I should say up front that there may be spoilers for The Exorcist in this review.
“How do you go about getting an exorcism?”
Based on a novel by William Peter Blatty, William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist has become one of the most celebrated horror films of all time, and one of very few films of the genre to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The Exorcist is a profoundly horrifying, yet quietly disturbing film. Friedkin – presumably buoyed from the success of his previous film, The French Connection – delays his action until, at least, a quarter of the film has passed, instead choosing to create a set of well-rounded, immediately likable characters, using this thirty-or-so minutes to give them a proper, formal introduction.
The film’s two lead characters, mother and daughter Chris and Regan MacNeil, have a relationship that is to be envied – they are very close, playful; the perfect family, even if Regan’s father doesn’t seem to be around anymore. An altogether different background befalls Father Karras, a catholic priest who, due to the failing health of his fragile mother, is slowly losing faith in his religion.
We are invited to grow attached to both sets of characters for very different, yet equally effective reasons; the former because the relationship between mother and daughter is so strong; the latter because we’re sympathetic to the disillusioned priest’s suffering. The characters of the film are fleshed out to such an extent that we immediately care about them, and Friedkin does this for a reason; it gives him something to take advantage of.
Once Regan is possessed by “the devil” the film takes the guise of a mystery thriller. Something has caused the once happy, joyful young girl to become grotesque and scurrilous. It can’t be a medical issue: a team of doctors rule this out after exhausting a series of seemingly painful examinations. It’s not a psychiatric issue either: again, this is ruled out by a team of professionals. So what could it be?
After one of the psychiatrists suggests that, as a last resort, she try an exorcism to help her daughter – not as a religious practice but a form of shock therapy – Chris consults with Father Karras about the possibility that Regan may be possessed by an evil spirit. Following much deliberation and further psychiatric examination, Karras decides that an exorcism may be the best course of action; the young girl’s condition is getting worse. Enlisting the help of Father Merrin, a priest experienced in the practice of exorcisms, the two perform the procedure.
Friedkin’s creation of atmosphere and sheer terror are not rooted in the appearance of Regan – whilst her appearance does drastically change, it’s treated as an indication of her ever-deteriorating condition rather than a device to scare the audience – but instead in the horror of her disturbing, psychological transformation. Regan certainly isn’t the happy girl she was at the beginning of the film; in fact, she’s quite the opposite.
This idea branches out into the other characters we spend time with: Chris MacNeil, once a happy, charismatic actress, is left a broken woman at the sight of her daughter’s involuntary actions – including, in one famous scene, masturbating with a crucifix whilst shouting “fuck me” to terrified onlookers – whilst Father Karras, after “absorbing” the devil from Regan and proving that his faith has been reaffirmed, jumps from an upstairs window to his gruesome death; a selfless attempt at destroying the devil for good.
The time Friedkin takes to introduce the audience to his characters goes a long way to perfecting the horror of the film. Rather than watching these horrific events take place amongst strangers, we feel as if we know them, and, as a result, we share their pain. The true horror of The Exorcist lies away from its head-turning, crucifix-masturbating and pea-soup vomiting, but in its devastating portrayal of a family in crisis: Friedkin asks the poignant question: what would you do if someone you love was possessed by the devil?
On viewing this, his most disturbing film, the answer doesn’t bear thinking about.