Looking Back At THE EXORCIST

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Matt Donabie thinks it's an excellent day for an exorcism.

A good friend of mine had never seen The Exorcist. He'd heard about it and knew of that scene but had never sat down to watch it in its entirety. After revealing this to me I immediately loaned him my DVD - two days later he called me and said "That was extraordinarily creepy, unsettling, and very well done." That, I think, sums up The Exorcist perfectly.

The Exorcist is the story of 12 year-old Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of a wealthy actress who gradually begins to exhibit increasingly erratic and wholly bizarre behavior. From sporadically cursing God to inflicting brutal physical damage on herself and others. Naturally her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), is concerned.

Part of what makes The Exorcist work so well is the realistic handling of this situation by Chris. She immediately contacts a wide variety of medical professionals, because, I would think, very few people in this situation would immediately think "my daughter is possessed" and consult religious authorities as a primary reaction. Plus the doctors who try to treat Regan all approach the situation from a very scientific, purely medical standpoint too; their initial diagnosis is that she has a legion on her brain that's causing the erratic and violent behavior. Yet, after undergoing a series of gruesome tests to try and identify the location of the elusive legion, the doctors find that, physiologically, Regan is in full working order.
Psychiatrist: Is there someone inside you?
Regan MacNeil: Sometimes.
Psychiatrist: Who is it?
Regan MacNeil: I don't know.
Psychiatrist: Is it Captain Howdy?
Regan MacNeil: I don't know.
Psychiatrist: If I ask him to tell me, will you let him answer?
Regan MacNeil: No.
Psychiatrist: Why not?
Regan MacNeil: I'm afraid.
Frustrated and baffled at the lack of competence these expert physicians have displayed Chris does not know where to turn, until one doctor eventually suggests that Regan could be the victim of supernatural influences, and, as a last resort, Chris gets in touch with a local priest by the name of Father Karras (Jason Miller). Karras is a well-educated man who is immediately sceptical of the supposed possession of Regan, but he agrees to visit her and assess the situation himself. After a series of harrowing encounters with Regan, Karras teams up with Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), a Catholic priest who moonlights as an archaeologist and is also one of the foremost experts on possessions and exorcisms. Together the pair attempt to drive away the evil spirit.

The plot is pretty bare bones, but it works because it's handled with thoughtfulness and sincerity. All of the actors display a true sense of urgency in regards to the seriousness of Regan's situation, and the acting of Blair (who, of course, was only a child at the time) is phenomenal.
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. 
As Father Karras repeatedly visits and tries to learn more about who (or what) has taken over Regan, the evil influence begins to bore into Karras' mind. Slowly, it's revealed that Karras is plagued with guilt in regards to his recently deceased mother. She passed away after he made the decision to place her in a nursing home, and the devil (or whoever is in Regan) methodically mines that guilt until Karras is on the verge of completely losing it.
Demon: You killed your mother! You left her alone to die! Bastard!
Father Damien Karras: Shut up! 
The psychological horror utilised in The Exorcist is supremely scary, and this, along with many other things, helps elevate it above any other "possession" movie that's ever been made.

The Exorcist also builds tension better than almost any other horror movie I have seen. As people approach the door to Regan's bedroom, the sense of foreboding terror that lurks just beyond what you can see is palpable. You'll literally find the hair standing up on the back of your neck as you're pleading for whichever character to just hurry up and throw the door open so you'll be able to breathe again.
Demon: Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras, you faithless slime.
Of course The Exorcist has many scenes that exist for no other reason than to totally freak you out, as any good horror movie should. That head-spinning sequence comes to mind first, and it's closely followed by the stomach-turning pea soup vomit scene and the crab-walk-down-the-stairs scene (which is included in the director's cut).

More than 40 years on The Exorcist is still the best example of a psychological horror that you'll find. Give it another rewatch this Halloween eve. Just be prepared to keep a crucifix and a vial of holy water next to your bed after you've developed a legitimate fear of the thumping sound coming from your attic.

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