Directed by: William Friedkin
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Written by Alexander Reams
Last year I had the pleasure of writing on John Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the titular holiday. This year I have a similar if distinctly different pleasure looking back on a film that is in constant conversation with Carpenter’s classic, whether it be how scary it is, the iconic piano themes, or the legendary performances by their lead actresses, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.”
By the time production ran on “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin had just won Best Director at the Academy Awards for “The French Connection” and become one of the hottest names in the industry for his renegade style and counterculture attitude, so naturally he followed up a hardboiled, cop drama that garnered critical and commercial success with an adaptation of his friends exorcism book that had only recently gained popularity.
“The Exorcist” begins with a prequel of sorts, a thread that director William Friedkin and writer of the film and the eponymous source material/producer William Peter Blatty lay with surgical precision. It begins in the desert, at an excavation of old ruins. Friedkin moves his camera (which was the industry standard of beautiful 35mm) through beautiful dolly shots of the organized chaos of this excavation, until Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) stumbles upon a totem that gives him great worry, and the dreadful drone that Friedkin scores the zoom-in of a larger version of that totem says so much without a single line of dialogue.
The diptych storyline that begins the main story follows actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) as the latter shows signs of illness of some kind. Friedkin grounds this film in even more reality because of how much time is devoted to the medical tests and Chris’ time with doctors telling her “we don’t know what’s wrong with her.” And with each time, there’s a level of subtle anger from Burstyn’s performance as these men tell her that the big, smart men can’t possibly help her so just go home and be quiet. Friedkin frames each of these scenes with tension, uncomfortability, and a fervent displacement of power dynamics between each person.
The other side of this is Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) as he deals with a crisis of faith due to the loss of his mother (Vasiliki Maliaros), whose appearance hangs over his entire performance, which makes the few scenes with the pair feel all the more impactful. He crosses paths with Chris at her film shoot, and she sees him at his church on her way home from work. Friedkin and Blatty have these characters in each other’s lives before they even speak to one another, and makes a story that takes place mostly within a few blocks feel even closer.
This discomfort is the foundation of the more traditional horror tropes that Friedkin then elevates (yes, “The Exorcist” is one of the original “elevated horror films”) with the shrillful sound design that screeches through the MacNeil’s house like a banshee. Once Regan is possessed, Burstyn’s already stressful performance turns into down-right mania as she holds a masterful death grip of control. She walks the line with such a command of the frame that each scream she utters is gut-wrenching, and every facial expression or reaction shot never loses tonality, there is only terror in the frame.
The possession aspects of the film are masterfully realized through the practical effects, from the violently shaking bed to the pea soup used as vomit that is more than convincing, everything that these characters endure is felt brutally because of the reality that Friedkin constantly grounds this film in. The violent nature of Regan’s possession plays on the traditional fear of children in danger, and it takes the hope away from the parental nature of protecting their child because of the supernatural aspect of the problem. It puts Burstyn in a situation of being relegated to the sidelines (as she was with the medical tests) but she never allows Chris to be put in a corner, and when Father Karras’ storyline intersects with Chris, the two merge and the frightening reality of Regan’s condition sets in.
The slow burn of “The Exorcist” plays into the dread that Friedkin crafts, and no more so than in the first meeting between Karras and Regan, also where the iconic pea soup scene occurs, the full decomposition of Regan has begun, and the makeup effects rival most big-budget Hollywood productions now. Regan has been removed and now a persona who calls itself “The Devil” has entered inside of her. Even Karras is skeptical, no matter how obvious it seems to the viewer, but there is truth in what is said. Possession is not commonplace anymore and Karras’ religious skepticism of it being true is partly out of fear, the recordings of these happenings are frightening to say the least, more so if you are a practicing believer.
Karras’ last moments of this first encounter stay with him because Regan knew things that, 1) were not public knowledge and 2) Karras had not told Chris. This stays with him through his next service, which then exercises that 70mm six-track audio mix that Friedkin clearly loves playing with here, as Regan says one of the film’s iconic lines over the service “What an excellent day for an exorcism.” This introduces a comedic level to the film as the banter between “The Devil ” and Karras does provide levity, and just in time as it’s a perfect moment before the third act of insanity that Friedkin crafts.
The final 30 minutes of “The Exorcist” are some of the finest filmmaking that has been crafted, not only within horror, but in film history. Friedkin subverts expectations with his usage of Father Merrin, and provides a worthy catharsis to the pain that Father Karras has carried throughout his arc. The foreshadowing that occurs with the iconic steps through Burke Jennings’ (Jack MacGowran) death only builds more dread as it is clear that is the “Chekhov’s gun” of this film and ultimately becomes the moment of finality for Father Karras. “The Exorcist” is one of the finest examples of horror filmmaking through the lens of one of the most legendary filmmakers, like Kubrick with “The Shining” or Scott with “Alien.” There’s a level of prestige that surrounds “The Exorcist,” despite most films in the horror genre refuting that in favor of infamous notoriety that has helped secure a mark on film history that marked a serious treatment of horror films from big-time directors.
“The Exorcist” Trailer