The Exorcist

The Exorcist ★★★★★

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This might sound strange, but I had a lengthy relationship with The Exorcist before I had even seen it for the first time today.

My mum, since I was probably about 8 years old, never stopped telling me how she wished she had never seen The Exorcist at the cinema. She told me it was a horrible film that I should never watch and if I did I would never be able to sleep again. "It's worse than I Spit On Your Grave and that was horrible!" she once told me. When I told her I was watching it this week, her reaction was one of, "Ooh, well, don't expect me to watch it with you!" With all due respect, mum, I wouldn't do that. You wouldn't be much of a filmwatching companion while you play bingo on your laptop.

I nearly watched it on a German satellite TV channel back in the early 90s, so intrigued was I by it. But this was pre-Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and I was too scared and I didn't get much further than the first few minutes that take place in Iraq. Plus I don't speak German. That's fine if you're watching porn or the Bundesliga on RTL, but it doesn't work so well for a feature film.

Then there was the lengthy history of censorship of the film in this country where cinemas refused to screen it and it couldn't get a video release until 1998. It didn't get a TV showing until 2001. Its history on that front is yet another fascinating tale of BBFC-led nonsense in this country. Not to mention the fact that it's a film that caused everyone who saw it on its initial cinema release in 1973 to be at a screening where someone apparently fainted and had to be carried out. The amount of The Exorcist related injuries in the mid-1970s must have put the NHS under incredible strain.

Now, here we are in 2014. William Friedkin's career seems to be experiencing a perhaps slightly unexpected second wind after the critical success of the fantastic Bug and the impressive Killer Joe, and The Exorcist's reputation continues to burn brightly. It's one of those films that it is impossible to go into blind. Everyone who has even a slight interest in films and has never seen it before knows several of the things that happens here.

Such films might be perceived as having a harder time than most. Especially to someone like me. I always hold closer to my heart films that I come in to with no pre-conceived notions or expectations or with no knowledge of the plot, story or history. It's like films like The Exorcist have to work harder to overcome the inevitable spoiler-heavy history that have been thrust upon them.

Yet at the same time, it could be said that it's a true test of just how great they are. As such, it added an extra layer of intrigue to my premier viewing of The Exorcist (the director's cut, for anyone who's interested), and it was a viewing that I will remember for a very long time indeed. This is really quite a sensational film, and for a number of different reasons as well.

For a start, the pacing of this film is quite exceptional. It's a long film and it almost ends up playing as if it's trying to be as much an endurance test for us as it is for the two priests who end up attempting to exorcise Linda Blair. It's an exhausting ride that is filled with little hope along the way, with no chinks of white light at the end of the tunnel even when Max von Sydow is called on to the scene.

Inevitably it will be criticised as being slow in some quarters but it just isn't. Nobody could seriously consider this film as being slow without truly watching what is going on here. The opening scenes in the Iraqi desert, filled with foreboding symbolism, as well as the proceeding scenes as Jason Miller struggles with his faith even in the face of signs that his services and powers are going to be needed.

The establishment of the atmosphere, which is then sprinkled with Blair's transformation and possession, means that there really is nothing slow about this film. It's not even so subtle that you could miss a lot of it. Friedkin isn't that much interested in subtlety here, but he is interested in making an alarming and affecting film that isn't prepared to blow itself out before what we know will be a gruelling ending.

To that end, I can understand his reluctance over the infamous spider-walk scene (although Bray Wyatt's is arguably scarier) as perhaps occurring too early. That said, it's such an extraordinarily alarming scene that it really deserves to be seen. It might not contribute towards the film's pacing but it's a brilliant horror film scene.

It's also refreshing to see a horror film actually taking the time to fully characterise everyone that needs to be here. The only character that doesn't receive that treatment is von Sydow, and justifiably so. We need to know as little about him as possible to keep the final stretches of this film unpredictable so we don't know how he will cope or react. We know that Miller will struggle, as he has done with his faith and what he has seen so far.

Really, The Exorcist is every bit as much about its non-'horror' scenes as it is about those more memorable scenes. Friedkin knows you cannot just keep flinging monstrous scenes and imagery at the screen here, he absolutely has to pace it - or you might end up with something as ludicrous as The Conjuring. In many ways, it's the very model of restraint.

The last four films I've seen from Friedkin that I had not seen before - the aforementioned Bug and Killer Joe as well as Sorcerer and now The Exorcist, have left me convinced that, at his best, he is quite simply one of the finest American directors of the last 50 years. It's just a shame a lack of consistency has stopped him from being one of the best outright.

But with The Exorcist he created a film that easily overwhelms its be-spoilered history and is surely just as powerful and memorable as it could be expected to be over 40 years since its release.

Steve G liked these reviews