A fantastically well made film for its time and now. I ashamedly had never seen this iconic horror until earlier today but I’m glad I can finally tick it off the list. A superb treat of how good horror films can be, maybe not as scare filled as it may have been back in the day but it holds suspense and tells a story that draws you in filled with top performances and hold-your-breath-eeriness.
After the audience get a brief excursion at a dig site in North Iraq, to reveal the exorcist in question (Max von Sydow) and see his realisation a demon he once defeated could be back, we land and stay in Georgetown to see this devilish entity take hold of a young girl’s body. Regan’s (Linda Blair) actress mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) fights to get her daughter back and needs to call on the hand of God to aide the being out of her child.
It’s actually beautifully directed by William Friedkin, who takes a novel and twists into a big picture with shots that capture the eye with wonder and for a horror that’s damn nice to see. Just from the pairing of von Sydow’s exorcist Merrin to the stone devil statue, there’s a detail there with enough substance under the visual to make it stand out. The sweeping shots through Chris’ house add an extra supernatural quality, as if the hold of this devil named Pazuzu is gently gliding us through the home, a dreadful and unnerving experience.
The shadows and lighting are put across to the screen with a grand touch and of course the now famous shot of Merrin arriving at the house, lit up by solitary lamppost is a gorgeous composition of lights and darks; the light of the priest turning up to try and squash the darkness of the demon. The lighting may be bulb orientated but of course the harsh white set up of the clinic Regan is subjected to makes it seem even more uncomfortable as needles and scans are thrown in her direction, well not thrown but forced upon her.
A lot of credit must go to the guys and girls in charge of make up, special effects and all that wow in making Linda Blair become this horrendous possessed demonic shell. Dick Smith is a genius for using practical make up to let Regan disintegrate into a scarred, peeling and pale thing . I also found out that Max von Sydow at one scene had more make up on than Blair to get the details of his older look seen in close up. You forget at the time he was middle aged as he looks convincingly older. It’s refreshing and better to see practical effects being utilized and it in fact makes the film remarkable for what they achieved in their work.
The possession of Regan never gets insane or boringly over the top, like in the way modern exorcism movies seem to go now. Yes, she scales walls and shakes back and forth like a demented cocktail blender but it works in making the film more disturbing. The fact that it’s happening to a young girl is shocking and they don’t scrimp or hold back on the terrors she goes through. Cursing through to crab spider walking to the well known 360 degree head turn, Regan is certainly in the ringer of hell and it’s a steady but well structured journey to get her to that ultimate peak of true sin.
There wasn’t as much of Mike Oldfield’s classic ‘Tubular Bells’ in the film as I was expecting but the fading in of that instantly recognisable tune every now and then does more than enough to layer atmosphere and a sliver of ghostly dread over the scene. The rest of the soundtrack and sound of the movie in general is quality and it deserved an Oscar for Best Sound Mixing as it all comes together to make the plot feel much more heightened.
Linda Blair is an epic star in this and under the make up, there is still enough of her face and details that you realise a human is still underneath it all, that helps a lot to feel for her as she’s being taken over. Before she gets infused with the soul and mind of a demon, there’s momentary glimpses at how she can be, she finds the Ouija board and then you know her innocent nature is room for her downfall. Blair becomes both Regan and the carrier of Pazuzu with ease and a definite confidence for her age. Burstyn is the expected grieving and traumatised mother, but that act never gets old as she has style and substance, her profession and the charm in which she displays what a caring mother she is gives us enough to really side with her as Regan becomes lost. Max von Sydow has the beginning and end to shine and he does, the mood and apprehension built up as he comes to try and release the devil is done so well and you utterly feel he is exhausted upon repeating “the power of Christ compels you!” A collection of cast talent that sells this horror narrative with a first rate light.
I honestly liked this film most for the development it deals with concerning character, it’s a well made film stuffed with visuals and atmosphere and something as small as the flash of the demons face in the kitchen actually put me on edge. A film that still holds up to today’s horrors and more than that it sits proudly and deservedly above plenty of horror films.