the fact that it works so well as a horror movie while also being such a flawless piece of cinema is quite an impressive achievement.
During an era when realism in film was being stressed, The Exorcist was a bit of an anomaly. But, interestingly enough, it works exactly because it brings that realist aesthetic to the material. It should also not be forgotten that it remains the highest-grossing horror film ever made. So here you have a motion picture that was a rousing success financially, reached the high watermark of its genre, and also is recognized as one of the finest films ever made. Not a bad trifecta at all for a movie about a little girl possessed by the Devil.
As with all great films, what makes The Exorcist work in the end is the script, and the performances. And as with most films that surpass the novels on which they were based, the screenplay, adapted by Blatty, improves upon the original novel, delivering characters who live and breath and make us care very deeply for them. Father Karras and Regan MacNeil in particular, along with Regan's put-upon mother Chris, are all realized in startling fashion. These are real people in the real world, faced with very real struggles, despite the bizarre, over-the-top form which these struggles take.
A teenaged Linda Blair really makes us feel for the plight of Regan, the pure, virginal young girl who is so viciously and cruelly taken over by the demon (voiced in a highly effective fashion by Mercedes McCambridge). Set up in the beginning the way she is, it is truly tragic to watch her spiral into chaos, and to see the wholesome relationship with her mother so thoroughly devastated. And speaking of her mother, Ellen Burstyn makes the most of the best role of her career here, communicating all the desperation of a helpless mother faced with an unthinkable threat to her child about which she can do nothing.
But this movie truly belongs to Jason Miller, whose agnostic Father Karras represents the moral center of the entire narrative, and the character with whom viewers are invited to identify. He is the everyman forced to find his inner strength and redeem himself in order to defend good from evil. Miller's performance is so powerful, in fact, that it completely overshadows that of the very capable Max Von Sydow, who actually plays the titular exorcist, Father Merrin. Also memorable in a supporting role is the great Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman.
The Exorcist still very much has the power to frighten on a very visceral, intellectual level. More than just shock value, the terror on display here is deep and profound, stemming from real spiritual concerns. And even though most do not really believe in the Devil or demonic possession, the notion of outside evil penetrating our world, and profaning that which is pure and pristine, is something that tends to touch us on a gut level, tapping into our primal fear of the unknown. This is a horror film in the truest sense of the term, and accomplishes that which few horror films ever really do--it fills us with absolute dread.
The Exorcist forever changed the horror genre in cinema, and was a part of a bold, innovative era in moviemaking which we haven't seen the like of since. There are those who snicker at its dire religious themes, who try to laugh off the deep-seated anxiety this film provokes. If anything, their nervous dismissals only serve to further establish the film's raw power. This is a movie that needs to be revisited by those who know it more as a cultural touchstone than an actual movie. It is only then that its impressive power is truly revealed.
NEXT UP: Young Frankenstein (1974)