For the sheer magnitude of unrelenting terror that The Exorcist unleashed on its unsuspecting audience during its theatrical run back in 1973, the tag of “The Scariest Film of All Time” sits perfectly well on this notorious horror masterpiece. After all, there has never been an example in mainstream cinema that has affected viewers as strongly as this film did for many fainted, threw up or went hysteric in a manner unlike anything witnessed before or after it. Looking back now, countless imitations & parodies over the years might have diminished its scare factor by a great deal but there’s still no denying that The Exorcist remains in a league of its own & is yet to find an equal because not only did it succeed as a genre-defining tale of demonic possession but also as a notable piece of superb storytelling with excellent character build-up, precision craftsmanship & groundbreaking special effects which was far ahead of its time.
Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, the story of The Exorcist opens with a prelude set in northern Iraq where during an excavation, Father Merrin (an archaeologist & priest) discovers a small statue of an ancient demon following which a series of omens alerts him to a pending confrontation with the powerful devil. The film then jumps to Georgetown area in Washington D.C. where the main plot surfaces and concerns Regan; the 12-year old daughter of actress Chris McNeil, who becomes inexplicably ill & starts manifesting increasingly disturbing & violent behavioural changes. When several medical & psychiatric tests fail to offer any rational explanation to the rapid psychological & physical changes in Regan’s personality, the troubled mother turns to superstition in a desperate attempt to save her daughter’s life by enlisting the help of Father Karras; a local priest who is struggling with his own faith.
Directed by William Friedkin, the film opens with one of the most powerful, sinister & perfectly executed prologues which apart from serving as a warning for things to come also sets up an extremely eerie mood for the rest of the film. Friedkin’s work here is perhaps the finest of his career as the extent to which the director went in order to bring out the best from his cast & crew is well documented and he leaves no stone unturned to make the experience as emotionally shattering as possible. The screenplay is penned down by the author himself & it is expertly balanced in all storytelling aspects. Cinematography makes ingenious use of slow zooms, close-ups & sharp focus to immerse viewers into its demonic tale, use of music is effectively carried out, make-up & special effects crew end up adding a whole new chapter to filmmaking manuals, and as far as editing goes, it paces the film steadily but is also marred by lots of continuity errors.
Coming to the performances, The Exorcist features a dependable cast in Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow & Lee J. Cobb. One amazing thing here is that the characters are wonderfully fleshed out in the script & the actors simply build their acts on an already solid platform, thus delivering some really high quality performances. Leading from the front is Ellen Burstyn who turns in an impressive & equally heartbreaking performance as Chris McNeil; a distraught mother who goes to extreme ends to get her daughter back. Next up is Linda Blair as the possessed child, & the contrast the then-young actress presented in the two versions of her character is highly admirable. Jason Miller is very professional in his role of Father Karras plus the scenes involving him & Regan are the film’s most interesting moments. Max von Sydow does a stellar job as Father Merrin in both the opening & closing acts, and veteran actor Lee J. Cobb leaves an elegant impression in what is one of his final films.
Also, what continues to separate The Exorcist from similar examples of its genre is that despite its extensive gore effects & discomforting premise, the first priority remains on telling a story rather than revel in its extremity unlike so many horror films of today. The film takes its time to set up the plot, properly introduces all the relevant characters & carefully progresses their arcs in order to make us care for these fictional lives, which ultimately makes the final showdown all the more bone-chilling & unforgettable. What’s even more commendable is that it never relies on faith alone and tries to offer an explanation from the scientific point of view whenever possible, something pretty unusual for a supernatural horror. And as far as the use of horror elements go, what it unleashes on the screen is absolutely brutal, often difficult to watch & too heavy in content yet the extent to which this film pushed the boundaries of horror cinema by exploring subjects no one before ever dared to venture in is no mere feat in itself.
On an overall scale, The Exorcist is one of the most influential, unnerving & faith-shattering films ever made which opened the doors to our deepest fears back when it was released and is still capable of surprising the newcomers with its discomforting ambience & troubling themes, if not the now dated visceral horror. I read somewhere that if the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick The Exorcist ever pulled was convincing audiences he just might. And the number of religious people who ended up reconsidering their faith back in the 1970s after watching this chiller kind of testifies the same. Immortal for its contribution to cinema as well as pop culture, immensely memorable for the mass hysteria it caused back in 1973, and extremely praiseworthy for its uncompromising & undeniably effective take on faith, The Exorcist is an unprecedented achievement in horror filmmaking that comes very strongly recommended. And last but not the least… Happy Halloween, Everyone!