William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist, is often regarded as the scariest film ever made. However, this particular type of horror can be dividing, as it is not as broad as the ghost, monster, or serial killer-themed horror most audiences are familiar with. The Exorcist relies on a bit of religious faith, and whether or not a viewer shares those beliefs can alter how they see the movie. For some it can almost seem a farce, as something that is too ridiculous to take seriously. For others, it can be an all-too real experience, verging on the brink of a nightmare.
The Exorcist focuses on Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her twelve-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), who has begun to act in a mysterious, unexplainable manner. As her behavior worsens, it becomes obvious to Chris that the problem is not psychological, but might be something entirely worse. Chris calls for the help of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who believes Regan to be possessed after seeing undeniable evidence. He decides to call on Catholic priest Lankster Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to aid him in performing an exorcism.
Burstyn gives an excellent performance as the concerned mother, weeping helplessly at the awful things happening to her daughter. Von Sydow’s presence is extraordinarily powerful. The scene in which he arrives at Chris’ house has gone down as one of the most iconic horror images of all time. Miller gives us a respected, understated role, pulling the audience into his story and troubles without allowing them to lose focus on the film’s priority. Where performance credit is truly due, however, is Blair’s take as Regan. The young girl’s ability to portray an innocent young girl one minute and a terrifying demon-possessed creature the next is truly impressive, especially considering her age.
The Exorcist seems to inhibit a different kind of horror than some of its peers. As evident by the abundance of demonic-possession movies that flood the horror film market now, it was truly ahead of its time. What makes the film shine is Friedkin’s direction. He is able to enhance the already-horrific story – lifted from a novel of the same name in 1971 – with his precise artistic touch. While he does seem to craft his work in traditional horror elements- in that he is intending to frighten- he tends to take things a bit further. Rather than simply try to scare the audience, he tries to unsettle them and make them truly uncomfortable – and it works. Try not to be shaken by that haunting demonic face that flashes at the viewer subliminally. It would be difficult for any viewer watching this film, no matter their age, to not be entranced by Regan’s transformation. The actual exorcism scenes shine the most, of course, as they seem to be what the film is most remembered for. Through a skillful use of timing, cut, and tone, Friedkin leads the viewer down a path of fear in which it is not easy to recover.
However, The Exorcist is a film that can affect audiences in various ways, depending on their beliefs. For someone who renounces all forms of religion, the storyline may not seem as threatening. They may still be scared at certain times just as audiences can still be scared by monster movies despite not believing in their existence. But for a religious viewer, especially one practicing the Catholic faith, the viewing experience could be all the more intense. This can be viewed both as The Exorcist’s greatest flaw and its greatest strength; the film doesn’t scare everyone at the same level of intensity – which is both a positive and negative quality.