The Exorcist is, without a doubt, one of the most influential horror films ever made. This stands regardless of whatever some schmuck on the internet wants to write about it. Directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, the 1973 film The Exorcist sent shockwaves throughout the entertainment industry, accomplishing a theatrical success that had never been seen for a horror film and has not been seen since then. Grossing nearly half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, when adjusted for inflation, The Exorcist has the highest attendance and ticket sales for a horror film of all time, and with how many horrors come out year-to-year (and the declining theater attendance, not only since the Covid-19 pandemic), that is a record that will likely go unchallenged.
The film is heralded as one of the best horrors ever created and has been included in the National Film Registry for its artistic merit.
The Exorcist is based on a 1971 novel of the same name written by Blatty, and follows the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl. Basically, the daughter’s behavior has become erratic and absolutely bizarre, making her mother reach out to any doctor who will listen in-order to diagnose what’s happening to her. Meanwhile, there is a priest who has lost his faith and is roped into the ordeal, tasked with attempting to rescue the child. The film includes a cast comprised of Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jason Miller, Jack MacGowran, and Linda Blair.
It is the first installment of The Exorcist film series, however, as many of you know, none of the films have really captured the same attention as the original, with The Exorcist II being infamous for its poor quality (I am excited to talk about The Exorcist III later on though).
Something I appreciate about The Exorcist is the level of ambition that it had. I talk about a lot of horror – an understatement, but a lot of horror is in its simplicity and “in-and-out” approach. It is the same reason a lot of directors’ careers start out with the genre, as it is a successful genre that can often be accomplished on a shoe-string budget. I appreciate with a horror film sternly seeks out accomplishing an “event film,” striving for an epic-scale definitiveness, which requires a level of confidence from both director and studio.
The Exorcist, in general, has a lot of confidence behind it, both in terms of ambition and the tenacity for the subject-matter it was willing to depict at a time when that subject-matter had not been depicted in such an in-your-face way.
As much as I do appreciate it, however, and I do encourage that level of forwardness and tenacity, the film itself doesn’t really do it for me. As I prefaced earlier, no matter what I say, nothing can detract from the legacy of The Exorcist film or the level of influence it has had on the genre. However, this, for me, is very much an instance of a film walking so other films can run.
The concept in itself, while presented in grandiose fashion, is very simple and straightforward. As a matter of fact, it is blatantly straightforward. A young girl is possessed by an evil entity and needs to have that entity dispelled out of her. This is obviously in the early going, and yet, that does not stop the film from hemming and hawing to its heart’s content.
The young girl is being possessed, of this, we have no doubt whatsoever. The belief of mental illness is suggested by the doctors, but it is not something that is ever instilled as a real possibility for the viewer. Early on, we are shown supernatural events that dispel that as a possibility, and yet, the film dithers for nearly half its runtime with poking and prodding, evoking the feeling that it could have been reeled in for a tighter experience. Even the scenes where the priest is skeptical of the young girl’s ailment is bewildering, after she projectile vomits a green sludge his way like a cannon. And, even if that is not enough reason to think the child is possessed, it surely is enough reason to think there is something seriously wrong with her?
The issue with this film, for me, is that it feels like a taut eighty minute film stretched out beyond the two hour mark, and that elongation feels artificial and undisciplined. It is the story of a doubtful priest who regains his faith by saving a young girl, who was unable to find help in a conventional way. This sounds like a lot of other horror films that have been released since then, but, if I am honest, there is nothing in this film that makes it standout among them as a crowning achievement.
The makeup and special-effects are noteworthy, but even it, at times, can feel like it lacks subtlety or nuance. Although the incorporation of “subliminal imagery” was cool in-retrospect, it is something I think has since been outclassed with series’ like The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, which I believe did it in a more refined, less copy-and-paste overlay fashion. The sound work, particularly the “theme music,” is chilling and atmospheric, with a distinctness that is often yearned for by many horror films, but rarely achieved.
The acting is uneventful, except for the performance of young actress Linda Blair as the possessed child, which was peculiar and absolutely what I remember most about the film. The idea of the faithless priest initially sounds like the perfect fodder for a strong emotional performance, but I don’t feel it accomplished a lot beyond the superficial level.
In my opinion, The Exorcist‘s greatness arises from its influence and legacy. I respect its merit and ambition, but I don’t believe it stands the test of time and heightened expectation. For what it is though, it is a decent supernatural film that doesn’t make a lot of stupid mistakes or fumbles.