Directed by William Friedkin
Review by Angus Luff
The Exorcist is a 1973 American horror film directed by William Friedkin. The film follows Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), as she watches her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) undergo extreme changes in her personality. When doctors fail to determine what the issue is, MacNeil turns to priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller) in hopes an exorcism will flush out whatever or whoever is inside Regan.
The Exorcist has been historically labelled as the scariest film ever made. With that title comes a lot of expectation and, naturally, disappointment. Anyone seeing The Exorcist for the first time today would, I imagine, be pretty bored by what the movie offers as a horror. There are no cheap jump scares or gratuitous gore scenes just intended to be gross. Instead, the film is a realistic portrait of a mother and daughter living their life as an unnatural and unimaginably sinister force invades their lives. The film simply asks the question, “What if a normal little girl was suddenly possessed by a demon?” We see Chris MacNeil take her daughter to every doctor and test she can, draining more hope and sanity each time as she can’t find out what’s wrong. We empathize with her because the thought of a loved one being sick but not knowing why is a horrifying yet easily understandable position. It’s such simple yet effective horror, and because the film is shot and performed so realistically, it drives home the supernatural aspects later in the film. People talk over each other, mumble and stumble through sentences – from the dialogue alone, you really believe these are real people, a tribute to the acting of both Burstyn and Blair. The film is simply engaging on a base emotional level, and that’s to its advantage once things get really serious.
The film is a masterclass in slow burn. There is not a lot of music or fancy camerawork; there is just a mood, backed by the excellent performances, as the dread slowly builds to its boiling point, when Regan’s demon essentially bursts out. It speaks to William Friedkin’s directing skills, as he knows how to get the audience to slowly feel more anxious without resorting to cheap tactics.
In addition to its engaging story and characters, the film will be remembered for its shocking portrayal of corruption and loss of innocence, in the form of the possession of Regan. While the iconic makeup is excellent, the sound design used to further distort and twist the image of the little girl is truly ahead of its time, and it’s chilling. I cannot think of any other film from that time that has a more menacing character than Regan. The effect is enhanced by the distorted voices overplayed on top of each other, implying there’s more than one force inside her; the way she plays games with her victims; the way she uses Father Karras’ insecurities against him. Friedkin successfully makes the distortion and mutilation of this girl both believable and shocking, even decades later.
The Exorcist is worthy of praise and celebration, though it is impossible for it to meet expectations from a modern horror-film perspective. The film is scary because of how real it feels and shows how something so appalling could happen to such regular people. It’s not a film that constantly lunges at you with its scares but slowly washes over you until it lunges. The film gets more intense as it goes on, until the climactic confrontation and chilling resolution. I encourage everyone who has labelled The Exorcist as boring or tame to rewatch the film with an open mind, to try to see it from a new perspective. It’s an excellent film, full stop.
If you want to relive this classic, the Mayfair Theatre will be showing The Exorcist alongside Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on October 30 and by itself on October 29 and November 1.
Running time: 122 mins
Angus Luff is a student at Glebe Collegiate. He grew up in the Glebe and is obsessed with movies.