Starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller
“Mother, what’s wrong with me?” (Regan, The Exorcist)
The Exorcist is not a horror film. At least, that’s what director William Friedkin, writer William Peter Blatty and Linda Blair, who played the possessed little girl in the film, would have you believe. According to them, it’s a drama about the mystery of faith that just happens to have disturbing scenes in it. Personally I’d chuck a stern “bullshit” at that theory, but it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that whatever genre or niche you try to place it in, The Exorcist remains one of the greatest films ever made.
The story’s well-known, but for those who’ve maybe managed to avoid it I’ll fill you in on the basics. Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) gets concerned when her little girl Regan starts showing some odd behaviour. She pees on the carpet, swears at doctors and starts playing with ouija boards. While this may be the normal sort of behaviour you’d expect from an Essex youth, for the well brought-up Regan it’s very uncharacteristic.
Doctors are unable to figure out what’s wrong with Regan and brain scans come back negative, suggesting she’s not suffering from any sort of mental illness. Meanwhile, Regan’s behaviour gets more and more shocking, culminating in her slapping her mother across the face and ramming her head into her crotch. Remember, not from Essex.
It soon emerges that Regan claims to be possessed by the devil so, at her wit’s end, Chris goes to a local priest and asks him to arrange an exorcism. After a bit of persuasion (mainly involving Regan masturbating with a crucifix and spinning her head 360 degrees), he decides to get in touch with Father Merrin, one of the few Jesuit priests who still perform the rare ritual. Can they drive the devil out of Regan? That would be telling.
While its key moments have been parodied time and time again, spoofed by the likes of the Wayans brothers in Scary Movie 2, Leslie Nielsen in Repossessed and even a Danish bacon advert, The Exorcist still has the power to shock. This is mainly due to two things – the believable and realistic special effects and the superb performance by Linda Blair as Regan.
Regan is such a likeable, idyllic little girl at the start of the movie that when she descends into her possessed state and starts saying and doing the most outrageous things it’s all the more shocking. You find yourself siding with her mother as she tries to get help – you care about this once-sweet little girl’s well-being and you want her to overcome this demon who’s possessed her. Had Regan not been so easy to warm to at the start then the audience would have made less of an emotional investment in the movie.
The effects, many of which have only been recently explained, are the work of genius. These days it suffers from the “Beatles effect” – the genre has evolved so much over the years (in this case thanks to CGI) that it can be hard to appreciate the impact it made when it was first released, but at the time it was doing stuff on camera that had never been seen before and without a computer in sight.
The bed shaking was handled by building a bed, cutting a hole in the wall behind it and having a crew of men literally shake the bed from behind the set. The famous levitation scene (where Regan rises from her bed) was done with wires painted grey and white in a dash effect to confuse the eye and make them impossible to see in the film. The spinning head was a robotic dummy, the vomit scene was created with a mouth attachment that fired pea soup… all pieces of technical genius and all remarkably believable.
You could watch The Exorcist ten times and get something new out of it each time you watched it. Legendary critic Mark Kermode famously said he’s watched it over 200 times and it still feels new to him every time. There are so many subtle moments, so many nods to events that will happen later on, so many different ways to consider each scene and so many different interpretations you can give to its open ending that everyone will take away something different from the film. Religious viewers will see the fear in having their faith challenged, parents will see the fear in the helplessness Chris feels as her daughter succumbs.
Whoever you are and whatever your beliefs may be, you really have to see this film. It may terrify you beyond belief (though if you’re a hardened Saw addict it may not), but it’s one of the most important films in cinema and a landmark of the horror genre – whether or not the filmmakers believe it’s a part of it.