Wesley R. Ball’s review published on Letterboxd:
What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Taglined as "the scariest movie of all time," William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, seems rather tame compared to many modern day horror films. In a sea of blood and gore, the feeling a true, unbridled terror seems to have been lost on the horror industry. Rather than instilling a sense of real fear into the audience, most horror films now seem to prefer to throw as much blood and gore onto the screen or as many cheap jump scares as they can. Real fear doesn't come from someone jumping out of hiding and shouting "Boo!" It comes from the insidious evil that lurks in the unknown. What we cannot see physically, but can see the results of, is often the greatest source of fear, and The Exorcist displays this feeling of true terror to the fullest extent.
The film takes a little too long in the expositional prologue, setting up a rather drawn out but never fully satisfied rivalry between priest and demon. This rivalry isn't explicitly explained to us, but it's not exactly insinuated very well either. It almost feels like Friedkin assumes that the audience knows about this rivalry and expects us to go along with it as if nothing else mattered. But then he ditches the rivalry to focus on where the real horror of the film lies, and once he manages to get back on track, the film becomes much more fascinating.
Imagine this: You have a child, and she is becoming sick beyond all comprehension for no apparent reason. You take her to the doctors, they do brain scans, all sorts of medications and examinations, but nothing shows that anything is wrong with her. What kind of terror do you think you would experience at the thought of your child suffering a potentially fatal illness without knowing the cause or the solution? The Exorcist begins to build up the slow tension and terror that lies beneath the plot by throwing the two main actresses into this scenario, building up a well-rounded and sufficiently terrifying basis that works excellently in the film.
The special effects in The Exorcist worked out surprisingly well for a horror film as old as this. Bursting flames of fire, levitating beds and bodies, moving furniture, and more are all supremely convincing in their displays, making the bona fide demon-horror experience feel that much more authentic. To be honest, I couldn't really tell you why audience members from the 70's were fainting during this film, or why some people ended up vomiting, but the intensity and effects were just good enough to be an exciting experience.
I have to feel that the horror from The Exorcist doesn't really come from the demon, per se, but rather from the horrifying thought of the unknown. When you know there is a terrifying darkness out to exclusively ensure your own demise, but this darkness doesn't manifest into an actual form, the thought can become unnerving. The thing that most modern horror films get wrong is giving their terrorizer a visible form. Films like It Follows and (for the most part) The Babadook nail this aesthetic to perfection, and some newer horror films seem to be getting better at their displays of fear and terror. I find myself more and more often now anticipating what modern horror films have to offer, and I only see a bright, hopeful future for the genre as a whole.
As for The Exorcist, it is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror films I have ever seen, and one of my favorites as well. While I feel the opening prologue drags on for a little too long to spend on a subplot so hastily covered up, the rest of the film does the classic status great justice. In all honesty, it is probably Friedkin's finest hour, although not my personal favorite from him. I have to admit the sheer amount of influence this film had on modern cinema is astounding, and the achievements in special effects, an iconic story, and performances are all things that make this film shine apart from the rest. I watched the director's cut, so chances are that the theatrical cut (which Roger Ebert even preferred to the longer version) will make me love it even more than I already do. Sometimes, longer isn't necessarily better, as films can tend to become long-winded and tedious in exposition. I'll never deny this film's classic status, however, and it will forever be one of my all-time favorite horror films.