Starring Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller
Directed by William Friedkin
Frequently touted as "the best horror film" or "the scariest movie" of all time, "The Exorcist" brings with it some heavy baggage, not least 2 Academy Awards (for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound) and 5 further nominations, along with 4 Golden Globe wins (including Best Picture). So looking back at it, over 40 years after its release, one has to cut through the hyperbole and try to assess it on its own terms; it shouldn't be compared to films of the genre made today, or since, or even to its source novel.
There have been several different versions of the film released over the years. There was the original, theatrical version, obviously, but subtle tweaks and additions were made over the years, from a toned-down tv version to a 25th Anniversary re-release, to a "Version You've Never Seen", which was released on DVD a few years back. I think this is the version I watched lately.
The film opens in Northern Iraq, with a sequence well and truly setting the tone for what is to come; that is, atmospheric, mysterious, and very very slow moving. It features Catholic Priest Father Lankaster Merrin, working on an archaeological dig, where he uncovers a small carved figure, which reminds him of a pagan demon (we find out in sequels and prequels that he had done battle with this demon before). The presence of the demon is felt throughout the sequence, even to the extent of seeing a deformed local blacksmith, enigmatically staring at the priest. We then cut to Georgetown, Washington DC, where a prominent actress, Chris MacNeil (the ever wonderful Ellen Burstyn) is shooting a movie, living away from her home in L.A. Her 12 year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) lives with her, her husband is estranged, and in the early scenes Blair is brilliant - charming, funny and everything a 12 year old should be. But Regan starts to exhibit odd behaviour. She mentions to Chris that she has played with a Ouija board and contacted a spirit she names "Captain Howdy". It's never explicitly stated that this is the cause of what's to come, but the implication is clear. A rather jarring jump in the narrative shows Regan undergoing a series of medical tests, due to her apparent odd behaviour. The doctors think she might have a lesion on her brain but the tests prove inconclusive, as the strangeness in the house mounts up. Chris hears strange noises in the attic, and Regan complains of her bed shaking at night.
Parallel to this story, we meet another Catholic Priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), whom Chris spots a few times at a nearby church. He is a psychological therapist, and when the medical staff despair of finding a cause for Regan's maladies, they suggest seeking help from a psychologist. Chris seeks out Father Karras and implores him to help her. Father Damien is losing his faith, and wants to leave the priesthood. His ill Mother has recently died, adding to his sorrow and disillusionment. But Regan is deteriorating, and Chris begins to believe she is possessed by something otherworldly. Karras is against the idea of exorcism, but his examinations suggest there might be something to that theory. The two stories are interwoven masterfully, and we come truly to care about the characters. Karras agrees to attempt an exorcism, but his superior insists he have help from someone with more experience; re-enter Father Merrin.
Friedkin directs with a naturalistic style familiar from "The French Connection". However, there's a certain amount which sits unwell with the fantastic atmosphere. The glacial pace sorely tempts one's patience. And there's the utterly pointless introduction of a homicide detective, Lt. Kinderman, (Lee J. Cobb) who is investigating the mysterious death of the director of the film on which Chris is working, Burke Dennings. Dennings was with Regan before he fell down a long flight of steps outside the house, breaking his neck. It's clearly suggested later on that the demon possessing Regan was responsible, but Kinderman adds nothing to the plot. His questions add up to nothing concrete, and bar an amusing aside with Karras, they yield no evidence. He just slows proceedings down and I can't understand what his presence adds to the film. The character was to make a wearisome return in the second sequel in 1990 in "The Exorcist III", played by George C. Scott and based on a mangled version of original author William Peter Blatty's novel "Legion". He still wasn't worthy of any screen time.
Where the film utterly falls down is in the exorcism scene itself. It forms the climax of the piece, and is supposed to be the shocking moment which brings things to a head, but it singularly fails to be in any way convincing. I've read often that folks think that the special effects in the film are amazing. But I disagree. I think that the makeup is brilliant; Blair gurgles and swears under her increasingly rotten looking garb, but in the key scenes, the SFX is just woeful. The "spider walk" scene, restored for the later release, is simply ludicrous - and it's obvious why it was taken out in the first place. Nothing can point the finger, though, more than the famous "head turning" scene, which is laughable. I can't think of a film which has had its gripping sense of atmosphere and mood so utterly destroyed by a bad special effect. One can't be scared when one is laughing. Frank Oz, show yourself. At that moment, one comes out of the film totally, and none of the dramatic resolution to come can be absorbed because things have descended to comedy. The film is also very serious and earnest in its promotion of the Christian religion, portraying as it does the very real notion that demonic possession, and by definition, that the Devil itself is real. This is a reflection of Blatty's own Catholicism, but it could have been better served.
Leaving aside the exorcism, the direction is solid (even if things do move rather very slowly). The growing atmosphere of dread is wonderful. The actors and actresses without exception all turn in fantastic performances. Burstyn and Miller are great in the central roles, and Max von Sydow performs brilliantly in the small but pivotal role of Merrin. Linda Blair deserves special mention for playing Regan, she brings a real humanity to a character whom essentially spends three quarters of the film in bed being antisocial, and it's a shame that she was forced into making that sequel. There are some neat cues throughout in which subliminally suggest the presence of the demon in the house, flashes of a ghostly face here and there. It feels creepy.
As a side note, it seems to me that there is a sly dig at the religion of Islam which is slightly distasteful. The film finishes and (almost) opens with adhan, the call to prayer. It seems to suggest that the devilish possession, which arises in a Muslim country, is somehow Islamic in origin. It's unfounded and un-necessary.