That The Exorcist is one of if not the greatest horror movie of all time is hardly in doubt. Just check out any internet ‘best horror movie’ list and it will inevitably be in one of the top spots. What makes it such a great movie is a little harder to figure out. When you think about it, the plot is as simple as it gets. Young girl gets possessed by the devil. Two priests are sent to exorcise her. Climax will determine whether good or evil prevails. We’ve seen it or something close to that plot a million times. Well a million times since The Exorcist was released, as the topic was hardly touched before the movie came along. Since then every hackneyed movie has been trying to replicate its success. Without much success on their own I might add.
So what makes it tick? A large part of the answer is the intricate character exposition and development throughout the movie. The two priests, are a good example. One is a nearly worn out yet stalwart veteran of a former exorcism. He knows exactly what he’s dealing with. The other priest who instigated the exorcism is a younger man questioning his faith and remains deeply unsettled by the recent passing of his mother. Aside from the cloth they share they are almost diametric opposites and yet in the ensuing battle they compliment one another perfectly. Another progression we witness is the cherubically sweet child Regan who slowly turns into the very devil himself before our eyes. A greater contrast cannot be found. Then you have the successful starlett mother living the Hollywood dream who suddenly finds her child morphing before her very eyes and yet nobody, not the doctors, not the psychologists, can tell her what is happening. The clergy are her last desperate resort.
The cast is stellar, especially the performance by Jason Miller as the troubled Father Karras, and Max von Sydow as Father Merrin. Linda Blair was herself the epitome of the innocent child Regan she portrayed when the movie makers got her to utter howling vile language in scenes that remain powerful even today when profanity in films is rampant. Ellen Burstyn as the mother imparts that dread any parent faces when their childs life is at stake, all the more petrifying when dealing with an unknown source of terror.
The closest I could get to experiencing the Exorcist in 1973 was reading the Mad magazine comic parody. If the R rating wasn’t bad enough (hey I was 10), the hype and hysteria surrounding the movie was enough for me to know that this movie wasn’t going to be on TV for a long time and when it did it would have to heavily edited down for TV audiences. Eventually I came across a ragged and dog-eared copy of William Peter Blatty’s novel and managed to slink away to read it until I could someday watch the movie.
When I did finally get to see it I was engulfed by it’s power to not only shock but to be genuinely scary. Even the music score is amazing as well as the photography (that poster pose is in the movie and not just marketing pic). Despite the four decades since it’s release it remains as good a horror movie as ever with just a tad sign of aging. That green pus vomit would have a few other color shades and be a bit more textured today.
I should point out that the Max von Sydow was not the aged denizen he portrayed in the movie and was in fact middle aged at the time they were shooting. That’s all makeup giving him that wise old man look. Particularly impressive as I watched him grow old in real life to transform into the very makeup he wore for the movie. Now That was spooky!