|Rating: The Good – 94.5
Duration: 122 mins
Director: William Friedkin
Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow
When a young girl succumbs to an unknown illness, her movie star mother becomes convinced that there are demonic overtones to her convulsions and solicits a conflicted priest to examine her. To his shock, he comes to agree with the mother and turns to seasoned exorcist Max von Sydow to expel the intruder. The Daddy of all horror movies, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a testament to the power of psychological terror. Turning the horror movie model on its head, this crawling piece of cinema limits its shocks and jolts almost entirely to one room, the girl’s bedroom, but bathes the external drama in a pool of socio-cultural unease. The canon and rituals of Catholicism are fertile ground for sophisticated horror cinema and, though Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty weren’t the first to plough it, most others did so directly on a mythological level. These guys, however, did it through everyday character construction and forensic examination of the intangible touch points between spiritualism and psychological vulnerability, between faith and the harshness of the real world, between taboo and subjectified sacrilege, wincingly subjectified.
Jason Miller’s Father Karras is a vessel of pure intensity as the troubled priest sent in conflicting directions by the doubt and fear that he was already experiencing through a crisis of confidence. Fear and doubt that are monstrously amplified when he’s called into help the girl. Von Sydow is calmer but more visceral in emotional demeanour as he wilfully uses a combination of intellect and profound belief against his nemesis. As the film’s sense of reason, the paranormal side to the story is bolstered all the more because his is an ability to reason against the unthinkable. Linda Blair, under close instruction by her director and with no little help from Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal support, is a bristling package of tortured spite and venom, a relentless abomination, and arguably the bold fella’s most ferocious screen incarnation. But sometimes forgotten in all this is Ellen Burstyn’s distraught mother. Given that little Linda isn’t much in the mood for conversation, Burstyn is the glue that binds together the disparate characters including Lee J. Cobb’s endearing homicide detective. It’s a remarkably levelled turn that is critical to the film’s balance.
Fantastic as the cast are, the movie’s power ultimately comes down to the full-on confrontation with the profane which Friedkin and his writer serve up here so relentlessly. The term “genius” is bandied about a little too freely these days but Friedkin and Blatty’s perceptive (not to mention daring) use of western culture’s deep-wired moral coding to impact the audience beyond the confines of the film was as extraordinary an accomplishment as Kubrick’s final act in 2001. It also laid the groundwork for some of the best horror movies of the last 40 years as that particular trick was exhausted to the point that Hideo Nakata was forced to have his demon actually crawl out of the TV in order to imbue his audience with the requisite sense of intrusion. Blatty’s script swings between the warm and scathingly twisted and spanned across its unpretentious dialogue is a clear idea of what he wants this movie to be. Though, on the issue of unpretentiousness and clarity, no review would get far without mentioning the film’s archetyping use of Mike Oldfield’s haunting Tubular Bells.
But the masterstroke comes courtesy of the director who ensures that the atmosphere and tension are defined primarily within the personal tribulations of his protagonists. At crucial moments, the insanity of the story’s events is snapshot back within the boundaries of the world in which we live as it refocuses around the authenticity of those personal trials. Friedkin complements this by keeping the movie’s visual profile rooted in the gritty lighting of contemporary crime cinema and the warmer production design of a family drama. Unlike most horror movies which can’t resist going ‘big’, at no point does he get sucked towards the absurd of horror porn or supernatural melodrama. And with that, the horror is kept pure and unabated so that, when it spikes, it will chill you to the core of your marrow. A peerless form of dissonant terror that’s even more extremely exemplified in that spider-walking director’s cut. A true classic!