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.
William Peter Blatty’s The Excorcist III is my favourite in the series, and if that leaves some people aghast with disbelief, I’ll still hold my stance. Don’t get me wrong, the first film is a classic of atmospheric dread, the sequel is a psychedelic oddity that’s also very underrated, but there’s something about this one that just sat better with me than any of the others, including the two prequels with Stellen Skarsgard. This one deviates from the pattern as well as lifts the focus from Linda Blair’s character, paving a cool new story for itself and breaking new ground. It’s also got one of the single most terrifying moments I’ve ever seen on film, orchestrated perfectly enough to give a good dose of goosebumps to the strongest of spines. The immortal and always excellent George C. Scott plays Kinderman, a police lieutenant who is on the trail of a bloodthirsty serial murderer nicknamed The Gemini Killer. The killer himself has actually been long deceased, but uncanny similarities in the current crimes have freaked the police right out, and so he follows the clues to a foreboding psychiatric facility. It soon becomes clear that there’s something very mysterious going on, and something very wrong with the patients. Skittish Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) seems to know what’s going on, but also seems not to, or to be too scared to divulge anything. A terrifying patient named James Venuman (Brad Dourif is so scary you’ll want to hide behind the couch) seems to contain something malevolent inside him, his ravings making eerie sense to the detective. There’s a few surprise cameos from veterans of the franchise, as well as work from Ed Flanders, Nicol Williamson and, believe it or not, an appearance from Fabio, of all people. The atmosphere is so thick you could choke on it, the dread hanging in the air like clammy mist, helped in part by the disturbing choice of location, Dourif’s sheer ghoul act and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s camera, which lurks along walls and corridors and turns the facility into a haunted house, and our nerves into a jittering mess. Underrated as both a standalone fright flick and as an entry in the Excorcist series. Top notch creepfest.
I’m not huge on horror movies. But The Exorcist is brilliant, and easily one of my all-time favorite films in any genre. This movie actually kind of scares me, every time I watch any portion of it, no matter the time of day. It certainly gets under my skin; it’s relentlessly thrilling and so ruthless in its force and skill that it’s become one of those films that I study in terms of the nuts and bolts of its construction. I’m not a believer in the idea of real-world demonic possession, but, the scenario certainly has made for more than a few memorable cinematic experiences, but William Friedkin’s beyond intense vision is truly the stuff of nightmares. Owen Roizman’s carefully measured cinematography puts you on edge immediately, as the nearly wordless opening 20 minutes plunges the viewer into an exotic world with very little context, as Max von Sydow’s priest character unearths something terrible out in the desert. Ellen Burstyn was sensational as the actress/mother struggling with almost every facet of her life, with her biggest problem being that her young daughter Regan, the show-stopping Linda Blair, has caught the eye of the Pazuzu, an ancient demon. Jason Miller’s tortured performance as Father Karras is some of the most emotionally affecting work in this genre that I’ve come across; admittedly I’m no aficionado of the horror world, but Miller’s acting in this film has always resonated with me, and has always seemed to be a cut above for this sort of fare, which can tend to be overplayed for big, obvious moments. There’s a reason this movie has endured as long as it has – it’s truly horrific in all the right ways, vulgar and nasty, never afraid to go to some truly dark and disturbing places, while still paying respect to classic genre tropes. The Exorcist feels perfect from scene to scene, with each performance totally nailed by the incredible ensemble, and all of the craft elements aligning to create one of the most visceral and truly horrifying visions of cinematic terror that’s ever been presented.