This enduring horror classic remains frightening not just for its iconic scares but also its fidelity to life—that the seepage of the supernatural into physiological reality is not merely a fantasy but a raw confrontation with the limits of religious faith.
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Lina Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb
Plot: When a 12-year-old girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her.
Awards: Won 2 Oscars – Best Adapted Screenplay & Best Sound; Nom. for 8 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
Distributor: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Disturbing/Mature – Demon Possession; Religious Faith, Exorcism
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
So much has already been said about The Exorcist, and as its 50th anniversary looms closer, it may be time for a revisit, though I must confess that I’m watching this for the first time.
It is an enduring horror classic for good reason—the scares are iconic, though I wouldn’t classify them in the same vein as jump scares; in fact, The Exorcist is less a horror film than a drama with elements of horror seeping into the fabric of reality.
Perhaps that is why it is frightening on a visceral level, so much so that you might be forgiven for feeling deep within your gut an uncomfortable seed forming as it gestates into something formidably physiological—you might feel like you are being possessed yourself.
“Is there someone inside you?”
Because of William Friedkin’s almost documentary-like filmmaking style, the seepage of an unfathomable evil from another world into physical reality (and one that science and psychiatrists can’t solve, except possibly through the age-old technique of exorcism) is not merely a fantasy but a raw confrontation with the limits of religious faith.
There is the fear of the consequences of a failed exorcism, and this is heightened through Friedkin’s relentless uncompromising approach to the final act, which is highly disturbing considering this is ultimately still a Hollywood picture, backed by a major studio in Warner Bros.
Ellen Burstyn is excellent as the mother of a young girl (an even more extraordinary Linda Blair) who is possessed. Still controversial today for many reasons, including the scene where Blair’s character infamously utters blasphemous remarks as she inflicts pain on her genitals using the crucifix, The Exorcist remains a significant cultural milestone in horror cinema.
It may have spawned many movies about exorcism, including sequels and rehashes, but it can’t get any more authentic and scarier than this one.