SYNOPSIS: A young girl in Georgetown is possessed by a demon and, after modern science fails to provide any help, her actress mom enlists the aid of an exorcist named Father Merrin. Merrin's experienced in exorcisms, but his assistant, Father Damien Karras, is not and instead serves in a psychiatric capacity within the church.
Essay alert! This is going to get lengthy. THE EXORCIST is a potent and jarring film that I doubt anyone could ever be lukewarm about. You'll remember it forever after you see it, whether because of disgust or cathartic pleasure. But what gives it rewatch value is partially the depth on display here. Just visually, there's so much happening and so much to notice when you revisit the film. Like how Merrin is introduced in a scene that (intentionally?) recalls James Bond.
Or how the excavation site resembles a crucifix.
William Friedkin might have exploited Ellen Burstyn's harness mishap and he might have tortured the film's crew with cold rooms (wiki it), but all those sacrifices were worth it to have Friedkin at the helm. EXORCIST is such a balanced and brilliant film, and that's nowhere more evident than in the masterfully crafted visuals.
Obviously, visually, this is something special. But beyond a simple aesthetic level, the visuals in EXORCIST drive the tones and themes of the film.
For ex, the staircase motif is used so much, but it's still so effective. Friedkin really deliver a doctoral thesis on shooting a great film here.
Even a great director can't turn sludge into diamonds, though, and EXORCIST benefits from a deft script and an ensemble cast that fairly simmers with talent. It's no exaggeration to say that every single performance here is pitch-perfect. I especially love Jason Miller as Damien Karras and it hurts my heart that he didn't go on to have a strong career as a leading actor. EXORCIST proves that he could have done it, easily.
Ellen Burnstyn's quite good as Chris McNeil, too. All her acting decisions are the right decisions, as Chris goes from boisterous and charming in the beginning to almost constantly hysterically screaming once daughter Regan's real condition is revealed. That's what bad actors do, just shout every line and try to fabricate the intensity, but it's the perfect choice for this character and this situation. It helps that the film does give her quiet moments to balance out all the breakdowns.
For all its rep as cinema of the extreme, EXORCIST is extremely well-executed in terms of dynamics. The scenes that have seeped out into public consciousness—your crucifix masturbation and green vomiting—work so well because they're sandwiched between quieter moments. Some of those more serene scenes actually end up being the film's most enjoyable. I really dug this restrained exchange between Chris and Dr. Taney (Robert Symonds).
I think the gratuitousness of the film also tends to obscure how well it handles relationships, particularly the interaction between Karras and Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb).
I have heard the same Linda Blair horror convention horror stories that you have. But you cannot deny that young Linda gives a compelling, muscular performance here. I'm sure some of its impact is due to Friedkin hiding flaws, but it's still a pretty amazing turn for someone so young. Good performers are rare, good performers who can act in heavy makeup are rarer, and good performers who can act in heavy makeup while also being children are like unicorn tears-level rare.
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Makeup and effects are obviously pretty important here and the film provides us with tons of memorable moments. Possessed Regan looks tremendously creepy and actor and puppet Regan are integrated well into a seamless whole.
If we're discussing effects, we probably have to address the most recent controversy in this controversial movie, the spider-walk scene that was excised from the original release, but then CGI cleaned up and added to The Version You've Never Seen.
Some people think it's too much and William Friedkin apparently thought so when he cut it from the film. The placement of it is rather unfortunate, since it comes right after and sort of deflates an important death. Otherwise, I don't really mind it. It's quick, it does look cool, and claiming that it somehow crosses the boundaries of good taste in a movie that also has cross masturbation is wacko.
The lighting and music, omg! Really, we could keep it concise and say that practically everything in THE EXORCIST worked well. It's to this film's credit that not only does it still hold up forty years later, it's cast a long shadow over horror movies since then. Any flick that aspires to extremity owes a debt to EXORCIST; it's just unfortunate that most of them forget to aspire to thoughtfulness, creativity, and quality as well. They can't all be 10s, I guess.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
I don't think this damages the film in the way that people say the spider-walk does, but some of the subliminals are a little too obvious and slightly break the film's mood. It's cool that they're there, but some of them (the demon face) linger on screen a little too long. I would prefer that they be understated and only visible to the very watchful viewer, like in this screenshot (can u find the demon here?).
One of the best horror films that there will ever be.