The Exorcist

exorcist poster William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) may well be the most iconic horror film of all time. Everyone has a story of the first time they saw it, or shudders at the mere mention of the film, refusing to ever watch based on its reputation. My mum often talks about how petrified she was when my old man took her to see it when she was about 17.

Everything you’ve heard about the film don’t prepare you for just how strange it is. I was expecting a pretty mainstream horror film. But after the chilling credits music and opening shot, the film heads off for an extended Northern-Iraq set prologue. These scenes in the desert almost feel like they could be from a Terrence Malick film. The most shocking thing about watching The Exorcist for the first time for me was the ethereal and not at all mainstream vibe of the film which was so different to my expectations and so refreshing as a result. It’s unapologetically a big swirling mass of a film.

exorcist karaSo much discourse around The Exorcist centres on the religious facets, which is unsurprising given the title. However what struck me whilst watching the film was the fact that it unfolds really through a medical prism. It is assumed by all of the characters that the issues besetting Regan are medical in nature. When Regan’s mum first approaches Father Karas regarding an exorcism (at the suggestion of doctors), even he steers her enquiries away from the spiritual realm. One part of why, despite the strangeness of the film, The Exorcist has become such a beloved horror classic, is the imagery that Friedkin and co were able to produce. Regan scuttling down the stairs, her head turning right around, or even just her appearance towards the end of the film, these are some of the most arresting and iconic images that the genre has ever brought to life. The film progresses methodically along for much of its lengthy running time, but then explodes with intensity and never lets up afterwards. The assured craftsmanship of the writing and directing ensures that none of the events of the film ever feel ludicrous or silly. The culmination of this build-up comes as a distinct pall comes over the film throughout the climactic exorcism, in as gripping a half hour odd of cinema you will ever come across.

Watching the film, you can see the similarities it has with films of a similar vintage, most notably for me The Omen (1976) – the presence of priests, a washed out colour palette and a similar feel to the domestic settings. It wheels out some traditional horror tropes as well, including the freaky attic. But having said that, by the end of the film it is plain why The Exorcist is held in such high regard, because it takes everything its contemporaries were doing, does them better and then does a whole bunch of things those other films never even attempted. The film is very classically and beautifully shot, trading in silhouettes, shadows, low and high angle shots. All of which look damn beautiful on the sharp blu-ray release that I watched. Friedkin is able to place the camera in such a way that it gets not only really pretty shots, but also creates a whole lot of tension, without ever feeling gimmicky. exorcist sydow

One of the hallmarks of so much, but not all, really classic horror cinema is the quality of the performance. And with Linda Blair, Jason Miller and Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist can legitimately lay claim to having three of the best the genre has ever seen. So much of the religion/medicine divide is summed up through Jason Miller’s world weary turn as Father Karras (incredibly his debut film performance), Ellen Burstyn is ultra-believable as a mother going through an absolute living nightmare, but it is Blair’s film. As the possessed Regan, she is so totally in control of her performance. Remarkably so in fact for someone of her age. The range of content she handles, innocent/inquisitive child, totally possessed force of nature, explicit sexual references and profanity, is all so well done that not once are you taken out of the world of the film.

Verdict: Not only does The Exorcist deserve its exalted reputation, it probably deserves more. I was unprepared for just how strange and iconic an experience watching this film would be, as well as blown away by the density of the material and the themes. This is a pretty great and truly unique piece of cinema. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Progress: 123/1001

Related articles for you to check out: The Omen and Frankenstein. Like what you read? Then please like on facebook here and follow me on twitter @beer_movie

9 responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more! When I saw this as a teenager, I was scared to death. I still can’t watch it–the haunting images and trial by all sticks with long after I close my eyes for the night. The music, the acting, the imagery, the well developed plot–it’s top rate.

    1. Thanks Cindy. I really would not have handled it well at all if I saw it as a teenager. Would have given me nightmares for sure. But thankfully I don’t suffer from them these days.

  2. This review gives me the chills man. I relieved this through your words. The Exorcist is truly great.

    1. Cheers man. Glad I could convey some of its greatness.

  3. Still terrifying all of these years later. Nice review.

    1. You’re damn right mate. Such an atmospheric and tense film.

  4. Great review! I’ve only seen this one once, years ago, so I’m definitely due a re-watch.

    1. Definitely! I am really keen to watch it again already.

  5. The first time I saw this, I may have been 10 or 11 years old. It was scary but I loved it. I had only seen it on television. Then it was rereleased in the theater (around the year 2000 I think), and I just had to go experience it there. It had never occurred to me that there were scenes in the movie that were cut out for television. So, not only did I finally get to see it on the big screen, but I also got to see some scenes that were new to me. I had never seen the part with what she did with the crucifix, and I had never seen that part that you mentioned when she was scuttling down the stairs and her head turned around.
    It would be nice if today’s horror movies were more like this instead of just being nothing but “torture porn”. I love these movies that are a slow burn and intense.

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