Regarded as ‘The Scariest Movie of All Time,’ at least according to the DVD case, The Exorcist is certainly one of the most referenced and respected horror films ever made. But does it still live up to its claims? Can it still cause the chills and shakes it did on its original 1973 release? A fan of all types of horror movies yet never having seen it, I sat down alone on a dark and stormy night (seriously) with the 2000 revised DVD edition, turned off the lights, and braced myself for The Exorcist…
From the opening shot of the MacNeil home, there is very clearly something ‘wrong’ building up, a feeling that is maintained for much of the first half. Minor details such as windows being open that were previously thought closed and odd noises around the house take on a much more sinister edge as things start to get weirder, keeping the audience in a state of on-going paranoia. This is one of the film’s strongest elements, as while many of the most climatic scenes are well known by now, the time spent leading up to them keeps the audience engaged and frightened. The fact that it all starts out so normal, focusing on an ordinary family going about their business before making passing references to the bed ‘shaking’ or Regan’s (Linda Blair) new imaginary friend, only gives it greater impact. When the film does get around to unleashing the horrific moments it’s so famous for, such as the head-twisting scene or pea-soup vomit, the audience has been holding onto the tension for so long it’s almost unbearable.
Upon its original release, much of the horror from the film stemmed from the abuse of religious imagery as a sweet little girl swears against God and desecrates Christian symbols (particularly in one horrific scene). While these moments are made weaker due to the changing role of religion in society, the overarching story of a mother’s terror as she loses her connection to her daughter is heartbreaking and plays on an inherent and timeless fear. Ellen Burstyn’s devastated expression as she is literally shut out from her daughter’s illness is particularly memorable, and serves to make the entity within her more disturbing as the audience witnesses Regan’s change. The scenes where nothing at all is happening are almost more terrifying; Chris MacNeil’s (Burstyn) increasing terror as she slowly comprehends the extent of her daughter’s problems is deeply disturbing to watch.
However, in the nearly 40 years since its release, certain elements in The Exorcist have undeniably aged. Some, though not all, of the moments of Regan and her mother playing together feel a little too sickeningly sweet, which weakens similar more effective scenes that establish a connection between the two. Some of the most well-known moments have also lost their power through countless imitations, such as the infamous ‘Spider-walk’ sequence which feels somewhat out of place and random. While this can be excused due to not being in the original cut (serving as more of an ascended deleted scene), scenes where furniture fly around the room crashing into things feel rather weak in this day and age.
It is a testament to the film’s strength, though, that it remains effective despite these flaws. Regan’s gradual transformation is heartbreaking and profoundly disturbing, thanks to an outstanding physical performance from the young Blair, and there’s a horrifying use of sound. The inhuman groans and deep masculine voice coming from this little girl, as well as the sickening cracks as she twists and contorts on the bed, send shivers down the spine. This upholds the horror even when little is happening onscreen, as thuds and screams coming from the upstairs bedroom ensure the audience never feels safe. Despite the instantly recognisable theme “Tubular Bells”, The Exorcist contains a remarkably small amount of music. Instead the audience is left guessing, completely uncertain whether anything frightening will actually HAPPEN for much of the first act, making it all the more surprising and startling when something does. Finally, the climactic exorcism has been built up so effectively across the 127-minute running time that the audience is willing to accept anything, and the scene delivers with top-notch special effects and extremely confronting imagery – while the famous ‘head-twist’ is now an iconic part of the film, the unnatural noises coming from Regan’s neck ensure it never loses its impact.
Is it really ‘The Scariest Film of All Time,’ though? It’s hard to say. For a film of its acclaim, it would be impossible for The Exorcist to not have lost some of its original power, and indeed many moments that were once shocking and unheard of are now generally accepted. Scenes of a small girl swearing don’t have the same effect after being played for laughs in the recent action-comedy Kick-Ass.
However, it’s clear when watching it now how it earned the title and why it caused such controversy upon its original release. But in order for it to be ‘The Scariest Film of All Time,’ it must be able to provide the chills to a younger generation.
I serve as living proof that it still can.
Despite the years since its original release and losing some of its impact over time, it remains undeniably terrifying, which only serves to emphasise how powerful it must have been to unsuspecting audiences back in 1973. If The Exorcist isn’t the scariest film ever made, it’s certainly close and I can’t think of what could beat it. In terms of what the film once was and the impact it still holds, William Peter Blatty’s supernatural horror remains the champion.