Exorcist, The (United States, 1973)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

During the cold months of the winter of 1973-74, the release of a horror film called The Exorcist became a national phenomenon. Would-be viewers stood outside for hours in bad weather to get a ticket, and the lines in New York City were said to circle entire blocks. Although this kind of fervor was not unprecedented, it was unexpected. As recently as several months before the movie's release, Warner Brothers had been discussing shelving the entire project. The distributor's ultimate willingness to take a chance returned huge financial dividends and established one of the most frequently copied films about demonic possession.

Now, 27 years later, Warner Brothers has decided to re-release The Exorcist, attempting to entice viewers to theaters by touting a digitally updated soundtrack (one that is very impressive) and about 12 minutes of "never before seen footage" (a misnomer - owners of the 25th anniversary Special Edition DVD will recognize many of the deleted scenes from the included documentary). The timing is odd - not many films are given at theatrical re-release for their 27th anniversary. Rumor has it that the intent here was to generate new interest in The Exorcist so that a third sequel (actually a prequel) will not die without a trace when it reaches theaters next year.

This new, spruced-up version of The Exorcist is not being labeled a "director's cut", as has become common of re-releases with added footage. The reason is simple: director William Friedkin (The French Connection) has stated loudly and frequently that he regards the original 1973 edition as his definitive cut. He is not happy with the new version, claiming that it adds too much unnecessary exposition and re-introduces sequences that he eliminated for a reason. Much of the material that makes its first appearance in the 2000 version was brought back at the request of producer/writer William Peter Blatty, who reportedly disagreed with some of Friedkin's choices regarding the final film.

I have always believed The Exorcist to be overrated. It is a creepy and atmospheric film that contains a few viscerally shocking scenes, but it is not as far above the likes of The Omen and Rosemary's Baby as its proponents would argue. The Exorcist's strength is that it places character development on the same level as the horror elements, but it is not a ground-breaking motion picture. It is also too long, with a setup that could have accomplished the job with equal effectiveness in about 2/3 the time. There are instances when the first hour of The Exorcist noticeably drags, and there will always be a debate about whether the prologue (featuring Max von Sydow's Father Merrin at an archeological dig in North Africa) is necessary (or even useful). The addition of extra footage, although not as extreme as in the likes of Dances With Wolves and Das Boot, does nothing to alleviate this problem. In fact, if anything, it exacerbates it. And there's certainly nothing in the myriad of newly included moments that makes The Exorcist a better motion picture (not even the extended, more upbeat ending).

The story is based on a series of true events that occurred in 1949 and were later fictionalized by author William Peter Blatty in his novel. It tells of the demonic possession of 12-year old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the daughter of popular actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). When we first meet Regan, she seems like any happy, well-adjusted girl. Soon, however, she is hearing strange noises, uttering obscenities, and experiencing violent tantrums and seizures. As her condition worsens and she begins speaking in an inhuman voice (provided by Mercedes McCambridge), the army of attending doctors advises calling in spiritual help. So Chris consults a local priest (who also happens to be a psychiatrist), Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). After examining Regan, he agrees to assist in an exorcism, which will be performed by the respected and mysterious globe-trotting priest, Father Merrin (von Sydow).

The film develops parallel storylines that eventually converge during the exorcism as Regan struggles against the spirit that has taken over her body and Father Karras confronts his own personal demons. This portion of the film, with the two priests engaging in a metaphysical battle against a force of evil, represents The Exorcist's undeniable high point. The confrontation is tense and intense, and, until it's over, we're never sure what the outcome is going to be. Having employed several priests as actors and advisors, Friedkin and Blatty remained true to the nature and intent of Catholicism (still, one has to wonder how today's vocal Catholic League would have reacted to the movie had they been active in 1973), never mocking the religion or its tenets. In fact, in order to accept the events that occur during The Exorcist, one has to buy into certain elements of Catholicism, at least while the movie is unspooling.

Although the beginning portion of The Exorcist unfolds slowly, it accomplishes the aim of introducing the characters and highlighting their relationships. The real turning point comes when Regan scuttles down the stairs like a spider (one of the newly included scenes) shortly after having killed her babysitter. At that moment, The Exorcist shifts into high gear. Every sequence subsequent to this one raises the stakes a little higher as one little girl's bedroom becomes the focal point of a war between the forces of good and evil. In the case of The Exorcist, the spoils of victory are not the world or the universe, but Regan's mind and body.

Friedkin has crafted an atmospheric motion picture that is creepy from its early scenes in Georgetown (one of which shows Chris casually walking home on a Halloween afternoon). The film includes one of the most evocative and memorable images in a modern horror film, with Father Merrin emerging from a taxi and standing, in silhouette, under a street lamp as he faces the house where his latest struggle with the Devil will transpire. Moments like these, peppered throughout the production, give The Exorcist an artistic edge.

Despite not containing many special effects (other than Regan spewing green gook at just about anyone who comes near her), the movie makes forceful demands on the makeup crew. Their success is mixed. The layers applied to Linda Blair effectively transform her innocent face into a mask of torment and ferocity. The same kind of kudos cannot be heaped upon the work done to age Max von Sydow, who comes across looking exactly like what he is: a middle-aged man wearing a lot of makeup. The "aging" doesn't work, and there are scenes in which von Sydow's face looks like a ghastly caricature of itself.

When casting was originally being done for The Exorcist, a number of high-profile names were under consideration (Jane Fonda and Audrey Hepburn for Chris; Paul Newman for Father Karras). In the end, however, the filmmakers went for a largely unknown group of actors. Their instincts were not in error. Ellen Burstyn excels as a mother whose sole concern is her daughter's welfare, von Sydow is rock solid as the sage Father Merrin, and Jason Miller quietly exhibits the torment of a man of God who is losing his faith. Of course, the standout is Linda Blair in her first major motion picture role. Ironically, the strength of Blair's performance in The Exorcist was to define her entire career, which took the low road and spiraled into exploitation fare.

It will be interesting to see how The Exorcist fares during its re-release. The film has not changed substantially, but audiences have. Reports from 1973 speak of viewers fleeing from the movie in shock and of stunned silence reigning throughout packed theaters. One generation later, much is different and movie-goers have become desensitized to the kinds of images presented in The Exorcist. At a screening I attended, the 360-degree revolution of Linda Blair's head provoked laughter; indeed, there were instances when audience members seemed to view the film as an exercise in high camp. However, regardless of how movie-goers react, there is nothing dated about The Exorcist, which remains an effective excursion into demonic possession more than a quarter of a century after it was first unveiled to the public.

Exorcist, The (United States, 1973)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1973-12-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1