The Exorcist (1973)


The Exorcist – 1973

Director – William Friedkin

Starring – Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller

As far as controversial movies go, I can think of no more infamous movie than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Often cited as the “scariest movie of all time”, or at the very least one of the scariest, banned across the United Kingdom from it’s release until fairly recently in the 90s, and condemned by prominant religious figures and organizations as vile and evil, it’s safe to say that The Exorcist had quite a lot to live up to. I even encountered some trouble when trying to watch it, as it’s reputation was a bit daunting. ¬†Ultimately I just bit the bullet, sat down, and watched it. But the big question is, “was it worth all the hype?” I’d have to say, resoundingly, yes.

To start with, the story. A young girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by a demon, and in the process, frightens her mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her foul behavior, filthy language, and her severe, self-inflicted wounds. After exhausting the options available to them through science and medicine, they turn to the church in an attempt to rid Regan of the demon. Sound original? Not really. The story isn’t a new one, stories similar to this one have been told before and since the release of the Exorcist. It is in the execution of this story, however, that the real difference comes in and where the magic lies.

The pacing of the film is huge. Without anything obviously scary happening, Friedkin still takes every opportunity to build the tension and create an atmosphere of un-ease, and anxiety. Every minute that goes by, we are slowly drawn in to the characters, the story, and the setting. The film is roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. It could have been double that, and I still would have been caught up in it. Not one frame was wasted in moving us towards the climax, flickering lights, ambient sound, negative space, everything was used effectivly to create the mood. Without the time taken to get us into the minds of the characters, this could have very easily become a sensationalist monster movie, or a horror movie that was dependent upon shock value.

Sound. One very important method of ramping up the tension is through sound. It can be used to add an almost subliminal layer to the film, something like the rhythmic pounding of some machinery in the hospital, or the raspy breathing of Regan as she is possessed by the demon. The sound design is, when necessary, a bit more overt too. For example, the priests, fathers Merrin and Karras (von Sydow, and Miller respectively) walk up the stairs to start the exorcism and leave the girl’s miter Arther foot of the stairs watching. The camera pulls in slowly on the mother, and suddenly out of the blue, the phone rings causing her, and the audience, to jump out of our collective skins. These little, seemingly innocuous noises, like a phone ringing, or a floor creaking, or a soft scrabbling sound, go a long way towards building the tension for the inevitable climax of the movie.

Friedkin utilizes a lot of contrasting imagery to amplify the good versus evil theme of the story. One of the best examples of the use of this technique is the image used for the poster. Max von Sydow’s character (father Merrin) has just arrived at the house, and surrounded by a glowing white light he steps towards the darkly lit house. He is surrounded by darkness (evil), but brings with him light (good) and hope (still good). The light that surrounds him draws our eyes to the upstairs window of the house, where Regan and the demon are waiting, not only does this image characterize the themes of the story, but it visually connects the fate of the two opposing sides. This use of pregnant negative space occurs throughout the film. A darkly lit scene often times is immediately contrasted with a bright one, flip flopping to heighten the conflict, and draw the characters closer together. The imagery is at war with itself, vying for the audiences attention, while undermining and simultaniously accentuating the scenes that came before it. The positioning of the characters in The Exorcist speaks a lot about the battles and conflicts they face in the story. Often times characters are either ascending or descending into or from the scene (a buddy of mine actually wrote a bit about these contrasting visual qualities, you can read that here.). The staccato nature of the imagery builds to a frenzied pace, never letting up until the conclusion.

Tying all these elements together is the subdued yet distinctive musical score. It never overwealms the film, it instead helps to glue everything together. The score is instantly recognizable, and conjures up instantaneous images from the film (just ask who’s been terrorized by it).

If it isn’t clear up until this point, I loved this film. Depite my lack of religion based fear, The Exorcist kept me on the edge of my seat, enthralled every step of the way. This is what horror and suspense films should aspire to. Completely and totally recommended!

“Hilarious!” – Ashley

8 thoughts on “The Exorcist (1973)

  1. You talk about this movie as if this was the first time you have seen it. Having seen this AT LEAST 5 times in my life, I envy you if that is the case.

    Even as a confirmed athiest, I cannot deny the power of that Friedkin puts into this film to scare the bejeesus out of the viewer. He took the best parts of William Peter Blatty’s book creating on great film that, though tame by comparison to modern films, keeps the heart racing until the end.

    I have seen every sequel AND prequel that were spawned, and though the prequels are interesting enough, the greatest follow-up recommendation is for The Exorcist 3, written and directed by BLATTY himself, featuring George C. Scott revising Lee J. Cobb’s Lt. Kinderman. Avoid The Exorcist 2 like the plague.

  2. Somehow, I have managed to completely avoid seeing it until just recently. I have seen clips online of Exorcist 3, or rather clip, where the nurse is doing her rounds.

    The fact that you said to avoid the 2nd Exorcist movie somehow makes me want to see it a little more. I’ve also heard decent things about the Prequel that was originally to be directed by Paul Schrader, but was given to Renny Harlin after a difference of opinion between Schrader and the producers. I heard a rumor that Schrader’s version exists somewhere out there and I would love to watch it.

    I have a growing respect for William Friedkin too, despite my mediocre attitude towards The French Connection. I really loved To Live and Die in LA (that might just be the action movie junkie in me though)

    I think I might go check the book out of the library, and see what’s different about it from the movie.

  3. Also would recommend William Peter Blatty’s (written and directed) movie “The Ninth Configuration” with a cornucopia of talent. The rapid fire philosophical banter between the Psychs and doctors is the source of endless laughs (whether intentional or not is up for debate).

    Et tu, White Fang?

  4. FYI Schrader’s version IS NOT hard to find. Look for it as DOMINION: The Prequel to the Exorcist. Regarding Exorcist 2. Let me know what YOU think. I might even expect a special entry in your blog, diverting from the 1001 hoping that writing about it will help to remove it from your brain, much like that whole “face your fears” philosophy.

  5. I’ve actually seen the Ninth Configuration. I liked it a good amount.

    As far as diversions from the list, I’ve throught about doing either a separate blog, or a separate page on this one about other movies that i’ve seen. It would probably be more about themes than individual films (ie: action movies, the films of Oliver Stone, etc.)

    I’ll check out Dominion, and eventually check out each of the other sequels too.

  6. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List « 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die!

  7. Like Ken, I am not particularly religious (though I wouldn’t classify myself as an atheist), but I was wowed — that’s the best word for it — by the movie’s premise that forces exist beyond our control and outside our realm of understanding. And sometimes, just sometimes, those forces want to scare us witless. This one’s certainly a horror classic because of the great makeup and effects, but mostly for its pure power.

  8. Pingback: An American Werewolf in London (1981) | 1001 Movies…Before I Die!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s