How about that? It is almost Halloween, I am working my way up the list of Greatest Movies, and next up is William Friedkin’ The Exorcist (1973), also known as one of the scariest movies of all time. I couldn’t possibly have planned this.
I did not plan on watching it last year, but the uncut version became available on iTunes for 99 cents just a few days after Halloween so now I was out of excuses. Here is a movie that has been terrorizing audiences and influencing other horror movies for decades, so I might have had a smidge of apprehension. When the uncut version was released in 2000 I was living in Peru and the trailers were talking about it like it was a major movie event for this thing to be back on the big screen. I knew it had to be scary, because my dad strongly advised against seeing it. The closest I came to seeing it at a young age was when seeing Scary Movie 2 in 2001. You know, the scene where James Wood, Andy Richter and Natasha Lyonne are target vomiting at each other? It made the vomiting scene in The Exorcist a lot less queasy, but the film as a whole remains extremely disturbing.
What makes the movie such a great horror movie is that the monster is not a man or even a monster you can fight with weapons or even your bare hands because it is inside you. It inhabits the body of young girl Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) very slowly, first causing disturbing changes in behaviours and then having become dangerous to herself and others. Her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), an actress living in Washington D.C, does what any mother in this situation would do in this situation and uses all of her resources to help her get better. Psychiatrists and doctors examine every inch of her, but can’t find the cause of her increase in strength and her more and more violent behaviour. As a guy who hates needles and being medically prodded, I found the test scenes to be just as disturbing as the exorcism itself.
When the doctors suggest calling in an exorcist you have to admire how they suggest exorcisms don’t work because there is a demon inside the patient, but because the patient believes it. If Regan believes the exorcism works, then maybe she will start acting normal again. Desperate for any solution, Chris seeks out Damien Karras (Jason Miller) a priest who has serious doubts about this whole exorcism business being a psychiatrist himself and having had his faith shaken after the death of his mother. However after talking to Regan tied to her bed for her own safety he begins to realize there might something very wrong going on. Apart from the vomiting, there is also the fact that when he plays a recording of her voice backwards it sounds like someone else is talking.
Enter the master exorcist father Lancaster Merrill (Max Von Sydow) who has done this kind of thing before and knows what to expect. When the audience first walked into the theatres back in the 1970s they had no idea what to expect, hence the movie’s reputation. The sight of Blair thrashing wildly on her bed as it begins to levitate and the two priests cast holy water on her to throw the demon out must have been quite the experience when seen on the big screen. Not to mention when her head starts spinning, courtesy of practical effects decades before the arrival of digital effects.
My favourite character in the movie is Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a police detective investigating a murder that could be related to Regan’s behaviour. A rational and cunning man, Kinderman knows there is something wrong going on at the McNeil home, but also smart enough it might be something he cannot explain in his report. Making him even more likable is his habit to talk about his love of movies once he is done talking about the case.
Classic movies keep being remade as TV series nowadays, so here is an idea for a show: Kinderman investigating paranormal cases the normal police can’t explain. At the end of each case he would go forget about the horrors he saw by going to the movies. What should you see after watching an exorcism? I would go for a comedy.