It’s hard to write something about The Exorcist without running into the age-old critics’ dilemma: it’s already been said before. That’s why this year’s Halloween Fifteen affords me a lot of room to write some interesting stuff about the chosen film without needing to review it explicitly. Here, we’ll talk about what makes The Exorcist a classic – no doubt – and also whether it’s good viewing for Halloween. May the power of Christ compel you to check out this work!
What makes it a classic?
How to answer this question best? The Exorcist is unequivocally a classic, but it’s probably best to start out addressing new viewers who haven’t seen the film. Compared to contemporary horror films, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is slow – so slow, in fact, that the actual exorcism doesn’t take place until the last quarter of the film. Even nearly an hour into the movie, there’s been little indication that Regan has been possessed; Friedkin’s direction is glacial, building up two sides of the film.
First and foremost is movie star Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) plight, dealing with her daughter Regan’s (Linda Blair) sudden change. The Exorcist starts out with Regan as a normal, blossoming young girl – curious, smart, and altogether charming. It’s a key point for Friedkin’s direction, documenting how different Regan becomes after her possession. It’s also a nod to William Peter Blatty’s novel, where the author leaves open the possibility that Regan was never really inhabited by a demon in the first place.
The Exorcist intimately examines Chris MacNeil more than Regan herself, showcasing a woman who struggles to be a mother and a celebrity at the same time. She’s also a single mother dealing with what one can only assume is a deadbeat dad, one who doesn’t call Regan on her birthday. In short, there are a lot of familial issues within the MacNeil family – faith being one of them, if Chris’ cursing throughout the film is any indication (note how many times she says “Jesus Christ”!) – and Friedkin allows most of the first half of the film to define it.
Similarly, he alternates to Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a priest losing his faith in the church after some difficult psychiatric cases and the recent loss of his mother. It would seem from the outset of the film that Friedkin is spending far too much time on Karras as a character; he’s not even technically “the exorcist,” with that title being delegated to his partner Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) late in the film. But over time, Karras’ loss – both familial and spiritual – becomes an entry point for the demon, a way to psychologically manipulate the characters at their weakest.
And that’s truly what makes The Exorcist scary, and a classic in its own right. Even if the viewer doesn’t take Regan’s possession literally, Friedkin (and Blatty, who adapted the screenplay) explore people at their lowest points, with Regan even blaspheming Father Karras’ mother directly following her death. It’s a horrible showing from humanity, and The Exorcist finds the worst in its characters, even pulling out terrible moments from Chris and Karras. That the human mind can be decimated like this is truly horrifying, and The Exorcist capitalizes on it.
Is it good for Halloween?
I can’t think of any reason why someone would skip The Exorcist for Halloween. If you’re not watching for 360 degree head spins, vaginal crucifix stabbings, or magical levitations, then you definitely should tune in for Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” which are actually not featured much in the film but kick in during a very Halloween-inspiring scene with Chris walking down the street.
But I would recommend watching the director’s cut for Halloween, which isn’t exorbitantly different from the original but adds a couple of interesting scenes. Most importantly, it adds a bunch of flashes of demon faces throughout, which help to add a feeling that the demon is constantly among the characters. There’s even a scene where the demon face appears behind Chris, in a kitchen where the lights are blinking on and off. It’s definitely a scary moment, and perfect for Halloween.