It is impossible to discuss William Friedkin’s 1973 film adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel The Exorcist without discussing its effect on culture. This is true for a lot of art, especially during a time when cultural effects unspool in real time (on social media, for example) and when watching such unspooling is part of the entertainment experience itself. And yet, not a lot of art can say it made the profound impact that The Exorcist did. It was a cultural sensation, a movie of such high demand that the lines for it wrapping around theaters made it a literal blockbuster. The extreme reactions of moviegoers, including fainting and vomiting, were so widely documented that film historian William Paul said the film’s audience “had become a spectacle equal to the film.” It was the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and as such has been credited for legitimizing the genre (though whatever that was worth was probably undone several times over by the proliferation of gratuitous and dimwitted slasher and exploitation fare in the decade and a half that followed). It revived an ancient Catholic rite and prompted many reported suspicions of possession in its wake. (The good old availability heuristic rears its head yet again.) The Exorcist, plain and simply, bedeviled audiences, crawling under moviegoers’ collective skin and infecting them like a curse.
That was a gift to its studio, but in the years since, it has given the film a reputation that is impossible to live up to. Clearly, the extreme audience reaction was primarily in response to the scenes depicting the demonic possession of the young girl Regan (Linda Blair). But once you’ve seen her levitate and thrash and heard her growl, “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell,” (which actually makes Hell seem like it might not be that bad—at least there’s available dick), and once you have been subsequently inundated with references that high-impact cinema tends to proliferate in culture, you’re left with a shell of a movie that was once full of shocks.
The revised tagline of the movie, on some home-video releases, is: “The Scariest Film of All Time.” Period. I beg to differ. I’m open to the argument that The Exorcist still works as a monster movie, but for it to be as effective as its reputation suggests, one must at least be open to believing in the existence of demons and their capacity to infect human bodies. I do not believe in these things, so I immediately enter The Exorcist with a handicap and can only appreciate the grand guignol it offers as spectacle in and of itself, with no broader implications. The Exorcist is a triumph of good over evil only if one invests in the presented function of the Catholic church as an institution that protects children, and given the countless abuse accusations and convictions that have surfaced in the years since (in some cases, pointing to evidence that the Catholic church worked to protect its priests and own reputation at the expense of the children whose lives it destroyed), I cannot bring myself to invest in this either. As a nonbeliever who deeply resents how people’s money and faith have been exploited for the sake of abusing children, I cannot bring myself to find much to cheer about. (And that’s to say nothing of the church attempting Goopy sorcery to cure supposedly possessed people of issues better handled by educated professionals like doctors and therapists.)
The first 90 minutes of The Exorcist is largely a set up for the climax: A showdown between Satan and Catholic priests. Getting to this point is a slog. There is nothing remarkable about Regan, a young girl who wants a horse and plays games in her yard. Her lack of a single thing to say plays out on screen as she struggles to leave a message for her absentee father. Her mother, Chris, is an actor who’s frenzied long before her daughter is throwing up pea soup and masturbating with a crucifix. Burstyn’s performance as Chris has two modes: screaming and not screaming and she does a lot of the former. She’s insufferable in this movie. These characters are so lacking in dimension that clearly Regan’s possession is the only interesting thing that’s ever happened in their lives. They should thank Satan for giving them something to care about.
Also, Satan is such a flop. All this vulgarity and bed shaking and for what? One dead priest and a traumatized mother-daughter pair? As the high priest of evil, doesn’t he have anything better to do than micromanage a handful of people’s misery? What a low-stakes endeavor from an entity with so much power. How did he ever think he could get anything done, just going from person to person, scarring up their face and making them say dirty things?
So many early scenes in this movie feature a possessed Regan putting her mother (or others) in peril. With these scenes’ abrupt cuts, so goes logic. After Regan telepathically moves a dresser so that it nearly collides with her mother, how did her mother get out of the room? Did Satan just give up for a second? The threat was enough? Did the human Regan return? It all starts to feel incoherent, a rote ratcheting up to a climax that, while effective, is both inevitable and not quite enough to justify the rather slow and dull movie that precedes it. (Don’t get me started on the 10-minute prologue in which exorcist Father Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, finds a statue in Iraq that suggests...“Here’s Satan!” in the least engaging way possible.) In fact, the head-turning, the pea soup vomit, the levitating, the spider walk—all of it is trotted out so methodically it’s like a commercial for some dark-sided doll with a host of child-hypnotizing special features. “Look what she can do!” the movie enthuses, atrocity after atrocity.
Viewed today, The Exorcist is merely redundant—I don’t need a myth that argues about the existence of evil. I see it everywhere, in so many structures, including the government of the country that I live in. I should add that The Exorcist was never a movie I watched growing up. A lot of horror movies maintain their grip on people as a direct result of being viewed during formative times. Had I seen The Exorcist when I became enchanted by A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it may have burrowed itself into my then-highly absorbent brain and its continued effects on me might be impossible to deny. But it didn’t, and as someone who first watched it in my mid-20s, this movie has always mostly bored me, either by taking forever to get to the climax or showing me what I’d seen so many times in an Exorcist-saturated culture. In this way, I think The Exorcist is a victim of its own success. But I want to emphasize that because of the ways that movies hit us depending on our life stages, especially horror movies, my experience is subjective and I completely respect those who remain under this undoubtedly important, paradigm-shifting movie’s spell. That’s just the way it goes. The devil works in mysterious ways.