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.
So 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.
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