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
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
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.
Max von Sydow
William Peter Blatty