When I was a kid, a lot of my friends and I considered “The Exorcist” to be a golden standard for horror. None of us had seen it mind you, but there we were on a playground, 25 years after the film’s release, talking about ‘knowing’ that it was the scariest film ever. Clearly the film has maintained a reputation for itself and for that reason, I’ve managed to stay away from it after all these years. But not anymore, thanks to this silly film project.
“The Exorcist” surprised me, for many reasons. I was surprised that the film dedicates its opening 38 minutes to character and world building before ever delving into anything supernatural. I was surprised how logically the film laid out Regan’s medical diagnosis and her mother’s paranoia/frustration with doctors. How ineffective science and medical technology juxtaposed with Regan's possession as equally frightening and horrific. How the film plays on closeted fears of mental illness and disfigurement as an unsavory but effective horror trope. Most of all, I was surprised that I liked it.
I think the film earned the reputation that it has for how seriously it took its subject matter. I mean, a lot of really stupid stuff happens during this movie: bed bouncing, head twisting, split pea soup vomit—it could have easily been really dumb. But it was all shot with a deadpanned seriousness that challenges the audience to accept its story. I don’t believe in possession, or anything supernatural for that matter (although I’m overcoming a head cold and ‘get’ exorcizing evil from one’s body) but the movie worked for me because I believed that the characters’ trials and reactions were real. The demon was hardly effective for having a laughable fondness of the “c-word” but when it began to make claims about Father/Dr. Karras’ mother, I sensed its true evil.
It really had me thinking about movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and why they loom so large in our memories. There were gangster films before "The Godfather" and space movies before "Star Wars", but for the first time, these films created tactile worlds, characters with dimensionality, and did so without ever winking at the camera. Perhaps this is what the Exorcist did for horror. It was an early example of taking a “based on a ‘true story’” premise, shooting it with high production values, true character arcs, pretty good special effects, well executed horror, and adding just the right pinch of myth to ensure an enduring reputation.