The Exorcist provides another example of a cultural touchstone film that, somehow, I’ve never seen.
That’s right—despite owning about 500 movies on disc, and seeing perhaps hundreds more over the years, this one escaped my view. This is the next in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, and, based on the title screen, it’s the extended director’s cut. Not that I would know the difference.
One of the benefits of coming in fresh is being surprised by things, such as the film beginning in Iraq! I had also forgotten it takes place in Georgetown, right up the road from me. I was totally unaware that Regan’s (Linda Blair’s) mother, Chris (played by Ellen Burstyn), is an actress in a film-within-the-film.
I also didn’t realize that doctors were prescribing Ritalin back in ’73, but the movie nails the “we’re not sure what it is—here’s some mind-altering drugs, I guess?” mentality. The doctors continue to fumble through diagnoses, even when coming face-to-face with Regan’s bizarre behavior.
Anyway, it wouldn’t be exactly correct to say that this film “hasn’t aged well.” It’s fine. It doesn’t seem all that dated in most respects.
However, there is one key problem related to its age.
This film still has some shock value viewed with the perspective of a first-time viewer in 2020. But, first, shock value doesn’t do much for me, and, secondly, even if it did, the potency of it has dissipated considerably since 1973.
Seeing a little girl’s head turn all the way around, or hearing her speaking in strange voices, or seeing her projectile vomit is certainly creepy. But, to the jaded, cynical, world-weary contemporary audience (i.e. me) it isn’t particularly scary or compelling.
The only parts that are a little gut-wrenching are the arteriogram (genuinely the most uncomfortable scene) and the, uh, cross insertion scene (mostly thinking about the awkward conversation that must have preceded the filming of it).
Otherwise, it’s just a pretty taut thriller with an excellent Max von Sydow performance (playing 30 years older than he was due to some excellent makeup), a jaw-dropping Linda Blair performance, a few weird edits, a minor loose end or two, and a couple of decent jump scares. And it ends with the lesson that the exorcism doesn’t actually work until you just beat the demon out of the person!
It’s solid overall, but not among the best in this collection.
However, the behind-the-scenes documentary is downright fascinating. The Exorcist would be worth a watch in any case, but it’s absolutely must viewing purely as a preamble to the bonkers doc, which features, among other things, Friedkin talking with (disturbing) glee about how he got then-twelve-year-old Linda Blair to do some of the more gross or adult scenes using techniques like tickling her until she agreed. Yikes all around!