The Exorcist is probably the most frightening horror movie ever made. Academy-Award winning director William Friedkin previously known for The French Connection (1971) created a frightening, horror film masterpiece, that became one of the biggest box office successes of all time. The story of the attempts to save the life of the demonically possessed Regan, is at times practically impossible to sit through due to its intensity. The film is based on the sensational bestseller by William Peter Blatty, inspired in an actual case of possession recorded in the 1940s in Maryland.
The Exorcist begins in Iraq, somewhere in the dry, dusty desert. This sequence sets a tone of foreboding and establishes the presence of 'Good' and 'Evil' by introducing the key character of Father Merrin played by Max von Sydow. The action moves from this prologue to the influential elite society of central Washington DC, where Chris MacNeil, an actress played with electrifying intensity by Ellen Burstyn lives with her young daughter Regan, played by Linda Blair. Mundane life goes on until Regan begins to act strangely. Her personality shifts, the house echoes with unexplained noises and eventually (and literally) all hell breaks loose.
Friedkin hooks the audience immediately by introducing ominous signs intertwined with shock after shock and suspense until they become almost unbearable. Blatty’s screenplay it's founded on fully realized characters, details and a realistic blend of divorce drama, cocktail parties, housekeeping details, cookie stealing scenes, and a realistic portrait of priests' private lives, fears and temptations. Then he crashes that reality by throwing his characters against a force they can scarcely comprehend.
The Exorcist presents a very complex image of God, Satan, and man's relationship with both. In a scene in which Father Merrin provides advice to the younger priest Father Karras, played by Jason Miller, he talks about the nature of the devil by stating that "the demon is a liar and would like to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological and powerful. Remember that. Do not listen."
Friedkin avoids the cliché trappings traditional monster movies, by focusing instead on the notion of evil as a force beyond our ability to comprehend or imagine. All the events occur within the context of a very real world where people deal with mundane issues. The physical production and rhythms of the narrative achieve intense momentum by intertwining everyday life with the character's theological and dramatic concerns, ominous imagery and sudden incidents of extreme violence and perversion. Friedkin persuade us to suspend belief so effectively that you never for a second get the feeling that this film is slipping into unintended comedy, the biggest pitfall with the horror film genre.
With the combined talents of makeup artist Dick Smith and special effects director Marcel Vercoutere the result is a film of incredible power. There are many brutal sequences in the movie involving spinal tap testing with lots of close ups of needles and blood. There are also 360 degree head-rotations, self-mutilation, masturbation with crucifixes, projectile vomiting, etc. But the power of those scenes stays with the audience long after the movie is over because they are always founded on a believable context.
Friedkin’s selective use of music is very innovative. The film horror sequences are not musically scored; instead he uses Jack Nitzsche's original score for the build up scenes leading to the horror sequences. The recognizable opening instrumental tune 'Tubular Bells' by Mike Oldfield, eventually became a No.1 single on the Billboard charts.
Also worth mentioning is Owen Roizman’s stunning cinematography. He alternates between traditional and unobtrusive camera work for the more realistic scenes and then switching to carefully composed images both beautiful and haunting.
The Exorcist contains many memorable sequences such as the misty red sun in the opening Iraq sequence while an Arabic prayer is chanted in the background; Chris walking the leaf-covered streets of D.C. , accompanied by the mesmerizing sounds of 'Tubular Bells' while nuns walk by trailing billowing black and white habits and children running in their Halloween costumes; and of course there is Max Von Sydow’s foggy arrival, perhaps the most memorable sequence of the film. He arrives to the front of the McNeil's house, stands motionless under the streetlight in the swirling smoke and looks up at Regan's window with a superimposed closeup of Regan's demon face.
In 1974 The Exorcist won two of the ten Academy Awards that it was nominated for, those two being for best adapted screenplay, and best sound. It was also the first horror movie ever to receive such other distinguished nominations as Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. The Exorcist is intelligent, very scary and ultimately haunting at the same time. A true masterpiece.
THE NEW VERSION
The new release of The Exorcist has an additional 12 minutes of footage that were edited prior to its premiere in 1973. Three major additions merit some discussion. The "spider walk," sequence in which Regan is seen walking downstairs upside-down, crab-style seems misplaced and comes across as a cheap stunt that does not fit in within the context of the careful pacing built up to that point in the film. Even this sequence has been altered from the more scary original concept in which a close up of Regan’s face is seen sticking out her lizard shaped tongue as she jumps on her mother, to a less scary version of the same scene ending instead with a close up on Regan’s face spewing blood towards the camera. The new more optimistic but less effective ending replaces the more appropriate quiet melancholy of the original. And finally, subliminal images of CGI demons have been added on key points in the early scenes but seemed forced and clash with the carefully orchestrated mood of the original. The only real improvement on this new release is in the sound remix. It is much louder, crisper and at times even enhances some of the scarier moments of the film. In one particular memorable sequence you will literally jump out of your seat when a phone rings.
American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.