The Exorcist | Review

This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is our grand finale! To catch up on the entirety of our month of horror, click right here.

#31DaysOfHorror

★★★★★

Following the death of his mother in 1969, William Peter Blatty channeled a personal crisis of faith into writing The Exorcist, a story based on a real event two decades earlier. When it came to turning page to screen, the search for a studio prepared to touch the book proved a challenge. Warner Bros. must have praised the day they said eventually said yes – only after The French Connection’s William Friedkin had been signed on to direct – for in 1973 the film joined the ranks of the highest grossing ever made.

Rosemary’s Baby was another strong influence on The Exorcist, albeit not in the conventional way that horrors take inspiration from their forebears. Whereas Ira Levin’s book, and Polanski’s film thereafter, Satan reigns victorious, Blatty sought to write a reversion, as much to restore his own belief in good as to reassert the power of godliness. Friedkin’s film may be gross, pungent and often repellent, it tells still a story of resilience, sacrifice and love.

Linda Blair is a fiery revelation as young Regan MacNeil – a role she would return to for the much maligned Heretic sequel – negating the fears of those like Mike Nichols who questioned the capacity of a girl to lead so complex a picture. Later controversy regarding the dubbing of Blair for Mercedes McCambridge’s demonic voice might have overshadowed the child-star’s Oscar campaign but there is no doubting the physical strength of her performance. Amid a cast of seasoned acting talents, Blair outshines all.

Following a gorgeous Iraq-based prologue, the film cuts to Georgetown, where Regan is temporarily living with her actress mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who is on production. Left to her own devices, Regan begins to display unusual behaviours after communicating with a supernatural through an Ouija board she finds in the basement. Things escalate quickly and it’s not so long before Regan is writhing around on her galvanic bed, turning the air deep shades of blue and vomiting sludge in every direction.

Nowadays, special effects spoil modern viewers with computer generated imagery of the sort that were well beyond the reach of 1973. In this light, the work of Marcel Vercoutere, constructing the film’s extraordinary effects, must be regarded as a total technological masterpiece. Everything on screen, from Regan’s spinning head to her floating bed and quivering room, was achieved live, with pneumatic wheels, models, rigs and ingenuity. That the production is seamless did much to help Friedkin – who was handy with stimulating directorial techniques himself – achieve a much desired aura of realism. If one allows the film to consume you, its action proves all too easy to believe.

Matching the film’s visual panache on every count is an equally immersive soundscape. Atop Mike Oldfield’s famous refrain is a score loaded with spiralling synthetics, drum beats and ferociously plucked strings. Brilliant aural choreography sees moments of intense volume drop violently to total silence, whilst inventive technicians – such as Mexican maestro Gonzalo Gavira – conjured unsettling sounds from even the most banal of sources. A more conventional score had proposed by Lalo Schifrin but was rejected for screeching pigs, a bending wallet and handful clawing nails; the effect being to blur the lines of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds almost beyond comprehension.

In the UK, the BBFC did The Exorcist an ironic favour in enforcing on the film a decade-long ban. Not only did this heighten its local reputation but it also ensured that Friedkin’s blink-and-you-miss-it flourishes transcended into a plane of mythos. Similarly, a rumoured curse on the production – nine contemporary deaths can be linked – gave a dark legend to the seeping reality of its subject. Is it any wonder audiences continue to fear The Exorcist?

T.S.

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