Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb
Director: William Friedkin
Running Time: 121 mins
The Exorcist is an American film about a 12 year-old girl who becomes possessed by a demonic entity, leading her increasingly distressed mother to seek the help of the clergy to save her.
As iconic and well-known a film as it is, there’s no preparing you for just how traumatising The Exorcist can be. A dark, dark, dark film with an unrelenting sense of distress, it’s an undeniably intoxicating watch, but not a comfortable one by any means.
I’ll be the first to confess that supernatural horror, as well as a lot of faith-based horror, just isn’t my cup of tea. There’s something about this part of the genre that really doesn’t grab me, but The Exorcist is an enormous exception.
An ingenious story that never holds back from the darkest recesses of horror, The Exorcist is far more of a psychological drama than a supernatural horror, with much more in the way of mental torment than simple scares.
Admittedly, the film gets off to a slow start, with a collection of different characters that don’t seem to have much connection to one another. Also, with slow pacing yet a dark, heavy atmosphere, it can be a bit of an exhausting opening act, but the film is one to stick with through those less-than-stellar initial moments.
Because, once the story begins to take a turn for the strange, things go south very, very quickly. Starting with the unexplained psychological condition of a sweet young girl, The Exorcist immediately shocks you with a powerful use of profanity, gore and violence in a way that I’ve never seen in another film.
Though extremely bold and very graphic, the film is never excessive, which is part of what makes it such an intoxicating watch. It seems to balance on the verge of a preposterous supernatural horror story, but it keeps things grounded with harsh, realistic emotional depth that takes centre stage for the vast majority of the runtime.
The possession of the little girl might be the centre of focus, but it’s actually the mental distress of a handful of characters that makes this such a fascinating film. Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller in particular give incredible performances full of deep anguish, and it’s their characters’ stories which really captivate your imagination.
As you sympathise with them and begin to feel the same sense of pain and distress at an increasingly desperate and confusing situation, the film continues to up the ante, with a series of shocking revelations and twists that build up the tension and stakes of trying to rescue the little girl from a terrifying possession.
The movie keeps its slow and generally quiet style all the way through, with the exception of moments of traumatising intensity with a gut-punching sense of terror. Again, it’s not because those moments are violent or even particularly scary, but it’s the patient yet very effective build-up of emotion through the story that makes this such a powerful film at times.
And with all of that in hand, the film delivers a staggering finale which even the greatest supernatural horror sceptics won’t be able to resist. Using religious rituals to ingenious effect, The Exorcist tells a faith-based supernatural horror which feels fully grounded in reality, and which has a powerful psychological impact.
Overall, there’s no getting away from the fact that The Exorcist is an astonishing film. Although a little slow at first, the film really builds up well, cleverly drawing its main characters together in an often confusing but intoxicating story.
Using graphic horror to incredible effect, the movie can be on occasion unfathomably dark, but delivers a bold and unforgettable viewing experience at the same time. So, that’s why I’m giving The Exorcist an 8.5.