Most everyone considers The Exorcist the best horror movie ever made. When lists document the “greatest” horror movies in existence, The Exorcist is number one, time and time again. The movie, which came out in 1973 and was directed by William Friedkin, has only garnered more acclaim over time. And generally it seems deserving. It’s a clearly effective movie. Frightening and well crafted and thematically interesting. It’s quite clearly the best horror movie I’ve watched during this binge.
But not the best horror movie I’ve ever seen.
The movie follows a little girl named Reagan, who gets possessed by a demon. It also follows the priest Damien Karras, a psychologist and a boxer who finds himself wrestling with his own faith as his mother’s mental health deteriorates. The movie has a pretty typical slow burn to start. Lots of long spoooooky scenes where nothing actually happens, or where all the interesting events happen out of sight. This is an easily anticipated convention that helps the movie build tension while reserving its true scares for later. Almost every movie I’ve watched for this binge has done that in some way. As the movie continues, Reagan’s symptoms get more and more dramatic and her mother, Chris McNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn), struggles, trying to get her diagnosed and cured by medical professionals. It’s only in the last stretch of the movie that she meets Karras and starts planning an exorcism.
Basically all of this is amazing. Incredibly well executed, well paced, frightening, and engaging. Father Karras is an extremely interesting character, more than making up for the slightly lacklustre Chris McNeil. The camerawork is nicely reserved, highlighting the reality of the situation. There are also some clever effects, like the flashing image of the demon. The atmosphere is stifling, and the eventual scares are wonderful. Visceral, blasphemous, disturbing, and disquieting. A really messed up barrage of horrifying stuff. Blood spewing, self-mutilating, vomiting, crucifix masturbation, evil voices, physical contortions, and more. All clever stuff that affects that primal desire to avoid the diseased.
It only loses me in a few places.
For one, it’s very religious. While there are some attempts to equate faith with some thematic stuff (more on this later) the imagery in this movie is slightly neutered by my ungodliness. When Reagan screams “let Jesus fuck you” and stabs herself with a crucifix it’s fairly clear that as an atheist I’m only getting half the effect of that scene. Taking the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t really scare me, and it’s clear that if it did this movie would be way more frightening.
Another problem I have is the ending. I may have literally shouted at my screen when this movie ended. I’m incredibly particular about films ending properly. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate, but I’ll do my best. I read a ton of reviews of a lot of things, including music reviews. I really enjoy the videos The Needledrop puts out, and watch them very regularly. Anthony Fantano repeatedly complains about the endings of songs, calling them out if they end too suddenly or fade out lazily. I feel the exact same way about movies. The Exorcist is basically a great song with a lousy lazy fade at the end. It literally ends on this upbeat note about going to the movies.
Which brings me to this slightly clumsy thematic framework in the movie. Friedkin had to have a reason for ending the movie like that, right? Well when you go back and connect dots it starts to seem kind of obvious. Kind of. There are just too many film related references in this movie to be an accident. The detective asks two people to go to the movies; one of these inquiries ends the film. Reagan’s mother, Chris McNeil, is a famous actress who hosts other actresses and directors throughout the movie. More importantly though, characters opinions on movies reflect their beliefs or lack there of. The detective is the only potential wrinkle, as we never find out how he feels about god, but I’m not sure that matters. Chris McNeil is an actress who thinks the films she works on are garbage, and she professes no faith. Karras claims to love movies but refuses to go to one with the detective. He also claims to believe in god but tells another priest his faith is wavering earlier in the film. A priestly friend of his, the one who talks to the detective at the end of the movie, seems to have an unwavering faith and both says he loves movies and agrees to go to one with the detective.
So all this is too present to not be indicative of something. That being said it’s absolutely a dead-end theme. If, throughout The Exorcist, faith is equated with belief in the power of film, so much so that it’s the note the movie ends on, what is it saying about film? Something about its power to cast out demons? Seems the likeliest, given that the characters who profess faith in god and movies are also the happiest. And Friedkin isn’t Christian, so maybe that was the lens he used to understand god? It’s not clear, and it doesn’t end up adding much to the experience, other than giving us a drab ending.
All this doesn’t weigh the movie down much. Sure a slightly unrealized thematic bent, but at least there is a thematic bent. Sure a poor ending but everything before it is wonderful. It’s definitely a great horror movie, and just a really good movie. But yeah, not the best horror movie I’ve seen. That would be The Shining. (Trivia time: Stanley Kubrick was actually asked to direct The Exorcist, and the first sequel.) Everything The Exorcist does well, The Shining does better. There’s very little contest in my book. In fact there might even be a few other films I would put above it… But all that aside it’s a wonderful movie and a great way to end this Halloween binge.