Photo from IMDB "The Exorcist" remains a terrifying film decades after its 1973 release.
Photo from IMDB
“The Exorcist” remains a terrifying film decades after its 1973 release.

I didn’t re-watch “The Exorcist” leading up to this review for two reasons. One reason is that this is the kind of movie that is vivid enough to remember even after you’ve been removed from it for some time. The other reason is because I want to sleep with the lights off for the next month.

“The Exorcist,” released on Christmas, 1973, is the scariest film ever made. From a visuals standpoint, it can still disturb the bravest of crowds. But what makes “The Exorcist” so terrifying is the way it gets into your head. You don’t really have to suspend your disbelief that much, and the film has a lot of emotional strength as a result. Themes of religion, family and persistence rise up and make you question everything you think you understand about these themes. Like all great films, “The Exorcist” makes you think, but then it goes beyond that by breaking you without putting you back together in the end.

The story of “The Exorcist” revolves around a teenage girl named Regan (Linda Blair) and her mother, an actress named Chris (Ellen Burstyn). Regan becomes possessed by an ancient demon called Pazuzu and all internal and external Hell breaks loose from there. After a number of failed psychological tests, Chris recruits two priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow) to help release, or exorcise, the demon from her daughter’s body. The story is much larger than this, but even on a base scale, the film brought something cutting-edge and truly terrifying to the silver screen. At the time of its release there really was nothing like it, other than the book it was based on.

William Peter Blatty wrote the book and the script. The profanity-laced screenplay pulls no punches. To keep with the analogy, it punches you in the face and then never slows down to make you feel comfortable. Characters slowly become more and more helpless in their tone and dialogue as the situation begins to look irreversible, a testament to the strong writing. Blatty’s vision was brought to the screen by director William Friedkin, who was just coming off of “The French Connection,” the 1971 winner of Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Friedkin’s work can be praised based on the performances that are given by the main cast. Burstyn is magnificent as the traumatized mother trying to come to terms with what is happening in her daughter’s bedroom. She creates a sympathetic character who will go to great lengths to get Regan back to normal. While sympathetic, she also gets angrier as the film progresses. This is a tough balance of emotions to master, but Burstyn pulls it off. Linda Blair’s turn as Regan is fine. She is the host of the most important role in the film: Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of Pazuzu. McCambridge’s chilling and powerful work as the demon will haunt you more than the disfigured face of Regan. Had Blair’s voice been used to spit Blatty’s words, the film simply would not have worked.

I think the best acting performance that we can see is Jason Miller as Father Karras. He hits the tender moments (the scenes with his mother), the intense moments (the final possession scene) and all the moments in between that make him the most naturally relatable, and heroic, character in the film. Max von Sydow shows power in his limited screen time. His character’s fate is made all the more shocking due to the actor’s towering on-screen presence. Also worthy of note is character actor Lee J. Cobb’s performance as Lt. Kinderman, another small but impactful role.

Technically, “The Exorcist” has aged fairly well. That the film still scares people today speaks to the material being timeless, and the effects reflect that. While the head turn may not look amazing by today’s standards, the more subtle effects are fantastic. Regan’s room becoming colder and the film’s pallet becoming bluer are great plot-related effects that most movies just did not have at the time. In most dark movies, shadow is the key element that is metaphorically used. “The Exorcist” doesn’t rely on that technique and, as a result, it comes off as more atmospheric.

The film is quick by the standards of 1973 filmmaking. If you can’t handle some burning psychological thrills, though, then “The Exorcist” may not be for you. It isn’t an action movie by any means, but there is enough jumpiness to the camera movement to keep you awake. Each frame has a lot going on, but it is very important to pay attention to the sounds that are happening off-screen. Speaking of sound, the original score is very creepy. The opening theme, for example, has a certain hint of menace within the otherwise cheery, piano-driven song. As the film becomes more hectic, the score becomes more screeching. This is not the soundtrack to drive home to at midnight.

“The Exorcist” is an awesome breakthrough in American cinema. Its visuals have aged pretty well, the acting, direction and writing are ahead of their time and the story is impossible not to get invested in. If “Bonnie and Clyde” jumpstarted the New Hollywood age and “The Godfather” legitimatized it, then “The Exorcist” was the final goodbye to the classic Hollywood Era that audiences had known. Anything that came after “The Exorcist” that didn’t approach its ambition would be labeled as “safe.” This film is more than a horror movie; it’s a landmark.