Rated R - Running Time: 2:11 - Re-Released 9/22/00

You know, it's a shame in this ultra-sophisticated age of special effects when the best movie one has seen all year is 27 years old. On the other hand, when the film in question is one of the best movies ever made, it will probably continue to pose stiff competition for many years to come. William Friedkin's classic 1973 treatise on good versus evil, The Exorcist, with all its controversy, parody, and the subsequent material it inspired, is still a thrill to watch after all these years, so full it's hard to absorb in one showing, so affecting it will still keep you awake at night. But maybe for different reasons.

William Peter Blatty's novel and his adapted screenplay, based on a real story that happened to a 13-year-old boy in Maryland in 1949, is more than just a creepy tale designed to frighten moviegoing teenagers. His intricate text is steeped in symbolism, with layer upon layer of meaningful interactions and subtly evocative images. Moreover, Friedkin's direction meshes ever so perfectly with Blatty's work, incorporating not only stunning visuals and memorable scenes, but seemingly minor choices that reveal their importance later in the film. The movie is so packed with meaning, it remains riveting even when we're not in Regan's bedroom watching her spit pea soup. It's just a well-made film, and the fact that it's also seriously disturbing is an added bonus.

Of course, another aspect which gives The Exorcist the stature it holds is the purely consistent excellence in the acting. It's hard to say who deserves more credit; it's no wonder the principals were practically all nominated for Oscars in '74. The fact that Linda Blair, only 13 at the time of shooting, could not only be so convincing as the child possessed, but also maintain such a simple, subtle realism in the earlier scenes, is remarkable. The section where she and Ellen Burstyn are saying goodnight is one of the most touching scenes in the film; it sets up the innocence and charm of Regan so perfectly before she is taken over by evil. Of course, the possessed Regan cannot be attibuted wholly to Blair, since many of the scenes featured the voice of veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge and the body of Eileen Dietz, not to mention dummies that were constructed to look like Blair for purposes of head spinning and the like.

Meanwhile, Burstyn is astounding as the atheist forced to seek a priest as a last resort after exhausting all medical and psychological possibilities concerning her daughter's increasingly disturbing behavior. Burstyn, an actress playing an actress, can travel through several emotional colors in a few seconds, and make every one believable, showing the fragile mental state of a woman at the end of her rope. And Jason Miller is also excellent as Father Damien Karras, a character whom Blatty makes a truly complex individual — a priest and psychologist with a crisis of faith, who feels guilty for the death of his mother, who could have had a successful career as a boxer but chose another path and lived to question it . . . Miller shows us all these things. And finally, Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin, the title character, the only one whom the devil fears; he is also a more complicated character than he would have to be; in a lesser movie, he could be a minor part, but there's a reason why we meet him first, and why Blatty named the book after him instead of the event, or the girl, or the beast within. Also deserving mention is Lee J. Cobb, who is believable as Lieut. Kinderman; again, more so than he needs to be.

Perhaps the most legendary aspect of The Exorcist is its special effects, done before computers, but still so real after all this time (with a few exceptions — the doll still looks like a doll). This new release contains many augmentations to those classic scenes, and even a few deliciously freaky new ones added. One such addition is the much-talked-about "spider walk" scene, where Regan comes down the stairs upside down, crawling on her hands and feet; this was omitted from the original because Friedkin couldn't figure a way to resolve the scene, but a way has been found, and this is added to the list of the film's disturbingly memorable images.

Also concerning the special effects is the controversial, and sometimes questionable, manner in which Friedkin achieved them, occasionally abusing his actors in ways which today might provoke litigation; this is an unfortunate corollary to the story of The Exorcist, but one cannot argue that what resulted is a truly excellent piece of work. Friedkin, however, has apparently voiced some opposition to this version being released, since the more upbeat ending (which Blatty wanted in the original version) is added against his wishes.

So many movies that try to be scary turn out laughable, and some, like The Blair Witch Project, can't sustain their edge for more than one showing. But this film is so much more than the sum of its parts; there are things to think about, talk about, and argue about long after the car trip home. Do yourself a favor this Halloween season: go see it again, and if the pea soup and creepy voices turn you off, just forget about the devil and watch it for the sake of art. *****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews | See FilmQuips Archive