The Exorcist directed by William Friedkin is based on a book of the same name written by William Peter Blatty, and is largely heralded as one of the scariest movies of all time. The film opens with an ominous excavation of an ancient temple in Iraq, where the amulet of Pazuzu is uncovered. Cut to Georgetown where a woman (played by Ellen Bursteyn) and her 12-year old daughter, Regan (played by Linda Blair) live. Like most teens of the time, Regan sees no harm in playing with a Ouija board.
That's when things really get dark.Slowly, but surely, Regan becomes possessed with an evil and dark spirit, which only controls her more as time goes on. Her mother first consults several doctors and psychologists and Regan goes through a battery of different tests to figure out what's wrong with her. As a last result option, an exorcist is called in. Sensing his own weakness in faith, Father Karras (played by Jason Miller) is aided by experienced exorcist, Father Merrin (played by Max von Sydow). After a series of bizarre and perverse acts, Regan is finally free from the demon that has plagued her; unfortunately, it comes at the loss of several lives.
The plot is pretty simple, but if you take it at that value, you are doing the film an injustice. It's brilliantly shot, written, and constructed, which is why it is often cited as being one of best films of all time, let alone a great horror movie. If you ever get a chance to see this film on the big screen, and luckily, I was able to as part of my local theatre's weekly "Graveyard Shift", do so! Even though I had seen the movie before, it absolutely allowed me to further examine what makes this film a masterpiece.There are several things working well in this film, but I'll focus only a few as to note bore you to death. The first is the way in which Friedkin plays around with visual elements. There is a great deal of subtly in each shot that is meant to reveal information to you or find a new way to terrify you.
For example, there are quick flashes of Pazuzu's face scattered throughout. Not only is this fairly creepy, but it also gives you a sense of how much of a stronghold the demon might have within the house. This works particularly well because it is subtle. It's not meant to be a jump scare or a scare tactic in general. It's meant to cause the audience to question their own reality. They must ask themselves if they truly saw what they just saw, and just like the role of the priests play, doubt will make all the difference.
Another visual technique is the juxtaposition between Regan as an innocent child and the monster she has become. Consider that in some of the vilest moments in the film, the facial makeup is less heavy, allowing Blair's childlike features to translate through. This raises the element of discomfort to the extreme because the audience does not lose sight of the fact that this is a little girl being possessed. It's incredibly haunting and it's a technique that works well. Even as a seasoned horror fanatic, and one that doesn't shy from all manners of gore or disgust, I found myself especially bothered by this old film.
In addition to the visuals, Friedkin also relies heavily on the use of sound, whether it is through the film's score or with strange, surreal sounds that only add to the ambience. Other times the volume is lowered so that one can focus on the smaller nuances in sound, before it's suddenly raised again. It works well the first time, but then the technique continues to work throughout the film. The creepy, gritty voice of the demon, coming out through Regan is especially terrifying and amps up the grotesque. It's all very reactive and as a result, there is not much character development to be had, as well as a few holes that seem to be overlooked. The inclusion of the Ouija board, for instance, seems an odd choice since one can assume that the demon can use the amulet as a portal. However, this is a very minor criticism as the film still works remarkably well without delving into the nuances of logic. There is enough of a story for one to either fill in the blanks themselves or accept that not all information has been given.
Perhaps the thing that makes The Exorcist so unforgettable is that it the ending is not tied neatly and wrapped into a bow. It's still deeply satisfying but leaves the audience with both a sense of dread (after all the demon is still out there) and a better understanding of their own belief system. Where is the line between psychology and spirituality drawn?
It's entirely up to the audience to decide.