Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Devil Went Down To Georgetown

Year: 1973
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair 
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Howdy, folks! It’s that time of year again, where the leaves change and a young man’s fancy turns to bloody chainsaws and mutilated corpses. This October, we continue a grand Popcorn Culture tradition of reviewing a classic horror franchise that hasn’t yet been explored on these here pages. Seeing how my Halloween marathon still hasn’t technically concluded, I decided to explore an easier-to-swallow series with a smidge fewer entries: The Exorcist.

This will be the first October marathon I perform in which there are no extant reviews for previous entries, though it’s not for lack of trying. The Exorcist is the only movie I’ve watched in the last three years that I completely failed to write up, having been so busy that my screening eventually became to distant and blurry in memory to reasonably critique the film. So I’m doubly happy today. I get to redeem myself while reviewing a horror classic. And I’m set to dive into another world of increasingly dubious sequels. And there’s only four of them.

Thank Satan.

In The Exorcist, like you needed to know, successful actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is living in Georgetown with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) while shooting a film. Things turn bad when Regan gets sick and begins acting out, vomiting green slime, and… speaking in other voices? Controlling objects with her mind? Unsurprisingly, a battery of medical tests are not successful, and Chris decides to pursue getting an exorcism. On hand to help are Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest/psychiatrist with a recently deceased mother who has been doubting his faith, and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who takes forever to get anywhere, but certainly knows how to make an entrance.

It almost makes you forget you haven’t seen him in 80 minutes.

The Exorcist is in a tough position, having been labeled “the scariest film of all time.” As the years go by, religious sentiment is hemorrhaged form the American public and patiences stretch too thin to support a two-hour slow burner, attracting some millennial backlash to the film. Both of these parties are insane. No, The Exorcist isn’t the scariest movie ever made, unless you’re a Catholic grandmother. But it’s a damn good horror film that rightfully deserves its iconic status.

If you’re open to it, The Exorcist can tear through your nerves like tissue paper. Regan’s ever-escalating condition is a series of crudely effective shocks, but the real menace here is That Damn Hallway. Every time something gets worse, our heroes are forced to make the trek up the stairs, around the bend, and down That Damn Hallway toward an innocuously blank white door. Through repetition, the film conditions you to expect something terrible every time that door opens, but it lingers, letting the possibilities fester in your mind before the big reveal. The tension created by that hallway and that door is so palpable that you can choke on it.

That’s how The Exorcist works, by psychologically grinding you down until all that’s left is powder. It should really be arrested for assault and battery. In addition to the general body horror tinged with the tragic melancholy of a mother unable to help her daughter get well, there’s also a prolonged sequence of medical testing that’s some of the most disturbing, stomach-churning material of the year. The decade. The century. Of all time?

Well, it’s in the running.

The reason The Exorcist works so well, even today, on those two terrible fronts is that the special effects and make-up design are the work of a genius. That particular genius is Dick Smith (Death Becomes Her, Scanners, The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, The Godfather 1 & 2, everything that’s ever mattered), whose effects are an ageless work of art, distorting the human form as far as it can go, rendering believable-looking impossibilities that still hold up forty years later. This is no small feat, and it’s a timeless, realistic nightmare of epic proportions.

Of course we can’t discount director/renowned psychopath William Friedkin. Although I have a distaste for his dubious methods of extracting performances from actors (firing guns near their heads, slapping them, and just generally behaving in a manner that would have the Marquis du Sade asking him to calm down), his control over image and sound in The Exorcist is exquisite.

The sound design is an apoplectic symphony, hammering you with harsh buzzing and thrumming that is abruptly whisked away into a vacuum. Sounds are blasted, silenced, swapped, and juxtaposed against the frame in a completely unpredictable pattern that keeps you on your toes until they’re worn down to the bone. And do I really have to spend much time elaborating on my aesthetic praise of the man who crafted this image?

Didn’t think so.

This confluence of filmmakers working full throttle doesn’t end there. The cast is uniformly terrific as well. Burstyn is an all-too human and fragile mirror for our own reactions to the horror, and Miller and Siedow sell a set of dialogue that toes the line between being unbelievably grave and deliriously campy. But perhaps the most invaluable performer is Linda Blair (with respect to Mercedes McCambridge and Eileen Dietz, who seamlessly provide voiceover and stand-in material), who gives one of the single best child performances ever put to screen. Even before the possession, she gives Regan a grounded naturalism that provides an all-important contrast to the bucking and cursing figure she becomes. Without her The Exorcist would fall flat on its face and the world would be deprived of a pivotal piece of culture.

That said, The Exorcist isn’t perfect. As much as it sings as a piece of cinematic psychological warfare, there are a surprising abundance of narrative and structural flaws. As the story skips through weeks and months, a lot of important material is let on the cutting room floor. We’re often told about things that have happened rather than experiencing them, and are frequently tossed into scenes without an important bit of context to help us understand why exactly we should be worried in this particular moment. There’s also the fact that the rich mother-daughter angle completely evaporates by the third act. 

But I noticed something odd in my notes. I didn’t jot a single thing down during the final half hour of The Exorcist, because I was so engrossed in what was unfolding onscreen, even though I’ve seen it a dozen times before. That’s the power of the film: it’s an experiential masterwork that jangles the nerve and ignites the senses, and everything else just falls away.

TL;DR: The Exorcist is a classic for a reason: it's a psychologically brutal, spine-jangling experience.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1132
Reviews In This Series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)


  1. I have unfortunately never seen a single Exorcist film. I need too though. Besides the first, which is a classic, I've always wanted to see the second and third for how weird and unique they seem. I've heard that the director's cut of the third film is an underrated masterpiece. And the second I've heard is bonkers and crazy. The fourth has two different cuts, one from Paul Schrader and one from Renny Harlin. You can't get more different than those two guys. Either way, I look forward to this franchise retrospective!

    1. Not even the FIRST one? You gotta get on that, man. But yeah, this franchise goes to some CRAZY places that I'm very ready to explore.

  2. I've gotta revisit The Exorcist one of these days, although I recall only kind of liking it the first time--but then, that's how I've responded to every William Friedkin movie I've ever seen--including The French Connection (big ol' meh) and even Sorceror (which I guess must be the best). (And, I mean, when Sorceror is essentially Roy Scheider versus Venezuela in a remake of The Wages of Fear that also cuts the runtime of Wages of Fear down by a solid thirty-five minutes, I ought to LOVE Sorceror.)