Revisiting movies I've recently acquired.
While The Exorcist is frequently billed as "The Scariest Movie of All Time", I have to admit that I didn't find the movie particularly scary on first viewing, but I instead found it to be an interesting drama about hope, fear, faith, and redemption in a fantastic religious horror form. In some ways, the multiple character stories result in a bit of loss of depth, which does limit the overall trajectory of the story, but it's hard to say that this kind of tale has been done better since.
Based on a book, loosely based on a real story, and set in Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is working on a movie and staying in a nice large home with a couple servants and her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Regan, though normally a sweet child, starts to exhibit some strange behavior, which gets increasingly worse as Chris puts her through a battery of modern science to make her daughter better, eventually turning to Father Karras (Jason Miller), a brilliant psychologist and priest with problems of his own, for an exorcism.
There's a lot going on with the story, which opens with a lengthy prologue following Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archaeological dig in Iraq, prior to going to what is mostly Chris' story of frustration and loss with Regan and her personal life. But that we only get a glimpse of Merrin in the beginning of the film before he shows up as the titular Exorcist exposes the weakness of the film in that too much of the priests' development isn't seen in the film, resulting in their stories feeling a little lacking and without closure. But what does work is that the film really does focus a lot on the details of fear, especially Chris' as a mother genuinely afraid for the loss of her daughter, but also to some extent with Karras' conflict between worldly success and faith as well as his relationship to his aging mother, an aspect I with the film would have explored more to make the later scenes when all this comes together stronger.
Now, on the directing end, the Exorcist can be chilling. Especially well done is the slow build towards paranormal events and the slow transformation of Regan from charming girl to demon-possessed monster and the foreboding atmosphere built, especially in Regan's room. A lot of credit should be given to the production team, especially the special effects and makeup teams which really bring the creepshow to life, even in subtle things like an exploding candle or unexpectedly moving objects, let alone the grander showings of supernatural power.
Ellen Burstyn should be especially credited for holding the emotional focus point of the film and manifesting such fear and desperation so well, while Miller does impressively well for someone without great acting experience. And then there's Linda Blair's head-turning performance, shattering the innocence of her age with a terrifying performance. Finally, I have to also mention the amazing use of sound in the film, which is frequently filling up with disconcerting sounds in an intense mix, keeping the atmosphere constantly unsteady when in the presence of the demon, Mr. Howdy. Oh, and there's also the memorable theme of the score.
In the adaptation from book to film, it's clear that much has been lost and what was lost would have probably led to an even deeper film, but as the story is told, either there's too much promised in the two priest characters, or too little accomplished as they feel a bit neglected, blunting the impact of the final confrontation with the demon within Regan. Still, the bulk of the story does mostly well with its focus on Chris' story and while it could have been a little more complete as well, the underlying messages and themes still get through, even despite some shortchanging of character arcs. Although the film does have quite of bit of horrific imagery and sound, the film does well to put the true horror in Chris' head, a helpless parent watching her daughter being lost to an inexplicable condition. 8/10.