The Exorcist (1973)

D: William Friedkin
S: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max Von Sydow

A twelve year old girl exhibits signs of demonic possession. Having exhausted all scientific and rational resources, her mother turns in desperation to the Catholic Church. A troubled young priest and a veteran exorcist do battle with the demon. The sombre and the hysterical are in constant opposition in William Friedkin's now emblematic horror film (rereleased yet again in Ireland despite still being technically unavailable on videocassette. This version has a digitised and stereoised soundtrack, as is the current fashion with reissues following Hitchcock's Vertigo). It is in finding the balance between the two emotional states that The Exorcist retains its power to frighten and disturb.

While its merits and demerits in terms of content may be debated for some time yet, it is the technical excellence and superb direction which sustains interest even today in the wake of the generation of more exploitative films which it spawned. Friedkin crafts his supernatural tale (from the novel by William Peter Blatty) with care and attention to detail. The tone is low-key throughout most of the early scenes, with some disturbing sound effects and drawn out suspense scenes in natural environments which create an eerie atmosphere even before anything outrageous happens. The film then proceeds to document in a most clinical fashion the early stages of the possession and the initial response by thoroughly rational modern mother Ellen Burstyn. As strange and frightening as the vocalisations by Mercedes McCambridge are as the voice of the demon, scenes of young Linda Blair being poked and prodded by doctors and scientists in institutes and hospitals are in their own way even more unsettling, all the more so because we realise that they will never solve the problem (it is a horror film, after all).

By the time the pyrotechnics begin, you have been so drawn in by the verisimilitude with which details have been handled to date that you don't have time to consider how fundamentally silly it is. Rocking beds, howling winds, green vomit, heads doing full rotation; all elements which if handled incorrectly might produce bouts of uncontrollable laughter rather than fear and suspension of disbelief. But in Friedkin's hands and with the benefit of wonderfully physical special effects techniques (sadly becoming a lost art in the age of digital imagery), the film's final twenty minutes becomes a terrifying climax of sound and vision even when viewed apart from the dynamics of the story itself.

Yet the story is important. The film presents us with a multi-layered tale of the power of belief, mostly centred on the character of the younger priest played by Jason Miller. His crisis of faith coincides with the death of his mother and his general disenchantment with the mysteries of Catholicism, especially given his professional training as a psychiatrist. It is his internal struggle which comes to anchor the drama rather than the possession. Ironically, Blair's demise becomes merely the setting for the conflict which ensues between Miller's belief in God and his rational skepticism. This dilemma of course represents that of the audience, who having survived decades of horror films presenting ghosts and goblins have become jaded with the juvenile manner of their portrayal. Friedkin and Blatty embark on a quest to restore their faith though gnawing away at the hidden inner part of each of us which still fears what waits in the dark just beyond imagination. By the time the film has concluded, this crisis has been resolved both for us and for the character, and the extraordinary box office success and continuing notoriety of the film alone suggests that the outcome is positive. Though it seems downbeat and continues to linger in the mind, the film is ultimately a reassertion of traditional beliefs and faith that evil, while present, can be fought, albeit at a cost.

It also plays out a variety of other human dramas which complement the central premise. Burstyn's life as a single mother and actress constantly draws attention to the realities of contemporary life. The unrest and disruption which surrounds her signifies the directionless, unguided life which exists without a belief in forces beyond the ordinary and in a sense creates the gap into which the literal and metaphorical demon inserts itself. It is little wonder that the film was credited with sparking a wave Church attendance. Meanwhile a murder mystery sub plot with Lee J. Cobb as a dogged homicide detective following up on the death of Jack MacGowran at the hands of young Blair allows further opportunity for the forces of rationalism to state their case and find no answers. Miller's struggle with his own conscience reaches its climax with the eventual arrival of Max Von Sydow, when the film plays the hand it has dealt itself and lets the spectacular and unreal loose upon the audience in a battle for their soul which it wins hands down.

It is a powerful film with a powerful impact. But it is finally a horror film, and retreads some familiar ground. It is not unique even in its level of philosophical inquiry, or even its graphic detail (in their time many films have been considered unsurpassably explicit). It is extremely well made, and ranks among the most interesting examples of the genre, but no one could claim that The Exorcist holds the key to the meaning of life. The degree of worship on one hand and vilification on the other is an accurate reflection of the skill with which it has been assembled. Of particular note are the make-up and the use of sound (music and other effects), but the film's $10 million budget has obviously been well spent. The performances are uniformly good, with Miller registering nicely on several conflicting levels and Burstyn playing just the right degree of parental concern which eventually becomes hysterical. Von Sydow makes a strong impression (though his aging make up is not convincing), and young Linda Blair holds up to a difficult task with a good degree of skill (a body double was used for many of the film's more violent sequences). People often forget that the film is a Hollywood entertainment par excellence, and was nominated for ten Oscars (winner of two). It has its disturbing side, without a doubt, but so does any good horror film. Despite the aura which continues to surround it, The Exorcist, as Hitchcock would put it, is only a movie.

Note: In 1999, following its long-delayed ratification by the BBFC, The Exorcist was finally released on videocasette in the UK. Its Irish release followed quickly (monkey see, monkey do). The Region 2 DVD subsequently issued features Mark Kermode's BBC documentary "Fear of God" and a wealth of additional material including trailers, commentaries by Friedkin and Blatty, and storyboard sketches.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.