"The Exorcist" is undoubtedly one of the most influential and innovative horror films of all time. Permeated by a chilly haziness and intensity reminiscent of a documentary, the film is one of two of its genre nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, which goes some way in explaining its impact. Audiences in their droves secured the film’s box-office success, and with the passage of time it has grown in notoriety and popularity, even becoming ubiquitous, certain images now seared in the minds of people who have not even seen it. Borne of author William Peter Blatty’s source material, the film improves on the book immeasurably despite being more or less faithful to its subject matter; capitalising on the risk-averse and sophisticated 1970s production techniques, experimenting with an episodic narrative structure and stark, muted visuals meticulously framed, lit and lensed to achieve the desired effect: chilly desolation and simmering suspense. Based on true events, Blatty is armed with unique insight into a hidden practice of his own religion, and the result is, for the most part, a story that is acutely informative, edifying and matter-of-factly communicated. William Friedkin’s unappeasable direction exploits seamlessly and collectively brilliant work from his actors – the cast are uniformly exemplary, and although nothing short of astonishing in their indelible characterisations, their methodical delivery is elevated by the brutal measures employed by Friedkin to elicit such convincing reactions that acting was not even necessary. However, it is the mature, potent performance courtesy of Linda Blair as the tormented Regan that has remained a harrowing imprint on the public consciousness; even when distilled in the form an image on the back of a DVD, there is something innately fearful about her in that nightdress.
Friedkin charts unknown genre terrain effortlessly, injecting the “less is more” supernatural horror formula with an adult frankness and no-holds-barred approach, largely succeeding through his fully developed characters and their dealing with unprecedented on-screen situations and reacting with authentic fright. He expertly crafts a story that remains a pop culture touchstone; most people are now familiar with possessed, head-spinning Regan and the silhouetted beam of ominous light from her bedroom window as Father Merrin arrives to reconnect with a foe from the distant past. Beginning in Iraq with a foreshadowing scene – intercut with two dogs battling to the death – the aforementioned ageing priest and palaeontologist Father Merrin, confronts a statue of his old adversary, an ancient demon. Discharging the trappings of horror with gusto, Friedkin galvanises William Peter Blatty's dream-like story with new-style realism and sexual radicalism, envisioning an unabashedly diabolical entity who desecrates a statue of the Virgin before inhabiting the body of a 12-year-old girl, thereafter projecting vile obscenities and green fluid, masturbating violently with a crucifix, sexually assaulting strangers, and even killing a man, the reverberations of which attract the attentions of a sceptical police detective. Regan MacNeil is a 12-year-old girl living on location with her actress mother in Georgetown, Washington DC, when the aforementioned demon spirit, known only to her as imaginary friend Captain Howdy, gradually physically manifests within her, resulting in somnambulism, seizures and incontinence. However, when her behaviour turns increasingly violent and erratic, her concerned mother naturally consults medical experts and Regan is subjected to gruesome medical examinations, but the origin of her aberrations are not found to be organic or somatic, leading to the involvement of a beleaguered, grief-stricken psychiatric counsellor and priest, Father Karras, whom the demon seems to know personally and taunts over his late mother, even quoting her verbatim in one of the film's most memorably profane lines ("Your mother sucks cocks in hell"). As the development of Regan's demonic transformation becomes more visible in terms of her changing appearance and actions, her indelible outbursts and the subsequent reactions to them from all observers are deftly lingered upon by the director, inducing a general wave of anxiety as the camera enters the site of the possession, i.e. her bedroom, which in itself becomes a veritable hub of evil. In provoking the audience's post-Watergate anxieties by registering the domestic setting as a domain of evil, Friedkin's depiction of an agent of Satan being a sweet young girl in such a sleepy suburban town deeply resonates and perturbs in a universal sense, since the event occurs off-screen and affects a naïve, unsuspecting and not particularly deserving victim, who often sincerely pleads for help.
Within the fabric of the film and its underpinned Catholic sensibilities is the plight of Regan and the doubt-ridden Karras. The spirituality at the film’s core is deeply felt and cognisant, but also reflective of the audience’s insecurities. Though the film never lets us doubt that Regan has been possessed, we do trust in what is being presented to us impressionistically. "The Exorcist" is overt in its attack of the audience in a psychological and theological sense, but in its depiction of manifest evil, you would be inclined to assume that the film is directly horrific, but it isn't. It actually makes you think more positively about the existence of a benevolent force overcoming evil. a mother and daughter creates a stark, credible human drama. Friedkin taps into the mundane, banal aspects of life and pits a group of identifiable, infallible protagonists against an ancient force of evil, which ensnares them all incrementally. Partly functioning as a stark, credible human drama, the film also channels. Now synonymous with the film is the image of a visibly dishevelled Regan's levitation and rotating head, as well as the misty, silhouetted nocturnal arrival of Father Merrin, but fundamentally, the film disregards demonstrative spectacle or gory details. Friedkin studies his flawed characters whilst communicating a sobering directive of renewed fidelity in a higher power, but the film is less interested in preaching about religion in general, it is more concerned with the relevance of faith as a concept to a morally and ethically broken modern society.
"The Exorcist" is denotative of an era of film-making that broke new ground, and in an arcane, subtle fashion. Playing out akin to a documentation of an ill child undergoing an invasive procedure constructed as an unbridled exorcism, with its director amorphously observing the subject from different perspectives rather than gazing at it longingly, this is a film that viscerally explores the pulpy nature of the possession without ever resorting to jump scare tactics and gore that is now the norm, thus diminishing the more humanistic, emotionally resonant aspects of the story. At its core, the film is a carefully orchestrated unravelling of a mother and daughter's middle-class, reasonably charmed life, and it is only evangelical means that can save them. Still smouldering and unnerving with rigorously examined ideas and artful imagery nearly five decades on from its original release, nothing feels superfluous, with the cast and crew abiding by an unwritten rule to incorporate humanism and spirituality into a relentless, relentless horror of the highest calibre. An epochal achievement for everyone involved, this horror classic is a true masterpiece on every level that should be appreciated less for its pop culture aspects and more for its technical merits. Such is the proficiency of the film, the effusion of slow, detached imagery capturing the pervading dread, nervous, pained interactions between characters, the sporadic interstitial shocks and assaults endured by them, all culminate in a singular cinematic experience whereby the audience’s ordeal is gradual, then consistent throughout until abruptly grinding to a halt minutes before the credits roll. We are fully complicit in the occurrences and incidents, uncomfortably privy to an escalating series of events that ties together in the third half, grips tightly and veers into full-scale vitriolic territory, relative to a disturbing nightmare of vividly imagined, fully realised proportions.