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THE EXORCIST

Review by Andrew Manning (9/00)

Release: 1973/2000, Warner Bros.
Starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller
Starring: (voice talent) Mercedes McCambridge
Director: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: [R] violence, language, sexuality
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 122 minutes




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SUMMARY

When a 12-year old girl (Blair) becomes possessed by a malevolent demon, two priests (von Sydow and Miller) are called in as a last resort to perform an exorcism. Based upon the bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist was originally released in 1973, and has been remastered with additional footage and music for a 2000 release.

THE SUDDEN RUNDOWN

Over a quarter century later, The Exorcist remains the standard by which all other horror movies are judged--terrifying and haunting, it is at the top of its genre.

WHAT'S GOOD

For me, there's no greater horror film than The Exorcist. That's because most of the genre's modern classics (such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street) resort to imagined boogeymen instead of religious doctrine for their villains. And the newer generation of horrors (such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer), while providing the occasional jolt from sudden shockers, utterly lacks the ability to haunt you after the closing credits have rolled. Even horror films such as The Omen that draw upon similar material as The Exorcist lack that certain sense of realism that William Peter Blatty's masterpiece so effectively conveys.

With its unmatched combination of a chilling story, memorable confrontations, and a realistic, everyday setting, The Exorcist remains--to this day--the standard by which all other horror movies should be judged. Originally released in 1973, it is the story of 12-year old Regan MacNeil, an ordinary girl who becomes cursed by extraordinary circumstances. Shortly after her birthday, gradual changes begin to manifest in Regan: she becomes belligerent, lashes out at those around her, and begins to make unusual predictions. Eventually, these changes culminate in a horrific, physical transformation of the young girl. And when science fails to explain what has happened to her, her frightened mother resorts to the Church. Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) examines the girl, and eventually determines that Regan is possessed. After some debate, Fathers Karras and Merrin (Max von Sydow) are dispatched to perform a formal exorcism on the girl. The ritual is the horrifying climax of the movie--the final confrontation between good and evil, between the Church and the grotesque rantings of the demon that refuses to leave Regan.

The Exorcist features a slew of memorable scenes that have endured to this day. There is, of course, the vomiting scene that has become synonymous with Linda Blair's demonic possession. But more disturbing are the scenes that people don't readily talk about: Regan speaking in tongues, then later mimicking Karras' dead mother; the legion of voices (courtesy of an excellent voice over performance by Mercedes McCambridge) that Father Karras discovers on the tape from his interview with the demon; Regan getting radioactive dye painfully injected into her neck to prep her for a brain scan; Regan experiencing violent convulsions and the bed and furniture thrashing; the infamous head-spinning scene; and perhaps most twisted of all, Regan uncontrollably thrusting a crucifix into her bloody crotch while the demon screams, "let Jesus f*ck you!"

The year 2000 re-release of The Exorcist has been digitally remastered, featuring a richer soundtrack and about 12 minutes of restored footage. The soundtrack has been upgraded from mono into six-channel surround sound, effectively drawing the audience into the middle of the horrific voices and curses that abound readily in the film. And the restored footage brings to light one of the most grotesque and unsettling scenes in cinematic history. Dubbed "The Spider Walk Scene," the sequence is one of the first major manifestations of Regan's possession. After coming out of her room at the top of the stairs, her body immediately twists in a most unnatural fashion: her limbs bend backwards and she crawls--scurries--down the stairs on all fours. It is wickedly bizarre, and must be seen to be fully appreciated. (It should be noted that this scene isn't exactly "Never Before Seen." It is included in the behind the scenes commentary on the Collector's Edition of the movie, available on VHS.)

The Spider Walk Scene was accomplished with the use of a contortionist and a suspension device, and embodies what makes the visual effects in The Exorcist so compelling: since the film was shot well before the age of digital special effects, the creators had to resort to ingenuity with simple mechanics. This absence of glossy production only serves to reinforce the realism of the effects shots. Like the lack of a soundtrack in the original Night of the Living Dead and the intentionally shoddy camerawork in The Blair Witch Project, it is clearly a case where less is more. Were The Exorcist filled with computer generated visuals, it could be easily dismissed as unrealistic--but as it stands, the events of the movie as they are presented come across as realistic as possible.

The restored footage overall helps to expand upon elements that are more thoroughly explored in the novel by William Peter Blatty. As a side note, I highly recommend the book--it is an excellent story that is considered by many to be even more terrifying than the movie.

When it was first released in 1973, The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress for Ellen Burnstyn, Best Supporting Actress for Linda Blair, Best Supporting Actor for Jason Miller, Best Director for William Friedkin, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Art Direction. It was also a box office success, grossing $150 million domestically. And while that may not sound record-breaking by today's standards, it was quite a feat at the time: at that point, The Exorcist was the second highest grossing film in history, right behind The Godfather.

The timelessness of The Exorcist is due in large part to the universal fear it examines: torment by an inexplicable, evil force. It taps into this fear with remarkable realism and plays upon deep-seated religious beliefs. But its greatest accomplishment by far is how it is one of the only movies ever to truly haunt its audience, even after they leave the theater. The Exorcist is chilling. And there is a simple reason why it has endured so long: it is truly the scariest movie of all time.


WHAT'S BAD

Although many people do not remember this, it is a fact that the actual exorcism comprises a relatively small portion of the movie, time-wise. The majority of the film focuses on character issues--mostly Regan's deterioration, her mother's helplessness, and Father Karras' coming to terms with his own religious beliefs. While it's not a bad thing to focus on the characters' development, it is still ironic that the definitive climax of the entire movie--the exorcism itself--comes and goes in a matter of five to ten minutes. The first time I re-watched the movie as an adult (some ten years since my prior viewing), I remember briefly thinking, "That's it?" While the movie was still frightening, the last scene just seemed unexpectedly short.

None of the material in the restored 12 minutes of footage for the 2000 re-release is essential to the movie as a whole. Don't get me wrong--it's all great stuff, and is definitely worth seeing, especially for fans of the movie. But let's be honest: the original edit of The Exorcist flowed just fine and told a complete story, and the reinstated footage wouldn't have been cut in the first place if it was 100% critical to the movie. Even the remarkable Spider Walk Scene had a legitimate reason for being cut from the original, as director William Friedkin explains on the Collector's Edition video version of the film.

Sure, the restored reels give Warner Bros. an excuse to re-release the movie and cash in. But from a less jaded perspective, it also affords a new generation the opportunity to experience this masterpiece in its original theatrical setting.

Get ready to sleep with the lights on...


Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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Book Recommendations from the Editors
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
An Exorcist Tells His Story by Father Amorth Gabriele
Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin






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