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The Exorcist

A 1973 American horror film

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An absolute classic! Still holds up strikingly well.

  • Nov 11, 2008
It's difficult to look back on a film "classic" and try to review it through today's eyes...35 years later. It's always tempting to say, "Those effects were great...for 1973" or "imagine how that affected an audience...three decades ago." You almost feel like you have to make excuses for the film.

But I am happy to report that in a very recent, pre-Halloween viewing, THE EXORCIST has withstood the test of time nearly unscathed. Yes, some of the effects (there are actually fewer than you would expect) are not up to the standards of today. The clothing is often hilariously tacky. Technology is primitive.

Yet William Friedkin's classically styled direction of William Peter Blatty's effectively unsettling novel still has the uncanny ability to give us the creeps today. Often (VERY often) imitated, but not yet equaled, THE EXORCIST is simply brilliant.

If you don't know the story: young Regan (Linda Blair, before she was the punchline to a lot of cheap jokes) lives in a lovely Washington DC home with her recently divorced movie-actress mother (Ellen Burstyn). They are a well-to-do little family, with a housekeeper, cook & nanny. But they are presented as a loving pair.

Soon, though, Regan begins to exhibit strange behavior, including rather vivid tales of her talks with "imaginary" friends she clearly believes are real. Her mother begins taking her to doctors and specialists, who at first assume it's just adolescence. Then Regan's behavior starts getting worse, and frankly, a bit hard to explain. It's when she starts talking in strange voices and levitating from her bed that all rational explanations begin to go out the window.

I describe this, I admit, in a fairly flippant way. But it does NOT come across as cheesy or ironic or with a wink. It's played dead straight, and is presented almost like a medical procedural story. Something you'd see on a much calmer episode of HOUSE. Rational people, trying to come up with reasonable explanations, until, chillingly, they are all forced to throw up their hands in despair. And no one is despairing more than Burstyn, who has seen her daughter cursing in a deep voice, levitating herself and her bed, thrashing in violent seizures, with cuts developing on her face. Regan also, quite disturbingly, abuses herself with a cross. Yes, that scene has been made fun of MANY times over the years...but seeing it proves that the original has lost none of its impact. It is a queasy and startling moment.

Meanwhile, some strange things have been doing on in the local Catholic Churches, and priest/psychologist Father Karras (Jason Miller) is trying explain these happenings, while also dealing with guilt over his elderly (soon to be dead) mother AND his loss of faith. These scenes also have a matter-of-fact, non-exploitative feeling...as though we're watching a "normal" drama about a religious man floundering in his duties.

Eventually, mother Burstyn turns to Father Karras for help. She's convinced her daughter needs an exorcism. Karras, who not only personally doesn't believe in exorcism but also knows the church is HIGHLY skeptical of them too, agrees reluctantly to visit Regan. He is horrified by what he sees, but for awhile, he searches for rational explanations too. Yet, eventually, he must turn to "legendary" Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), a priest who has actually performed such a ritual.

ALSO, there has been a mysterious death of a friend of Burstyn's and Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) is investigating, giving the movie the feel of an old-fashioned detective story.

I've rehashed a lot of the plot, first to remind you of its intricacies (but hopefully not spoiling much) but also to emphasize how much this movie is NOT presented as a horror film. It is shown as anything but, frankly, for much of its running time. This serves only to make the horror more effective because it seems so incredibly PLAUSIBLE. When it's all done, we can look back and realize that the basic sketch of the horrible things that happen isn't too original. It's the CONTEXT in which they play out that works so well.

In many ways, we come to "believe" Regan is possessed just as Father Karras does. He's a doubter who is FORCED to believe, because no other explanation will serve. The movie is a "horror-procedural" or a "demonic detective story." It is creepy as hell, too!

By the time this stately paced film reaches its final 20 minute or so, we are pretty much wrung out. Regan's room has become an ice-cold bastion of evil. The fear and the chill are palpable to the viewer. And even though I knew the outcome, I was riveted to the film...stunned that I was still able to be creeped out even on my 4th viewing. The film is constructed so well and with no hint of irony. It is dead serious. Friedkin took, frankly, the exactly correct approach to the material, and it paid off. The script is first-rate, as well.

Best of all, we've got a cast of fantastic actors playing their juicy roles completely seriously. Ellen Burstyn occasionally drifts to the hammy side towards the end (as she so often does) but only slightly. Linda Blair is fearsome effective...even with the help of makeup and the voice of Mercedes McCambridge, she is a striking figure. Lee J. Cobb was a fantastic actor (the original Willy Loman) and has been sadly missed for many years. His Det. Kinderman is a small role, but he brings a touch to it that gives the film a whiff of humor. Max Von Sydow is an imposing figure...he's done many, many great performances since...but his work here is what he'll be most remembered for (at least by American audiences). Finally, Jason Miller is dead perfect as Father Karras, who to me is the true heart-and-soul of this film. It is HIS personal journey that most gives this film gravitas. Miller was a very talented actor and writer. His performance ranks right up there with other greats of that era of the `70s when Method actors like Pacino and deNiro were making their big marks. I suspect that had he not been so reluctant to do film work, he could have been one of the greats as well.

By all means, see THE EXORCIST again. I believe you'll be as pleasantly surprised as me. And if by some chance you have NOT seen it...do yourself a favor. There's a reason this film is deemed a classic...and it is not a "stuffy old" film that doesn't hold up today.

I saw the DVD that comes with some restored scenes. Most of the scenes were not needed (a lot more stuff with Father Merrin wandering around the middle east)...but there were a few brief moments with Von Sydow and Burstyn near the end that were quite good...plus a VERY brief but unforgettable shot of Regan coming down some stairs in a very unconventional way.

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December 16, 2010
Great review, this is indeed a classic.
November 05, 2010
Excellent review of my favorite movie of all time. When it first came out, I was too young to see it according to my mother (bless her heart, so overprotective LOL) so I saw it when I was 18 and it scared the hell out of me. Like you said, the movie was so convincing, and the acting was absolutely superb. It is amazing that Linda Blair, being so young, did not understand some of the scenes she was doing, yet was still so convincing. I've said it before, and I'll say it again; there has never been a demon movie ever like this one!! Great review!!
November 05, 2010
Brenda, this film had inspired a lot of rip offs too. Have you seen "AntiChrist aka. Devil's Woman"?
November 05, 2010
No I haven't - I think that after watching The Exorcist, I lost faith in all other demon movies LOL cause they just aren't as good! Give me some good ones I need to see Woo - I consider you the expert in movies!!!!
More The Exorcist reviews
review by . October 31, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
**** out of ****     When the end credits suite from "The Exorcist" begin to play, all questions that we might have had regarding the movie have been answered; and we finally understand its power. Even after the credits run their course, some might sit down and think for a while about what they have witnessed; and they will either go back mentally or literally to certain scenes to determine which ones have the most profound effect on them. A favorite of many and often cited as …
review by . June 23, 2011
Great Restored Feature (The Version You've Never Seen DVD review)
I have few fonder memories of viewing a feature film in a theater than those recorded when I attended a screening of this widely promoted, extended version of The Exorcist during an unseasonably cold September evening nine years ago. Not all of my enjoyment was derived from the film itself. Now, it was a thrill to watch a film that I'd grown up with (which predated me by six years) on the big screen and to finally see numerous exciting and poignant scenes (that I'd read at least twice before …
review by . September 30, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Trivia, facts and blunders from The Exorcist - Part 1
With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I would do some research and investigations about my favorite movie of all time:  The Exorcist.  While many thought the movie was not scary at all, others were terrified (especially me); partially based on the fact that the movie, which started out as a book, was based on a true story, and also because at the time of it's release, NO movie had ever been made like this one -- it was truly the first of it's kind.  Today we see …
review by . September 30, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Trivia, facts and blunders from The Exorcist - Part 2
   Ellen Burstyn, who played the role of Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, was injured on the set during filming. In the scene where she is checking on her daughter and later thrown away from the bed, she received a permanent injury to her spine: the harness that was used to shoot the scene pulled her away quickly and when she landed, Burstyn landed on her coccyx.  The scream seen immediately following the moment when Regan’s mother is tossed away from the bed is a very real …
Quick Tip by . June 07, 2010
My absolute favorite horror flick of all time. The only movie to truly scare the crap out of me!!
Quick Tip by . February 07, 2010
review by . May 13, 2009
The Exorcist (1973) was one of the greatest horror films ever made. It scared the nation and the people wanted more! The movie made a lot of money and it launched William Friedkin's career beyond the stratosphere (he was already a big name thanks to the French Connection). William Peter Blatty's novel was already a big seller when it was optioned for a silver screen adaptation. The conflicts between the two over how it would be presented as a film could make a movie by it's own right. There was …
review by . November 03, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
After thirty-four years, 'The Exorcist' remains nearly as shocking and horrifying as it was upon its release in 1973. Back then, it was a movie event, and news pieces showed that 'The Exorcist' did to post-modern times what 'Dracula' did back during its debut. Near hysteria came to some, but the masses were at least electrified by what is unabashedly called "the scariest movie of all time".     The key element of this hallmark is that 'The Exorcist' is so convincingly real. Reinventing …
review by . August 27, 2002
posted in Movie Hype
Since I was a kid, I have heard people all over say time and time again that THE EXORCIST is "one of the scariest movies of all time." Well, I've never been a huge fan of horror, but in order to improve my cinematic horizons, I have been watching a lot of schlock and horror lately and finally viewed THE EXORCIST. My impression: what in the world is the big deal? Outside of superb acting and some neat special effects, THE EXORCIST isn't that great. The writing is terrible and contains loads of dialogue …
review by . August 11, 2002
posted in Movie Hype
In terms of a MOVIE this is clearly one of the best ever made. Only the Godfather I & II compares to it, in terms of performances, (not a single bad one) Special effects and plot it is incredible. This movie doesn't rush itself. It slowly builds up until you just can't take it anymore. This is high art. All the people involved in this movie should be rightly proud. It will outlast anything else in the Genre. I know Linda Blair's career has paid a price for this but very few great actors have ever …
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I've got my own site, www.afilmcritic.com, on which I'm posting my reviews. I am 46 years old, married 25 years, two kids (23 & 18) and currently work in accounting/finance. I spent 15 years … more
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About this movie


The Exorcist is a horror novel by William Peter Blatty, published by Harper & Row in 1971. It is based on a 1949 exorcism of Robbie Mannheim that Blatty heard about while he was a student in the class of 1950 at Georgetown University, a Jesuit and Catholic school. On October 31, 2010, Cemetery Dance will publish a special omnibus edition of The Exorcist and its sequel Legion, signed by Blatty.


An elderly Jesuit priest named Father Lankester Merrin is leading an archaeological dig in northern Iraq and studying ancient relics. Following the discovery of a small statue of the demon Pazuzu (an actual ancient Sumerian demigod) and a modern-day St. Joseph medal curiously juxtaposed together at the site, a series of omens alerts him to a pending confrontation with a powerful evil, which unknown to the reader at this point, he has battled before in an exorcism in Africa. Meanwhile, in Georgetown, a young girl named Regan MacNeil living with her famous actress mother, Chris, becomes inexplicably ill. After a gradual series of poltergeist-like disturbances, she undergoes disturbing psychological and physical changes, appearing to become "possessed" by a demonic spirit.

After several unsuccessful psychiatric and medical treatments, Regan's mother turns to a local Jesuit priest. ...

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