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  • Vincent Latigue

Classic Movie Review: The Exorcist

By Vincent Latigue

Image: Still from The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures


You never know when the power of Christ will compel you, as it compelled me to watch this ancient movie from the far-off year of … 1973. The Exorcist was released that year to muted praise from critics but became a commercial success thanks to word of mouth and an appetite for horror that American audiences were eager to sate.


Starting the movie off with the world’s oldest white man searching for demonic artifacts in Northern Iraq, then taking us to a single mother and her daughter living the high life in Washington D.C., and ending with his younger counterpart taking his own life so that a young girl can be saved from a seemingly unstoppable force of destruction and chaos, The Exorcist is fun for the whole family, if your family consists of born-again Christians and people who like eating with their mouth open. Jokes aside, there was a lot to appreciate about this film, especially in terms of the performances of the main cast. Max von Sydow and Jason Miller play off each other well as two priests out of time, desperate to save the soul of a young girl from the clutches of an unspeakable evil. Ellen Burstyn stands out as a career woman and a mother having to deal with the unthinkable, and Linda Blair delivers a performance that doesn’t make me want to rip my eyes out (which is even more impressive considering she was a child at the time). When Ellen has to explain to a group of doctors that she has, in fact, tried everything, only to be met with no progress and her daughter’s health rapidly deteriorating, the viewer can get a sense of a frustrated parent at her wits’ end while health professionals continue to talk to her as if she was a child. The tension is palpable.


The film does an excellent job of introducing you to its setting and characters without getting too caught up in the act of doing so, something that a lot of other movies (modern or otherwise) have trouble doing. The terribly tiny apartment that Father Damien Karras shares with his mother in New York is claustrophobic and suffocating in the size and the lack of light in the damn place. The sands and bazaars of Northern Iraq demonstrate an appreciation of Iraqi culture that may straddle Orientalism but never succumbs to it. The slums of New York show us how the tiny apartment that Father Karras’ mother owns is only a reflection of a city that seems to be too crowded, moving too fast, and taking no heed of those who can’t keep up, all of which are juxtaposed with the posh, affluent, and quiet suburbs Washington DC. Each setting is depicted with the sleight of hand that can only come from one who’s walked the back alleys and sat at the corner store of such places. By taking his time and allowing long shots of people going about their day to be juxtaposed with the otherworldly horrors that seem to be lurking just beneath the surface, William Friedkin demonstrates exactly why he deserves to be in the director’s chair. This all leads to a climax in a wonderful home that was meant to be a vacation away for mother, daughter, and servants that instead turns into an amalgamation of all their sins.

Image: Still from The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures


Which leads me to my only real complaint with the film, and one that makes sense given when this movie was made: It’s not scary. Disgusting, shocking, off-putting, and just plain gross to be sure, but scary isn’t on the menu. I can’t imagine anyone walking away from that film terrified either. Were the cultural attitudes and norms of 1973 that much different than 2023? You can make the argument for that. What I imagine would be a more difficult argument to make would be that films of that era are just less scary than their successors. Films such as The Thing (1982), Halloween (1978), and Suspiria (1977) would beg to differ.


No, I think what separates this film from some truly horrifying features is the lack of risk involved. I’m not talking about the depiction of bodily fluids or bodily harm for that matter. I’m talking about what the film deems to be truly scary. A young girl possessed by an otherworldly demonic creature. That’s unsettling, for sure. Having that possessed child hurl obscenities and projectile vomit sounds terrifying if you’ve never interacted with young children or don’t know

how your average American child behaves on any given day. While I can agree with every parent out there that losing your child is unimaginable, there are probably some more ways you could go about making it a bit more dreadful for your audience.


A perfect example would be in how one chooses to demonstrate the demonic possession of a child. The film chooses to depict our young girl as exceedingly violent with excessive uses of profanity and a propensity to vomit, which is fine if you want to direct a D.A.R.E. commercial, but not if you want to terrify your audience. Why not have the young girl interact with other children, pre- and post-possession so as to demonstrate the change in character and compare to how she should be behaving? Shadows would have also been a good touch, to leave it to the audience's imagination what happens to our characters, as their imagination would do a better job of terrifying them more than special effects and excessive makeup. Those are but a few examples that would hopefully illustrate why this film has not aged like a fine wine, but more akin to cheese. In any instance, if you decide to watch this film, I hope the power of Christ compels you to watch some of the other aforementioned horror films as well.

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