Film Review: The Exorcist

Mood setting.

I’m happy to report that 1973’s The Exorcist remains the second greatest horror film of all time (behind only my first love, 1978’s Halloween) and still gives me the heebie-jeebies all these years later. I first saw The Exorcist when my parents inexplicably took us to the restored (also known as the director’s cut) re-release in 2000 for my mother’s birthday. I was 10-years-old. The restored version includes a deleted scene from the original: Regan (played by Linda Blair) spider crawling backwards down the stairs. That scene always made my skin crawl, but it wasn’t the only thing. In general, my 10-year-old self watched that entire movie behind my knees utterly terrified. Unironically, thank you, parents! That probably stoked my loved of horror films, counterintuitively. After all, I’m a willing mark: I love being scared.

I’m additionally happy to report that my re-watch of The Exorcist comes after visiting the steps — you know the ones — from the movie while in Washington D.C. two weeks ago. They are creepy! And steep. That added another fun layer to this re-watch. I geeked out any time we got views of the steps leading to the home where Regan and her mother/famous actress (played by Ellen Burstyn), Chris, lived.

The makeup work in the film is astounding.

Atmosphere. That is the first word to come to mind after watching the film last night. Director William Friedkin’s direction, often with classic long takes and wide shots, but also ground-breaking special effects and nastiness for its time period, create a sense of … well, encroaching possession of the entire film. Just as Regan is slowly being possessed, the house itself, Georgetown itself and even the film itself is and by turn, we, as viewers, are being possessed. And of course, much credit goes to William Peter Blatty who not only wrote the screenplay, but was the author of the 1971 book the film is based upon. Blatty’s book, for the record, is perhaps more scary than the film. I highly recommend reading it, if you haven’t.

I also have to give credit to Ellen’s performance of a mother unraveling. The first half of the film is essentially Chris trying to understand what the heck is wrong with her daughter — the major catalyst is when Regan comes downstairs during one of Chris’s big Hollywood (and Catholic priest?) cocktail parties, says one of the men is going to “die up there” and then pees on the ornate rug; that scene is horrifying for different reasons — as Regan deals with some unexplained mental deterioration. It does seem implied that she already previously had issues and was on medication, but I don’t recall it being explained what that was. Nonetheless, Chris runs the gambit of doctors and neurologists who do all sorts of physically invasive and dangerous testing to quite literally look at Regan’s brain for a lesion that isn’t there. Then, Chris turns to the psychiatrists, which its funny how psychiatry was maligned at the time, and the psychiatrists don’t have good answers, either. But they do have a recommendation: What about seeking … an exorcist? The word is first mentioned about an hour-ish into the film. So, Chris turns to Father Damien Karras (played by Jason Miller), who we’ve seen also has his own issues with doubting his faith and guilt over the death of his mother. Karras’s specialist within the Church is psychiatry, though, so he seems well-suited to the task.

But all the while Chris is going through this process of helping her daughter, Regan in turn is becoming more and more possessed and violent toward her mother. This is where I recognized an aspect of characterization I’ve missed in previous viewings: Chris herself seems to be physically deteriorating in her own way parallel to Regan. She starts the film as the quintessential beautiful and glowing movie star with presence and toward the end, is a bruised, diminished, hollowed-out husk of a woman barely surviving her ordeal.

So, the first half of the film is a sad, if still disturbing (the peeing scene!), especially the medical treatments Regan undergoes, representation of a young girl’s mental devolution and then it kicks into high gear in the second half when it is clear she is possessed by a demon (he claims to be the devil, but that sounds like something a demon would boast (see: lie) about!). The bed shakes, the furniture in the room moves about, she rotates her freaking head around in a circle, and in one terrifying moment, Regan carves, “Help me” onto her own stomach from within herself.

The scene that gave me goosebumps and set me in awe was when Father Lankester Merrin (played by Max von Sydow) is brought in to lead the exorcism since he has experience, with Father Damien assisting, and as they are damn-near yelling, “The power of Christ compels you!” while Father Lankester douses the demon in holy water, Regan’s body levitates off of the body in almost Christ-like pose. It is a hell of an image and moment and special effect for 1973. You will hear, “The power of Christ compels you!” in your head long after the movie ends.

Eventually, three people die in the course of Regan’s ordeal: the movie director, Burke Dennings (played by Jack MacGowran), which I had totally forgotten about; and the two priests. I’m surprised the demon jumped to Father Damien’s body, given he’s a priest, but my thought is the demon could because Father Damien was shaky in his beliefs. Father Damien then plunges to his death by jumping out Regan’s window and down the famed, eerie steps.

What a movie. I can absolutely see why someone seeing it in 1973, who doesn’t have the context of the next 49 years of horror, would be terrified while watching, but even in its own right in the year 2022, I think The Exorcist holds up as not only a horrifying film, but a great film. And I don’t just mean a great horror film, I mean a great film overall and one of the greatest films ever made. That’s why I always think the 1970s are interesting. The 1970s are considered a rather drab decade culturally, especially aesthetically, but two of the greatest horror films, in my estimation, come from that decade, as well as many other great films. But I digress.

I would be remiss, too, if I didn’t circle back to the beginning and talk about the score. When Jack Nitzsche’s score kicks in when Chris is walking around Georgetown and something feels … amiss, phew, it is powerful and momentous. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it: The Exorcist score is one of the greatest scores in film history.

Between direction, writing, acting, cinematography and special effects, and the score, The Exorcist is rightly considered one of the greatest horror films ever made and is my personal second favorite.

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