01st Nov2019

Rewind: ‘The Exorcist’ Review

by Alex Ginnelly

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley, Barton Heyman | Written by William Peter Blatty | Directed by William Friedkin


More than the possession of a young girl, The Exorcist possesses every inch of our bodies, dragging us from our safe rooms into the very streets of George Town. It embodies everything that is grand and glorious about cinema, everything that is tragic and hard about life and everything terrifying, shocking and haunting that is horror.

The Exorcist was first released in 1973 and I suppose, by now, everything that can ever be said about the film has surely been said, however that won’t stop me saying how I feel, or even what this film did to me. Now as I write down these words The Exorcist is a film that I’ve only had in my world for about 3 weeks and it’s not often I feel the need to write about a film that has had so many more talented men and women write about it already, however this has inspired or maybe even possessed me to do so.

I don’t recall the first time I ever heard of the film, however as a cinephile from an early age I’d managed to gather quite the list of shame, a list of all the movies I hadn’t seen, and for the longest time the 1973 horror classic stood tall above the rest. So I finally decided to strike another name from my list and watch the film that was banned from the UK, had men and women vomiting, screaming and leaving cinemas all across the world upon it’s realise. Now I have to say there are many aspects and even scenes I was aware of, shots, posters or clips had surfaced throughout my life of this film (it’s hard not to when the film has been for engraved into pop culture). So naturally, even foolishly, I thought I knew exactly what I’d gotten myself in for. In the end it only took 30 minutes to realise how wrong I was and to realise that I may be witnessing mastery unfold in front of my very eyes.

Which brings me to the word masterpiece; a word now so often thrown about, you’ll see it on a number of film poster this year, from the average comic book movie to the Oscar winning drama, but it’s highly likely that those movies are unfortunately not masterpieces. So what is? In my opinion of the one thousand plus films I’ve seen only 25 films have ever reached the word masterpiece, and it’s with good reason.
For me a masterpiece is simple, a piece of art that does not have a single fault, not a single line or shot or scene that isn’t driving towards a single goal or achievement. It must have perfect writing, acting, lighting, sound design, score, directing, cinematography, and I could go on and on, in short everything must be perfect. From every line of exposition to every movement of the camera, and a few weeks ago I witnessed that happen before my eyes and can now say there are 26 masterpieces I have seen in my life.

The Exorcist tells the story of a teenage girl, and when she is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her. It’s a story that so many film fans are familiar with, and horror fans are in love with, a simple story that is so much more than words could ever say. Written by William Peter Blatty as a novel first, before he adapted his own work into a screen play and handed into the hands of William Friedkin. It’s then Friedkin who really takes this film and his actors into another realm of cinema. It’s the stories from the set of this film that will live in legend forever, with Friedkin firing off guns and even slapping his actors to get the reactions he wanted. There are even stories of deaths and a fire from the set, all creating a legend to the horror that goes beyond the film, but even with all that it’s still the film and not the legend around it that has stuck with me so fiercely.

A tale as old as time, of light vs dark, of an evil entering the safe home of George Town. It’s this setting that first settles us into this story, showing us the peaceful town and those who live in it. The horror is never there in our face, it’s always beneath the surface, it’s always lingering on the footsteps of our characters and in the shadow of the setting. The film then uses one of the most powerful tools a horror film has in its tool box, the simple knowledge that an audience member has, the knowledge that we are watching a horror film. With this knowledge we fear every silence and every creek in the floor boards. It is an undesirable feeling of fear as we know no matter how nice things start off, horror is waiting for us around every corner. This all allows the film to slowly build it’s horror before we get to the possession itself, and then it’s here that the film takes a turn that I never knew it would. It becomes more than a horror film, transcending genre and taking us deep into the lives of the characters we’ve been introduced to. From the struggles of a single mother, that’s beautifully told to us in masterful exposition, getting out all the information we need to know so swift and so direct that we don’t even notice it’s exposition. Ellen Burstyn portrayal of a mother desperate to save her daughter no matter the cost is what showcases the horror in such fine detail, we see most of the film through her eyes as the horror unfold first in front of her. Linda Blair plays the daughter possessed by the mysterious entity and although she will be remembered forever with her horrifying portal and the character’s demonic actions it’s Burstyn who should be given most of the credit. There is a simple look in her eyes, a look of fear, of desperation and the look of a mother running out of hope for her daughter. The hope fades as she tries doctor after doctor and psychiatrist after psychiatrist, all falling to help as her daughter descends deeper into the very depths of hell. The final straw in her act of desperation is to seek the help of a priest and it’s here the film really stuck with me, where the battle of light vs dark begins and the battle of faith takes hold.

The character Father Karras played by Jason Miller is first introduced to us early on in the film as his mother grows terminally ill, it’s this crisis in life that leads the Father to have one of the most compelling character completions I’ve come to witness unfold, the simple yet damming truth of a priest questioning his faith. It’s this question of faith that drives the story further than I ever knew it could, as the Father begins to question the existence of god he is confronted by the devil. It’s here that the battle of good vs evil commences, the battle of light vs dark, where we are also introduced to our second priest, Father Merrin. Father Merrin is played by the masterful Max von Sydow and we are first introduced to his character, it’s in the glory of the dessert in Iraq, with the sun lighting every shot in all its beauty. It’s this character that most represents the light in this film, therefore it’s masterful to show this character in this setting, with all the light beaming down on him. The films starts in the light and slowly descend into the darkness, until Father Merrin steps foot outside the home in George town and one of the most powerful shots in cinema is created. The image the captures what the film has become, the house that was once shown to us in the sun is now incapsulated in darkness with the only light now left beaming down onto Father Merrin, as the film’s climax begins.

A film that now goes beyond genre, The Exorcist allows the story to be told through the camera. We are never told what we are thinking, we are always shown, it’s the power of the camera and the actors, the story and ideas that are being shown that we can all attach ourselves to. This isn’t a typical horror that has only one intention, it is layered and wants you to think, wants you to question. It’s everything coming together as one, all parts working as powerfully as the other to create not only one of the greatest horror films of all time but one of the greatest films period, that will truly stand the test of time as a true masterpiece.


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