The Exorcist is now over 35 years old but still holds up well.
How can you go wrong when you know that the legendary Max von Sydow – the man who once played chess with Mr. Death in The Seventh Seal and flogged himself in the Virgin Spring -- will eventually get down to business and shout down the Devil. “The power of Christ compels you.”
Based on a true life story of a boy who underwent an exorcism in the late 1940’s, novelist William Peter Blatty begins his screenplay with a slow moving stretch on an archeological dig in North Africa and introduces us to von Sydow’s character, Father Merrin. We do learn that Father Merrin has a heart condition and see images that foreshadow the coming encounter with some evil forces. But we leave Father Merrin to follow two parallel stories destined to collide.
One story involves Regan (Linda Blair), who appears as the sweet twelve-year-old that any mother would love to claim as her own. Regan and her mother, Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) currently live in Georgetown while McNeil is acting in a film on location there. We do learn quickly that McNeil is opposed to all organized religion, which sets up the contrasting story.
That involves Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest and psychiatrist who is facing spiritual and occupational self-questioning and also the challenge of caring for his mother. The likelihood of Karras getting involved with non-believer McNeil would be unlikely; however, Regan undergoes some shocking changes. Beginning with urinating on the carpet, Regan soon begins hearing strange noises, begins to shout obscenities, suffer seizures, and go into violent tantrums. Not to mention her radical change in complexion and the transformation of her bedroom into a miniature Antartica.
Eventually Karras convinces his superiors that the ancient exorcism ritual is in order and father Merrin is called upon to assist, and the climax of the film is reached. At this point the film becomes very intense, as he evil spirit seems determined to win over the young priest who is facing his own spiritual demons and the old priest with the heart condition.
This film caused quite a stir back in 1973 and the pre-film hype was tremendous. There were possible leaks to the media about what Regan would look like when she was Satanized, and that resulted in magazine and newspaper sellouts of those special issues.
I found the novel itself to be very engrossing and disturbing, and I actually picked up the flu from reading it. I was ill for three days after finishing the book, so I was prepared to see the scariest movie I’d ever seen after hearing that people were getting physically sick in the theaters and sometimes had to walk out.
In that sense, I ended up seeing the movie as competently made, but not nearly as frightening as I had been led to believe. Some things just don’t translate to the screen that well, so while the book was able to focus on spiritual battles being waged through the Ouija board, the film generally glossed these over. Actually I think that your reaction will rely largely on your own Faith. People who believe in the existence of evil and Satan will be more likely to become engrossed in the film than people who don’t.
While the film does touch upon the spiritual conflicts that McNeil and Father Karras are facing, we’re mostly horrified by the special effects, make up, and the gross obscenities. I was intrigued by the thought that Father Merrin brings up when he says, “The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, but powerful.” I would have liked to seen this idea developed a bit more, but there’s a number of well-done aspects.
Where The Exorcist succeeds best is in developing its characters. This is no teen slasher flick that presents dozens of cardboard characters to be cut to shreds. Instead we do get to understand the relationships that McNeil has with her friends and family, and we get to know something of Karras’ spiritual struggles with his Faith. Even the slow moving opening scenes give us an instinctive feel for Father Merrin’s character despite the heavy makeup used to age von Sydow.
The mood is sufficiently creepy around Georgetown with its muted fall colors and generally gray days, and the theme music helps establish the suspenseful mood as well as any film in the horror genre. I actually do appreciate the pacing that is used since the scenes in Regan's bedroom are so intense. If we were treated to more of those, we’d be exhausted and have a difficult time getting to sleep.
As it is, I may just swear off green pea soup. It was never a favorite anyway.