I have had this blog for three years now and still haven’t reviewed this?! This surprises me not just because of the infamy attached to this staple of 1970s American horror, but because it is one of my personal favorite horrors ever. Why haven’t I been yammering on about this already?! I blame blogger’s block. But here we are, on another Thursday in October, once again given the opportunity to redeem ourselves. And by ‘we’ I mean me. And by ‘ourselves’ I refer to my more demonic, possessed side. . .
Today’s food for thought: The Exorcist.
Reinforcing the notion that Regan is a terrible name since: December 26, 1973
It’s a shame William Friedkin’s masterpiece of supernatural scares has only gone on to become one of the most parodied films of all time. A shame because the true power of Pazuzu’s icy grip on the throat of a young girl named Regan has so often been overlooked in favor of making fun of a head that spins and pukes at the same time, and that upside-down crab walk.
A shame because this movie used to terrify people and by rights it still should to this day. It’s also a shame, though, that the special effects used in this memorable production haven’t exactly aged well. Modern audiences perhaps should be forgiven for saying ‘no thanks’ when the exorcism phase of a horror movie seems a dime a dozen these days. Unfortunately by passing up on the opportunity to watch The Exorcist these folks are inadvertently missing out on an exorcism done the right way; the disturbing, nightmare-inducing way.
Disregarding the extraneous and inferior prequels and sequels it has spawned, the story centered around a young actress and her daughter’s quite literal descent into hell when Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) began noticing rather bizarre behavioral changes occurring in her Regan. Growing pains associated with the onset of adolescence these were not. Poor Regan is soon revealed as the next incubator for a malevolent spirit.
Elsewhere, an archeologist/priest named Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) has determined his experiences with fighting off demonic possession in the privacy of the possessed’s home are not days of the past. Following his discovery of a pennant reminiscent of the demon spirit Pazuzu, whom he had defeated years ago, Father Merrin is inevitably ensconced in a bizarre case in the Washington, D.C. area, courtesy of another priest having difficulty finding the faith after losing his elderly mother to an illness. Father Karras (Jason Miller) was the first to be contacted by a desperate mother seeking answers to an unexplainable situation. The case is of course, none other than Regan McNeil. She’s rather. . .sick. It’s been determined she needs an exorcism and needs the help of both priests.
If slow-burning horror is what it takes to get under your skin, then William Friedkin has had a movie waiting for you. The director may be knocked a little for applying a liberal amount of atmosphere creation for the first two-thirds of the film. However, the film is titled what it is for a reason, and on that ground alone it did not, does not and should not disappoint. “That scene” is an absolute staple of horror, its tension and emotional involvement hitting into the dark red part of the needle. I hate to reduce a film to a particular scene, but if there ever was a popular title to be reduced to one, it’s this. The beast’s vile behavior and the sounds it made have been difficult to shake for years.
The blame is on the era of filmmaking for a lack of better sound equipment, for surely some of the sound effects have come across more deranged and disturbing on the virtue that they are muffled, tinny and awkward excretions of noise, more aggravating than alarming. Remastered versions have helped improve these issues slightly but one can imagine this film’s potential made in today’s studios. It’s never enough to detract from the levels of nail-biting anxiety, though.
In some ways, perhaps it’s a good thing so many parodies of these moments exist. The more ADHD-prone viewers could use a little bit more of that 21st Century sense of hyperreality to make history more interesting. At least by watching Regan’s head spin right round, right round to Flo-Rida’s song they might be able to appreciate that whatever is being parodied was at one time so effective it spawned these humorous takes on it. Hey, entertainment is all relative anyway so I’m in favor of more people getting caught up to speed with this film’s iconic imagery and settings in any way they can.
It doesn’t get much better in terms of suspenseful exorcisms than this. In today’s horror, the act of exorcising almost deserves its own sub-genre. But there is something truly special about the way it all comes together under the supervision of William Friedkin; the acting, particularly on the part of a young Linda Blair as Regan is superb, urgent and emotional. It’s also an unusually vulgar performance from such a young performer. The pacing lags at the start but intensifies as the situation spirals out of control and into the world of the supernatural, while a chilling, somber tone is never quite escapable.
It’s a shame more people don’t regard The Exorcist as one of the scariest films of all time, because that’s exactly what I think this chilling, suspenseful and at times downright crude chronicling is, one of the scariest things I have ever tried watching.
Recommendation: Add this one to your queue if you consider yourself a fan of good horror. The pseudo high-concept horror. The horror that can wake you in the middle of the night in a fit of cold sweats as you’ve just dreamt of the vague outlining of a vengeful Pazuzu-like spirit. And fans of the director have undoubtedly had this one in their collection; they more likely have begun many of theirs with this very title. It’s hard to do with horror movies but this is one I have no problem with calling a must-see.
Running Time: 122 mins.
TBTrivia: In the six months following the film’s release, 14-year-old Linda Blair had to have bodyguards following her around in the wake of multiple death threats thrown her way by zealots claiming her character “glorified Satan.”
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