tek's rating: ½

The Exorcist (R)
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review sites: Black List; Dread Central; PopHorror (2); Kindertrauma
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Caution: potential spoilers.

This is based on a 1971 novel that I haven't read. The movie came out in 1973, a couple of years before I was born, and quickly became a modern classic of the horror genre. So I've been aware of it for most of my life, as well as being familiar with the theme music, Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," which itself became pretty iconic. But I didn't get around to watching the movie until 2016. (On the 13th of September, ten days before the premiere of a new Exorcist TV series.) Anyway, "The Exorcist" is considered by many fans to be the scariest film of all time, but now that I've finally seen it, I'm afraid I have to disagree. (Of course, I watched it on a laptop, and I expect it would have been better on a movie screen or even a TV. But I've watched other movies on a laptop and still found them scarier than this.) To be sure, there are a few scary bits, but none of them were even close to the scariest things I've ever seen on film. And the majority of the movie wasn't really scary at all. That being said, I still thought it was a fairly good (and scary) movie, just not the scariest ever. (Note that the version I watched was the 132 minute director's cut, which I assume I liked better than I would have liked the original 121 minute cut.)

It begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq. There's a Catholic priest named Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who finds like a little totem or something buried under an ancient temple or whatever. It clearly disturbs him, though I have no idea why. (Reading Wikipedia after having watched the movie, some explanation is given, which I assume comes from the book or a prequel or something, because the movie I watched certainly didn't explain it.) Anyway, the scene then changes to Georgetown (a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.), where an actress named Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has been filming a movie. She and her 12-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), have been living there during the movie's production, though they're actually from L.A. The early part of the movie establishes that mother and daughter have a good relationship, and Regan is a sweet and funny girl. One day, she plays with a Ouija board, and it seems as if something strange might be going on with that, but nothing too strange, I think. And... I'm trying to remember the order in which things happened. There's a scene where Chris wakes up to find Regan in bed with her, and Regan says her own bed had been shaking. Then there's a scene where they're at the hospital, which seemed kind of abrupt and unexplained, to me, but I guess Chris thought there was something wrong with her daughter. And the doctor said it was just nerves. But Regan did some swearing at the doctor, which is something she never does. (I kind of joked to myself that maybe she was just acting out because everyone at the hospital pronounced her name "Reegan" when it's actually "Raygan.") Anyway, lots of other stuff happens, but it seemed to me like it took quite awhile for the movie to get to any of the really weird stuff. And even when it became clear that something was very wrong with Regan, the doctors were loathe to suggest psychotherapy, or anything like that. Meanwhile, Chris was getting more and more disturbed (because some of the things she saw simply weren't attributable to either a physical or psychological problem, but of course the doctors didn't see any of that).

Eventually, Chris comes to believe Regan has been possessed, and she is referred to a priest named Father Damien Karras, who is also a psychiatrist. (We'd already seen intermittent scenes of things going on in his own life before he ever met Chris, including a crisis of faith, and the declining health and eventual death of his mother.) But at first, Father Karras doubts Regan is really possessed, and he doesn't really believe in exorcism. (It's kind of odd, because by the time he meets Regan, it seemed to me to be almost impossible for anyone to doubt that there was a demon inside her.) Still, he's finally convinced, and Father Merrin is called in to help, since he has experience with this kind of thing. (He had returned from Iraq a few months earlier, I guess.) Meanwhile, there's also a police detective named Lt. Kinderman investigating the recent death of Burke Dennings, a film director and friend of Chris, who had fallen out of Regan's window one night, I guess. (Honestly, I don't even remember ever seeing the character at all, just hearing him mentioned both before and after his death. But I guess he was in some scenes that just didn't make an impression on me.)

Anyway... Wikipedia says that the demon that possessed Regan was named Pazuzu. In the movie, the demon claims to be the Devil, and the name Pazuzu is never heard. And there are various other things that make little or no sense to me, or that just aren't clear to me. Like, it's pretty obvious that there's a connection between the thing Merrin found in Iraq and what's happening to Regan in Georgetown, but I have absolutely no idea what that connection is, or why Regan would have been chosen as the victim of demonic possession. It all seems utterly random, to me. Also, we occasionally see brief glimpses of some creepy face just appearing in random places. I kind of hoped something more would come of that, but as far as I could tell, nothing ever did. Also, "Tubular Bells" was played a lot less in the movie than I expected it to be, and I don't remember it ever playing when anything creepy was happening, so it's kind of weird that it's become this iconically creepy piece of music. But anyway... as I said, there were some genuinely scary bits. One of the most famous is the "pea soup" thing (although I think that's a description given by fans), which personally I didn't care for. Another famous scene is Regan's head twisting. And there's the "spider-walk" scene, which was very brief but definitely very creepy. And at one point we see words etched on Regan's stomach, which I thought was actually the scariest thing in the movie (because of the implication, which sadly was never really explored). And there's the way Regan ends up looking and sounding when the demon has fully possessed her, in addition to all the things she says and does. She definitely becomes one of the creepiest Creepy Kids in movie history, which is all the more effective because of having gotten to know her before the possession. And then of course there's the exorcism itself. So, I can understand the movie being popular with horror fans. And I appreciate the fact that there's probably a lot of stuff I've seen that came after this, which was inspired by this movie.

I'm probably forgetting things I wanted to say. I've intentionally left out anything I'd consider major spoilers, like how it all ends. But I'm glad to have finally seen it, and I suppose I'd like to see at least one of the sequels someday. Maybe.

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