THE EXORCIST (1973) Reviews and overview

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The Exorcist is a 1973 American supernatural horror feature film directed by William Friedkin (The Guardian), adapted by William Peter Blatty from his 1971 novel of the same name.

The book, inspired by the 1949 exorcism case of Roland Doe, deals with the demonic possession of a young girl and her mother’s desperate attempts to win back her daughter through an exorcism conducted by two priests.

The film is one of a cycle of “demonic child” movies produced from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, including Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen.

The movie stars Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow (Sleepless; Needful ThingsThe Night Visitor), Jason Miller, Linda Blair (Repossessed; The Chilling; Grotesque), and (in voice only) Mercedes McCambridge.

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The Exorcist was released theatrically in the United States by Warner Bros. on December 26, 1973. The film earned ten Academy Award nominations—winning two (Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay). It is also the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture. It became one of the highest-earning movies of all time, grossing over $441 million worldwide.

Time Out (London) voted it the best horror film of all-time in 2016. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry.

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Plot:

In northern Iraq, the Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), a Roman Catholic priest, is leading an archaeological dig when he discovers a small stone amulet. It resembles the statue of Pazuzu, a monstrous creature in the form of a human, bird of prey, scorpion and serpent. Already suffering from a serious, and a potentially deadly heart condition, Merrin then realises that Pazuzu, whom he had defeated years ago, has returned for revenge—and that their rematch will be a fight to his death.

In Georgetown, Washington, D.C., another priest, named Damien Karras (Jason Miller), apparently loses faith in God after he fails to cure his sick mother who dies in a mental hospital.

Elsewhere, movie actress Christine “Chris” McNeill (Ellen Burstyn), who is on location in Georgetown, notices that her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is acting strangely since having played with an ouija board. The symptoms include her using foul language, abnormally high strength, and causing her bed to shake.

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Regan is given painful tests and x-rays, but they prove negative. Unbeknownst to both Chris and Doctor Klein (Barton Heyman), she is now possessed by Pazuzu, whom Regan had called “Captain Howdy”…

Contemporary reviews:

“Although harrowing, its effects depend entirely on technical manipulation, and with Friedkin’s pedestrian handling of background story and supporting characters, we’re left more or less willing the film towards its climax … It would all be forgivable, somehow, if the film was at all likely to alter anyone’s perceptions one jot. But all The Exorcist does is take its audience for a ride, spewing it out the other end, shaken up but none the wiser.” Time Out (London)

“Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all? It’s hard to say. Even in the extremes of Friedkin’s vision, there is still a feeling that this is, after all, cinematic escapism and not a confrontation with real life. There is a fine line to be drawn there, and The Exorcist finds it and stays a millimeter on this side.” RogerEbert.com, December 26, 1973

Recent reviews:

“Much of the credit rests with director William Friedkin, one of the great moviemakers of the 1970s. He fashions a dark, relentlessly threatening atmosphere by treating the subject with documentary-styled seriousness. All the elements click beautifully. Cinematographer Owen Roizman captures truly iconic images amid the Georgetown, Washington, D.C., locale, while Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” is put to spellbinding musical use.” DVD Talk

“With some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen in a horror film, a heavy dose of nightmarish imagery and a story tackling heavy themes such as the loss of faith among many, The Exorcist deserves every bit of praise that its stellar reputation awards it. If you’ve never seen The Exorcist, go and watch it now.” Flickering Myth

“The physical production and rhythms of the narrative achieve intense momentum by intertwining everyday life with the character’s theological and dramatic concerns, ominous imagery and sudden incidents of extreme violence and perversion. Friedkin persuades us to suspend belief so effectively that you never for a second get the feeling that this film is slipping into unintended comedy, the biggest pitfall with the horror film genre.” The Spinning Image

” …though it may be filled with rigorously examined ideas and wonderfully observed character moments, its primary concern is with shocking, scaring and, yes, horrifying its audience out of their wits – does mainstream cinema contain a more upsetting image than the crucifix scene? That it still succeeds, almost four decades later, is testament to Friedkin’s remarkable vision.” Tom Huddleston, Time Out (London)

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“I’ve seen The Exorcist over a dozen times, but it had been awhile since I last saw it, so I kinda forgot about the scene where Ellen Burstyn is on the phone and she cusses up a storm to the operator. It’s kinda funny because Linda Blair is in the same room with her and she hears all the obscenities her mother lays out. And then all of a sudden Burstyn acts all shocked when her daughter starts talking the same way.” The Video Vacuum

Releases:

Several versions of The Exorcist have been released: the 1979 theatrical re-issue was reconverted to 70mm, with its 1.75:1 ratio cropped to 2.20:1 to use all the available screen width that 70mm offers. This was also the first time the sound was remixed to six-channel Dolby Stereo sound. Almost all video versions feature this soundtrack.

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Main cast and characters:

Ellen Burstyn … Chris MacNeil
Max von Sydow … Father Merrin
Lee J. Cobb … Lt. William Kinderman
Kitty Winn … Sharon
Jack MacGowran … Burke Dennings
Jason Miller … Father Karras
Linda Blair … Regan
William O’Malley … Father Dyer (as Reverend William O’Malley S.J.)
Barton Heyman … Doctor Klein
Peter Masterson … Doctor Barringer – Clinic Director (as Pete Masterson)
Rudolf Schündler … Karl
Gina Petrushka … Willi
Robert Symonds … Doctor Taney
Arthur Storch … Psychiatrist
Thomas Bermingham … Tom – President of University (as Reverend Thomas Bermingham S.J.)
Vasiliki Maliaros … Karras’ Mother
Titos Vandis … Karras’ Uncle
John Mahon … Language Lab Director
Wallace Rooney … Bishop Michael
Ron Faber … Chuck – Assistant Director / Demonic Voice
Donna Mitchell … Mary Jo Perrin
Roy Cooper … Jesuit Dean
Robert Gerringer … Senator at Party
Mercedes McCambridge … Demon (voice)

Technical credits:

Running time: 122 minutes | 132 minutes (director’s cut)

Audio: 70 mm 6-Track (1979 re-release)| DTS-ES (director’s cut)| Dolby Digital EX (director’s cut)| Mono (original release)| SDDS (director’s cut)
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Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1

Related:

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977) Reviews and overview

THE EXORCIST III (1990) Reviews and overview

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