The Exorcist

Willian Friedkin, USA, 1973, 122 mins

Twelve year old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) starts to act bizarrely. Medical science is at a loss to explain Regan's condition, so her (agnostic) mother (Ellen Burstyn) turns to the alternative of religion. Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest experiencing a crisis of faith, is called in to investigate. He diagnoses demonic possession and sends for Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), an elderly priest with experience of exorcism.

I suspect that the audience for The Exorcist could be divided in two: the horror fans and the rest. For both groups it's a must-see film. The ordinary moviegoers will see the ultimate horror film, the one that's been banned on video because it's so potent. They'll get plenty of shocks and go away happy.

The horror cognoscenti will see the key movie of the 1970s, the one that got William Castle style exploitation tactics (nurses in attendance at screenings, rumours of the production being cursed etc.) taken seriously and that gave a massive boost to the special effects industry. They'll be disappointed with the film's content, finding that it doesn't disturb as much as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986/90) or induce revulsion like the best (or is that worst) of Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, Joe D'Amato and company. Actually Friedkin is perhaps not that far from said exploitation hacks. He's certainly willing to indulge in extreme tactics to get the `right' responses, like spontaneously firing guns during The Exorcist's filming to keep the actors on their toes. He's also made more than his fair share of bad films since The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist. Cruising (1980) comes particularly to mind.

Friedkin is fond of saying that "you get out of The Exorcist what you take to it." This is the strength and weakness of the film in a nutshell. The film will work for those who can take demonic possession as a real possibility. It works less well for those who cannot. If only the director had been able to maintain the ambiguity of the first half throughout, rather than feeling the need to wrap everything up neatly. Whatever your situation, go see The Exorcist and make up your own mind about it.

Review by Keith H. Brown
Taken from EUFS Programe Autumn 1999