Famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is working on a film in Georgetown, Washington D.C., when her twelve year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) begins displaying strange behaviour. After months of medical and psychiatric examinations, it is believed that Regan may be possessed by a demonic spirit, and the only way to resolve the situation is via a religious exorcism.
The Exorcist is, I think it’s safe to say, one of the most iconic horror films of all time, but it’s one I’d never seen before this past weekend, mainly because horror, and especially horror revolving around demons, ghosts and possessions, isn’t something I’m overly interested in. You see, I believe the point of the horror genre is to frighten the viewer, to make them experience an intense emotion, and I just don’t find the notion of anything supernatural to be inherently scary. In life I’m a cynical sceptic. It is my firm belief that anything relating to the paranormal is nonsense and hokum, thus the depiction of it on screen is the same. Films can be scary if they depict something that can be a danger to you in real life, and absolutely nothing in The Exorcist could possibly happen to me or anyone I know, therefore it’s not scary, and hence it fails as a horror film. Historically there have been some exceptions to the rule, most notably the first Paranormal Activity, which terrified me to bits, but that’s mainly from a prolonged build-up of tension and the most sudden of all jump scares, so I don’t count that as being scary due to its content as much as its execution. The Exorcist, alas, was sadly disappointing on that front.
In fact other than the more extreme elements of Regan’s possession, which have led to many well-referenced scenes and lines of dialogue made all the more alarming given that they appear to be coming from the mouth of a child, I’m genuinely surprised at the notoriety this film has garnered. I get that it’s a slow, gradual build, but it takes over an hour for anyone to even say the word “exorcism” and discuss the possibility that Regan has been possessed, yet the title of the film is The Exorcist, so it’s pretty damn likely that at some point or other someone is going to have a need for a damn good exorcising. Now to be fair a lot of this build up allows for a great deal of character development for both Chris, the distraught, end-of-her-tether mother, and Father Karras (Jason Miller), the local losing-his-faith priest with a history of psychiatry and a mother not long for this world, but if anything there was perhaps too much of this development and I felt it detracted from the primary storyline, instead meandering down off-shoots I didn’t care much for.
A larger gripe I have is with the film’s opening in Northern Iraq, which is only tangentially related to the rest of the film and does nothing to aid the plot other than set up the character of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, whose excellent old age make-up made his then 44-year old self look pretty much like he does now). Apparently this scene makes a great deal more sense if you’ve read William Peter Blatty’s novel upon which the film is based, but I haven’t and have no inclination to, so the scene just felt like nothing but a waste of time. The ending also irritated me, as after such a long build-up the climax was over far too quickly, and in a manner that seemed almost improvised rather than logistically explained. I found many of the details of the ending to be highly unsatisfactory and something of a let-down.
So, what worked? Well the performances are mostly great. Ellen Burstyn does a terrific job of rationing her spiral into despair, and I approve of the decision to make her a celebrity within the narrative, as it adds another layer of obstacle to get through, such as when an investigating policeman (the great Lee J. Cobb) very unprofessionally requests an autograph. I’d heard previously about the controversy revolving around Linda Blair’s Academy Award nomination, given how little of the possessed performance was actually her. Mercedes McCambridge famously voiced the demonic creature, and Eileen Dietz was used for a spliced-in horrific face shot, as well as Blair’s body double for some of the more graphic scenes, such as the one involving a crucifix being repeatedly stabbed into an area where no such crucifix should ever be stabbed. Thus I was surprised to see how terrible Blair was at the non-possessed parts of her performance, when she was just playing a normal child. The possessed performance is mostly the make-up (which is fantastic), visual effects (also very effective, particularly the vomiting) and the voice, which all come together to form a truly memorable monster. The shock value of some of the scenes worked very well too, but were more off-putting or disturbing than actually frightening.
I suppose much of my reaction may come from the setting in which I watched the film. I’m sure it would have had a much greater effect when watched in a crowded, dark cinema back in 1973, but when viewed alone on a home television at 8am on a sunny Sunday morning, with my dog occasionally popping in and a breakfast break in the middle, perhaps there’s a chance I missed some degree of atmosphere. Maybe. Still, I think my issues with the structure would still be relevant, I just might have been a little more scared.
Choose Life 6/10