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Criticwire Classic of the Week: William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: William Friedkin's 'The Exorcist'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“The Exorcist”
Dir: William Friedkin
Criticwire Average: A

In 1973, Roger Ebert’s four-star review of “The Exorcist” noted how the year began with “Cries and Whispers” and ended with “The Exorcist.” “Both films are about the weather of the human soul, and no two films could be more different,” he wrote. “Yet each in its own way forces us to look inside, to experience horror, to confront the reality of human suffering.” Ebert was correct on the second front: both Ingmar Bergman and William Friedkin work within the realm of human suffering and pain. But if “The Exorcist” has a few more obscenities and pea soup-vomiting children than “Cries and Whispers,” it is still a spiritual cousin to Bergman’s film (and the rest of Bergman’s filmography), a film concerned with crises of faith, the reality of human pain, and the apparent absence of God’s voice or presence in the face of terror.

Of course, that doesn’t change that “The Exorcist” is still among the scariest, the most entertaining, and the most upsetting horror movies ever made. The film spawned countless imitators, but few are able to replicate the powerful physicality of Friedkin’s special effects or the fever pitch of the performances by Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair. Indeed, none of the exorcism scenes in subsequent films have matched the climactic battle in this film, as none of them have managed to make the fight seem so hopeless while it’s going on (both Jason Miller and Max von Sydow look downright sickly whenever they’re in the room). And while most of the imitators hit the viewer with an onslaught of loud music, shouting and cacophonous effects, “The Exorcist” makes the most of its disturbing sounds (the tearing of flesh when it’s touched by holy water, Mercedes McCambridges’s guttural demon voice) by heightening them and eschewing anything extraneous, making the audience hyper-aware of everything horrible detail.

Matching the film’s constant tone of nerve-jangling terror and dread is a profound sense of despair. von Sydow’s casting as the more experienced priest amidst novices should have tipped people off as to where Friedkin’s head was at: he’s wrestled with God’s silence before, where Miller and Burstyn have not, and now they’ll have to in the most hopeless moment of their lives. The much-derided “Version You’ve Never Seen” put too fine a point on it by letting von Sydow theorize on why Blair’s innocent Regan MacNeil was possessed, but the theatrical cut (thankfully available on last year’s 40th anniversary Blu-Ray release) leaves it to the viewer to suss out. There’s no concrete reason as to why the girl was taken, which makes Burstyn’s search for an answer and Miller’s crisis of faith far more terrifying and desperate. Best of luck to you figuring it out, signed God.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Matt Donato, We’ve Got This Covered

Some of the most iconic scenes in horror were choreographed by Friedkin, be it Linda’s twisting head or her spider-walk down the stairs, resurfacing time and time again on Halloween inspired genre lists detailing cinema’s more ghastly moments. While the special effects teams are equally responsible for bringing these hair-raising sequences to life, Friedkin’s demonic vision crafted a near-perfect experience that scares just as well as it impresses. Read more.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

“The Exorcist” is one of the best movies of its type ever made; it not only transcends the genre of terror, horror, and the supernatural, but it transcends such serious, ambitious efforts in the same direction as Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is a greater film–but, of course, not nearly so willing to exploit the ways film can manipulate feeling. “The Exorcist” does that with a vengeance. The film is a triumph of special effects. Never for a moment–not when the little girl is possessed by the most disgusting of spirits, not when the bed is banging and the furniture flying and the vomit is welling out–are we less than convinced. Read more.

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

It’s still a shock to see how young Linda Blair was; it is Regan’s nymphet innocence, of course, that renders her subsequent ravings so obscene. Yet if “The Exorcist” remains the ultimate exploitation-nightmare vision of the onslaught of adolescence, the film’s terror and disgust, like its hideously explicit and literal-minded special effects, spoke, at the time, to a larger, if unconscious, collective fear. Here, in paranoid, bad-acid-trip form, is the real birth of girl power. Read more.

Wes Greene, Slant Magazine

Friedkin forgoes the easy psychological introspection that’s found in a crisis of faith, instead externalizing the conflict as a physically draining test of human will power and endurance. The filmmaker turns this aspect back on the audience as well, crafting a slow-burn exploitation picture built on his use of overpowering subjectivity—a uniquely uncomfortable spectrum of exaggerated lights, sounds, and colors that assaults our most primal fears on a purely visceral level. It’s telling that, when the protracted exorcism rolls around, it’s not a battle between God and devil, but devil and man. Read more.

Tom Huddleston, Time Out London

In cutting from the clanging bazaars of Iraq to the quiet streets of Georgetown, in blending dizzying dream sequences with starkly believable human drama, Friedkin created a horror movie like no other – both brutal and beautiful, artful and exploitative, exploring wacked-out religious concepts with the clinical precision of an agnostic scientist. Read more.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

… an early indication of how seriously pulp can be taken when religious faith is involved, this 1973 horror thriller is highly instructive as well as unnerving. William Friedkin, directing William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel, aims for the jugular, privileging sensation over sense and such showbiz standbys as vomit and obscenity over plodding exposition. Read more.

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