I’ll admit I’ve made it through 37 years without seeing The Exorcist. Part of it was because my parents would not let me see such a frightening movie. But even afterward, the only place I could see it was on broadcast television, and I didn’t really want to see it “edited for broadcast.”
Then came the nineties and the 2000′s, and I’d largely forgotten about the movie, even though a character makes reference to it in Road Rules as one of the few truly scary movies.
Then this past weekend, Nita and I watched it on pay-per-view. The Exorcist is, indeed, a compelling film, an example of early seventies minimalist film making. The suspense is definitely palpable. However, much of what made the movie so terrifying hasn’t really aged well. Granted, seeing a battered, disheveled Linda Blair speaking with Mercedes McCambridge’s affected voice – The sultry-sounding actress managed an alien-sounding male voice for this movie – still makes one’s skin crawl. And spewing green vomit all over Max Von Sydow has not lost its ability to induce cringing.
But the effects are decidedly low-tech by today’s standards, even Blair’s head turning completely around with no damage to her neck. Also, the foul language, shocking, even disturbing by 1973 standards, doesn’t really shock anymore.
Where The Exorcist avoids being dated is in the character moments. We’re used to the Devil charming his victims to their doom. Here, he’s clearly violating the little girl he’s inhabiting, doing very disturbing things to her with a crucifix, then forcing her mother to also perform a sickening act. Possessed, the girl Regan becomes violent, punching, biting and kicking doctors, her mother, and both priests.
Counter-balancing that is the growing fear in Regan’s mother, played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn, as something horrible happens to her daughter. And as the special effects and language cede their ability to shock and awe to Regan’s violence and hatred – or rather the Devil’s – it becomes apparent this story is more about Father Damien’s crisis of faith. Why would a priest wracked with such doubt take on a ritual he himself said hasn’t been done since the 16th century? And, of course, he performs the ultimate sacrifice at the end to defeat a Devil he’d stopped believing in.
When it was released, The Exorcist was a truly terrifying film, especially when the monster takes the guise of a scared fourteen-year-old girl. But as our attitudes – or at least our exposure – toward the demon’s language become more jaded and the special effects lose their ability to shock, the story itself rises to the occasion. A lot goes on in The Exorcist that makes everything else window dressing. For that, it’s ability to make us squirm on multiple levels still raise it far above today’s gory slasher flicks.