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Every time I go back and watch this movie, I'm always shocked at just how far it goes. I'm always shocked at how far it takes things. I can't explain why, but for some reason, the version of the film that I look back on in my mind is always somewhat tamer than the film itself. Maybe my mind just refuses to remember such a horrific, disturbing and violent movie. I don't honestly know, but it doesn't stop me from coming back and rewatching it and it doesn't stop me from loving it every time.
The Exorcist follows two stories. On the one hand, there's an actress and single mother named Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). She's temporarily living in Washington DC while filming a movie. Also living with her is her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Starting with an incident at a dinner party, Regan begins acting strangely. At first, Chris believes there's something wrong with her, but after a series of tests that all show how normal she is, Chris begins to suspect that she may be possessed. This brings us to the second story. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is a priest who's slowly losing his faith. But after meeting up with Chris and hearing what she has to say, Karras tries his best to help her out, and in doing so he brings in the help of an exorcist (Max von Sydow).
Often dubbed the scariest movie of all time, The Exorcist is certainly not a film for the faint of heart. Many horror classics have come and gone over the years, but none are mentioned as often as this one is. It's a film that always appears on people's lists of the top ten horror movies, or top ten scariest movies of all time. Why? Because it deserves to be there. It's a truly terrifying movie that gradually descends into mayhem. If someone says they weren't disturbed by this movie, they're lying. It's as simple as that.
The film starts out slow, as most horror movies do, but there's something engaging about it. It's a gradual possession, starting out simple. The possession starts with a mild shake of the bed or the sound of rats running upstairs, despite there being no actual rats in the house. Clues are placed here and there as to what's really going down, but they're subtle enough for the characters to not think anything of them. As an audience member, however, we notice them, and it adds to the overall suspense.
During this gradual build up, we're given time to get to know these characters. We care about them. We don't want harm to come to them. We don't want to see them die a gruesome death. But deep down inside, you know that anything's possible. As Regan's possession gets worse and worse, I struggled to not look away, but I wanted to watch on. Every time I watch this movie, it's always more horrifying and disturbing than I remember it. It always goes just that little bit further than you think it will. And yes, it always has that goddamn crucifix scene. That's one hard scene to watch.
Director William Friedkin approaches the already fantastic script with sublime direction, showing the horror without showing all of the horror. Anyone who's studied film knows that what's outside the frame is just as important as what's inside, and in The Exorcist, Friedkin uses this technique to his advantage. He shows just enough to get the hairs on your arm standing up, but then goes on to hide certain details or hold a shot in a certain location, making your hairs want to jump right off of your arms. His directing skills have never been better.
One final thing to mention in this review are the performances. From Ellen Burstyn to Jason Miller to Max von Sydow, none of the performances in this movie are anything below extraordinary. Everyone is giving their a-game, however it's Linda Blair that gives the greatest performance, slowly transcending from a likeable young girl into the devil. Thanks to some disturbing makeup and haunting voice alterations, her performance works. There are things in this movie that go above and beyond what you'd usually find in a horror movie and she's dedicated enough to do all of them. She truly blows me away with this role.
To sum up, The Exorcist is a horror movie so horrifying, so disturbing, so unsettling and so tense that it's impossible to forget. It's slow, but worthwhile. Haunting is an understatement. This film may not be for the faint of heart, but it's a must see for both fans of horror and fans of cinema.