Thursday, 3 November 2011

Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)


One of the most disturbing films ever made, The Exorcist retains its ability to shock. William Friedkin's adaptation of the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty preys on the darkest fear of every family: that a child can be lost to forces that are evil beyond comprehension.

The elderly Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) discovers ancient artifacts at a huge archaeological dig in northern Iraq. He also confronts the large statue of an ancient demon. In Georgetown, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a famous actress, is temporarily living in an upscale house while a filming a movie on the university campus. Chris is divorced, but has an excellent relationship with her 12-year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Also on the Georgetown University campus, the young Father Karras (Jason Miller) is going through a crisis of faith. He is struggling to care for his sick and elderly mother, and when she eventually dies, he blames himself.

At night, Chris starts to hear strange sounds inside the house. Regan starts to uncharacteristically mis-behave, and claims that her bed is being rocked violently. Regan becomes more irritable and difficult to handle; a battery of physical and psychological tests fail to reveal a cause. Chris' boyfriend, film director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), dies in mysterious circumstances when looking after Regan, and is found at the bottom of the narrow staircase outside the house, his head rotated 180 degrees. With a dead body on his streets, Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) starts to investigate the strange goings-on around Regan, but he is unable to come up with answers.

Now fully possessed, Regan's physical appearance changes to a hideous monster, and she is capable of summoning incredible strength, rotating her head, levitating, and hurling green vomit and a stream of obscenities at anyone who approaches her. Chris is forced to keep Regan tied up in her bedroom. With the medical interventions yielding no results, Chris turns to Father Karras and demands that he perform an exorcism. Fathers Merrin and Karras eventually team up to confront the demon that has taken over Regan's body.

Along with Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976), The Exorcist made the devil into a Hollywood celebrity, and the three films spawned numerous sequels and imitators. By placing a child in unimaginable physical distress and not flinching, The Exorcist made by far the biggest impact. While the devil was responsible for Regan's horror, the film pinched the nerve of panic that children can be lost to all-powerful external forces (drugs, crime, disease), and that the medical establishment can be utterly helpless. The church becomes the final resort, and desperate ancient rituals the path to salvation. The Exorcist can almost be blamed for setting the bar of disaster too high: anything that afflicts a child short of a demonic possession can't be too bad.

Under Friedkin's guidance, The Exorcist chooses its spots to deliver devastating blows, before building to the stunning climactic scene of exorcism. Much of the film is devoid of explicit suspense, the evil lurking beneath the surface and poking its head to create terror in a few chosen moments. Outside of Regan's bedroom, life seems to go on as normal, Chris getting ever more frantic as her daughter slips into the clutches of evil, but the doctors just wanting to run more tests. Friedkin inserts quick scenes of sharp horror to mark Regan's possession, and the sudden jolts of abomination stand in stark contrast to life's attempted normality.

As the transformation of Regan is given time to develop, many scenes are dedicated to the back story of Father Karras. Losing his faith, losing his mother and racked by guilt, Karras is wondering what his purpose in life is. His journey to despair parallels Regan's descent to hell, and the two will meet when Karras realizes that he does have one more mission to fulfil. Jason Miller brings Karras to life with a deepening sadness behind his dark eyes, a man suffering his own version of a journey into blackness.

Ellen Burstyn anchors the film as the celebrity mom, happy in her career and raising a well balanced child, with a cool exterior that starts to crumble when she is slowly forced to confront the unthinkable. Burstyn adequately represents the mounting dread of the audience, without ever stamping full authority on the film. Linda Blair was 14 years old when she portrayed Regan, a role that would haunt the rest of her troubled and ultimately disappointing career. Blair succeeds in establishing Regan as a sweet 12 year old, before gradually disappearing under increasing layers of hideous make-up as her plight worsens. Both Blair and Burstyn suffered injuries during filming as Friedkin successfully pushed the boundaries to heighten the impact of the physical violence.

The Exorcist is a dark, brooding, and unrelenting trip to horror's deepest heart.





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