The Exorcist has long laid claim to the title of scariest movie of all time. It tells the tale of a young girl who becomes possessed by the devil and her anguished mother´s attempts to deal with the situation. The film is shocking and deeply disturbing, full of hauntingly dark images which stick in your mind.
The Exorcist was released in 1973 and instantly proved to be a big hit. It challenged the limits of what you could show in a film and the predictable reaction from many was one of angry indignation. Despite newspaper reports about viewers fainting people went in their droves to see the movie. There were a number of bizarre reports linked to the film, in San Francisco for example, a deranged patron charged the screen in an attempt to kill the demon, in Harlem a priest attempted to exorcise drugs from his neighbourhood. The Warner Brothers fuelled the frenzy by reminding the press that The Exorcist was based on a historical case. In August of 1949 newspapers in Washington carried a story about a young boy in Mount Rainier, Maryland, who had been freed from demonic possession through exorcism.
The film opens in Iraq and we follow a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, Lankaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) as he unearths the carved head of a demon. This opening sequence is beautifully shot and very chilling, ending on a fantastic view of Merrin opposite a fearsome demonic statue. The sun bursts through and we fade into Georgetown, USA to meet an actress, Chris MacNiel (Ellen Burstyn) and her twelve-year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). The domestic scene is gently painted and we learn that Regan and Chris seem happy despite the fact the father and husband is absent. This easy everyday feel to their life lulls the audience into a false sense of security and there is nothing to suggest that things are about to take a serious turn for the worse.
Regan begins to get ill and starts to behave very strangely and so her mother takes her to see some doctors. A host of surgeons and psychiatrists run a battery of tests on the unfortunate Regan but they come up with no explanation for her behaviour. Eventually exasperated one of the doctors suggests an exorcism, Chris is outraged at this suggestion. However Regan gets worse, really disturbingly worse and there are some pretty unexplainable things happening and so, at the end of her tether, Chris relents and goes to see Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) about getting an exorcism.
The film is based on the book of the same name by William Peter Blatty which was published in 1971. Blatty saw the film as a way of scaring people back into the church, he saw a world full of evil and felt the need to do something about it. It seems ironic that he should be responsible for causing great resentment and disgust through his depiction of blasphemous acts, and in particular, graphic sex acts performed by a possessed child. There is a scene in which Regan repeatedly rams a crucifix up herself and screams obscenities. In fact the British Film Board, under the influence of the Mary Whitehouse moral crusade, banned the film outright as a video nasty despite the fact it was nominated for 10 academy awards.
The film was directed by William Friedkin and he managed to create a real masterpiece. The direction throughout the film is superb, the tension is unbearable and there are some really frightening moments. Friedkin cleverly uses overlaid images and leaves almost subliminal references to the iconography of the devil in many of the shots. Even the early scenes like when Chris chases Regan round the house are terrifically shot. He builds the tension very subtly and slowly and then unleashes a horrific ordeal which lasts the rest of the film. The shot which forms the cover of the movie is a classic, the tall figure of Merrin as he stands in front of Regan's house, about to confront the evil within.
Karras investigates the young girl and applies to the church to perform an exorcism, they want to send someone with experience and so the ancient Merrin is called into action. Together Merrin and Karras confront the devil and perform the rites of exorcism. In a terrifying end sequence the battle plays out spectacularly between these men of god and the devil himself.
The acting is extremely good from all concerned. Linda Blair is impossibly convincing for an actress at such a young age, Ellen Burstyn is predictably good and really brings the controlling actress, Chris, to life. Jason Miller is great as Damien Karras but I don´t remember ever seeing him in anything else. Max Von Sydow steals the show as the aged and wise looking Merrin, his performance is really memorable despite the fact after appearing in the first five minutes we lose sight of him again until the last half-hour of the film.
One of the main ways they managed to unsettle the audience in The Exorcist and make a young girl believably possessed was by the use of a demonic voice and I think Mercedes McCambridge, the voice of the devil, deserves a special mention. The noises this woman can make are really unsettling and the voice she created seems like a pretty good guess at what the devil might sound like. At times there are multiple voices pouring from Regan and the sound seems to build until it fills your head, an awful symphony from hell.
There is no doubting that this film is very scary and the religious nature seems to lend it a further reality which is divorced from most horror films. This isn´t some faceless killer, this is the devil himself. Some of the scenes are really hard to purge from your mind and it does leave a lasting impression. I´d have to say the latest version is the best and it includes the horrifying crabwalk scene which you have to see. The direction, writing and acting is flawless and if it weren´t for the fact that I don´t believe in religion then this would be the scariest film I´ve ever seen. Luckily I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that the devil doesn´t exist.