Retro Review: “The Exorcist”

Alex Davidson

Staff Writer

Considered to be one of the scariest movies in cinema history, “The Exorcist” had people both lining up around the block for tickets and vomiting in the theaters when it was released in 1973.

However, it wouldn’t be too difficult for somebody who hasn’t seen it to be skeptical about its claim to infamy. How does a ‘70s movie hold up over forty years after it was released? What is so terrifying about the classic demonic possession tale that could still keep people up at night? And most importantly: is it really that scary for the new generation? The answers to these questions are all a little bit complicated.

The film was directed by William Friedkin and stars Linda Blair as twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil and Ellen Burstyn in an Oscar-winning role as Chris, Regan’s mother. It was adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, from a script penned by the author himself.

The novel, however, was actually inspired by the case of Roland Doe/Robbie Manheim, both pseudonyms for a boy who allegedly went through an authentic exorcism. In the late 1940s, an exorcism was performed on the 14-year-old boy. Hearing the tale while a student at Georgetown, Blatty was inspired to write the book.

The acting is phenomenal in “The Exorcist.” Burstyn brings a raw, easily-relatable performance to a situation that could have easily alienated the audience, since even though many have children and feel worried and scared for them, not many people have to deal with an actual demonic possession. The fact that she truly makes you feel her fear, both for and of her own daughter, truly showed what motherhood is like, especially for a single mother. This performance rightfully won an Oscar, and is a major part of what makes the film so terrifying.

Blair, however, should not be underestimated. Child actors quite often end up seeming more like robots and that’s why a lot of the time they’re more like set pieces than actors in movies made for adults. Blair, however, truly amped up the intensity of this movie with her performance, bringing an intensity that always manages to sell the possession. This is especially interesting considering that, for the first part of the movie, she acts almost exactly like a normal twelve-year-old girl would act: asking her mom for a pony, being polite to guests at a party and playing with her imaginary friend, Captain Howdy.

The directing, also, was exceptional. The number of iconic scenes the film is known for, from the head-turn to the pea soup, testifies to how much effort the director put into making this movie, and shows it worked out quite well. He makes use of tracking shots in a way that feels very much like you’re following the characters, watching as their lives slowly dissolve, which also lends itself to the suspense of the film: you’re essentially watching a twelve-year-old girl be killed by a demon and neither you nor anybody else can stop it.

The soundtrack, or lack thereof, is also surprisingly effective. Other than Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” playing over a scene near the beginning, there is almost no music in the movie. It’s something you don’t really notice until you think about it, but as soon as you do, you realize that it actually helps sell the story, and that’s important in any horror film: if you can’t sell what’s happening on the screen, it won’t scare anybody.

As far as the special effects go, they may have been good at the time, but looking at it by 2017 standards, there are some things that could have been done better. There were scenes in which it was clear that Regan was being played by a puppet and one specific scene involving blood which looked particularly unrealistic. However, compared to other effects in movies released in the ‘70s, it looks surprisingly real.

The effects were never what made the movie scary anyhow. The actual fear from this film stems from a fear that almost everybody has: that something out there could take their children, or even themselves, and there’s nothing to do about it.

This fear of not being able to save children and the fear that it could be any child is what drives this movie and what helps it stand the test of time. Without that tension and primal dread in the back of everybody’s minds, this film wouldn’t have been effective. However, because of the fantastic performances, and the amazing direction, it truly brings that fear to the forefront and dials it up to 11, leaving the audience both terrified and disturbed at the prospect that it could be them.

Will this movie satisfy those just looking for a gore-fest or one filled with quick, cheap scares? Probably not. However, if you’re looking for something more about existential dread and a fear that you won’t be able to push back down for days or even weeks after, this movie is for you. In fact, it’s less of a horror film than it is a drama about a family falling apart, and that’s what makes it so terrifying.

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Note: This review was based on the original theatrical version, not the director’s cut.