For a film that was released in 1973, The Exorcist has lost none of its power. The story of Reagan – a 13 year old girl whose body is possessed by the Devil himself after playfully tampering with a Ouija board – is still a powerful landmark of the horror genre. Ellen Burstyn plays the young girl’s mother, an actress as well as a devout atheist, who is forced to re-evaluate her faith. The film follows a middle- aged priest, who is undergoing a similar crisis of faith in the wake of his mother’s death. Both Reagan’s mother and the priest collaborate with an elder priest – played by Max von Sydow – in a desperate attempt to perform an ancient exorcism ritual, which proves to be the one and only hope for the poor girl.
The Exorcist caused quite a stir upon its initial release. Reports of people fainting during screenings, as well as being institutionalized, have surrounded the film for decades. There are scenes of such explicit power that many may have to turn away. This is understandable. There are moments that are definitely repellent, and the obscenities which spew from young Reagan’s mouth are undeniably shocking. A controversial sequence involving a sexual act with a crucifix has lost none of its shock value. However, all of this material serves a larger purpose. The Exorcist is an exploration of faith, of the triumph of good over evil, and a film that embraces the existence, as well as the power, of God. Many of the films religious detractors have sadly missed the point, and while their reactions can be understood to some degree, to wholeheartedly disregard the film as nothing but pure evil is to misjudge the intentions of both the writer and director – William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin, respectively – who both claim to be devout believers.
Technically and artistically, The Exorcist is a marvel. Linda Blair is fantastic as the young victim of possession. Her performance is extremely physical and emotional. Ellen Burstyn is perfect as usual, and is the emotional core of the film. Both Jason Miller and the great Max von Sydow are compelling as the two priests. William Friedkin’s direction is superb. The film is deliberately paced, and much of the running time is devoted to quiet moments of reflection, rather than outright horror. You can almost detect shades of Bergman here and there.
The Exorcist stands the test of time and comes highly recommended.
Watch the trailer here.