31 Screams in October, #15: The Exorcist (1973)

Posted: October 15, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Mercedes McCambridge (voice)

In 1973, a horror movie was unleashed that sent some viewers straight into the hospital ER, or simply screaming out of the theater. One scene in particular involving a crucifix and that certain part of the female anatomy was enough to provoke many to leave the movie right then and there. That movie is “The Exorcist.” Based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, it is thought of by many to be the scariest movie ever made. When I was a senior in high school, I read one such article in Entertainment Weekly magazine, which included a top 20 or 25 (I forget which) of the scariest horror movies of all-time. Seeing “The Exorcist” right at the top of the list piqued my curiosity, as I still had yet to see it at that point. So, I decided I would watch it based on its reputation. To my surprise, I found a lot of what I saw to be not scary at all, but actually rather amusing. The hardest I laughed was during the very scene that provoked people to walk out on the movie 26 years earlier. This was all before the invention of “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” for which I gave the film a second look… and several subsequent viewings since.

In Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) hears what sounds like rats in the attic of her very spacious and clearly luxurious home. I guarantee you, Mrs. MacNeil, it ain’t rats. Attending the filming for one of the scenes of “Crash Course,” the movie that Chris is working on, is Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Directing the project is Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), who is clearly very close friends with his lead actress. Chris has a daughter named Regan (Linda Blair), who is a very sweet and playful young girl when we are first introduced to her.

Father Karras has a lot weighing down on him at this time. His mother is extremely ill and living in a pretty rundown part of down, a sharp contrast to the neighborhood where the MacNeils live. Through all of his grief over his mother’s condition, Father Karras is quickly losing sight of his faith. He even looks for reassignment due to his mother’s terminal illness, but is turned down. Another important plot point is established when Regan and her mother discuss… over a Ouija board, no less… the existence of Regan’s imaginary friend, “Captain Howdy.” From the sound of things, though, it doesn’t seem like “Captain Howdy” has Regan’s best interests at heart, as “Tony” did for Danny in “The Shining.”

Regan’s behavior quickly turns sour, first at the doctor’s office where she directs various lewd remarks at her physician, and later at a party for the cast of “Crash Course,” where she implies to a specific cast member that he is about to die soon and subsequently urinates on the carpet. Following more visits to the doctor and more neurological tests, the option of seeing a shrink… an option the doctors had previously dismissed…. is put back on the table. When that fails, exorcism is put on the table… an unethical suggestion from a doctor, in my opinion.

Confusion turns to tragedy one night when Chris drives home to find that her friend Burke has died from a fall out of the window of Regan’s room. In “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” this bad news is immediately followed by Regan’s infamous “spider walk,” the only scene in the film that legitmately startles me. With Burke’s death being investigated as a homicide, we are finally introduced to Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb). Seems that Burke’s body was found with his head facing backwards! Kinderman finds a piece of a statue similar to the one from Iraq at the foot of the stairs where Burke was found outside the MacNeil house. After he interviews Chris MacNeil about the murder and leaves, that’s when the stuff hits the fan. This is where the “crucifix masturbation” scene I alluded to before takes place. It is also the scene in which, if I recall the story correctly, actress Ellen Burstyn suffered an on-set back injury from which she has never fully recovered.

Chris goes to Father Karras for aid, but Damien is at first reluctant to believe that Regan is actually possessed. All room for doubt is set aside when Regan’s sitter Sharon (Kitty Winn) calls him to the house where he sees the words “HELP ME” appearing like scars on Regan’s chest. Father Merrin is called in to assist with the exorcism. During a break in the ritual, while Merrin is in the bathroom taking his pills, Father Karras is tortured by the demon, who uses Karras’s guilt over his mother against him. Merrin invites Karras to leave the room. Downstairs, Chris confronts Father Karras about how the exorcism on her daughter is progressing. When she asks if Regan is going to die, this motivates Father Karras to return to Regan’s room. Karras finds Merrin dead of a heart attack, presumably brought on by the demon itself. It’s now up to Father Karras to decide if his faith is strong enough to save the innocent girl’s life.

I can’t say I agree that this is the scariest movie of all-time, or that it’s all that scary at all, but it’s a much better film than I originally gave it credit for fifteen years ago. Certainly, it was groundbreaking in the awards category, being the first horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (losing to “The Sting”). Linda Blair, who then would have been the youngest ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, lost to an even younger actress who also would not go on to have the strongest of Hollywood resumes: Tatum O’Neal. While a bit overhyped, “The Exorcist” is still a landmark movie and exists as the turning point in the horror genre. No horror film like it had ever been made before and now, some forty years later, it continues to have an influence on the way horror movies are made today.

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