Rated R, for strong language and disturbing images
Running time: 122 min.
Director William Friedkin's The Exorcist is an exercise in stamina, as well as in faith and perseverence and not just for the characters in the film. The viewer is also put through the virtual wringer as we watch people being tortured psychologically, physically and all points in between. The fact that you make it out the other side is a testament to your own will power.
The story begins with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) in the Middle East for an archaeological dig, where he discovers an amulet bearing the likeness of a familiar foe: Pazuzu, a demon that he defeated in the past. This brings us to a scene where Merrin goes face-to-face with a full-size statue of the demon, with the hot desert dust swirling between them like something out of a Sergio Leone western. Then we flash to Georgetown, where actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is filming on location, and is accompanied by her mature-for-her-age daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Regan and Chris play around with a Ouija board one night, where Regan mentions a "friend" named Captain Howdy. It doesn't take long for Chris to hear noises from the attic, followed by odd behavior from Regan, such as urinating on the floor in the middle of a house party, and obscene language unbecoming of a 12-year old girl, and ultimately the assumed murder of a family friend, which occurs off-screen.
The incidents with Regan become so serious in nature that Chris takes her to a team of psychologists, who test her for every mental illness in the book. Although we, as the viewer, know where the path the film lays out is going to take us, there is still another kind of fear being shown here; the fear a mother has for her child when science cannot explain what is happening to the child. There is also the fear a child goes through when faced with all of this machinery provided by science and medicine. Most kids are afraid of needles, but what Regan goes through is more than just a simple flu shot.
We meet Father Karras (Jason Miller), a Catholic priest who is being haunted by an elderly, withering mother and a loss of faith. Karras has taken up psychology during his time in the priesthood, showing that his faith has dwindled and his trust in medicine and science has increased. Eventually, after all testing of Regan has come up with no true diagnosis, at the behest of the doctors, Chris opts for the idea of an exorcism. When she approaches Father Karras about performing this task, he states "I would need a time machine to go back to the 16th century." Karras meets Regan, records her ramblings, and sees the words "HELP ME" scrawled on her torso. This is enough to convince Karras to bring the issue to the church, who suggest Father Merrin come in, since he has experience in these matters. What follows are scenes of chilling atmosphere, intensity and horror.
The Exorcist is William Friedkin's mark on the cinematic universe. It's in a totally different world than The French Connection and should be considered his greatest film. The pacing of the film hits the perfect tone of reality until it delves into the horror. We have a mother who sincerely believes something is wrong with her daughter, as doctors and nurses hook Regan up to machines and poke her with needles and tubes. These scenes of science trying to discover the cause are necessary in order to have professionals come to the conclusion that something else is at play here. The idea of demonic possession is only immediately believed by two types of people: the highly gullible or the deeply religious. Not even Father Karras is that strong in his faith, which is one of his perfectly visible flaws. Friedkin amps up the chaos in early scenes involving the possessed Regan turning a bedroom upside down, then dials it down to an eerie, haunting peace when Father Karras meets her. The makeup and special effects (engineered by Dick Smith) hit the perfect note in turning a bright, fun 12 year old into a scary, obscene, disgusting mess of vomit and blood and scars. Max Von Sydow, as Merrin, was actually 44 when this film was released in 1973 but is made up to look like a fragile 70-something year old man.
The best performance in the film comes from Jason Miller as Father Karras, as the tortured, doubting priest. We see his anguish at the idea of his frail mother being put into a less-than four star mental hospital; we also see how his emotional state from that loss is just under the skin, as the possessed Regan imitates his mother's voice and insults her. Ellen Burstyn as the mother at the end of her rope was also brilliantly portrayed, with Max Von Sydow a tall, hunched man who has been through many wars. His physical portrayal of Merrin comes to play more than any dialogue he utters.
This is a true horror film. The atmosphere is built slowly and focuses more on fears seen in our every day lives; fear for our children, fear for our faith; relatable fears that everyone goes through. Then the supernatural chills are sledged upon us like a hammer, bludgeoning our senses numb. When the movie is over, and all is quiet, we find ourselves wondering how we made it out in one piece. Much like some of the characters in The Exorcist.