18 – 122mins – 1973
BEDROCKS & ROOMTRICKS
“That thing upstairs isn’t my daughter.”
Known by all and considered by many to be one of the scariest films of all time, this seminal adaptation of novelist William Peter Blatty’s fictionalised account of a purportedly real 1949 demonic eviction was levitated to infamy courtesy of mass hysteria, group faintings and cinema walk-outs. Murmurs of a curse on set added to the uncanny allure, while the catholic church was none too happy at such devil-peddling obscenity.
Conversely, the industry was ecstatic, as William Friedkin’s unassumingp domestic horror (which initially only opened in 26 theatres across all of America!) went on to cement its place in cinema history by grossing nearly $450million from a $12million budget, and becoming the first horror ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
It’s fair to say that The Exorcist’s lofty reputation precedes it. Heck, I was scared before I’d even pressed play! Settling down last night (with the lights on!) to watch this blu-ray presentation of the original theatrical version (there has been much Lucas-esque tinkering over the years), I was surprised at how measured and unterrifying the film is for prolonged stretches! There are hints at the obscene vulgarity to come, but Father Merrin’s (The Force Awaken’s Max von Sydow) sombre excavation while surrounded by the dusty hustle of Northern Iraq makes for a deceptively innocuous introduction.
Even when the drama shifts to the Georgetown home of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her tweenage daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), there are long periods of status quo-establishing mundanity (rats in the attic, “When can I get a horse?”) before some disturbing out-of-character behaviour from the usually well-behaved 12 year old raises questions about first her health, then her soul…
“Mother, what’s wrong with me?”
While the dog-collared veteran from the start of the film belatedly returns to perform the titular ritual on the inhabited, bed-bound girl, he is assisted by a second priest in psychiatrist Father Damien Karras (John Miller), who actually has more screen time and character development than Merrin’s sidelined catalyst. Karras has recently lost his faith following the death of his mother, and the weight of this holy doubt makes him weak in the eyes of the bullying beast possessing Regan.
“He will lie to confuse us.”
While the film will be best remembered for Linda Blair’s ghoul-faced, vomit-spraying, profane portrayal (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell,” “lick me, lick me!” etcetera), the power of the demon’s psychological provocation adds a considerable extra-dimensional heft to The Exorcist’s superficial revulsion.
Before the unclean spirit is cast out in an act of sacrificial tragedy you begin to question whether Chris’ strained relationship with Regan’s out-of-town father, or the actresses stifling attempts to make up for her time away from her growing daughter haven’t contributed to the domestic distress just as much as Pazuzu’s possession. I was drawn in by this enthralling subtext and much like “Father Paranoia” in the film I was double guessing every scripted utterance… And you thought The Exorcist was just crucifix masturbation, head-spinning and profanity? You simple-minded cu–