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THE EXORCIST (1973)
By Steve Biodrowski
March 01, 2000
Still the greatest horror film ever made, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, THE EXORCIST (1973) continues to retain its unnerving power over twenty-five years after its initial release, and its upcoming re-release, with fifteen minutes of restored footage, promises to be a major event for both long-time fans and first-time viewers. If the passage of time has slightly dated the film (the hair styles and clothing identify it with the '70s), it has also made it easier to assess its many virtues. Now that the initial shock has worn off, the superb craftsmanship that went into every level of the filmmaking (acting, writing, sound, effects, makeup, direction) is now clearly visible. What is most surprising, considering its reputation for crude shock tactics, is the film's subtlety.
New viewers, expecting an onslaught of jolts from frame one, are often disappointed, even bored by the film's first half. Director William Friedkin wisely built the film around the audience's expectations of what they would see, rather as Alfred Hitchcock had done with the early portions of PSYCHO. The book (written by William Peter Blatty, who also produced the film and adapted the screenplay) was quite notorious for its intensely graphic scenes, and ticket-buying viewers were wondering just how much of that would find its way onto the screen. Knowing this, Friedkin plays with the audience, giving them lots of exposition mixed with hints and portents of what will come later. In retrospect, it's curious to note how little graphic horror emerges in the early sequences, yet the film is suspenseful and frightening, all those unexplained scratching sounds from the attic raising hackles as we anticipate what will come later.
When all hell finally does break loose, the movie piles horror on top of horror until very nearly reaching the breaking point. The film pretty much reaches the threshold past which anything more would only numb the audience, making it hard to imagine how any film could ever top this one. Additionally, there is some profoundly disturbing level to the proceedings, something that lingers longer after the projector has shut down. This is a film that not only frightens you while you watch; it remains with you for hours, days, even weeks afterwards, and even today there are those unable or unwilling to sit through it, even on television, where the impact is much decreased.
The exorcism itself remains one of the most powerful scenes in a powerful film. Never has the battle between Good and Evil been so expertly presented, and the sense of dread is almost palpable. Max Von Sydow's performance as Father Merrin, his inner strength belying his physical infirmity, sells the scene completely, as the one character not terrified out of his wits by the proceedings. The infamous 360-degree head-spinning scene (sometimes dismissed as physically impossible) still packs a wallop, and the editing (the shot is inserted between reaction-shot close-ups of Jason Miller) implies that we're seeing an illusion in the mind of Father Damien Karras. Other effective techniques include subliminal cuts (of a white-faced, demonic visage) and superimposing two close-ups of Linda Blair's make-up that almost but don't quite lineup, creating a brief but inexplicable image of her distorted features apparently blurring.
Thematically, the film has often been dismissed as a reaction polemic or as a commercial for the Roman Catholic Church. This is an unfortunate side effect of the film's power. The book was more ambiguous as to the authenticity of the demonic possession, but the movie's images convince audiences almost from the very start. The irony, of course, is that Father Karras remains unconvinced because he has lost his faith, while the afflicted girl's atheistic mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is the one begging for an exorcism to be performed. It's the age-old question that has plagued theologians for millennia--how could a benevolent God allow such Evil to exist?--and it very nearly drives Karras to despair, the physical manifestations of evil underlining his spiritual crisis of faith. Blatty's point was that ultimately, whether or not the possession was 'real,' the horror plaguing Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) paradoxically drove Karras to re-embrace his faith and die in an act of martyrdom to save her. The Mystery of Goodness, as much as the Mystery of Evil, lies at the heart of the film, and you don't have to be a Catholic or even a Christian to appreciate that.