A Sci-Fi Honey ‘Happy Hexmas’ Review by Katie

The Exorcist (1973)

Quick: what’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen? 

If your answer is not immediately The Exorcist – unless you have a really good reason why some other film holds this distinction for you – I would presume there is something seriously wrong with you and question your taste in horror, and films in general.  Since its illustrious debut in 1973, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist – based on a 1971 book by William Peter Blatty – has been lauded by countless critics and film aficionados alike as the scariest movie ever made.  The difference with this film, apart from others that have earned that distinction, is that this movie actually deserves it.  It is not just a well-made film that generated some palpable frights in its time; it is STILL a well-made film that manages to this day to instill real fear in modern-day viewers.  Any film that can remain relevant after being parroted and parodied by horror filmmakers for the last four decades is a feat unto itself, and should be celebrated this Hexmas season.

I’ll admit, it took me several attempts to watch The Exorcist in its entirety.  I have to thank some early-90s cable network for being brave enough to air it for my first (albeit, edited for television) exposure to this seminal horror masterpiece.  The commercials advertising the film, however, proved to be scary enough to make me shut off the TV a mere four minutes in, when Father Merrin reaches his hand into a hole at the Iraqi archaeological site.  Surely, a demon was in this hole, and I would have no part in watching Merrin’s hand get sucked into a hellish void!! …. 

Of course, this doesn’t happen, but that didn’t stop me from imagining the worst and shutting the TV off and on several times throughout the film. That is the story of the first time I saw The Exorcist, and if the film is as important to you as it was to my then-burgeoning affection for horror, you may have a similarly vivid recollection of your first time.

From an ominous setup in the Iraqi desert with Father Merrin’s wearied priest unearthing demonic artifacts, the film transplants us to a then-present-day Georgetown in Washington D.C., where famous actress Chris MacNeil (the amazing Ellen Burstyn) lives with her 12-year-old daughter, Reagan (Linda Blair). Reagan is a sweet girl, but is turning increasingly dark as arguments rage on between her divorced parents, and ample alone time provides her with an opportunity to chat with a spirit called “Captain Howdy” on a Ouija board (as kids often do...). Captain Howdy, however, is not the Casper-esque friendly ghost one would hope to communicate with; he’s a vengeful demon named Pazuzu, who soon possesses Reagan’s body and mind, inflicting pain on all who come into contact with her.

In a parallel plotline, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) is a local priest who is plagued by his own emotional demons after the death of his elderly mother, whom he feels guilty about not being able to care for in her final years. Karras confesses that he’s lost his faith and considers leaving his post at the church, but not before being approached by Chris, who wants him to assist in exorcising the demon from her daughter. Enlisting the help of Father Merrin, the two holy men wage a battle against the agent of hell dwelling within Reagan, with some dire consequences.

The film is just as much about Karras and Merrin as it is about the MacNeil family – the film, after all, is called The Exorcist – and many of the most terrifying and poignant scenes surround Karras’s struggle to maintain a religious conviction in the midst of his oppressive grief. Providing so much insight into the background and motivation of these characters makes The Exorcist the rare horror film in which the audience cares deeply about the people depicted on screen. While a lesser horror film will have you rooting for the genre’s character archetypes to be slain as quickly and as gruesomely as possible, The Exorcist takes its time establishing the various ways in which these characters will come together to triumph over evil.

One of the best things about this movie is that it manages to find an abundance of ways to prey upon the fears of the audience.  There are many who consider the hospital scenes to be among the scariest imagery in the film; indeed, the clueless doctors who call Reagan psychologically disturbed and prescribe her Ritalin after a battery of grueling tests can be seen as villains in their own right.  There is also the fear of haunted houses (noises in the attic), unexplained deaths (those STAIRS!), loss of innocence, loss of control, and a challenged set of beliefs.  A younger viewer might fear invasion of their bodies, while an older viewer – especially a parent – would be terrified at the prospect of watching your child going through an ordeal that renders them helpless, and struggling to understand and cure their affliction.  The scariest thing of all may be that the source material is based on a true story Blatty heard about while he was a student at Georgetown University. 

By now, The Exorcist is so woven into the fabric of popular culture that someone who hasn’t even seen the film might be familiar with the story, the characters, or the more infamous scenes.  A non-viewer might even be familiar with a quote or two, be it “the power of Christ compels you,” or some other expletive-ridden dialogue (“your mother sucks cocks in hell” is a personal favorite).  The film was followed by one god-awful sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, and one very good sequel, The Exorcist III, which was written and directed by Blatty himself, in addition to two prequels.  It has been spoofed in the Scary Movie franchise, in porn, and even by Linda Blair herself in Repossessed (1990).  As an influence in horror, it has ensured that nearly every possession film features an innocent (usually young girl) speaking in demonic tongues, levitating, and contorting in some fashion; even the character of the tortured priest has popped up on more than one occasion.  And yet, despite all the ways it’s been referenced in one watered down form or another in film and television, the original work has not lost its power or significance on repeated viewings, year after year.

Many canonical films and texts are glorified over time as the greatest, the scariest, the most crowning achievement in their respective medium; however, continuous praise can kill a work of art by over-inflating it with buzz.  The Exorcist is one piece of cinematic history that not only lives up to the hype it has generated; it transcends it – turning the idea of a demonic possession film into an outright movement, and setting the tone for practically every subsequent horror film in its wake.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating:  Five stabby crucifixes out of five.  Sleep well tonight in your shaky beds!