The Exorcist (1973)

Sometimes circumstances just come together to make a classic movie.  Director William Friedkin's previous film had been The French Connection, which had one of the most famous car chase scenes up to that point (and inspired many more throughout the 1970s) as well as a great performance by Gene Hackman.  It also had a rather unique pseudo-documentary style that set Friedkin's movie apart from similar crime and action films.

William Peter Blatty had a bestseller on his hands with The Exorcist, seemingly a horror novel about demonic possession but heavy on themes of faith and family.  Through numerous circumstances the two Williams became friends, with Blatty adapting his novel into a screenplay and Friedkin directing.  It became one of the biggest movies of 1973, as well as a horror classic that is revered to this day despite four attempts to destroy its legacy through sequels that run the gamut from painful to just dull, one of them by Blatty himself. 

It is also a movie that now exists in two different forms, as Blatty was not happy with Friedkin cutting out certain scenes and elements from his book.  This led to an extended cut being released in the early 2000s which, in my opinion, went a long way to proving that Friedkin knew what he was doing.  So, with that in mind, the version I am going to be tackling is the original that most would be familiar with.

Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is at an archaeological dig in Nineveh, in Northern Iraq, when a statue and an amulet featuring a demonic figure are unearthed.  Merrin, realizing that a spirit that he had battled before was back to torment him as his life was drawing to a close, leaves the dig to travel back to the United States.

In the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has rented a brownstone for her and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) while Chris works on location on a film for director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), with whom she may have a growing relationship.  Chris is divorced, with Regan's dad in Europe and largely uninvolved in the family.  With Chris working, much of managing their lives falls on the shoulders of her assistant Sharon (Kitty Winn). 

Initially Chris and Regan are fine in their new home, despite strange sounds and groans from the attic that Chris thinks are rats, despite the protestations of their housekeeper Karl (Rudolf Sch√ľndler) that the building is rat-free.  Despite traps being placed, the noises continue, and Regan develops an imaginary friend named Captain Howdy whom she talks to through a Ouija board.  Soon, though, Regan starts showing signs of illness and changes in behavior.  Doctors believe it may be a lesion on the brain, but are unable to find anything, next recommending psychiatric assistance.

Chris rightly doubts that psychiatric help will do, as Regan begins harming those around her and speaking in strange voices.  Also, unexplained phenomena tend to follow her around.  The doctors, at a loss, suggest that maybe Chris obtain the help of an exorcist, not because of spiritual but rather psychological reasons.

After Burke is killed after going up to Regan's room and she also attacks Chris, she seeks the help of Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is going through a test of faith after the recent death of his mother.  Karras is skeptical at first, himself being trained as a psychologist, but soon begins to suspect that the signs of possession are there.  Not only does the spirit claim to the Devil himself, but begins to use aspects of Karras's own life to get at him.

His superiors in the church are also reluctant until the proof is brought before them, and they suggest that Father Merrin assist Father Karras in removing the demon from Regan.  Meanwhile, another wrinkle appears in the form Lt. William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a Washington police detective who is suspicious that Denning's death may not have been a drunken fall down a flight of stairs as originally assumed.  As can be expected, Merrin and Karras face the demon, while Kinderman tries to piece things together.

I do need to mention that the filmmaking has changed quite a bit in the years since this came out.  Despite this, the movie still maintains much of its original effect, since Friedkin was wise in cutting out certain scenes (like the crab-walk scene) that interrupted the progression of events as well as getting rid of many of the special effects scenes that didn't come out well.  He also carries over quite a bit of the documentary feel that was in The French Connection, using his own film crew in one scene as well as actual medical personnel in the scenes where Regan goes through a number of tests.  The movie goes back and forth between what is happening with Regan and the drama of what is happening in Karras's life, leaving the viewer unsure of what may happen next, only that drawing Karras in was the demon's plan all along.

Which brings me to an important point.  Many people remember the exorcism scene, or expect this to be largely concentrating on the possession aspect.  There is a reason both the book and the movie are called The Exorcist rather than The Exorcism.  Although Linda Blair does an excellent job a Regan (as does her standin-in Eileen Dietz and the woman who did the voice work, Meredith McCambridge), the focus of the story is Father Karras and the circumstances that bring him from being a priest grounded in modern science suddenly facing a demonic spirit that predates the Catholic church, testing his faith in more ways than one, but finally bringing purpose to a life that he felt was largely unfulfilled in any way.  This was Jason Miller's screen debut, and he imbues Karras with a sense of loss and isolation that is most palpable.

The rest of the cast is as excellent as you would believe.  Max von Sydow is effective despite his small screen time (remember, this story is about Karras, not Merrin) as a man who knows that he is facing the final chapter of his long life. Ellen Burstyn manages to show the human toll the situation takes, while Lee J. Cobb plays an eccentric, movie-obsessed detective with glee. 

Still, I must warn you if you are going into this movie for the first time, your reaction (this not being 1973) is going to have a lot to do with how you view the proceedings.  Some find many of the demonic possession scenes to be humorous, and a few kind of are, particularly when Regan lashes out against the doctors prior to the demon taking complete control.  As it gets further in it gets more brutal and disturbing and, even though they had Dietz stand in for Blair in the more controversial scenes, just the fact that it is happening to a 12-year-old character is enough to set viewers on edge.

The Exorcist (1973)
Time: 122 minutes
Starring: Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb
Director: William Friedkin


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