THE EXORCIST, still widely regarded as a prime candidate for most frightening film ever made, was explosive in its impact upon its release in 1973. The novel by William Peter Blatty had been a sensation, bringing the subject of demonic possession to a wide, fascinated and fearful readership.
Debate still lingers as to whether the film version directed by William Friedkin is a masterpiece of full throttle terror with a deep concern for spiritual issues, or an exploitational exercise that was shallow in its approach to demonology and possession, that wallowed in material that was shocking or obscene for its own sake.
Without a doubt, the transformation of loving 12-year-old Reagan MacNeil (Linda Blair) into a grotesque, scarred, foul-mouthed parody of childhood innocence remains profoundly shocking and disturbing, something that left audience members of the day shaken to the core. If nothing else, the depiction of Reagan’s possession is a technical triumph calling upon Blair’s skill as an actress and pioneering makeup effects by Dick Smith.
Many scenes still convey a wallop today, from Reagan’s head-spinning moment in which she takes credit for the murder of her mother’s film director friend, to the full-on dread and terror of the exorcism scenes.
Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s beleaguered actress mom gives a committed, high-strung performance, while Jason Miller as Father Karras conveys compassion, sadness and depth in his role as a young priest on the verge of losing his faith, who nonetheless summons the strength to try to save Reagan’s life.
Max Von Sydow, playing much older than his 44 years with the help of Smith’s makeup artistry, lends much-needed gravitas and dignity as the senior priest, while Lee J. Cobb as Lt. Kinderman is either ingratiating or annoying, depending on your take.
Stephen King once said THE EXORCIST reflected fears of parents in the turbulent early 70s, who saw their children rebelling against the previous generation, transforming into unrecognizable versions of their younger selves. But couldn’t that be said about the process of adolescence in any era?
The impact and cultural resonance of THE EXORCIST, including an ongoing interest in all things demonic, remains infernally strong many decades after the film’s original release.