“Scariest movie of all time” is a moniker that has been foisted upon this movie. “I literally shat myself” someone probably said sometime about it as well. High praise. I can tell you that it traumatized at least one of my friends in Junior High School, so there’s that. The Exorcist is inarguably a horror classic and one of the most recognizable films in the genre. We dive into William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel. Yeah. It was a book.
Reviewed by: Mark
The film opens in Iraq, where a team of archaeologists uncovers an old ass action figure of the demon Pazuzu. This somehow awakens the spirit, where it flies to the other side of the planet, and inhabits the body of a young girl named Regan (Linda Blair). Regan’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) legitimately can’t tell whether or not her daughter is possessed or just has severe ADHD (some things haven’t changed much since the 70s) so she runs her daughter through a gamut of medical and psychological testing. Once they finally decide that something atypical is happening father Karras (Jason Miller) is contacted to help.
Father Karras is having his own issues on the side. His mother just died. He’s having a crisis of faith. He’s running and boxing in a gray hoodie around the Georgetown area, and probably inspiring the movie Rocky. After he meets and assesses Ragan, he determines she does indeed have a severe case of demonitis. Karras decides to contact father Marrin (Max von Sydow) who is an experienced exorcist, and who was at the archaeological dig at the beginning of the movie.
The two perform an exorcism to mixed results. Karras dies of a heart attack, and Marrin invites the demon to leave Regan’s body and possess him. When Pazuzu obliges, the priest flings himself from the second story window down a flight of now-iconic outdoor stairs, killing himself. Regan is saved and has no recollection of the events. I’d be inclined to say happy ending but there are two sequels to the movie (and two prequels) so I’m guessing Marrin’s plan didn’t exactly work perfectly.
What the Movie Does Right
For being shot in 1973 the film looks remarkably good. The image quality itself is remarkable, but also it has many of the hallmarks of modern horror cinematography. There are long tracking shots meant to separate the viewer from the main characters and beg us to search the dark corners of the screen for creepy easter eggs. There are vertical spinning shots that disorient the viewer in times of confusion and stress. There are first person shots long before Halloween made them so popular (though admittedly well after Peeping Tom introduced them to the genre). The phenomenal looking scenes are accompanied by a truly iconic score. Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is an immediately recognizable masterpiece (even if it is nearly 50 minutes long). Those two things combine to make the feel of the movie as timeless as movie’s from 40+ years ago can get.
Additionally, there’s a lot to be said about the narrative structure. Yes the movie is over 2 hours long (more on that in a bit), but the script effectively guides the viewer through the tumultuous process of diagnosing Regan. Why is that important? Well, anymore we see movies that just jump straight to the exorcism, but in The Exorcist we are guided through a much more scientific process. Maybe she has severe ADHD. Maybe she has a “hyperkinetic disorder.” There is a pretty legitimately executed intra-carotid contrast injection for a CT scan scene. Even when the exorcism is floated as an option, it is framed in the context of “your daughter probably has a personality disorder and sometimes we just have to play into the narrative in her head to fix her.” All of this is in service of one factor, realism. It takes a long time to set up, but as far as exorcism movies go this remains the most believable progressions of story. That deliberate progression is in no small part responsible for why we are still talking about this movie today.
What the Movie Does Wrong
I know I just talked about this, but this movie is loooooong. Why the hell do we spend 20 minutes in Iraq to start the thing? The medical scenes are a wonderful realistic touch, but they could be cut down significantly. This is something I actually had in the “does middle” category, because I understand why it was cut the way it was, but overall it makes the movie harder to digest. It just gets boring for long stretches of time. On the podcast that you should totally listen to I posited a conversation between two people about to watch the movie, one of which had never seen it:
“So, scariest movie ever huh? I guess this thing is quite the roller coaster.”
“Yeah, well, I mean there’s this archaeology thing at the beginning that is almost completely unrelated to the rest of the plot.”
“Oh, backstory huh? Cool, alright. I bet it gets good after that.”
“Actually then there’s a bunch of medical scenes, conversations between doctors, and some psychology stuff for another half hour.”
“Are you sure this is a horror movie?”
“I’m telling you pal, once you’re like 70 minutes into this thing you can’t look away.”
Story: 7 - The story is among the best in the genre, but it could use a substantial amount of editing. I think you could easily make the argument that this is the best told exorcism story in film. There have been many imitators since, but none have done it quite as well as the original.
World-Building / Immersion: 5 - Although I appreciate the importance of elongating the story from a narrative standpoint, the effect is that the pacing is glacial. On top of all of that the audio track for dialogue is pretty tough to reconcile with how good the rest of the movie looks.
Scare-Factor: 5.5 - For a movie labeled as the scariest of all time, I think most people will be disappointed. There are things here that stick with people, but I remember watching this as a timid 12 year old and being largely unaffected. There is a ymmv factor at play here, but I think there are many objectively scarier movies.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7.5 - This movie looks great from top to bottom. Jack actually gave this a 9 and I can see why. Ultimately, I think the scenes in Iraq are a bit oversaturated, the pazuzu face hasn’t aged well, and the dialogue track can detract from the movie at important times. Still a high score though.
Overall: 5.5 - The length of the movie is the biggest struggle here. The quality of the film and its importance in film history is offset by how difficult it is to digest. At least for me (and subjectively speaking as a representative modern viewer) you really have to get into the right mindset to settle into this one. For what it’s worth the other two guys gave it in the 7 range, so I might be a bit lower than the rest of the world.