Imagine that a young teenager has just finished watching an incredibly intense and scary movie on TV and is now preparing for bed. After washing her face, brushing her teeth and getting undressed, she climbs into bed and nervously turns off the lights, still anxious and scared from watching the movie.
Repeating the childhood mantra of the past, "It's only a movie," the teen eventually calms herself down and slowly begins to drift off into a light sleep. Then, suddenly, the bed starts violently shaking back and forth and up and down. Aside from the unexpected shock and terror of the bed's convulsive behavior, what scares the teen the most is that the same thing happened in the movie she had just watched on TV.
Although that sounds like a typical scene from a contemporary horror film, it actually occurred to a girl I later dated long ago in my high school days. Most will obviously recognize the bed-shaking scene from the seminal 1973 horror film, "The Exorcist," but few will probably think that the girl was similarly possessed. No, instead of the Devil giving her Serta a thrashing, it was the girl's younger brother who had secretly climbed under bed, waited the appropriate amount of giddy time, and then let loose with the mother of all perfectly timed pranks.
While that act of "brotherly love" obviously scared the young teen and quite likely resulted in that wailing "Mom" call that resembles a siren being cranked up and that only girls can muster, the film didn't need such supplemental help to do the same to moviegoers when it first opened. One must remember that back in 1973, the most frightening films to come along before it had been Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Robert Wise's "The Haunting," both of which - while scary in their own right and time - occurred as much or more in the viewer's mind than on the screen.
Director William Friedkin, hot off winning an Oscar for "The French Connection," and novelist/screenwriter William Peter Blatty changed all of that with the release of this film that was inspired by a reportedly real exorcism that took place in the late 1940s. Although relatively tame when compared with what has followed it in the intervening quarter century, the film's graphic nature, vulgarities and mixture of religion and horror shocked, upset and terrified viewers in its time.
Naturally, the film set the box office on fire, garnered ten Academy Award nominations (winning for Sound and Blatty's screenplay) and forever changed the way horror films would be made. Now, the film's being re-released into theaters with an additional eleven minutes of footage (most of which was previously available on the 25th anniversary, special edition DVD), a remixed and digitized soundtrack and a few visual effects added for good measure.
Unlike many re-released films, however, time hasn't had much negative impact on the film or its effectiveness in delivering the frightening goods. Sure, some of the effects and makeup look a bit antiquated, and certain scenes and scare techniques have been copied so many times since then that they now don't carry as much impact as they did when they were novel.
Yet, the film still manages to be unnerving for several reasons. For one, and despite the supernatural angle and related special effects, the film comes off as a realistic enough experience to give it the appropriate creepy aura that's missing in most of today's unrealistic, MTV influenced horror films. Better yet, the film also has an incredible amount of depth on its human front. Not only does that add to the film's realism, but it also elicits concern and sympathy from the audience toward the characters and their individual and collective predicaments.
In many of today's "scary" flicks, the characters are merely fodder for the meat grinder, and while the scenes involving them might induce the startle reflex in unsuspecting viewers, the reaction doesn't go any deeper. Here, the characters are real and completely three-dimensional, and the filmmakers take their time in building and unfolding their story, thus allowing the viewer to become more involved in, and thus be more affected by, what occurs.
While much of the attention naturally focused on the 12-year-old girl played by Linda Blair (who received an Oscar nomination for her role and has kept busy since then but hasn't appeared in anything remotely as successful or renowned) and the creepy, demonic vocalizations provided by Mercedes McCambridge (an Oscar winner/nominee for "Giant" and "All the King's Men), the film is far more about those indirectly affected by the possession.
Specifically, the story focuses on the mother character played by Ellen Burstyn (an Oscar winner for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and nominee for this film and several others) and the disillusioned priest embodied by Jason Miller (in his first acting role that earned him an Oscar nomination). Both have discovered that their lives aren't what they had once expected and their involvement in the possession and subsequent exorcism changes their outlook on life.
Supporting performances are good all around, with Max Von Sydow (who was only 44 at the time) credibly playing the old and feeble priest (and marking yet another encounter with the Devil - he previously did battle, on the chess board, with the grim reaper in "The Seventh Seal") and Lee J. Cobb ("On the Waterfront," "12 Angry Men") makes for a credibly jaded police detective, although his character often seems outside the film's primary circle of concern.
What makes the picture work so well and stand up to the test of time is the way in which the story slowly builds in both character and plot and then suddenly lets loose in an aggressive assault on the viewer's senses and nerves. While there have been other films that are just as scary and plenty that have gone out of their way to surpass the gross-out scenes that occur here, "The Exorcist" is and probably always will be considered a classic in the horror genre. Although clearly not for everyone's tastes and certainly not a "feel good" flick, the film is nearly just as powerful and scary today as it was when originally released. We give the picture a 7.5 out of 10.