My Favourite Horror Film: JW Ward on The Exorcist

It’s been a wild month here at Biff Bam Pop!, slowly working our way towards the greatest and most fun of all the dates on the calendar:  Hallowe’en.

We’ve explored the dark realms of H.P. Lovecraft and the twisted recesses of Stephen King’s imagination.  We’ve celebrated the greatest villains and now, each of BBP‘s contributors are picking their favourite horror films of all time.

My choice might be predictable.  It’s one of the few instances where I’ll side with the masses, but it’s for a reason:

It’s that damn good.

Year after year, this film is at the top of every list of scariest horror films of all time.

If you’ve seen it, you know why.

If not, it’s time to find out what you’ve been missing.

If you don’t know the plot, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn)  is a famous actress working on a film in Washington, D.C. and living a happy life with her 12 year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair).  After Regan suffers a seizure, strange and supernatural things start to happen.  Regan’s bed starts to shake violently while she’s in it.  Another time, she starts cursing in a male voice.  Then people start dying.

After doctors fail to find a biological reason for what’s happening, Chris takes Regan to see a psychiatrist.  When even that fails, it’s recommended that she seek an exorcism, as Regan has begun to call herself the Devil and the doctors think that Regan’s belief in possession is what’s fueling the problem.  Chris seeks out Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a psychiatrist  and Roman Catholic priest who is starting to doubt his faith after the death of his mother. Initially skeptical of Regan’s possession, Karras ultimately asks permission from the Church to perform an exorcism, and they send Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) to drive the demon out.

Like many of the great films of the 1970s, The Exorcist succeeds with a minimalist approach.  For much of the movie, Regan’s strange behaviour could be attributed to simply being a disturbed child.  As the small incidents turn deadly, there is still doubt as to whether anything supernatural is really going on or that Regan has simply snapped.  By not surrendering to the conceit of the supernatural too early in the film, The Exorcist transcends the evil-child horror genre of the era, typified by films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen.

The actors in The Exorcist – Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miler, Linda Blair and Max von Sydow – are beyond excellent.  Their on-screen moments of fear are so total and honest that viewers can’t help but be affected by it.  The frightening moments that happen throughout the film – Regan’s accident during her mother’s party, the spider walk in the director’s cut, Regan’s violent thrashing in her bed. and the crucifix scene – are so brutal and shocking that nearly forty years later, they still shock, and you react to them with the same horror that the characters do.

The ultimate credit for The Exorcist goes to two men: writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin, adapting Blatty’s original 1971 novel.  Friedkin was known to be so ruthless on set that he would go as far as to slap the actors to get them to behave convincingly.  Linda Blair complained for years about the lingering injuries she felt from the harness she wore when thrashed about the bed.  By creating such a tense atmosphere on set, Friedkin captured genuine tension on camera.

When The Exorcist debuted in theatres, word got around that it was so scary that people actually fainted in cinemas.  Then the line-ups grew, and despite mixed critical reviews at the time, The Exorcist became a hit.

Years later, it’s still the standard for silver screen terror.

After just one viewing, many women that I’ve been with can’t bear to see it again.  Many men won’t ever watch it alone.

If there’s one time of year to truly test your nerve with a horror movie, it’s Hallowe’en night.  Invite a friend over and enjoy the company of The Exorcist.

And after that, get a different kind of scare by watching The Exorcist II.

Now that’s terrifying.

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