I’m in the mood for some pea soup now. Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn and Academy Award nominees Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller and Linda Blair star in Oscar winner William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.
Cast of Characters:
Chris MacNeil – Ellen Burstyn
Father Lankester Merrin – Max von Sydow
Lt. William F. Kinderman – Lee J. Cobb
Sharon Spencer – Kitty Winn
Burke Dennings – Jack MacGowran
Father Damien Karras – Jason Miller
Regan MacNeil – Linda Blair
Pazuzu – voiced by Mercedes McCambridge
Director – William Friedkin
Screenplay – William Peter Blatty
Based on the novel The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Producer – William Peter Blatty
While on an archeological dig in Africa, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) discovers an amulet that he soon realizes it matches that of a statue of Pizazu – an evil demon he once defeated years ago.
Meanwhile, in the Georgetown area of D.C., actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has been noticing strange and sometimes even frightening behavioral changes in her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Medicine, neurological tests and psychiatric analysis all fail and are at met with much confusion by the doctors. After concluding that what her daughter’s experiencing may be demonic possession, Chris seeks help from a troubled priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), to help save her daughter.
Is The Exorcist scary by today’s standards? I can’t say. As subjective as film and the “standards” of each era are, that’s a hard question to answer. I’d have to say no, and judging from what gets passed around as horror these days, that’s a good thing. I can confidently say, though, that no horror film before or after it has ever left a more terrifying impression on me as The Exorcist.
This isn’t jump out at you terrifying, or chilling escapist fun like what we’ve seen from Vincent Price, John Carpenter or Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. The horror comes from witnessing a young, sweet 12-year-old girl’s loss of innocence. It’s from a mother’s anger and frustration, to the point of emotional breakdown, as she desperately seeks any answer she can get as to what’s affecting her child. It’s from a struggling priest, filled with doubts of faith brought on by personal tragedy.
Director William Friedkin, who had previously won Best Director for The French Connection, doesn’t shy away from the requisite shocks (including a scene involving a crucifix that’s just as shocking to see today) and visually chilling dream sequences that have become par for the course with every subsequent exorcism-based film. The effects employed were first rate for 1973, and still hold up today (particularly the excellent, Oscar winning sound mixing). What differentiates The Exorcist from the many other similar films that have failed to capture what it’s been able to accomplish is that all the shock elements and effects come secondary to the characters. Friedkin takes his time and paces things patiently, allowing for the atmosphere, mood, and characters to all be established before bringing the demonic onslaught. The shocks are elevated above being just cheap thrills ’cause we care for these characters and are horrified at what they’re going through.
Complementing Friedkin’s strong direction is William Peter Blatty’s script, adapted from his own novel, that handles its deep spiritual themes of loss of faith, guilt and the nature of good and evil intelligently and realistically. It avoids being a throwaway exorcism tale by viewing its subject skeptically (through, ironically, the protagonist priest who views the act as an outdated ritual). Every medical option you can think of is taken before they even consider the psychiatry route, let alone an exorcism, posing the question: Is Regan truly possessed by a supernatural entity, or is she just a deeply disturbed child in need of psychiatric care?
Guided by both Friedkin and Blatty is an incredible cast that delivers believable performances, primarily ’cause Friedkin took quite a few extremes with them in order to get the genuine reactions he desired. Ellen Burstyn’s work is amazing and she convincingly channels the pain and frustration any mother, not named Casey Anthony, would feel seeing their child be thrown through a gauntlet of psychological and spiritual hells, with no clear-cut answer as to what it might be. Playwright Jason Miller (in his film-acting debut) is tormented but restrained, his torment coming from within, as personal tragedy turned him jaded toward his faith, only to have it revitalized through Regan’s circumstances. Linda Blair is certainly regarded for the iconicism of her role, but I’ve always felt she never gets the credit for how truly remarkable of a performance she gave, getting thrown through the ringer by Friedkin for this physically demanding part. It may not be her voice that we hear, but it is her expressions, body language and movements.
Strong work is also given by Kitty Winn as the Chris’s assistant and the late veteran actor, Lee J. Cobb (in one of his final film roles) as the detective investigating a murder that may be linked to Regan. Max von Sydow, looking 20 years older, at the time, than he actually was at just 44, bookends the film with commanding gravitas as the fragile yet stoic priest called upon to expel the demon he once battled before (a single shot of him facing the statue at the beginning beautifully sums up the entire film).
Although Oscar winning actress Mercedes McCambridge’s excellently chilling voice work was not initially credited in the film (the same reason James Earl Jones chose to not be credited for voicing Darth Vader), anyone that willingly drinks raw eggs, whiskey (as a recovering alcoholic, she specifically requested her priest to be present on set to counsel her) and chain smokes to the point you get the voice you hear from the demon Pazuzu gets a special mention from me. It’s a shame that she’s kinda the unsung talent for Regan, but together with Linda Blair, they created a character that’s maddening, pure evil and yet heartbreaking at the same time.
Unlike many films of its ilk, The Exorcist masterfully combines the eery atmosphere, iconic score and effects craftsmanship of a horror film with the deep spiritual themes and superb performances of a strong dramatic character study. It’s ’cause of Friedkin’s direction, Blatty’s powerful script and a pitch-perfect cast that this film transcends being a benchmark of the horror genre that it rightfully has earned, and stands as one of the most memorable and influential films of all-time.