The Exorcist
review by Joe Barlow, 22 September 2000

William Friedkin's The Exorcist owes much of its renown to the era in which it was created. When the film was unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 1973, it generated an international debate that, surprisingly, still rages today: is it art or garbage? Both sides of the argument had its followers -- in New York, picketers protested the movie upon its release, calling it blasphemous and obscene, despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church participated in its making. Religious organizations demanded that the film be pulled from theaters and all prints burned. Thousands of weak- stomached viewers fled midway through the movie. At most cinemas, the line for admittance stretched several city blocks. Viewers loved it. Viewers hated it. Critics raved. Critics bemoaned. As the year wore on, the debate (and the resulting media attention) caused theater attendance to skyrocket; even today, The Exorcist remains one of the highest-grossing horror films of all time.

Part of the reason the film inspired such division was its aversion to playing by the established rules of horror. Although there had been a few exceptions (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), most pre-Exorcist horror movies hadn't tried very hard to tell a worthwhile story. The cheesy "monster flicks" of the 'fifties and 'sixties had set a standard that audiences had come to know and expect. The Exorcist caught everyone off guard by utilizing psychological terror for its chills, instead of the typical "creature jumps out from behind a tree and says BOO!"-type of scenes. It made history by doing so.

Despite the movie's supernatural elements, the story itself revolves largely around inner turmoil. Father Damien Karras (an excellent performance by Jason Miller) is a priest in the middle of a crisis of faith. "There's not a day in my life that I don't feel like a fraud," he laments to a colleague. Wallowing in grief after the recent death of his mother, Karras is on the verge of renouncing the deity to whom he has devoted his life.

The priest's life becomes increasingly complex, however, after he meets actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Bursten). MacNeil believes her beloved daughter Regan (Linda Blair) has been possessed by Satan. The skeptical Karras initially disbelieves her claim, but as a favor to the clearly distraught mother, he agrees to evaluate Regan's condition. Much to his horror, Karras realizes that there may be some truth to MacNeil's claims, and he calls in Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), an experienced exorcist, to drive the spirit from the body of this innocent child. From this point on, the movie performs double-duty as both a suspense/horror story of the highest caliber, and as the tale of Father Karras's spiritual redemption.

The Exorcist isn't a sprightly moving picture. The film's prologue is deliberately slow, but not because of a lack of skill on Friedkin's behalf. The director possesses an innate mastery of the art of storytelling, and he unleashes the plot at a restrained pace, thereby allowing The Exorcist to weave its web so stealthily that the audience doesn't even realize that it's being ensnared. Once things get moving, however, look out!

Warner Brothers released an excellent DVD edition of The Exorcist a couple of years ago. The disc is packed with a generous bounty of special features, including two audio commentary tracks (one with Friedkin, the other with writer/producer William Peter Blatty), and a ninety-minute BBC documentary on the making of this classic film. Now Warner Brothers has done itself one better, theatrically reissuing a new director's cut of the movie that adds eleven minutes of previously unreleased footage and boasts a mesmerizing new surround sound mix to boot. Those viewers who have memorized every frame of the original film will find many new surprises here, including Regan's legendary "spider walk" sequence, which was cut from the original release.

The new audio mix is a vast improvement over the original soundtrack, which is no small praise: the film won the 1973 Oscar for Best Sound in a Feature Film. ("Tubular Bells," the story's much-celebrated theme music, has never sounded better.) And yes, digital die-hards: a new DVD of the director's cut is expected once the film completes its current theatrical run.

Time can be a cruel mistress, but The Exorcist hasn't aged in any discernible way since its initial release twenty-seven years ago. It continues to captivate (and terrify) new viewers with each passing year, and no wonder: in terms of story and execution, few films have ever surpassed it. If a great horror movie is like a fine wine, then The Exorcist's bouquet becomes more refined with each passing year.

Directed by:
William Friedkin 

Max von Sydow
Linda Blair
Jason Miller
Ellen Bursten
Rudolf Schundler
Jack MacGowran
Vasiliki Maliaros 

Written by:
William Peter Blatty



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