Paul Lister’s review published on Letterboxd:
"What an excellent day for an exorcism."
‘The Exorcist’ is the film widely regarded as the scariest of all time. It is a prime example of the film making force that is William Friedkin, a man who made three of the greatest films of the seventies and thus of all time, in my opinion. The infamy of this film is also unparalleled, stories of people vomiting and fainting in the theatres, a film so powerful that it could cause physical discomfort and illness in people watching it seems crazy to think these days seen as though audiences have been subjected to the most horrific of violence and psychological horror.
As a child the reputation of the film would circulate around the school yard, “Have you seen The Exorcist?” fellow school mates would ask. Horror films have always had a allure to younger people because we shouldn’t be watching them! If adults are vomiting and fainting in the cinemas then how can our young minds take such horrific punishment? The main question though was “Where can we get hold of these films?” My experience of horror films of sorts probably came with David Fincher’s Alien 3 but that wasn’t where it ended. I remember some friends and I would get video tapes of sequels to Friday the 13th, the masked murderer Jason Voorhee’s replete with hockey mask and chainsaw was an image that stuck with me as a child. We had a spare room in our old home when I was a kid; it’s where I would go to watch films such as Alien 3 and the Jason films. The VHS player was housed in a cabinet, the door of which was kept open. At night I would walk past the room to get to the bathroom, if I had recently watched a scary film my nerves would be on end from the experience; this would be exhilarating as well as nerve shredding. The thing in which made it more frightening was the stand by light from the VHS player, the deep piercing red light would stare at me when I passed the room – which was pitch black – it was like pure evil staring me in the face. Behind the door was a walk in wardrobe in which I used to fear Jason Voorhees was lurking in, with hockey mask and chainsaw in hand. The red light was pure evil to me but it was also a warning.
Back to The Exorcist though and I recall my parents recording it off the television. They knew the reputation of the film and were not about to let little old me to watch it. The sad story is I never did watch the film when I was a young kid, although I did get my hands on that video tape and I did manage to get a sample of the film’s opening - I’m forever scared of statues and Iraq as a result. My parents never let me watch any of these films as a kid but with The Exorcist I just got unlucky, caught in the act one might say, a victim of my over eagerness to be one of cool kids who had lived through watching the film and got out without deep psychological scarring. It was years later that I finally watched the film on dvd with a friend I believe. My memory is a bit sketchier about my first watch than it is of the failed watch as kid funnily enough. What can be absolutely sure though is that I have loved the film ever since.
I find it to be scary now, not in a traditional horror film respect – Friedkin especially insists it is not a horror film – but as story of the destruction of a mother and daughters relationship. Of course that is only one element of it, religion and faith is obviously the prime subject but the power for me certain comes from the horrifying transformation that young Regan (Linda Blair) is subjected to in the film. It is also the hysteric unnerving performance from Ellen Burstyn as the mother Chris MacNeil. The appeal of the film when I originally watched it wasn’t that element though it was the obvious nature of Regan’s transformation, the horrific facial make up, the demonic voice, the green goo that spouts from her mouth and the frankly multi coloured language. It is only through multiple watches and a maturing mind that this mother/daughter relationship has become such an important part of why I love the film so much. The film simply wouldn’t impact the same way if we didn’t care for the child that has been possessed, by all accounts a sweet, innocent young child and the mother in which she enjoys such a strong relationship with. The film works very slowly to develop this relationship and the supposed illness of Regan, the sudden change in mental state that is originally seen as a chemical imbalance in the mind.
But of course the films centring on faith is probably the most important part of all. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is the psychiatrist turned priest who is brought in to look at Reagan after everyone else had failed to understand or believe in what is wrong with her. Karras is a troubled soul though, his faith has been lost and he is suffering from the guilt of his mother’s death in which he feels responsible for because he left her alone. Presented with pure evil Karras’s guilt is used as a weapon by the demon Pazazu whom has taken possession of Regan. The idea that guilt or conflict can sometimes create the sense of being possessed, something which can be attributed to Reagan’s possession with regards to her Father’s absence. With Karras the end of the film see’s him using that guilt of leaving his mother to die alone against Pazazu, who had been successfully taunting him about it. He sees that the only way of saving this poor girl is to let the demon take hold of him through the guilt he feels. He sacrifices himself to save her. In this moment Karras has nothing else but faith, to be confronted with the devil itself can only reaffirm his belief in God because if there is a devil then there must be a God. Max Von Sydow also plays a man of religion in the form of Father Lankester Merrin. His performance is remarkable as in the exorcism scene is so full of conviction in the face of physical weakness. The make up for Sydow is also something to behold, he is a man in his eighties now but he looked just as he does now over forty years ago! For years it baffled me who he hadn’t aged in that time, I didn’t even stop to consider he was in make up for this film! The last thing I would to mention is the opening in Iraq, a real sense of foreboding and impending doom lingers over it. Merrin comes face to face with the monolithic statue of Pazazu, his realisation that the evil he had long thought dormant or defeated is now out to wreak havoc again.
There is so much more I could talk about, so many highlights, the shaking beds, the horrific usage of a crucifix as penetrative tool, the horrific, ‘Exorcist steps’ and so much more. ‘The Exorcist’ is truly a masterpiece that still holds so much power today. If you haven’t seen the film yet – I am sure most of you have – then may “the power of Christ compel you” to seek it out at your soonest convenience.