- Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil
- Jason Miller as Father Karras
- Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil
- Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William Kinderman
- Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin
Still a supernatural horror classic that retains its sense of unease, building tension and creepy goings on, The Exorcist provides all the necessary chills along with a focus on themes of faith and religion to examine deeply. Equally disturbing and gruesome, The Exorcist is brought to life under the talented direction of William Friedkin and the exceptional playing of the cast.
Chris is a famous actress who is currently on location in Georgetown filming the last parts of a movie. Her amiable and devoted 12-year-old daughter Regan is with her and though Chris is busy, any time she gets free she so spends with her daughter. Yet strange things begin to slowly take shape after Regan plays with a Ouija board. She exhibits erratic behaviour, she swears constantly and becomes increasingly violent to those around her. Chris, obviously disturbed by all of this, takes her daughter to medical experts. Yet even after extensive tests are performed, there is no explanation for what is happening to Regan. Things get worse as her appearance continues to deteriorate and her violence increases into something very frightening. What no one knows or seems to able to fathom at this point is that Regan is possessed by a demon which takes ever more control of her day by day. A distraught Chris is at the end of her rope as she tries to save her daughter from the horror she is subjected to. As a last resort, she enlists the help of Father Damian Karras, a priest who also has a degree in psychiatry. He himself is going through a crisis of faith as he reels from guilt over his mother’s death and how he wished he had been there for her more. He comes to investigate the case( after having already spoken to Lieutenant William Kinderman , who is himself looking into the strange events after the death of someone close to the family) and is shocked by his findings, as it becomes very clear that a demon has taken residence within the young girl. He considers exorcism to be a last resort, yet when is other ways of getting the demon out fail, he knows that an exorcism is what is needed. The fact is that the faith of Karras is under threat anyway so he knows that he will need to employ the expertise of someone whose faith and will is stronger than his. That person is Father Merrin, who has dealt with exorcism in the past and despite getting on in age, is strong when it comes to doing battle with evil forces. Yet could this case of possession be a step too far for Father Merrin? Whatever the case, it’s going to take every ounce of strength within both men to drive this demon out.
I think many people tend to focus on the graphic and gruesome parts of The Exorcist, forgetting that the build up as orchestrated by Friedkin is actually just as effective. He cranks up the tension in the early stretches as the behaviour of Regan changes, yet doesn’t rush anything. This may surprise many who may have not seen the film and believe it is a scare a minute movie. If anything the scares of The Exorcist are generated by the pain of the characters as well as the horror that colours the second half of the movie. Friedkin’s work is utterly marvellous in the ways it taps into deep fears of loss of faith and the safety of a child, observed best in the pursuit of Chris to save her daughter and the two priests doing everything they can to reclaim her soul from the clutches of evil. Without the arresting direction and measured build up from Friedkin, The Exorcist would have nowhere near the amount of creepy impact it has. By slowly suggesting the horror that will come, when in the last act it lets loose it is damn terrifying to witness. And like with any film of a certain age some of the special effects lessen, The Exorcist surprisingly still stands up in that department; mainly because there is the story underneath it all to back up the gory and malevolent spirit of the piece. And memorable scenes are found in abundance throughout the running of The Exorcist. Regan’s transformation into a foul-mouthed demon that is scarred and vomit’s bile, the arrival of Father Merrin displayed as a lone light casts his shadow on the house where he must confront evil and the climactic exorcism that will no doubt give you shudders of terror. I could go on listing the iconic moments of the film, but then this review would become boring. The use of sound in this film is pretty marvellous, with an ambient atmosphere crafted from the humming but ominous music.
With the script allowing us to get know the characters throughout, the actors present do a commendable job in their respective roles. Ellen Burstyn is marvellous in the part of the terrified mother trying to save her daughter from the darkness. Burstyn delves deep into the pain and shock of the character with intelligence, that helps transfer her maternal fears for her daughter on to the audience in the process. Jason Miller brings a sadness and pathos to Father Karras, who has to face emotional and quite literal demons as his faith comes under fire in the increasing horror of the situation. Then of course there is Linda Blair as the initially friendly Regan whose personality morphs into unspeakable evil when she’s possessed. Largely covered in grotesque make up and confined to a bed for most of the performance, Blair considering how young she was at the time really gives a startling performance of frightening intensity. Part of why it’s so effective is how Blair shows the cherubic niceness of Regan in the beginning that is warm and sweet, then once possessed a force of physical and psychological terror. It really adds a lot to the performance and makes the film in general a great deal more terrifying. Lee J. Cobb plays the part of the wily detective investigating the goings on when murder strikes and he does so with an observational quality and sprinkle of humour. And then there is Max Von Sydow as the eponymous exorcist. His role is a small but incredibly pivotal one that he infuses with dignity and wisdom even as his beliefs are tested by the demon in front of him.
A macabre and deeply unsettling horror film, it’s not hard to discern why The Exorcist is held in such high regard. It simply is a creepy exercise in shocking terror that doesn’t forget the characters and has enough food for thought to last a long time.