The Exorcist is widely regarded as among one of the greatest horror films of all time. There had been "hit" horror films in the past, but The Exorcist was horror's first mainstream blockbuster success. It received multiple Academy Award nominations, which was unheard of for a horror movie, and it thoroughly infiltrated popular culture. Nearly four decades later, it is regularly named in polls as the "most frightening" or "most disturbing" film of all time.
The Exorcist is based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel of the same name, which stayed on the bestseller list for almost a full year. Warner Brothers bought the film rights before the book's publication and, at Blatty's request, hired recent Academy Award-winner William Friedkin as director. Lead actress Ellen Burstyn had recently been nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, and Jason Miller made his film debut here but was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. It is not uncommon nowadays for such A-List talent to appear in a horror project, but this was unprecedented in 1973.
The Exorcist was a massive hit and an instant pop-culture phenomenon. It has the highest box-office gross of all films made prior to 1975. A horde of imitators followed. There were movies on the subject of possession, like Abby, Exorcismo and Beyond the Door. Some movies were retitled to take advantage of the craze, in the way that Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil was rereleased with additional footage as House of Exorcism.
The following years saw a number of "child-monster" movies. These took advantage of The Exorcist's publicity, though they usually had little or nothing to do with possession and include the eco-terror It's Alive, the reincarnation infomercial Audrey Rose, and the suspense thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Other major studios tried to imitate The Exorcist's success with star-studded, big-budget movies like Burnt Offerings and The Sentinel, but of these only The Omen was a success. The element of a child who has contact with the supernatural and expresses it through artwork became a standard feature of mainstream horror a generation later.
The Exorcist is thoroughly modern in its handling of its subject matter, yet the Georgetown setting, with its old, stone buildings, carries a distinctly Gothic feel. Most of the main action takes place inside of these fortress-like buildings. Although there is a monster, of sorts, the movie functions primarily as a modern, psychological type of horror film.
Exterior shots take great advantage of Georgetown's beauty, but there is a gloomy look to some of the scenes. It looks as though much of the filming was done in the late afternoon as dusk approached and shadows were long. The autumn setting enhances this feel.
The movie's prologue runs for ten minutes or so and is set at an archeological dig in Iran. It sets the modern context against an evil that man has battled for centuries. One of the archaeologists is Father Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, and he is revealed as internally weak: His heart is failing.
Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeill, an actress who lives in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood while she works in a film that is being shot there. She experiences strange disturbances in her house, such as opened windows and scratching noises from the attic. Her daughter, Regan, played by Linda Blair, demonstrates how she uses an Ouija board found in the basement to communicate with someone called "Captain Howdy."
Strange events continue to occur around Regan, who seems disturbed and sees frightening visions. She behaves bizarrely during a medical examination and spews obscenities at a physician. This disturbs Chris, who is left with the sense that she doesn't know her own daughter. The doctors grasp at straws and fail to reach an accurate diagnosis. They subject Regan to a series of tests that resemble a medieval torture sequence and generally do more harm than good. Desperate for an answer, they suggest an exorcism.
Chris is stunned by the suggestion, but she nevertheless contacts Father Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller. Karras is compromised: He feels guilt over having had to place his ailing mother in a terrible care facility, and he struggles with his faith. Lt. Kinderman, a savvy detective played by Lee J. Cobb, also pays Karras a visit. The detective suspects a connection between a church vandalism and the death of Blake Dennings, a friend of Chris whose body was found near Chris' home. Kinderman visits Chris, and his questions alert Chris to the realization that Regan was responsible for Dennings' death.
Father Karras determines that Regan meets the criteria for an exorcism to take place, and Merrin is brought in to perform the ritual. Merrin is experienced and presumably has battled the same demon: Regan calls his name before the ceremony has even been approved. That previous encounter is also likely the reason for Merrin's weak heart.
The film's structure is unusual in that its final conflict is a ceremony. This ceremony is not set up by a natural progression of events but by a bureaucratic procedure that must be followed. Essentially, the entire film is a set-up for the ending. That set-up is rich with detail, but the plot more resembles that of a video game, in which a character might have to perform a set of actions that unlock a boss battle, than it does a traditional movie or literary plot. It is also similar to a standard monster film plot, in which a single threat escalates in intensity until it becomes a battle for the main characters' survival.
Much has been made of the film's subtext of a single mother's difficulty in handling an unruly child. Modern values are called into question as Chris is repeatedly shown as unable to handle her daughter alone. There is also a clear implication that Regan's behavior is the result of Chris' own youthful sins. After all, where did that Ouija board come from, anyway? It was passed down from parent to daughter. The threat here is not some wandering demon who randomly picks its victims, the threat is an internal weakness that gives the demon a point of entry.
This is not to imply that Chris is a neglectful mother. She is nasty to her servants and often unlikable, but as a mother she is dedicated to the point of annoyance. The stress of the situation drives her to hysteria at times, and she snaps at the doctors who repeatedly provide stock answers. On the other hand, the arrogant doctors are overconfident in their abilities and routinely ignore the relevant facts that Chris provides. As the head of a non-nuclear family unit, Chris seems overwhelmed and embattled in a male-dominated world.
That message seems like a move away from 1960s countercultural values and back toward a more conservative, "traditional" viewpoint. What is the real threat here? What is the demon really trying to do? The demon's purpose is to corrupt, and his primary weapon is obscenity. It defiles the church statue, spews filth at the priests and blasphemes Jesus. He targets the things most valued by conservative society: old-fashioned values such as family and faith. Notice the scene in which Regan urinates in front of a gathering of guests. What are they doing when she interrupts them? They're gathered around a piano in an old-fashioned singalong, just like they used to do in...the 1890s? Not the 1970s, for certain.
The established order of society had never been threatened so much as it was during the half-decade prior to this novel and movie. This reflects in the behavior of the demon, a disease who attacks our youth from within. Some of the demon's behavior is shocking especially because, or only because, it comes from a little girl. There's little difference in content between the demon's foul utterings and Dennings' drunken rants, but they sound far worse coming from the mouth of a 12-year-old girl than they do from a middle-aged man. This fear of social change is the fuel that runs The Exorcist's motor.
Regan's kiss of Father Dyer at the end sends the message that the system has triumphed. Middle-aged white men have won the day, rescued the women, and restored normalcy.
"The Version You Never Saw"
Critical opinions of the "The Version You Never Saw" edition were divided. Some were offended by shock elements, such as the "spider walk," in the additional material. Many who praised the new edition noted that it brought the film more in line with Blatty's original vision. Others criticized it on the same grounds and said that it worked better in edited form. Opinion here tends to side with the latter: There is something self-indulgent about the additional material, as though the film is celebrating its own reputation and mythology.
The additional material causes the movie's flow to suffer in places, especially in the largely speechless prologue. Some no doubt will find it sacrilegious that CGI effects have been added. We have no real gripe with CGI and find objections to it to be a useless "Mac vs. PC" kind of argument, but the way it's used here amounts to little more than jump shocks. Do the floating demon faces add a sense that the house is alive and that its inhabitants are surrounded by evil? No, the noises coming from the attic already did that. The CGI adds nothing more than a little bit of distracting fireworks.