ExorcistHere we come to perhaps the most famous and revered horror movie of our time–indeed maybe of all time. Do I agree with the adulation? Not entirely, although I can’t deny that THE EXORCIST remains a profoundly impacting film.

THE EXORCIST, based on the 1971 bestseller by William Peter Blatty–who scripted and produced the film–was a massive success upon its original 1973 release, and not a little controversial. Director William Friedkin was coming off the 1971 actioner THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and that film’s violent, gritty aesthetic was carried over to THE EXORCIST. It remains one of Friedkin’s strongest directorial accomplishments.

The film inspired countless copycat possession-themed movies (with Mario Bava’s HOUSE OF EXORCISM, the nutty Italian sexploiter MALABIMBA and the outrageous Turkish rip-off SEYTAN being some of the more notable examples), as well as a couple sequels and a prequel whose footage, in a most bizarre turn of events, yielded two separate films: 2004’s EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING and the following year’s DOMINION.

THE EXORCIST itself was theatrically re-released in 2000, in a “Version You’ve Never Seen” containing footage discarded from the original version (rightfully, if you ask me). It added around $40 million to the film’s already substantial box office tally. A second, far more limited re-release occurred in 2010, via a newly minted “Director’s Cut.” In my view, though, the original version of THE EXORCIST remains the definitive one.

It begins in Iraq, where the aging Father Merrin is working on an archeological dig that unearths a horrific statue. Merrin ends up facing down the statue in a demonic confrontation that will culminate elsewhere.

Cut to the divorced actress Chris MacNeil, living with her young daughter Regan in Washington DC, where Chris is working on a film. Regan is clearly upset about her parents’ divorce, so much so that she’s (apparently) acting out psychologically, complaining that her bed shakes at night and inexplicably freaking out in a doctor’s office. Then one night Regan interrupts a party for an astronaut pal of her mother by telling the man “You’re gonna die up there” and peeing on the floor. Later that same night Chris witnesses Regan being tossed around on her bed.

This leads to a succession of horrific medical tests by doctors, who conclude that Regan is schizophrenic, even though her cranial X-rays are entirely normal. Her freak-outs, however, grow more intense, and the director of Chris’ film meets with a fatal “accident” while looking after Regan.

Psychiatrists are at a loss to explain what’s happening with Regan, finally suggesting that Chris contact an exorcist. Chris complies, getting in touch with the Georgetown based Father Karras. The latter is haunted by the recent death of his mentally deficient mother, and afraid he might be losing his faith. He’s also quite skeptical about Regan being demonically possessed, but after meeting the girl—who among other things sprays him with green vomit—Karras can’t help but be convinced. He manages to convince his superiors that a church-sanctioned exorcism is necessary, and they send in a reinforcement: none other than Father Merrin, last seen facing down the demonic statue in Iraq.

What nobody knows is that Merrin is not long for this world. His final showdown with Regan’s demonic possessor, which occurs in a lengthy exorcism accomplished through medieval means, will be his final stand against evil. The question is what will become of Father Karras, whose faith isn’t entirely restored.

First of all, this film is far from perfect. I’ve always found the Iraq-set opening sequence overlong and uninvolving (although its final shot, of Father Merrin facing down a statue of his demonic adversary, is priceless), and most of the ensuing domestic drama now seems hopelessly dated, playing like a bad 1970s-era TV movie. Among other sins, William Friedkin overuses the zoom lens, a device that dates the film instantly. Particularly grievous is an early EIGHT IS ENOUGH-esque shot of Chris attempting to reach her estranged husband on the phone that slowly zooms back to reveal Regan framed in a doorway.

Yet the horrific sequences are infernally brilliant beyond compare. The cinematography by Owen Roizman imparts a still-unsurpassed alternation of light and shadow, and the Tubular bells symphony of Mike Oldfield ranks among the most unsettling film scores of all time. The A-list cast also accomplishes wonders, particularly the great Ellen Burstyn in the lead role and Linda Blair as Regan—whose unforgettable demonic persona was accomplished with first rate assistance from the special effects by Dick Smith and vocals by Mercedes McCambridge.

Friedkin accomplishes his horrors without excess music or camera movement, lending the proceedings a gritty, naturalistic edge that remains virtually unprecedented in horror cinema. The stately gothic trappings of the Hammer House of Horror school of filmmaking, so prevalent at the time, are completely absent in THE EXORCIST, whose approach is resolutely tough and street smart. That’s a large part of what made it so controversial in its day—that and Friedkin’s use of subliminal edits (made more prominent in the “Version You’ve Never Seen”).

Another controversial facet was Friedkin’s frank and unflinching approach to violence and unpleasantness, which upset even the film’s producer-director William Peter Blatty, who in later years proclaimed the film “will never be a classic. It’s just a rollercoaster ride—as elegant a rollercoaster ride as you can find, but that’s all it is.” He also criticized one of its most iconic images thusly: “Having the girl’s head turn around 360 degrees…I ask you, how could (audiences) believe that?”

But no less an authority than the reverend Billy Graham argues otherwise, claiming “There is a power in the film that is beyond the film.” This of course brings up yet another controversial aspect of THE EXORCIST: the claim that it’s religious propaganda disguised as horror. I won’t dig too deeply into this charge, as, frankly, I don’t think it matters one way or the other. A good film is a good film, and I feel THE EXORCIST’S enduring hold on the popular culture is proof of its qualities, religious or otherwise.

Vital Statistics

Warner Bros.

Director: William Friedkin
Producer: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
(Based on a novel by Blatty)
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Editing: Norman Gay, Evan Lottman
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley, Barton Heyman, Pete Masterson, Rudolf Schundler, Mercedes McCambridge