My Favorite Scary Movie: The Exorcist (1973)

For the month of October, JoBlo.com staff will be gearing you up for the Halloween season with My Favorite Scary Movie, where we will share our favorite scary flicks, be it gory horror, supernatural thriller or bloody slasher flicks, lending the personal touch for each film and why it stands as one of our all-time favorite spooky flicks of the season.

THE EXORCIST (1973)

What’s it about?: While on an archaeological dig in Iraq, Father Lankester Merrin unearths an amulet that resembles the demon Pazuzu. On the other end of the globe in Washington D.C., actress Chris MacNeil lives an idyllic life with her young daughter Regan, playing and laughing like there isn’t a care in the world. Soon, Regan starts playing with a Ouija board and begins communicating with an imaginary friend named Captain Howdy. But it doesn’t take long for that to turn into something evil, and Regan begins demonstrating odd behavior, like peeing on the floor, cursing like a violent sailor and getting cuts on her face. Mix that in with some serious bed shaking and it becomes clear this is not a common cold. After running out of options the Catholic church becomes involved, and Father Damien Karras, a man of the cloth who is losing his faith, and Merrin must expel the demon from the child, lest it takes over Regan forever. 

Who’s in it?: Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil; Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil; Max Von Sydow as Lankester Merrin; Jason Miller as Damien Karras; Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman; Kitty Winn as Sharon Spencer; Jack MacGowran as Burke Dennings with; Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of Pazuzu, and; Eileen Dietz as the face of the demon. 

Who made it?: William Friedkin (Director), William Peter Blatty (Producer/Screenplay, based off his own novel), Jack Nitzsche (Music), Owen Roizman (Cinematography), Billy Williams (Cinematography). 

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Why it’s my favorite scary movie:  I’ve seen many a’ horror movie in my day, including the artistic, the scare-a-minute, the gorefests and the cheap flicks that are for some reason trending on Netflix. None, out of all the movies in all these categories, makes me as nervous to revisit as THE EXORCIST. Every time I pop in the Blu-ray I have to ask myself if I’m truly prepared to experience this film: Is it the right time of day? Am I going to bed right after this? Am I feeling particularly susceptible to paranormal-related anxieties after reading too many ghost stories on the internet? Answers to these questions dictate whether or not I click play because, as I am so viciously, relentlessly reminded upon every viewing, THE EXORCIST is an evil fucking movie. 

There’s a wealth of Catholic mythology that William Peter Blatty’s story draws from, and that director William Friedkin utilizes to establish a heavy, insidious atmosphere. You don’t have to wait that long to feel it either. Once Father Merrin (Sydow) finds the amulet in Iraq and begins to research it, there’s this grim weight that falls over the film. The ticking clock in an office Merrin visits ominously stops ticking, and he then visits the statue of Pazuzu, with a man standing curiously in the background, dogs fighting off to the side. Altogether it’s an unnerving sequence and sets a strong tone that something sinister and anciently evil is always lingering in EXORCIST. That sense of dread is inescapable, and the power of that scene always gets me ready for the terror yet to come. 

Exploring religious themes in a horror movie is something that came both before and after EXORCIST, but one reason audiences (and myself) remain so captured by this film, in particular, is watching the evil infect the young Regan (Blair), causing her mother, Chris (Burstyn), to do whatever she can to save her child. That is the very real, accessible heart of this movie that shines through all the fucked up proceedings. I’m always reminded of how much I love this movie when it kicks into high gear, and Regan starts to be taken over by the demon. Not only is the struggle of Burstyn so palpable and real, but the experience is eternally terrifying thanks to the mere sight of the possessed Regan, her endless cursing and violent nature thrust so heavily in audiences faces. The scene where Regan is being assaulted with the crucifix still makes me squeamish and uneasy, and as the possession only gets worse from there, that feeling never goes away.  Then there’s the final climax, one of the finest scenes ever put to film. Friedkin built up to the moment so masterfully, so when it all comes to a head the hairs on your neck are on end, and you’re along for the whole, menacing, unrelenting ride. Out of this scene there at tons of iconic lines, moments and a shocking finale. Aside from the shower scene in PSYCHO, I don’t think there is as iconic as horror scene in the big wide world of movies.  

As I said before, this is an evil fucking movie, and that’s why I love it. Friedkin expertly laces the dark, sinister atmosphere with a gripping story that builds and builds to a finale with growing intensity and violent, artful imagery. It’s everything a horror movie should be and has left me shaking for well over a decade. Imitators fail because they try to take the imagery and the look of the demon and place it in a CGI-heavy, poorly paced, boo-scare horror flick, failing to blend the demonic elements in a grounded story that can make anyone’s fear in the demonic seem like a reality. I will never feel the same way about a horror movie like I do THE EXORCIST; it haunts me in ways that mesmerize me continuously draw me into its dark, evil clutches.

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Scariest Part:  To anyone who has seen the movie this part should be a no-brainer. While there are tons of scary moments, like that scene with the crucifix (you know the one), and the spider crawl down the steps, the creme de la creme of terror is the climax of the movie: the exorcism. Darkness fills the room, only lit by the lamp on the table, and the demon-infested Regan spouts obscenities, writhes, groans and does that weird thing with her tongue, all while the two Fathers speak from the Bible and dash her with holy water. Then there’s the full-on head spin, the levitation, and even some more pea soup coming from her mouth. This is the moment the whole movie has been building up to, and it’s a nightmarish assortment of grotesque, unforgettable imagery, classic lines, impressive visuals and an overall masterclass of directing. 

Best Lines:

Father Merrin, Father Karras: “The Power of Christ compels you!”

Demon: “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras, you faithless slime!”

Demon: “Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me!”

Father Karras: “Where is Regan?”
Demon: “In here. With us.”

Demon: “I’m not Regan.”
Father Karras: “Well, then let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras.”
Demon: “And I’m the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps.”

Demon: “What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
Father Karras: “You would like that?”
Demon: “Intensely.”

Demon: “Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?”

Regan: “You’re going to die up there.”

Father Merrin: “Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.”

Father Merrin: “I cast you out! Unclean spirit!”
Demon: “Shove it up your ass, you faggot!”
Father Merrin: “In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ! It is he who commands you! It is he who flung you from the gates of Heaven to the depths of Hell!”
Demon: “Fuck him!”
Father Merrin: “Be gone…”
Demon: “Fuck him, Karras! Fuck him!”

Father Karras: “You son of a bitch! Take me! Come into me! God damn you! Take me! Take me!”

Gore and Nudity: Nudity in this movie is virtually non-existent, which is fair considering the movie centers on a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon, and no one is begging to see Max von Sydow in his birthday gear here. The movie compensates with some shocking violence that’s tough to watch even today. It’s all so brutal, especially given that it’s all happening to Regan. The cuts on her face and body, the stabbing crucifix scene and more make for what had to be one of the most intense moviegoing experiences of the time, and the power of it has hardly diminished since then. 

Sequels, Spinoffs or Follow-Ups: The movie was a smash hit back in 1973, and went on to get nominated for all sorts of Oscars, winning two for Best Adapted Screenplay and Sound. The movie made $193 million back then, which adjusted for inflation is $950 million domestically, making it one of the biggest movies ever. So, yeah, they decided to make a few sequels. The first one, THE EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, is often considered one of the worst movies ever made, while the third film, THE EXORCIST III, fared much better, with some saying it’s better than the original in parts. There have since been some modern movies, like EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING from Renny Harlin (DIE HARD 2) and DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST from Paul Schrader (TAXI DRIVER), both faring poorly. A TV show on Fox aired for two seasons in 2016 and 2017 but was canceled despite positive reviews. Who knows, the property is iconic enough that maybe one day we will get a dark new entry that lives up to the original. Can someone get Jason Blum and/or James Wan on the phone?

Scare-O-Meter Score: The movie may run a little slow at times as it gets into the rewarding character work and slowly builds to the exorcism. However, the movie is never not ominous and eerie, starting from the opening moments in Iraq, moving through the early scenes with Regan’s possession, and all the way to the terrifying climax. There’s always something to be unnerved by, and plenty to cause nightmares and restless nights. For this, the movie gets a solid 9/10 on the scary scale, which is incredibly impressive for a movie that is 45 years old this year and has spawned countless imitators, spoofs and more. The power of this movie is undeniable and will continue to scare generations to come. 

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