The Exorcist has received its fair share of reviews since originally traumatizing audiences in 1973. It’s one of the first films – that I can recall – that implemented barf bags in the theater. With that, I was prepared to have more than a few friends leave last week’s American Horror class; it’s shocking how many people were seeing it for the first time altogether. In 2013, the movie is shocking but I think a lot of the shine has worn off. As a lapsed Catholic, I appreciate the subtle message about the loss of innocence, and especially innocence within religion, that I think we can all benefit from today. I also noticed the hints of this being a feminist film in terms of analyzing female adolescence, personified within demonic possession. Let’s explore what hopefully hasn’t been retread countless times before.
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is an innocent young girl on the verge of adolescence. When she starts to feel different, her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) does whatever it takes to find out what’s plaguing her child. Unfortunately, when modern medicine fails to diagnose Regan, it’s thought that spiritual help might be the only way to save her.
The Exorcist is one of the foremost horror films to enter popular culture. If you mention “green slime,” horrid things with a crucifix, or needing a young priest and an old priest, you have The Exorcist to thank for that. Based off a novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist is commonly cited as one of only two supernatural-tinged movies to get nominated for Best Picture (the other being The Sixth Sense). I’ve seen this several times, both uncut and theatrical, and there’s still something haunting, shocking, and lingering about experiencing this film. I remember, as a kid, fearing that if I watched it I might find myself possessed; it’s that what happens to Regan is so random. There’s nothing special about the girl; she comes from a broken home, her mother is a workaholic actress, and yet she goes from pure sweetness to the pits of Hell. I don’t see Regan’s antics having the same effect if Linda Blair wasn’t cast. Her wide eyes, chipmunk cheeks, and authenticity bursts off the screen. When she asks her mom for a horse, countless little girls around the world have had that same conversation with their own parents. It’s in how you connect yourself to Regan that makes you believe the movie could work its curse on you.
I’ve read several things comparing The Exorcist to Vietnam and Watergate, which I can understand. For me, I was noticing the fear of government and science; a change-up for the horror game as the war between science and government has been clearly defined with victors and losers in past films. I mentioned this being a feminist take on teenage girls, and I stand by that assertion. Only four years before its release, the world was reeling over a group of well-to-do, doe-eyed young ladies who blindly killed at the command of Charles Manson. Regan stands in for the Manson girls, as well as the countless teens protesting and being killed around the world. The movie starts on Regan’s thirteenth birthday, rife with cultural implications based around a girl’s transition to womanhood. As Regan becomes increasingly demonic, Chris comments that she doesn’t see her daughter anymore, and that Regan has lost her mind. How many frustrated parents have seen the progression from child to teenager as one where their kid becomes unrecognizable, angry, and disturbing? I hate to use that saying, “Hell, is a teenage girl” but The Exorcist proves it. Ellen Burstyn never makes the character feel preachy or condescending. Her relationship with her daughter is loving, and Chris yearns to give her daughter things that every girl should have – including a phone call from her father on her birthday.
Another intriguing element within The Exorcist is whether the demonic manifestations are not the result of Regan being molested? Stay with me here; the doctors mention that her body could be reacting to guilt or trauma. Later on, when Regan is left alone with Chris’ quasi-boyfriend Burke (Jack MacGowran), Chris doesn’t understand why Burke would be in Regan’s room at all. Immediately following this scene, Burke is thrown out the window. When Chris is later left in the room with Regan whose head is spinning all the way around, the demonic entity takes on Burke’s voice and asks Chris if she wants to know what her daughter “did.” The implication immediately springs to throwing the man out the window, but what about the guilt associated with Burke doing something untoward to the little girl. The infamous scene of Regan peeing on the floor? A common sign of molestation and rape. Going further, the doctors injecting Regan take on phallic connotations, particularly when the camera films the needle at a low angle with the doctor holding it at crotch level. It’s easy to say that Regan’s demonic possession is the result of a sinful world, or the Vietnam War turning children into killers, but I think by utilizing a young girl at the brink of womanhood, thrust into a world that’s very hostile to women at this time, is telling of the harsh transition into adulthood.
Of course, the male cast is just as fantastic. Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow are devout as the priests, Damien Karras and Lancaster Merrin, respectively. The entire third act is placed on their shoulders, Miller’s in particular, and they succeed in presenting a very hard ritual that you can see taxes them spiritually and physically. 1973 was a time when faith was in short supply; Watergate and Vietnam had zapped faith in the government, but the Vatican had wrapped up the second Vatican council a few years ago which almost allowed a broadening of the church’s rules only to push them back. The fact that the movie presents exorcism as a dirty, secret project that the church never openly endorses, causes the audience to distrust them as a group.
The movie definitely holds up in terms of shock and frights. It’s not frightening in that you’ll jump, it’s frightening in what you’ll see a young girl do. Forty years later, The Exorcist still holds up as the penultimate horror movie that will scare you, and make you question everything you know. Hope I picked the least frightening images for everyone!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.