- Director: William Friedkin
- Writer: William Peter Blatty, based on his novel
- Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Mercedes McCambridge, and Lee J. Cobb
- Accolades: 2 Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – William Friedkin, Best Actress – Ellen Burstyn, Best Supporting Actor – Jason Miller, Best Supporting Actress – Linda Blair, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing)
- Where to: Stream with ads (with cable subscription) on AMC app, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
A new buzzed-about subgenre over the past few years has been “Prestige Horror,” meant to describe horror movies that “cross over” and receive mainstream critical appeal, such as Get Out, Hereditary, or Midsommar, all of which were placed on many critical end-of-year “best of” lists. Get Out was even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. In 1973 The Exorcist became perhaps the first “Prestige Horror” movie, not only receiving ten Oscar nominations but also becoming the runaway hit of its day, the movie everybody was talking about. Little could those who invented the Academy Awards in 1927 imagine that a movie would one day be up for their highest award in which a 12-year-old girl masturbates with a crucifix.
The Exorcist still 100% works today, though if it came out today it would likely not get the publicity of several cities (including Boston!) trying to ban it from their theaters entirely for “blasphemy.” The production went wildly over budget after most of the set burned down and the climactic exorcism scene itself had to be shot inside a giant freezer (to get the effect where we see everyone’s breath) that was so cold that scenes could only be shot for a few minutes at a time. Combine this with the fact that the film was shot without any bankable stars (Max von Sydow, the veteran Swedish actor mostly known for appearing in a series of Ingmar Bergman films, was likely the biggest name in the cast at the time), and Warner Bros. was left absolutely convinced that the movie would take a huge loss. Instead, people ended up standing in long lines in freezing cold to see the movie.
The film is mostly set in the Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, DC. It stars Ellyn Burstyn, in her first starring role, as the single mother of a seemingly happy 12-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair) whose behavior suddenly changes bizarrely. In one early scene, Regan appears in the middle of a dinner party, announces to one of the guests that he’s going to die, and then urinates in the middle of the floor. In another, she has wild seizures and throws her mother across the room. Her mother’s vague love interest falls down a long set of outdoor steps (these are a real place in Georgetown that you can still visit, these days usually known as the “Exorcist Steps”) and snaps his neck. The audience catches on much quicker than the characters that Regan’s actually murdered him. Desperate, her mother takes her to doctors who subject her to a long battery of truly excruciating-looking medical tests (including a very realistic blood-spurting angiogram that for many viewers is the scariest thing in the movie… thankfully doctors for the most part no longer do the procedure this way). They find nothing wrong. At their wits’ end, the doctors suggest that if Regan believes she’s possessed, maybe an exorcism would help?
Meanwhile Catholic priest/psychiatrist Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is in town counseling local priests. He is suffering from a crisis of faith, especially after his mother dies in New York while he’s at work in Washington. When Regan’s mother asks him to look at her daughter, he is initially skeptical after a series of bizarre incidents, including the infamous scene where she projectile vomits pea soup all over his face. The church (represented by the actual head of Georgetown University at the time, playing himself) agrees to the exorcism on the condition that it is performed primarily by the elderly Father Merrin (von Sydow), an exorcism expert slash archaeologist or something, I’m not actually sure. Very quickly thereafter, the last half or so of the movie consists almost entirely of the exorcism itself.
The Exorcist is not slow, and there are definitely crazy things happening throughout. Yet it is still very weird from a pacing standpoint. The movie starts with a lengthy prologue of Father Merrin doing archaeology in Iraq and staring at ominous statues that has very little dialogue and a connection to the rest of the movie that I would describe as thematic at best. Then he disappears for a solid hour and half before suddenly re-appearing for the final scenes. Those final scenes, though, are an intense masterpiece, especially given that everyone involved was freezing. Director William Friedkin takes a huge risk in this movie, which is to put some truly bizarre makeup on Regan and have her yell really bizarre lines in a deep voice (provided by Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge), like “your mother sucks cocks in hell!” Yet at the same time, he’s playing everything absolutely straight. This stuff is scary at least partly because the movie insists that it’s scary. Everything else in the movie takes place in reality, but in Regan’s bedroom the rules break down.
Another reason the movie is effective is that, with the possible exception of Father Merrin, the characters are as confused by what’s going on as we are, and nothing is ever really explained. There is a whole backstory, which I have a feeling is explored to a greater degree in the original novel, about the demon Pazuzu and a bunch of other stuff. But none of that is explained in the movie. We never learn anything about why whatever it is chooses to possess this little girl, or where it came from, or what (if anything) all that stuff in Iraq has to do with it. This is a crazy supernatural movie without an exposition dump, we are fending for ourselves, the same way that Regan’s mother and Father Karras are.
The performances are uniformly great. I tend to find myself most impressed by Jason Miller, who was mostly a playwright before this. The year before the release of The Exorcist, he actually won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for writing That Championship Season (which would in fact be adapted into its own movie in the 1980s with Martin Sheen and Paul Sorvino, among others). But Friedkin was insistent on giving him the part, and he ended up receiving an Oscar nomination. He is square-shouldered and beaten down, extremely believable as a former boxer who has become a priest and a counselor and now thinks he’s seen and heard too much to go on. He doesn’t give any big speeches, but in the moment near the end of the movie when he decides that this is it and he is now going to do whatever it takes to save this girl, we understand it completely without him explaining it to us.
Friedkin himself was probably the perfect director for this movie. His work has a certain gritty energy to it that works extremely well with this material about the supernatural butting into everyday life. That the Friedkin movie on the AFI Top 100 is his cop thriller The French Connection, and not The Exorcist, is completely ridiculous, as is the fact that movie won Best Picture while this one lost to The Sting. I find it hard to even make a credible argument that either of those movies is higher quality than this one. The French Connection is very good, but so are ten other movies from the same decade that are pretty much just like it (also for me it never really justifies having a cop who shoots criminals in the back as a “hero,” there was a reason I don’t watch The Shield). The Exorcist is the definitive version of this movie. Many movies have come after, but none of them are in the same ballpark.