The Exorcist (1973) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 7

by Jovial Jay

Every single one of us, the devil inside!

The Exorcist is a true classic in the annals of horror films. It features iconic moments, amazing special effects, and the battle for a young girl’s soul. Put on your workout gear because we’re about to exorcize a demon!

Before Viewing

The trailer sets up a chilling take of a daughter that is possessed, not just with a demon, but the devil itself. Her mother is trying to cope with the things that are happening, but is also in denial about what is wrong with the girl. That is until a number of quick supernatural things happen that changes her mind. Then, The Exorcist shows up! Hands down, this is one of the scariest films ever made. So I suggest you grab a crucifix and a warm blanket and curl up for a hell of a good time!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Exorcist

The Exorcist title card.

After Viewing

In Northern Iraq, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) is working on an archeological dig when he and his team discover a small demonic looking statue, which he takes with him to another site where there is a larger, ancient sculpture of the same creature. Meanwhile in Georgetown, Washington D.C., Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress working on a new film with her friend and director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). She is renting a small house near the location where she and her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), are staying.

A local priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), is having a crisis of faith. He has difficulty being the psychiatrist to the other priests and also having to deal with his sick mother. When she gets worse, Karras’ uncle puts her into an asylum where she passes away. The guilt weighs heavily on Karras. One day Regan finds a ouija board and shows Chris how she can contact a spirit she calls Captain Howdy. Shortly after that Regan begins having nightmares, her bed begins shaking by itself, and odd noises occur in the attic.

Chris takes Regan to a number of doctors who prescribe ritalin for her mood disorder, or suspect a lesion on her brain. But after several invasive tests, such as an angiography, they can find nothing wrong with her. Meanwhile Regan’s issues are becoming worse. She swears regularly and interrupts a party telling an astronaut friend of Chris’s that he’ll die “up there,” before peeing on the floor. A few days later Chris comes home to find Regan’s windows open and the room so cold her breath shows up, even though it’s only early Fall. Burke was supposed to be watching the girl, but is found dead later that night at the bottom of the steps next to their house, his head having been twisted 180 degrees.

Homicide detective Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) speaks with Karras about the murder since it occurred near the parish, as well as a separate incident of desecration at a local church. He also speaks with Chris, since the steps are next to her house, certain that Regan may hold the key to what happened. After Kinderman leaves, Regan attacks Chris and a demonic voice comes out of her mouth. The doctors recommend an exorcism as a last ditch effort (still believing it’s entirely psychosomatic), so Chris seeks out Karras to help. He’s not sure he can even get an exorcism authorized, but after seeing Regan first hand he decides he must try.

The Exorcist

Chris MacNeil cannot believe what she sees when she enters her daughters room. Possessed by a demon, young Regan develops a perversely foul mouth.

The local Bishop suggests that Father Merrin be contacted to perform the ritual, having had experience with a similar case in Africa several years back. He happens to have returned from Iraq and is on the East Coast, so he is brought in. When Merrin and Karras visit Regan’s room, the girl is restrained to the bed, and the temperature is once again freezing. Her face is contorted and she speaks with a demonic voice that attacks the priests’ faith and puts them psychologically on-edge.

After the first round Merrin and Karras take a break, but Karras decides to go back in alone. That’s when the demon confronts him with his dead mother, which causes Karras to lose focus and become susceptible to the machinations of the demon. Merrin kicks Karras out of the room and starts the ritual again, but soon becomes quiet. Karras looks back in to find Merrin dead from a pre-existing heart condition. Karras attacks Regan taunting the demon to enter into his body instead of the young girl. When the demon does just that, Karras struggles for control long enough to leap out the bedroom window, tumbling down the steps and dying at the bottom.

Father Dyer (Reverend William O’Malley S.J.), a friend of both Karras and the MacNeil’s arrives too late to save the priest, and administers last rites. The next day Chris and Regan leave the city, the girl remembering none of the incidents. Chris hands Dyer the medallion that Karras lost in her house, but he tells her to keep it. Lt. Kinderman shows up and hears that Karras is dead, so he walks with Dyer back to the rectory, developing a new friendship with a priest.

I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” – father Merrin

The Exorcist

Inspector Kinderman investigates the famous steps located in Georgetown.

The Exorcist was part of a series of films in the late 60s and early 70s that elevated horror films to new levels of production quality and public acceptance. Until that time, with few exceptions, horror films were considered B-movies that were cheaply made and pandered to the lowest common denominator. Films like Don’t Look Now, Carrie, and Halloween along with The Exorcist proved that horror could be important, cinematic, and still be scary. It also was part of a series of devil and religion inspired horror films from the same time along with Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and The Amityville Horror.

In fact, The Exorcist was so well-received that it was nominated for 10 academy awards including many of the big categories, like Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role, as well as Best Actor and Actress in a Supporting Role. It won two Oscars for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for the screenwriter and original novelist William Peter Blatty, and also Best Sound for Robert Knudson & Christopher Newman. This marked it the first horror film to win an Oscar. But everything wasn’t rosy with the release of the film. Originally the film received an X-rating from the MPAA, which is considered a ‘kiss of death’ for Hollywood films. Many theaters won’t play X-rated films, and newspapers won’t advertise them, so it was imperative that The Exorcist get released with an R-rating. Many groups and certain towns (including Boston, Massachusetts and Hattiesburg, Mississippi) attempted to ban the film from being shown citing it as obscene. Fortunately all the press about outrage generated additional interest in the film.

But it’s not like certain sequences in the film were benign. There was a lot of gross stuff and horrible moments happening, most of them courtesy of Dick Smith. I’ve already talked a little about Smith in the Sci-Fi Saturdays article this month on Scanners. He was a special effects artist known for The Godfather films, Little Big Man and Taxi Driver. He devised methods to show Linda Blair’s character turning into a demon using all sorts of makeup. He also created versions of her character that could rotate its head 360-degrees and vomit pea-soup all over the other actors. But one sequence that many point to as the most disturbing is the angiography scene, where Regan is taken into the hospital for testing, Her carotid artery is tapped to inject dye into it (allowing doctors to take x-rays of the blood vessels in her brain) which spurts several times. It is one of the most realistic, and possibly best, effects because it’s based on the real procedure instead of something audiences know is fake.

The Exorcist

Father Merrin performs an exorcism on Regan to rid her of a demon he has encountered before.

The film continues to endure for two reasons: the first being the frights, but the second is the meat of the story. The film is about faith. The faith of a priest who is unsure of his calling. Who has lost his mother and feels guilty about being away for work when she was dying. And it’s also about the faith of a parent knowing what is wrong with her child. Chris states to the doctors at one session, “you show me Regan’s double, same face, same voice, everything, and I’d know it wasn’t Regan.” Deep down she knows–she has faith–that this isn’t her daughter, and that the various diagnoses the doctors give are not the real root of the problem. In the end, Chris is vindicated, if you can call it that. She gets someone to believe her pleas. And Karras realizes that his faith, or lack of it, has put him in a position to save this girl. His sacrifice to take the demon into himself shows a level of restored faith in his calling. It could also be seen as a moment of “what else have I got to lose?”

The Exorcist also marks the first of the new age of horror films to spawn a successful franchise. Four years later both Max Von Sydow and Linda Blair would return for the critically panned Exorcist II: The Heretic. It would take until 1990 for the next film to show up, directed by author William Peter Blatty himself: The Exorcist III. This film has one of the biggest scare in all of horror cinema that affects me still to this day. Finally two prequels were made in 2004 and 2005 respectively: Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion, which showcase a young Father Merrin and his previous exorcisms. Later a Fox TV series of the same name was released for two seasons starting in 2016.

The film definitely sticks with audiences. It’s unsettling, and tragic, with just enough gore to satisfy the staunch horror-aficionados. It is considered a classic, having spawned many imitators, but nothing has quite duplicated the intensity of the original. 31 Days of Horror will continue to bring you other reviews of great (and some not-so-great) horror films all month long!

The Exorcist

The demon takes control of Regan’s body, levitating her over Fathers Merrin and Karras.

Assorted Musings

  • To achieve the effects of the frozen breath from the actors while in Regan’s room, the set was built on a soundstage, and the temperature lowered appropriately. This made a number of the actors uncomfortable, especially Linda Blair who wore only a nightgown.
  • From a modern perspective, seeing one of the doctors talk about a prescription for Ritalin is interesting. Chris thinks it’s a sedative, but the doctor says it’s a stimulant. “Nobody knows the cause of hyperkinetic behavior in a child. The Ritalin seems to work to relieve the condition.” How far we’ve come!
  • While having been the first horror film to win an Oscar, The Exorcist did not capture Best Picture. Only six horror films have ever been nominated for Best Picture with only The Silence of the Lambs winning. The others include: Jaws, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, and Get Out. [author’s note: I do not consider The Silence of the Lambs to be a horror film, but a thriller–but that’s splitting hairs.]
  • Jack MacGowran was an actor in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, while Max Von Sydow has been in several other genre pictures including the second Exorcist film and the Stephen King adaptation of Needful Things.

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