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88. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: The Exorcist

February 13, 2018

Director: William Friedkin

Screenplay: William Peter Blatty

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair

Runtime: 121 Minutes

 

Original UK Release: 1974

 

★★★★★

 

The Exorcist is one of the most powerful and compelling dramas ever created, it just happens to be hiding behind the guise of a horror film to place it into a digestible genre for handling it's far weightier philosophical themes of humanity, sin and transcendence.

 

Contrary to any kind of postmodern reference or sly asides alluding to the absurdity of such a situation as a little girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), being possessed by a demon, the film plays it devastatingly straight to the bitter end without a hint of irony or relief. This is a terrifying and stark portrait of unknowable forces of evil colliding with humanity, with an apocalyptic sense of grandeur and dread applied to a chamber piece story as two priests,

Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father/Dr. Damien Karras S.J. (Jason Miller), fight to protect something as small and vulnerable as a little girls soul.

 

But there's a greater reason behind the film's continued success into the modern day beyond its contemporary cultural significance and function, and that's down to the utter genius of both its direction and its screenplay.

 

William Friedkin's directorial work with this film is amongst some of the finest visionary assemblies in the history of Hollywood cinema. The power of its technical attributes, from its remarkable score and avant-garde soundscape to its incredible photography, transformative lighting, meticulous sets and perfect editing, the intensity of the picture makes the horror of its content all the more disturbing and overwhelming to watch.

 

The screenplay, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own source material, is damn near perfect at balancing the modern attributes and cultural understandings of belief and physiological study as a single strand of understanding. Its characterisation is deep, understated and incredibly profound in its presentation of faith and nihilism as it unfolds at the forefront of a turbulent era of political upheaval and social shift.

 

Ellen Burstyn brings dramatic depth to young Regan's mother, who is facing her own challenges in the context of her performing in a left-wing political drama in the face of changing right-wing virtues – which might possibly be the very catalyst for allowing the demon into their lives despite the red herring of a Ouija board early on.

 

Jason Miller and Max von Sydow are monolithic presences on screen as the priests tasked with the titular deed at hand. Miller feels like the most valuable player and certainly the audience's eyes and ears as we bare witness to something incomprehensible, but Max von Sydow is a force of nature in his short but poignant and challenging role as his more experienced and world-weary elder in the field. The makeup effects used to age Sydow are as impressive and convincing as those used to render Brando young in The Godfather.

 

But the screen belongs to young Linda Blair as Regan, who channels so much energy, emotion and fury into her shifting performance, meeting demands not many young women would be able to take on. The horrific makeup she dons and the physical contortions she forces herself into, alongside some impressive practical effects used to render the impossible a terrorizing reality, make her as brittle and human as she is petrifying as unearthly forces fight to possess and tear her body apart.

 

The Exorcist is Friedkin's masterpiece; a marvellous, gripping and haunting picture that never loses its full power no matter how many times it's experienced.

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