I was legally underage the first time I saw The Exorcist, so were my friends Keith and Gary. We saw it at an old porno cinema in Waterloo Street in Newcastle; they never asked your age… allegedly. I can’t remember the year but we were still at school. We were too young. It was a double bill; they always were at that cinema, 4 screens, 3 of which showed porn, the 4th always screened double bills of classic 70’s movies that we were too young to see… so we saw a lot of them often, Dirty Harry movies, Bruce Lee and horror flicks. This time we turned up to see The Exorcist and The Exorcist 2: The Heretic; an all time classic and an all time piece of shit.
We were excited and nervous, we knew the reputation that came with this film, we were prepared… or so we thought. Between us we’d seen a lot of horror films but most horror films scare you with ‘jumps’ and quick cuts… this thing got under your skin and picked at your nerve endings. It ramped up the tension, threw in those ‘jump’ scares and shredded your nerves completely right through until after the closing music has faded.
The film begins at an archaeological dig near Nineveh in Iraq, it’s here we’re introduced to Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), the titular Exorcist.
In Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) notices odd noises in the attic and more alarmingly, disturbing changes in her 12 year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). After Regan suffers through a series of medical tests, Chris takes her to see a psychiatrist whom Regan assaults. As a last resort Chris enlists the help of Father Karras (Jason Miller); a conflicted priest, he agrees to talk to Regan but doubts that she needs an exorcism.
You know the drill by now, shaking beds, blasphemy, levitation and physical assault on those around her as well as on Regan’s own body.
After a further visit Karras listens to some recordings he made of Regan, she is speaking in dead languages and backwards English. She taunts him about his sick mother. Karras agrees to ask for an exorcism to be performed. The church sends Father Merrin, an experienced exorcist, he has unfinished business with this demon…
I’d never seen anything like it at the time and no matter how many horror films I’ve seen since, not one of them has given me the sense of dread and emotional battering that The Exorcist did. And yes, that is a good thing.
There are excellent performances from everyone involved, a great script from an equally terrifying novel and awe inspiring visual and audio effects. This is an incredibly well directed movie by William Friedkin at the peak of his powers, a career defining film.
I’ve seen the film many times since that day in the musty, dark porno theatre; on video in the eighties, before and after it was ludicrously removed from video shops due to its placement on the ‘video nasties’ list. I also saw it on its ‘The version you’ve never seen before’ rerelease at the cinema; I own that version and the original cut on DVD, as well as the anthology box set (I‘m a completist tragic)… and EVERY time I watch it I get that same sense of fear and excitement I had back in Waterloo Street over 30 years ago. I prefer the original cut, the addition of the ‘spider walk’ scene to the rerelease adds little apart from it being a cool shot.
Every time I see the film I see something new in it, every time I see it, it’s different but the same. It’s intelligent, emotional, visceral and peerless. I’ve seen a lot of top ten, top fifty or top hundred lists for horror films, everyone is entitled to their opinion… but any of them that don’t have this at number 1 are full of shit. It’s THE greatest horror film EVER, there really is no competition.
Quality: 5 stars
Is it fun, God no, but is it good: 5 stars
There will be a review of the DVD anthology of The Exorcist, the sequels and both prequels soon.