The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
For the two people who haven't seen this, there are spoilers here. But you know what? I'm guessing if you haven't seen it by now, you probably won't.
Father Damien Karras: Why her? Why this girl?
Father Merrin: 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.
The Exorcist is, quite simply, an assault on its audience. William Friedkin's film (written and produced by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel) about a young girl possessed by a demon has not lost any of its visceral impact even after the emergence of countless spoofs, knockoffs, sequels and prequels since its release nearly 40 years ago. In fact, I think such miscellany can easily make one forget how painfully intense the original movie is before one sits down and actually re/watches it.
The intensity of the film's horror runs the risk of overshadowing its more contemplative themes. The Exorcist is not a carnie geek show (though it often feels like one and nothing more), but a film about people dealing with spiritual crises, family bonds, faith and despair. It is not that it is a blasphemous film (and oddly enough, although my religious views are pretty agnostic, the demon often behaves in a way that I can only describe as blasphemous) so much as it is a film about characters dealing with blasphemy and Godless depravity.
And again, it is an assault.
The Exorcist follows two...well, two and a half...storylines that ultimately converge in the final act. In one, Ellen Burstyn plays Shirley MacLaine surrogate Chris MacNeil, a film actress and single mother to her 12-year-old daughter, Regan (played by Linda Blair). While filming a movie in Georgetown, Chris notices some weird behavior with Regan. She's not feeling well. She interrupts Chris' parties with proclamations of death then wets herself (or rather, the carpet). Then, her behavior gets worse.
Much, much worse.
Regan is taken to the hospital, where several tests are run (the scenes in the hospital are also truly terrifying), which leads nowhere. Regan flops around on her bed (well, sometimes the bed flops around on its own), contorts her body in weird positions and spouts out verbal atrocities (mixed with pleas for help, making the situation that more awful). The doctors want to run more tests, but aren't confident. Neither is Chris.
I'm surprised to find how shocked and jolted I still am during many of the film's scenes, even after multiple viewings. The camera often captures Regan's inhuman contortions and shows her spouting unspeakable obscenities with such dispassion that it is horrific and jarring. Sure, the movie has a score, and deploys nifty camera angles and tracking shots here and there, but the most effective scenes are the ones shot without flare and sans music.
(I remember when a crew of us went to go see the extended version at the movie theatre in Kips Bay back in 2000 there was some laughter from the audience when Regan spat out vile X-rated language in a demonic voice, perhaps reminded of Lorraine Newman telling Richard Pryor, "Your mother sews sweat socks that smell," in the famous SNL parody. When she started to stab herself in the vagina with a crucifix, the laughter stopped cold.)
In the second storyline, which runs concurrently during the first half of the film, we watch Father Damian Karras, a Catholic priest and psychiatrist steadily lose his faith as he tries (and fails) to help the mentally ill and tries (and ultimately fails) to take care of his dying mother. Jason Miller plays Father Karras as a sad sack indeed, losing confidence that there's a God offering the world infinite love and mercy. Seeing that his time is divided between trips to the mental hospital and trips to his infirmed mother's apartment, can you really blame him?
Eventually, when Regan's doctors rule everything else out, and as Regan's condition worsens, they suggest an exorcism (not because they believe in demonic possession, but because of the "force of suggestion"), which conjoins the two storylines by bringing Chris to Father Karras.
Although what's happening to Regan is clearly the work of the supernatural (crazy people can't move chairs and dressers with their minds, no matter how crazy they are) all the characters are grounded in the real world, and dealing with the impossible situation as real people most likely would. The doctors' suggestion of an exorcism is a matter of psychiatry, and the priest brought in to perform the exorcism is incredibly skeptical: Father Karras is unconvinced by Regan "speaking in tongues," since it's just her speaking backwards, and her feeling the burn of regular old tap water (which he lies that it's holy water) doesn't help matters much, either.
Also, note the tone in Chris' voice when she says to Father Karras: "Somebody very close to me is...probably possessed." It's as if she knows how ridiculous it must sound to a psychiatrist, but has ruled out every other possibility.
The other semi-storyline that converges in the final act (that's only introduced in a semi-extraneous prologue that takes place in Iraq) concerns Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, the titular exorcist, who once performed an exorcism many years ago in Africa (which damn near killed him) and is sent to Georgetown to perform the ritual with Father Karras' assistance.
This exorcism, which takes up the bulk of the film's final half hour, does ultimately kill Father Merrin (the demon possessing Regan presumably causes him to have a heart attack) and Father Karras, though the latter death is intentional and done so to save Regan. After Father Merrin dies, Damian strikes Regan and implores the demon to take him instead. The demon obliges, and Damian throws himself out the window. Regan is saved and (mercifully) has no recollection of the horrible ordeal.
Even though it's a horror film with a relatively low body count (with two of the three deaths taking place off-screen), The Exorcist is still a raw, relentless experience that still manages to overshadow its weaker successors and imitators. It shows characters forced to deal with the impossible. They're confronted with a view of humanity as "animal and ugly," deprived of God's love, and we're shown how they deal with such a view. And as a result, we get the living crap scared out of us.
James "Headspun" Comtois