Written by William Peter Blatty
Directed by William Friedkin
A Warner Brothers Picture
Starring: Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil); Jason Miller (Father Damian Karras); Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil); Max Von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin); Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant William Kinderman); Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings); Kitty Wynn (Sharon Spenser); Father William O’Malley (Father Dyer); Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of the Devil)
When you embark on talking about the history of any art form, there will always be a few examples that stand up taller than the rest, the shiniest diamonds in the crown, the one’s you save for a special occasion because they do their job so well. The history of Horror Cinema has several examples of films that can only be described as legendary: Frankenstein (1931) is one such film, as are Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978). These are the movies that not only scare, but come the closest to achieving that ultimate goal of fine art. These are the films that make scaring people in cinema seats look easy. In 1973, one such film took the country by storm, creating a near mass hysteria, actually causing viewers to faint, vomit and run screaming from the theater. None of that deterred the public, who lined up for blocks to see the film that no one could stop talking about: The Exorcist.
The Exorcist was not the first horror film to deal with Satan; films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) pitted its protagonists against the ultimate villain, but it is worth noting that Satan remains a background player in most of these films, using ordinary people who have fallen into worshiping him and doing his dirty work. The Devil briefly appears in Rosemary’s Baby, but the main antagonists are a gaggle of geriatric Satanists led by Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sydney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). The Exorcist did this film one better by removing the buffer of a black-clad congregation moaning and copulating amongst pentagrams and upside-down crucifixes. While I acknowledge that both the source novel and the abysmal sequel make it clear that Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is in fact possessed by a demon, this is never stated proper in the film; as far as viewers of The Exorcist are concerned, twelve year-old Regan is possessed by the Devil.
Based (apparently) on an actual event, William Friedkin streamlined William Peter Blatty’s scary but dense novel to produce 122 minutes that changed the horror-game forever. Plus he found the perfect vehicle for audience identification: the bright-eyed, apple-cheeked Linda Blair as the sweet and intelligent as Regan. We don’t really get to know her all that well before she starts showing symptoms of possession, but a little of Regan’s endearing personality goes a long way. The audience immediately falls for her, and then spends the rest of the film with their mouths open in shock as this sweet kid slowly transforms into a little monster. Although we must acknowledge the incredible work of makeup artist Dick Smith and actress Mercedes McCambridge (who provided that creepy voice that comes out of Regan’s mouth during the film’s second half), praise for these artists tends to overshadow the work of the thirteen year-old Blair herself, as if enough makeup could’ve turned anyone into the Devil. The look on her face during the hypnotism scene, just before she grabs the psychiatrist’s crotch, is a perfect example: it is the look of an ancient and evil being waiting for the right moment to strike (and this is before Dick Smith’s demon makeup has been applied). Blair’s acting is also perfect during the exorcism scene; she thrashes against her bonds and clouts Father Karras a mighty wallop across the back of the head. Linda Blair wasn’t really possessed just like Christopher Reeve wasn’t really Superman, but in 1979, we all believed a man could fly and likewise, in 1972, we all believed that a little girl was the Devil.
But this isn’t just the Linda Blair show. Regan may be the focus of the film, but her ordeal is the means through which we get to discover the people around her, specifically her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) and Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a troubled priest. Of the two, the brooding Karras, whose faith is faltering in the wake of his mother’s death, is the more fascinating character, which is a shame because Burstyn gives one of her most emotional performances. Burstyn’s Chris is a famous actress and, although it is clear from the beginning that she loves her daughter and dotes on her, it is suggested that her career is pushing her relationship with Regan into the background. Regan apparently spends more time with Chris’s assistant Sharon (Kitty Wynn) and pursues more solitary pastimes like art (notice the subtle hints in the Ouija board scene – after presenting her mother with her sculpture, she picks up a ping pong paddle but doesn’t ask her mother for a game, probably knowing what the answer will be. Furthermore, she reveals a moment later that she has been playing with the Ouija board by herself). That night, Chris and Regan excitedly talk about what they’ll do for Regan’s birthday, like sightseeing and going to the movies, but we never see these things happen (a sightseeing sequence was shot, but never used). Assuming that her parents’ marriage is ending, she allows her mother to bring her drunken director Burke Dennings along but it is clear that she is uncomfortable in his presence (Chris denies having any romantic feelings for him, but it’s puzzling how she can even stand to have the lout anywhere near her house). And the only scene from Regan’s birthday consists of a scene of Chris shouting a line of profanity into a telephone while Regan retreats in depression to her own room, and we wonder if she’s sadden more by her father’s failure to call her or her mother’s foul-mouthed frustration.
To give Chris some credit, the moment Regan wanders downstairs and brings her mother’s party to a halt by peeing on the floor she is fully focused on her daughter. For the rest of the film, Chris is no longer a successful actress who gets recognized in the street and travels all over the world as part of her career: she’s a parent with a sick child whose prognosis is not getting any better. Although she has her vulnerabilities (Regan being the chief one), she starts off as tough as nails, practical and pragmatic to a fault, and Blatty’s script puts her through all the Hell she goes through because there is no other way to proceed: a practical woman would naturally take her daughter to every doctor and psychiatrist she could find before turning to a priest. Anything else would be unbelievable. But before she can bring herself to ask the church for help, she has to have all her defenses shattered. Every layer is peeled away when she sees Regan thrashed violently on her bed, strikes her doctor, use foul language, speak in other voices and manages to strike herself (and all this in just one scene!). Listen to Chris’s scream after the self-slap; it’s the sound of absolute horror. And this is only the beginning; Chris must endure the sight of Regan being put through horrific medical exams (one of which seems more horrifying than the actual exorcism scene), endure the news of Burke’s death (and the realization that Regan killed him), and the ultimate horror of the crucifixion/masturbation scene. By the time she’s forced to convince Father Karras that Regan is possessed (“I’m telling you that thing upstairs is not my daughter… You tell me that an exorcism wouldn’t do her any good! YOU TELL ME THAT!”), Chris is on the verge of an emotional collapse. Her strength has ebbed and, with no husband to share her pain, she must turn to Father Karras. After this scene, Chris fades into the background and story becomes Karras’s.
Karras is the far more complex character. Anyone who was raised a catholic (like myself), might find it difficult to watch this film and see priests laying drunk in their rooms while their colleagues play cards nearby. This doesn’t seem like the behavior of the chosen men to lead the unclean multitude to the Kingdom of God (“I think I’m losing my faith,” Karras says to one of his superiors in a bar and we don’t doubt it). Karras is the dynamic character, the one who must develop into a full-fledged messiah if he is to bring Regan out of the darkness. This is not an easy task, and one must credit Jason Miller’s performance which puts the audience at ease even at the most ridiculous moments: when a drawer suddenly pops open during his interview with Regan, he smiles and asks, “Did you do that?” (Then he challenges the demon to do it again.) Karras obviously doesn’t want to believe that he has actually stumbled onto an actual case of possession; when he is asked by his superior if he believes that Regan is possessed, the priest with the failing faith looks down and answers that he doesn’t (obviously since he has no faith), but that the guidelines have been met. No wonder the bishops want to bring Father Merrin in; Karras has been confronted by everything from backward demonic voices to green vomit in the face and he still can’t commit to an actual belief in demonic possession (something that the audience had long since accepted). The bishops allow Karras to assist Merrin on the basis that “there should be a psychiatrist present.” (Really? WHY?) It is important to note that, while the audience places all of its hope in Father Merrin, they are identifying with Karras; they have been thrust into the Lion’s Den, armed only with a fleeting faith, and must stand firm while Merrin calmly wipes his spectacles of demon spittle and lets his stole become soiled with green sick. Merrin is rarely put off during the exorcism, which is why the camera continually cuts to Karras’s horrified face. Chris has long receded into the distance; we are now in Karras’s story and it is not going to end well.
The heart of this film takes place within three minutes, beginning with Chris’s question, “Is she going to die?” Karras’s answer, “No,” is filled with the faith that he has been lacking throughout the film. In this simple word, Karras has sealed his fate. He has no idea that he has only five more minutes left to live, but that knowledge would probably not deter his path to Regan’s room and eventually out her window to be crushed on the steps below (His last word perfectly bookends his renewed faith: he shouts “No!”). Despite the focus on Regan and Chris as the suffering family, The Exorcist gives us a very Christian ending by allowing an innocent man who does not deserve to die to accept the evil of the world into himself and then allow himself to die unclean and battered against the hard steps outside Regan’s bedroom. In this respect, Blatty’s script has cast Karras as a new messiah, possibly with a new covenant to renew that first one that happened nearly 2000 years before on Golgotha. We may not get much indication of how Chris has changed from her experience, but Regan gives into an impulse to kiss Father Dyer on the sole image of his priest-collar. She senses God in the person in front of her and (unable to thank the man who sacrificed his life for her – sound like anyone you’ve heard of?) she does the best she can to show her gratitude. Despite its reputation for Satanism, The Exorcist is a film that reinforces faith.
But to feel that faith, you have to watch the film. You won’t regret it; trust me. True, you’ll have to sit through some pretty vile stuff, but if you’ve read this far…