I saw William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for the first time the other night and it definitely lived up to its reputation, while also being totally not what I expected in a good way. I think that if you go a long time not experiencing a piece of art that is iconic and referenced everywhere in pop culture you kind of project your own image of what it’s going to be like and just assume, and then when you finally get around to it you’re sort of blindsided by the product itself. That happened here with a horror film where I’d seen so many memes, editorials, parodies, pastiches, reworking and ripoffs that when I finally got around to it I was pleasantly surprised at the result.
The main thing that augmented my expectations was pacing; I always Linda Blair’s Regan was to be possessed right from the get go and to see that famous establishing shot before the credits, then have the story progress from there. The film takes its time building character, that of Regan, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the deeply unsure and fragile priest hired to do the deed. I enjoyed the fact that her mom was a famous actress working on a film and felt some touches of meta there, as well as a spooky prologue set in Africa where we meet Max Von Sydow’s Super Priest Lancaster Merrin.
So, did it live up to the hype of being one of the scariest films of all time? Well… that’s a complicated question and gets to the roots of what irks me about how we view horror films back then and now. Yes, this was a terrifying film and all the recognizable scenes of Blair being possessed still hold potency and crawl along the spine. They’re also placed well enough that you don’t necessarily expect them and as distill more shock. I’m not talking about a cheaply orchestrated jump scare, but simply cutting back on buildup or discernible beats and letting the disturbing imagery seem more organic. The head spinning around is a kicker. Thing is, this film was made in 1973 and there have been a thousand and one horror movies made since then that had this as a barometer for the envelope to push. So.. *back then*, yes, this would have been the scariest shit to grace the screen, but we gotta update our way of thinking and take into account what’s come since, and how our favourites have become dated whether we like it or not. Is it one of the *best* horror films ever made, scare-o-meter aside? There’s certainly a case for that, I found it to be an extremely well crafted, atmospheric, unnerving piece and for one that *was* made back then, definitely scary. I also appreciated the discussions had by characters around the concept of an exorcism and how science relates to theology, bringing it’s central premise into thematic conversation as opposed to simply framework for horror. One thing I was disappointed by though is the lack of that spider crab running down the stairs thing she does that I’ve scene in so many SyFy movie of the week promos. I’m guessing there are different cuts out there but that is a barnstormer of a scare moment and I’m not sure why they wouldn’t include that in every version.