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"Your daughter doesn't say she's a demon. She says she's the devil himself."
Anytime a list is compiled of the greatest horror movies ever made, one film is present at or near the top of every single one of them. I would wager to say that much like the other great films in their respective genres, more people think they've seen this film than have actually seen it, because it has been ripped off and copied and homaged and spoofed to death. The power of a truly great film that ends up defining a genre, is that it can transcend all of that, and still hold up for someone seeing it for the first time. There's probably five films that I would say fit that mold: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Psycho, The Godfather & The Exorcist.
My own memories of The Exorcist were horrendously warped. I hadn't seen the film beginning to end since I was twelve years old. In the Summer of 1991, I watched the film with my best friend Jim Ciocco, and it scared the ever-loving shit out of me. Whenever I thought about the film though, all I could remember was a bunch of terrifying shit, most of which is only in the last thirty minutes of the movie. I distinctly remember it making it hard for me to sleep for the next few nights, because I was haunted by this image in particular. It still haunts me.
So what is all the fuss about? Is it really the scariest movie of all time? Yes and no. It is an undeniable masterpiece of horror, creating an incredibly unsettling mood from minute one. The film opens with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) on some sort of excavation in Northern Iraq. There's no context given for this scene, and even now, I'm not entirely sure, beyond the statue he finds at the end of the sequence, what the purpose of it was beyond putting the audience in an uncomfortable mood right away.
The film abruptly cuts to Georgetown, MD where Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is filming her latest movie. She's living with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) in a fancy house overlooking the most ominous set of stairs you've ever seen in your life. Regan shows her mother how she's been playing with a Ouija board and has been getting answers to her questions from someone named Captain Howdy. Other than that, and the fact that Regan is having problems sleeping in her bed because she says that it shakes, nothing seems out of the ordinary.
Chris & Regan's story is juxtaposed with that of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, in a role that should have won him an Oscar) a priest who is also a psychiatrist, but more importantly, he is suffering a crisis of faith. His mother is ill and lives alone in a seedy part of town, and Damien has a lot of guilt over leaving her by herself, and this comes to a head when his mother is injured in a fall, brought to a hospital, and ends up dying. Father Karras is on the verge of losing his faith altogether.
Regan meanwhile suddenly begins displaying violent behavior, and Chris takes her to a psychiatrist, not knowing what else to do. The doctors run a series of tests on her, thinking that she has a lesion on her frontal lobe which is causing her schizophrenic behavior. These sequences pack a ton of emotional power, particularly if you're a parent. Chris stands by helplessly while a bunch of doctors who are up against something they've never seen before, run a series of violent and invasive tests on her little girl. It's a harrowing sequence, and Chris begins to come unglued.
Her path crosses with Father Karras' when the doctors run out of possibilities and ask if she's ever heard of exorcism. She begs the priest for help, and he begins investigating whether or not she is indeed possessed. In the course of his investigation, his already shaky faith is put to the test, and he turns to the church for additional help, who recommend sending in one of the only living priests that has performed an exorcism, Father Merrin. The last thirty minutes of the film is the exorcism, and it is a tour-de-force. It's the kind of thing that makes The Exorcist a classic. The film spends the first three quarters of its running time building the mood, establishing the conflict, setting up the pins so that they can all be knocked down at the end.
It's what sets the film apart from other horror films. It takes the time to build to its climax, never letting up on the uneasiness, flashing subliminal shots of Captain Howdy to keep you on edge. And the payoff? It's like nothing else ever put on film. The exorcism sequence is amazing. It was achieved by William Friedkin playing dastardly tricks on his cast and crew to keep them on edge, and the guy was a world-class player of mind games, many of which you can read about here (number four).
So, is The Exorcist the scariest movie ever made? Personally I don't think that it is. My vote would go to The Shining but that film's structure borrows heavily from this film, including the director tormenting his actors to keep their performances on edge. The Exorcist will live in your memory for a long time after you've seen it, and it's the kind of film you'll find yourself revisiting at various points in your life to see if it's as scary as you remember it to be. And whether or not it is, it's the kind of film that you can marvel at whether it scares you or not, and that's the mark of a great film. And this is undeniably one of the greatest.
UPDATE: Holy Shit, have any of you ever seen this trailer? This might be the most terrifying thing I've ever seen.