The Exorcist (1973) has generated a significant amount of fame for revolutionizing horror, but other than its impressive restraint, I don’t get the hype. Here’s why.
Forgive me, father, for I am about to commit cinematic critique blasphemy.
Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist (1973) follows the family of young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). Originally a carefree, innocent girl, Regan suddenly starts showing violent symptoms that can’t just be explained through puberty. When modern science fails to explain Regan’s condition, her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) calls Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a psychiatrist struggling with his faith, to try and perform an exorcism.
When it comes to “scariest horror movies” discussions, The Exorcist always seems to come up. Its fame is legendary, considered groundbreaking in the genre. People were reportedly fainting in theaters when it first released, and even today many claim its notoriety is no exaggeration. So as someone who loves the horror genre, I was quite excited to finally see one of the great horror classics, wondering if it could give me the same lasting chills as something like Alien or Hereditary did on my first watch.
You probably guessed what happened. I mean, I assume you saw the title.
Look, I don’t always want to be a contrarian. Sometimes I am fine with just enjoying something. I’m saying that because I want to make clear I’m not just doing this to simply say “I am above the hive mind of society” or “I am a big man who doesn’t let horror movies scare me.” I tried, I really tried. I watched this film three times over because I wanted to be absolutely sure that I wasn’t possessed myself by the spirit of some depressed cynic. But despite everything, I just don’t get why The Exorcist has generated so much hype.
The Exorcist ’s Impressive Restraint
But let’s give credit where credit is due, because there is one thing in The Exorcist that I greatly respect, and that is its restraint. Here’s what I mean. During the beginning scenes, Chris hears some thumping noises in the night and goes into Regan’s bedroom to check. She finds that the windows are open, so she closes them, kisses Regan goodnight, and goes back out.
You might wonder why I bothered to point out that scene, but if you have seen enough horror movies, you would be staring in disbelief. This is where horror movies nowadays would put in a sudden fake jumpscare, windows blasting open, a sudden screeching burst of music that sounds like a twitch streamer doing their first Five Nights at Freddy’s playthrough, or at the very least some creepy soundtrack. But The Exorcist does none of that.
This restraint is so seldom seen nowadays. It allows the scenes slowly build up a sense that something is off. The opening scene in Iraq is a good example of this, where nothing truly terrifying happens, but it uses the performances, soundtrack, and bits of imagery to get under your skin.
That restraint also lets us get some honest to god time with the characters before the demon possession ruins their vacation plans. Granted, I wouldn’t want any little girl to remain possessed by a demon, but I can sympathize her more when I actually see a good deal of how she was like before she started vomiting demonic guacamole.
The Exorcist ’s Uneven Character Work
However – and this is where we veer into the negatives, so grab your crucifixes if you love this movie – I wish the movie actually built up most of its characters with that extra time. Instead, the movie either spends too long on characters who become nonexistent towards the climax or spends too little on whose who actually should be more relevant to the story.
Chris, despite having the bulk of the movie’s screentime, just amounts to sitting on the sidelines as the third act begins, and none of her background amounts to anything of significance. Then there are others like a police lieutenant who comes in investigating for a crime but also does nothing, and then Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), who despite being the titular Exorcist, gets nine minutes of screentime in the beginning with virtually no character explanation, and then suddenly pops up for the climax. This uneven character usage leaves me confused on who to emotionally invest myself in.
There is an exception in the form of Father Karras. His story is something I can sympathize with, is the most consistently told, and feels the most relevant. That said, I feel we could have done with more about him; we’re told he is struggling with his faith, but maybe we could have seen just why he feels that way? Another issue with him is that his arc’s connection to the Regan storyline feels very thin. He joins the plot purely because he is called in, before that, the scenes with him feel like someone spliced in a religious biopic into The Exorcist.
The Exorcist isn’t Scary
But alright, let’s say we ignore all that. After all, this is a horror movie, so as long as it manages to scare me enough to make me sleep with the entire neighborhood’s lights turned on, we should be good. But now we get to the main point with this review, and also might be the most contentious: I just don’t find this movie scary. Sure, there were some creepy stuff, but nothing truly terrified or even unnerved me.
Now, I fully admit a part of that is not the movie’s fault. It’s just the fact that it’s been 50 years since its release. The Exorcist was renown because no one had seen anything like it at that time, but that’s precisely the point. “At that time.” I imagine the first computer ever made was revolutionary in the field of technology, but I doubt you’d see anyone hunting for an ENIAC on eBay nowadays.
Since then, we have had countless horror movies about demons, exorcism, and creepy possessed girls. Then we’ve had parodies of those horror tropes, and then parodies of parodies. Because of that, nothing I saw in The Exorcist was truly surprising or shocking. Yes, seeing a girl’s eyes turn yellow and her neck turn 180 degrees must have been shocking the first time, but since then we have had ghosts with multiple eye colors and more distorting movements than a contortionist.
Again, it’s not necessarily this movie’s fault, more on the countless bandwagon chasers that came after, but the fact still remains that horror is a genre that has been wrung drier than a bite of a biscuit in the Sahara desert. Then again, there are still horror movies and monsters that remain iconic despite all that, such as the Xenomorph from Alien or The Ring ghost. But with Regan, she’s not going to stick in my mind much amidst all the fifteen hundred other creepy horror girls out there. (What is up with the horror genre and little girls?)
However, even when I try to look at the movie in a vacuum, I still don’t find the demonic possession particularly terrifying. Now, the scenes where Regan is examined medically is actually shot pretty harrowingly, and I remember getting excited then. But once the actual possession starts, the scary meter drops like a roller coaster.
Sure, the makeup is very impressive, and that is definitely one thing that has stood the test of time. And Linda Blair gives everything into this performance and manages to convince me that she truly isn’t alone in that body. But when the demon-possessed Regan is projectile vomiting vegetable puree or yelling vulgar insults taken from the chat of a 12 year-old League of Legends player, it comes off as more silly than scary. Maybe in 1973 the audience all had the “not in my Christian Minecraft server” mentality and was shocked at a child saying all those profanities, but then that is just another way this film has become dated.
The Issue with The Exorcist ’s Suspense
Yet, even that isn’t the biggest issue I take with the film’s horror. As I continued to rewatch this film over and over, hoping to god that I wouldn’t have to write a review many people would want to exorcise me for, I realized this horror movie was missing a pretty key component of horror: suspense. Okay, some suspense is there, but it feels significantly weak in this film. And I think that has to do with how this film plays with the unknown.
Usually, horror thrives on the unknown. A masked serial killer is significantly scarier when you don’t know his tragic backstory, full moveset, and the specific brand of clothing he likes to wear. And The Exorcist seems to operate on this logic too. There’s no clear explanation for what exactly happened to Regan. In fact, the characters don’t even consider possession a possibility until well over the halfway mark. The issue is that it’s pretty difficult to mask the true reason behind Regan’s symptoms when your movie title is THE EXORCIST.
You could say this is just me nitpicking. But I think it is actually vitally important to the weaker suspense here. See, it has to do with just how much horror stories should not reveal. Revealing too much dilutes the horror, but I’d argue revealing too little can also be detrimental depending on what brand of horror you’re talking about here.
For instance, let’s look at cosmic horror. Here, the story works the more we are kept in the dark, because that lack of comprehension is what fuels the horror. But then let’s look at ghost stories or monster flicks, films with a (relatively) tangible bad guy. In that case, the dynamic between the protagonist and antagonist becomes more of a conflict, trying to either overcome or at least survive the threat directly. In those cases, I argue you need some baseline rules. You don’t need to reveal all of them right away, which is where the element of the unknown comes in, but the suspense would then come from the characters trying to figure out those rules and acting upon them.
Let’s go to the climactic scene of the film for a moment: the exorcism. Here, Father Karras and Father Merrin are trying to drive out the demon in Regan. Now, I will fully concede this scene is very well made. It’s evenly paced, the performances here does look pretty creepy, and you get the sense that there is a true struggle going on. And I am waiting in anticipation for just who will come out on top.
However, while I am waiting, I am also plagued by several stray thoughts stemming from the fact that I know virtually nothing about this demon. We see it is powerful enough to move several objects and shake rooms, but also can’t do anything when it’s being restrained by mere straps. It seems to be a demon and related to Christian mythos, hence why the exorcism has an effect, but then it also reacted allergic to tap water disguised as holy water.
These conflicting details come off as more inconsistent than mysterious, and thus take me out of my immersion. This is why I went on that whole tangent two paragraphs back. The villain here is more of the tangible type, a demon possessing a physical host. The protagonists are trying to actually fight back. In that case, we do need some rules so that we know just how scared we should be for the priests. It is a case where not defining any clear rules for your threat can actually work against the suspense instead of fueling it.
I Don’t Get the Hype
Look, I know many would still want to waterboard me with holy water. And I don’t mean to downplay the film’s cultural impact. It is an important part of cinematic history, and I am glad it kicked off the many horror trends we have today. And again, I think several parts of the film are very respectable, and some like the performances or makeup survived being dated.
But in the end, I cannot say in good faith (heh) that I get the hype around The Exorcist. It just feels unevenly put together as a story and either mundane or not fully fleshed out in its horror. And a part of me keeps wondering: if this film was released today instead of back in 1973, would it have stirred up the same amount of hype and praise? Now, I don’t have a confident answer: no one does. But I think that is more reason why I think it’s sometimes worth taking a film down from its museum pedestal and observing it on its own.
The Exorcist: Believer was released globally in theaters on October 6, 2023.