The Exorcist stands in the pantheon of greatest horror films ever made, maybe even at the top. Much has been made about this film over the years; it was a cultural phenomenon upon release, with some waiting in line for hours to get tickets, and inspired an increasingly secular nation to consider that the devil might actually be real. Although modern audiences may scoff at the somewhat dated special effects, The Exorcist stands the test of time because of solid filmmaking and realistic performances, both on the part of its young star (Linda Blair) and its female lead (Ellen Burstyn). Like any classic film that manages to be consistently watched for over forty years, there are deeper issues at work beneath the surface of this seemingly run-of-the-mill possession story; this is what elevates it beyond creepy head spins and pea soup.
The only child of single mom Chris (Burstyn), Reagan (Blair), is abruptly struck with a series of behavioral issues, and numerous doctors and tests have little to offer as explanation. After a series of increasingly bizarre occurrences involving her daughter, Chris turns to Father Karras for help. In time, Karras believes Reagan is possessed and petitions the church for an exorcism.
Some of the most cringe-worthy sequences in the film are the now-archaic medical treatments Reagan must endure in an attempt to find a rational explanation for her aliments/behavior. Upon repeated viewings the shock of the more explicit demonic scenes wears off, but these never fail to turn the stomach. The balance between a slow, desperate investigation process and the actual possession and exorcism sequences is one of the film’s signs of genius. The gradual build-up and anticipation draws you in and sets up the shocks.
The story’s two primary themes revolve around the loss of faith and changing family dynamics, such as single parent homes and working, financially independent women. Many discuss the plotline revolving around Father Karras’ dwindling religious conviction due to the death of his mother and increasing belief in science, and how the exorcism essentially lets him know that God is indeed real. Less attention is paid to the movie’s more subtle criticism of Reagan’s mother, a single and successful actress, and that the site of horror and evil lies within an adolescent female body and her blossoming sexuality.
Due to the film’s status, it’s difficult for modern audiences to watch with fresh eyes, as it had been seen upon initial release (although it still scared the crap out of me on the re-release). As with so many of our Hollywood greats, the film’s most iconic scenes have so completely seeped their way into popular culture that those who have never seen the film are well aware of the parts that should have been kept secret for full effect. Honestly, seeing it young is probably the best way to experience it – at a summer camp or slumber party (they still have those, right?) with your peers watching to see who will jump first. I firmly believe this film still has the power to disturb generations who have seen it all, even though they may not cry, faint, or vomit like some of their 1970s counterparts.
Note: there are multiple versions of the film available with different levels of additional scenes and/or effects; the one available on Netflix is the original theatrical version. This is great for purists, but not so great for those expecting to see the infamous “spider-walk” scene.