We're now a full week into this year's month-long horror movie marathon, and I thought I would tackle what some consider to be the scariest film ever made. This wasn't my first choice. I'd originally planned to review The Exorcism of Emily Rose today at a friend's request, but it turns out I don't have the movie, even though I could have sworn I did. Oh well. No sense in crying over spilled holy water.
Allegedly based on true events surrounding a teenage boy purportedly possessed by demons, author William Peter Blatty penned a terrifying novel in 1971 and changed the subject from a little boy to a little girl. In 1973, Blatty adapted his novel for the silver screen, and the result is the Academy Award-winning horror classic, The Exorcist.
The story opens with an archaeological dig site in northern Iraq, where an aging priest named Father Merrin (played by veteran actor Max von Sydow) uncovers a grotesque figurine. Merrin travels to ruins in the desert and searches out a large statue bearing the same visage as the figurine, that of the demon Pazuzu. On the other side of the world, an actress named Chris MacNeil and her twelve-year-old daughter Regan (played by Linda Blair) have just moved to Georgetown where Chris is shooting her latest movie. While working on set, Chris notices a priest named Father Karras watching the filming. Karras suffers a crisis of faith as his elderly mother's health quickly declines until, ultimately, she dies, leaving Karras devastated.
In the MacNeil house, Chris begins noticing strange noises and discovers Regan has been playing with a Quija board, which she uses to communicate with an entity she calls "Captain Howdy." After a terrifying nighttime episode in which a shaking bed drives Regan from her own room, Chris seeks medical help for Regan. Doctors attempt to treat Regan with medication, but the girl becomes increasingly hostile and profane. Regan begins performing impossible physical feats, such as turning her head 180 degrees and speaking in strange voices. When Chris' director dies by falling out Regan's bedroom window, Chris begins to suspect Regan may have murdered him. Unable to find the cause of Regan's bizarre condition, the doctors, at their wits' end, recommend Chris consult the Catholic Church to seek an exorcism. Chris reaches out to Father Karras, who is skeptical that Regan's condition isn't merely psychological in nature, but the evidence in favor of possession is irrefutable. The church summons Father Merrin, who has successfully performed an exorcism before, nearly at the cost of his own life. Merrin confronts the demon, but it's not willing to leave quietly, and Merrin and Karras must wage holy war against the evil within Regan.
As I mentioned above, many consider The Exorcist to be the scariest film of all time. And at one time, I'm sure that was true, but by today's standards, the film is a little dry. In 1973, however, this film was utterly shocking, because audiences had never seen anything like it before! I'll admit to being terrified the first time I saw it. I found Regan's spinning head particularly disturbing the first few times I saw it. Unfortunately I don't think the film stands up nearly as well today, but its significance in film history is impossible to deny.
So what's the verdict? Oh, I do enjoy the movie, and I highly recommend horror fans watch it if they haven't already. Modern audiences who have been desensitized by contemporary horror shouldn't expect anything too shocking. Perhaps I just don't find the film disturbing anymore because I'm an atheist. That's quite possible. The Exorcist is essential viewing, and I also highly recommend Blatty's novel. Turn out the lights, and don't blink, or you just might miss those few fleeting glimpses of Captain Howdy glowering from the shadows.