The Exorcist (1973)
By: Trist Jones on June 6, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Warner Brothers (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, French DD 1.0. English, French Subtitles. 117 minutes
The Movie
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Country: USA
I don't think I need to set this one up that much. If you don't know what The Exorcist is (I'd be genuinely amazed if anyone falls into this category) or have not yet seen it, here's a brief run down.

In 1973 a film came out that caused such a stir in cinema's that it pretty much became what the film was known for. People were turning up in droves to see this new film that was being touted as the scariest movie you'd ever see. Word was that frenzied audiences were so shocked and horrified by what they saw that ambulances were turning up at cinemas to deal with cinema patrons so affected by what they were seeing that they became physically ill. The film itself, based on the controversial novel of the same name written by comedy writer William Peter Blatty, dealt with the exorcism of a twelve year old girl called Reagan McNeil (played by Linda Blair), who is believed to be the unwilling vessel for demonic forces. The book was actually inspired by true events, where a young Lutheran boy fell victim to demonic forces and similar events transpired.

At the time, The Exorcist was a landmark film, stirring unparalleled controversy and simultaneously frightening and inspiring filmgoers and makers alike across a number of generations. Until I actually saw the film for myself, my father would constantly reference it as one of the scariest movies he'd ever seen, which, coming from a man who has sat through a number of the genre's greatest every Friday night with his older brother, and naturally didn't frighten easily, was certainly saying something about the effect this film had. But that was then, and today's horror film connoisseur has certainly had a lot more pass before their eyes, which in turn, begs the question: How does it stand today?

Being a horror film with serious religious undertones, you already present a large number of people with a very significant issue. Religious horror films tend to have a more profound affect on an audience depending on their personal beliefs. Your common Western audience will have at least some religious belief, be they tied to a particular church or agnostic, so already you're tapping into something that no one has concrete proof of being either right or wrong. No one can prove that God does or doesn't exist, and that logic also applies to the Devil. So when you say that a film is based largely on true events, dealing with something that is either very real, or extremely ambiguous to the majority of people out there, you are going to inevitably tap into some very deep rooted fears based on people's beliefs. Basically, The Exorcist has the ability to frighten people on a much more cerebral level because while everyone knows that Freddy Kreuger or Jason Vorhees don't exist, no one can say either way that a demon does not. The fear that this is actually possible is what gave (and still gives) The Exorcist its power.

In that sense, that cerebral sense, The Exorcist is still as powerful as it's ever been. So many films have tried to emulate that fear of God and the Devil over the years but have simply become pale imitators, falling victim to their own special effects or just plain terrible stories that nothing really compares to date. Even The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which will always draw inevitable comparison (and is for some reason, widely touted as being a great film) has absolutely nothing, nothing at all, on The Exorcist. However, in terms of it being something that is continually scary to look at, today's audiences are likely to find it somewhat tamer than they're probably expecting.

A lot of people who are used to mainstream horror don't tend to see The Exorcist as being all that terrifying, but often these are people looking for 'boo' moments and cheap scares that have become an almost deplorable 'must have' for genre flicks since Scream hit the screens. Moments like these aren't to be found in The Exorcist. It's not about suddenly frightening the shit out of you and then having a laugh at your expense, it's all about the build up of dread and loathing that stems from the reality of the situation and how much belief the audience invests in what's going on. If someone sits down to watch this expecting to be scared witless by something jumping out of dark corners, then you're probably going to find The Exorcist pretty boring.

In spite of this, The Exorcist still manages to shock audiences with a number of memorable sequences. One that has always incited controversy (and rightly so) involves masturbation/mutilation using a crucifix. It's far less sexual than a lot of reviews make it out to be, and more of a vicious, sadomasochistic moment. The projectile vomiting, though not as disgusting as it may seem through the hype, is still an impacting moment (what I think is far more effecting comes later, where Reagan is constantly streaming this heavy, thick vomit throughout the Exorcism). The rest of the moments often come down to quotable moments between one character and the demon inside Reagan.

A large part of the problem with today's audience, compared to those of yesteryear, is that they don't seem to handle any sort of sexual intimations or situations with any seriousness. A vast amount of dialogue, terrific and shocking dialogue, loses it's impact because the younger audiences, the ones that should be terrified of films like this, find a twelve year old with ugly make up screaming sexualised obscenities hilarious. But I suppose that's the biggest problem right there; that's all this is to too many people, a 12 year old in ugly make up screaming sexualised obscenities.

The drama of this film is really what sells it. It's what makes the whole thing believable. Linda Blair (Reagan), Ellen Burstyn (Chris, Reagan's mother) and Jason Miller (Father Karras) were all nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in this film, and deservedly so too, particularly in Ellen Burstyn's case. Linda Blair actually took away a Golden Globe for her performance. All the performances contributed to this film genuinely selling the story of humanity and faith, and what is, essentially, the story of one man questioning both as the film unravels. The film was also rightly nominated for the Academy Awards in Cinematography (the film is shot beautifully, it really is a surprise it didn't take an Oscar for this too, Directing, Editing and was one of the few horror films earn a Best Picture nomination.

The film did win Best Writing and Best Sound, and both easily make large contributions to the success of The Exorcist. Nothing can really come close to the sound work done on The Exorcist. The scene where Karras plays back the tapes of Reagan speaking is one of the eeriest scenes I can bring to mind. Everything you hear in this film sounds completely real. I was amazed to hear how some of the sounds were achieved (which is all explained in the "Fear of God" documentary).

It's probably worth noting that this 25th Anniversary Edition of the film was also the first time the theatrical cut of the film had been seen in its entirety. Up until now, the Australian VHS circulation of the film had been snipped here and there (notably the masturbation sequence). Sure you have The Version You've Never Seen Before available now (actually replacing this release) which includes added footage, but if you're after the true theatrical release, you're going to have to do some digging for this one.
The print, while not completely clean, is about as good as you can ask for. Although the film has been completely remastered, it still looks like an old film, even if you don't know any of the actors (or, more importantly, their ages). There is some moderate graining through some sequences and while not at all detrimental, is noticeable for purists. There is also the occasional flick of dirt and damage, but once again it doesn't detract at all from viewing and is really only noticeable if you're looking out for it. The disc is also 16x9.
The fantastic soundtrack is thankfully presented in 5.1 Surround. The soundtrack really makes The Exorcist a very powerful film, and with the lights down and the sound right up, it's a viewing treat. You also have commentaries by director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty on separate tracks. Friedkin's commentary is more of an intellectual look at the events of the film, combined with some smaller anecdotes about the film and technical discussion of particular set-ups and shots. Blatty however talks more about the story itself than the film, discussing the writing of the book, reactions to it and comparisons between the book and film. Blatty's commentary is more like someone talking (very intelligently) about loosely related topics. It's cool to hear that Kinderman was intended to have his own TV series too!
Extra Features
There's a whole slew of extras, geared largely towards the films fans and intellectuals wanting to know more. The film itself opens with an extensive introduction from Friedkin, which is thankfully more than "I hope you enjoy watching as much as I did making blah blah blah blah". Aside from the commentaries mentioned above, on the flip-side of the disc, you get the meat. There are a few interviews/discussions between Blatty and Friedkin on the choices made in the making of the film and the translation of the novel which are treats to watch, and you also get the trailers which help illustrate the impact this film had socially. The centrepiece of this DVD however is easily the fifty-two minute documentary "The Fear of God".

It documents just about everything one could possibly want to know about the film. Loaded with incredibly deep, retrospective interviews with both cast and crew, this extra alone makes this edition of the film worth hunting down.
The Verdict
The Exorcist is still just as powerful today as it's ever been, at least in terms of thematic impact. While it may not have people passing out in the aisles or throwing up on the back of the person in front of them, it still packs enough of a punch to frighten the shit out just about anyone who watches it. Its spiritual resonance is also still as relevant today as it was then. The biggest detractor to this film's impact today is that the audiences are a completely new breed of monster, less willing to sit back and think about a film, preferring to be injected with heavy doses of MTV style films and shitty, predictable clichés for immediate effect. This isn't what The Exorcist is all about. The Exorcist is a cerebral horror experience, and while not necessarily a terrifying film to watch, it definitely plants a seed that forces the mind to look at the world around it in another light, and it's that thinking that makes The Exorcist a truly effective horror film. I still hate the sight of 'the face' too.
Movie Score
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