Hoo-boy, does this film and I have a history. I can remember cringing under the bed covers as a seven-year-old, terrified by that demonic voice on the television ads.The fear of the film has never entirely left me - I still have Exorcist dreams that bother me, and my palms still sweat a bit when watching it. It's the one film that "gets to me", like no other.
Okay, that aside, is it a good film? I saw it recently on DVD and with giant, quadrophonic sound. Yep, it's a good film. It was made in 1973, but what I saw looked like it was made last year. You may know the basic story. In modern America a twelve-year old girl is possessed by an evil spirit who claims to be the devil himself. The child becomes hideous in appearance and actions, driving her mother to despair. She tries all the normal channels of help until only an exorcism by a catholic priest seems an option. The two priests assigned to the task struggle enormously with the demon, and at great cost. Do the powers of good win out?
"The Exorcist" caused a great controversy when it came out, and rightly so. The girl, Regan (Linda Blair) utters real profanities, masturbates bloodily with a crucifix and vomits green slime, amongst other horrors. Director William Friedkin went all-out to make a full-on horror film. Even now the obscenities seen on the screen exceed most of the things seen today.
Performances are excellent throughout. This is a serious, well-acted drama as well as a horror film. Ellen Burstyn plays the distraught mother with palpable feeling. Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller play the priests at different ends of the scale of faith, with appropriate intensity. Von Sydow in particular, is not in the film for long but makes his presence felt. Little Linda Blair - what went wrong after this - "Roller Boogie" for God's sake - impresses as the normal twelve year old and as the body invaded by sheer evil. Of course, Dick Smith's famous makeup - probably topped a million times since - certainly helps Linda convince us she's transfigured by a malignant force. I particularly like the way Regan's face deteriorates throughout the film.
The cinematography is exceptionally clear and provides rich colours, as well as stark contrasts in night-shots. Subliminal images of demonic white faces appear at times, and add to the growing dread. One of the main factors of fear is the soundtrack. Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells", when used, is eerie enough, but when the sound is used to depict the voice of the demon is when the chills really set in. There seems to be a kind of demonic background noise pervading the last part of the film that seeps into your bones. Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon is used to excellent effect. The voice is hoarse and croaky, straight from the pit.
If I have any reservations, it's the ending. The exorcism seems cut short and events wrap up too quickly - the conflict of good versus evil should have run longer. Up until then, it was a wonderfully frightening work of cinema that maybe has lost some impact to some, but allow yourself some spiritual fear and you'll fall under its spell. A groundbreaking, influential work.
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© Boris Lugosi, 2001.