Winner - Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Winner - Best Sound
WARNER BROS. PICTURES (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Mercedes McCambridge
The movie that caused outrage and mass hysteria when it was released back in 1973, The Exorcist has seen many horror conventions come and go and still to this day holds up to them all - surpassing what’s come since.
Not diverting heavily from the original source material by William Peter Blatty, the story is loosely based on true events. A young girl is possessed by a demon and a titanic struggle between good and evil ensues – Friedkin almost makes you believe that this scenario is possible, as is the damn near perfect execution of the story. Yes, there’s the shock tactics and scares, but at the heart of it are human stories – the anguished mother, the priest who has lost faith, the starstruck policeman who attempts to keep events grounded and, of course, the twelve-year-old innocent girl possessed by a malevolent demon.
The writing is brilliant, it would be all too easy to turn this film into devil chasing shlock with corny dialogue and convenient story devices – but they left that for Exorcist II: The Heretic (shudder). However, the story is treated with respect and kept to a human level – there are no all-conquering heroes, no outlandish story turns – it relies on great dialogue being delivered by a great cast, and not a team of heroic priests coming up with a grand plan together to defeat the evil from a confession box.
There’s not a weak performance amongst the cast. Ellen Burstyn is great as the anguished, frightened, yet determined, mother – her descent from cheerful to overcome is delivered excellently. Max von Sydow was the perfect choice for Father Merrin, the elderly veteran priest with previous experience of exorcism; his natural authority shines out in a powerful performance. Lord knows what Linda Blair went through as the film progressed – the make-up, dialogue, profanities and the cold – but she bought a brilliant performance as the virtuous young girl and the epitome of evil. An established performance from a new actress.
The stand out performance, however, was Jason Miller as Damien Karras. How he managed to portray the sheer amount of weariness, confusion and agony just in his eyes is incredible. A performance of power and genuine quality, Miller’s striking portrayal ensured the story stayed on track – a flawed, jaded priest who has lost faith being thrust into a situation that will test more than must faith, all whilst being handled earnestly, could have strayed off track in lesser hands, however Miller handled it wonderfully.
For their efforts, Burstyn, Blair and Miller all received Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role respectively. The movie also received nods for Best Picture (the first horror film to do so), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Film Editing. It did walk away with Best Sound – the snarling hounds, the carnage in the bedroom, the demon voice, just to name a few examples of the exemplary work put into this. It also won Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The Sting took Best Picture that year, though, in my eyes, it was fortunate to have done so, a great film though it is.
The sharp contrast between light and dark is evident throughout the entire movie. The scorching light of the opening sequence in Iraq with the saviour, Merrin, and also the orange-red tones of the impending evil are apparent. The MacNeil’s residence is darkly lit, and Regan’s room is always in low light. The scenes around Georgetown, even in the day, have a grey look to them – there’s not a lot of light to be found, but when there is, it’s distinct. That’s not to say the movie is a gloomy affair, there’s hope sprinkled throughout and scenes/dialogue that are more light-hearted in tone, but still in keeping with the material. The atmosphere created within the movie is palpable – from the autumnal setting as Tubular Bells plays out, to the fog smothering the evenings, the shadowy bedrooms and the eerie quiet when the demon isn’t wreaking havoc, there is an assault on your senses and fears throughout, Friedkin hardly allows any let up or time to drop your guard. There are unnerving scenes throughout, however, the one that sticks out is a scene with Lt. William Kinderman (played superbly by Lee J. Cobb) who is staked outside of the MacNeil house after a visit by Father Karras. As he looks up, from Regan’s dimly lit bedroom window stands a silhouette of something, which seems to float past the window and out of sight – but we know the only person in that room is Regan/Demon and she is restrained to the bed…
The effects in the movie are just awesome. Without the excesses and corner cutting of CGI effects, the team put together every effect and for this they look real – when the bed is levitating, it’s a real bed being lifted by men behind a wall, the moving wardrobes all pulled by the crew, the pea soup – real, the levitating Regan – done with wires for a genuine effect. All this does is creates a more authentic and believable end result which gives a much richer viewing experience and for the actors, something tangible to work with. Ellen Burstyn was forcefully pulled across a room and landed smack on her coccyx, putting her out of action for a while – Friedkin decided to keep her genuine pain in the movie, Miller had shotgun blanks fired by his ear to elicit greater reactions during quieter scenes and William O’Malley received a smack in the face in order to drag the emotions from him at the film’s end – unorthodox methods, but effective.
Obviously, it can’t go without saying how excellent the makeup for possessed Regan is. Beginning with a few scars and sores, and becoming a full-on hellish image – sores, cuts, indents, flaky skin, scars, swellings – it is a terrifying looking transformation and coupled with the whiskey, raw eggs and cigarette fuelled vocals of Mercedes McCambridge creates a disturbing personality and enduring menace.
The best effect/stunt in the movie is in the film’s conclusion, centering on the now infamous ‘Exorcist stairs’, every stair was painstakingly covered in rubber so the death-defying stunt could be pulled off. The notorious head turning scene was carefully created with a life-size dummy of Blair, which was a heck of a job to simply make it look good let alone believable, and the crucifix masturbation scene was effectively created that it still resonates now.
The film’s final act is a triumph of wills as good takes on evil in a furious battle. The emotional torment dished out to Karras is damning, the resolve of Merrin to fight in the face of failing health, the deviousness and malevolence of the demon unwilling to release the girl. The levitating girl, the cries of “the power of Christ compels you” being aggressively hurled at her – the imagery here is incredible as the fight for her soul via faith plays out.
The Exorcist delivers on every level - it’s a gripping, chilling, well written, brilliantly acted, powerfully directed, thought-provoking and provocative movie. Not a just a movie that delivers shocking moments for the sheer sake of it, everything has its place and a meaning. This is a powerful movie that continues to stand up today and for good reason too – it’s a masterpiece.
October 31st 2016