Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Exorcist

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller
Written by: William Peter Blatty
Director: William Peter Blatty

Rating: * * * * 1/2     Stars       +       (Fan Bonus *   )  Total: * * * * * 1/2

A mothers worst nightmare comes true as her vibrant young daughter succumbs to an illness that is neither physical or mental. She realizes the truth, her daughter is being possessed by a demonic force, and if someone can't help her soon, her daughter may die. 

Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil, a single mother and actress currently residing in Georgetown, while on location filming a movie. Her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) begins exhibiting strange behavior, including foul language, urinating on the carpet, sleepwalking, etc. She takes her to physicians who recommend psychiatrists, who then send her back to doctors, yet all tests prove inconclusive. 

Nearby is a church where Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) works as a priest who specializes in clinical psychology. Karras wrestles with his own torment as his sickly mother is put into a nursing home against her wishes, and blames him for it. She soon passes away, and the guilt eats him up.

Meanwhile Regan's condition is getting worse. She exhibits supernatural abilities, including strength, speaking in strange voices, and causing objects to move around by themselves. Still, no one seems to be able to help, and attribute the more fantastical elements as a form of hysteria. Finally, the doctors recommend an exorcist be brought in, viewing it as a form of hypnotic suggestion.  She seeks out Father Karras who also believes she's mentally ill until Regan begins speaking about his Mother, and other things she couldn't possibly know. Karras turns to the diocese and they bring in Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an elderly priest who's performed an exorcism years ago. The demon in Regan is the same as the one he confronted, and is looking forward to facing him again.

Perhaps one of the scariest movies ever made, and the best so far regarding this subject matter, The Exorcist is an assault on our ethical nature. Sure, it has all the hallmarks of standard horror fair, including strange noises, murder, shocking surprises, and creaking floorboards. But the true horror of this film is how William Peter Blatty unashamedly displays the nature of evil as the foulest, most crass and dehumanizing force on Earth. This young girl uses language that would make a truck driver blush. She uses a crucifix to masturbate with till she reaches a bloody climax. She shoves her Mother's face into her crotch screaming "lick me, lick me." Although it's based on religious subjects, even the staunchest atheists in the audience will still feel a sense of foulness. When first shown in theaters, reports of people passing out in the aisles hit newspapers. The Catholic Church had a rise in confessions. How William Peter Blatty got this movie past the censors in 1973 is amazing. Perhaps he made a deal with the devil.

The performances by the cast are powerful and believable. A longer than usual run time allowed for character development, making Karras and Ms. MacNeil fully fleshed out characters. Innovative techniques that hold up today make it frighteningly believable when her head contorts backwards, or walks down the stairs like a distorted spider. The voice over work of the demonic voice is chilling to the bone. 

If you're looking for a good scare, you need not look further. Except for an interesting effort in Exorcist III, avoid the other sequels. This movie has captured lightning in a bottle, something the others can never duplicate.


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