In 1973 one of the most important horror films to grace the silver screen was released, and that film was of course The Exorcist. With the arrival of a TV adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel, on which the original film was based, we allow ourselves to become possessed once again by this legendary film.
Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist follows the possession of a young girl called Reagan with the subsequent attempts by science to cure her, and religion to exorcise her. The film is based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, which itself is based on the story of Roland Doe’s exorcism in 1949. However the film is not just about Reagan’s possession, the film also follows the crisis in faith that Father Karras has leading up to and following the death of his mother which he takes with him into Reagan’s exorcism. There is no doubt over the place that The Exorcist has in the hearts and minds of film fans for good or bad. The impact it has had on film and popular culture is undeniable. Now 43 years on, how does it hold up? Pretty well I must say. However with the evolution of supernatural horror films and the refined art of scaring which modern directors have mastered, what were once shocking scenes aren’t as effective as they once were.
After watching the film for an umpteenth time it’s surprising to realise how long it takes for the film to build up to the actual possession and exorcism which stole the show following it’s release. To be honest, if a director tried the same thing again today there would likely be negative remarks about it’s pacing and build up. Especially when the exorcism itself is restrained to a small segment of the film. Admittedly the patient progress towards the finale sets it up as a grand finale that doesn’t disappoint, but a part of me feels like we could have spent more time with it. Even so, the most memorable scenes still remain frightening and not through smart directing or camera trickery.
Now what continues to separate The Exorcist from the modern day dime a dozen supernatural stories that litter shelves at your local HMV is that it’s not solely a horror film. Nearly every new horror film that makes it’s way to the silver screen, or home media, is obsessed with being scary from the off, like a 100 metre hurdle race. They sprint to the first jump scare, then sprint again and rinse and repeat. They might make for rollicking horror films that get your your heart racing, but their is usually little story development, and everything revolves around the scares. This is where The Exorcist stands like a monument above all others. Thanks to the patient development across the opening acts we are treated to scenes that aren’t simply designed to make us jump in our seats. We learn about characters and we watch as they try everything to no avail. As a result we experience drama and emotion from an exhausted mother unable to help her daughter, and a priests ailing faith in his religion.
On the other hand, as positive as the exploration into the lives of these pivotal characters is before they converge in a dramatic finale, I couldn’t help but feel the story line for Father Karras wasn’t given more time. As we dip in and out of his story line significant events that relate to the character are only briefly mentioned or touched upon. In fact the death of his mother is only given to us from a line of another character. Not that we need to see a scene of her death, but there is definitely more to be explored with it. Especially as we go from having one scene of Karras visiting his mother, then she’s in a hospital, then she’s dead. The events happen at a breakneck speed that don’t sit with the pacing of the film itself. It’s interesting to think how the film could have played out if we were given more time with Father Karras and watch him go though the emotions he would be experiencing as it happened, rather than just the aftermath. That being said, we watch Reagan go through the ringer until the final bell and that story arc plays out perfectly.
All in all it’s always an utter pleasure to watch The Exorcist again, if only to be reminded how before it’s time the film actually was. The visual effects are not out of place to this day, pea soup aside, and the acting remains terrific. The more I watch the film the more I want from it’s characters, which could by why I feel Father Karras’s story should have been given more time to flesh out. Two hours is a long time for a film, but this could have easily been longer and still remained as effective. The Exorcist is not simply a horror film, it’s a film about faith, religion, and family, all of which have their dark sides. The Exorcist is a film for the ages.