William Friedkin’s treatment of William Peter Blatty’s groundbreaking novel thankfully translated in to a groundbreaking horror film that continues to be the standard for the dismal “possession” movie sub-genre. Friedkin’s take on Blatty’s novel is a masterstroke of horror and dramatic cinema, and is easily one of the most intelligent horror films ever made. Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil a woman still reeling from a bitter divorce who is tasked with a heavy work schedule filming a movie and attending to her young daughter Regan. Linda Blair is brilliant as Regan, a young girl longing for attention, especially from her estranged father, and begins to make contact with an imaginary friend through a Ouija board she called “Captain Howdy.”
Before long what seems like a game transforms in to terror as Regan’s mental state begins to gradually diminish and she begins to display a change in personality. As well supernatural occurrences begin plaguing the young girl. Desperate Chris seeks the help of father Karris, a disillusioned young priest who is reeling from his own personal loss in the form of his elderly mother. Despite doubting himself, Karris begins researching Regan and begins to suspect she’s been possessed by a demonic entity that has its own devious plans he’s not yet aware of. Along the way we meet the ailing Father Merrin, as played by the amazing Max Von Sydow. Merrin is still healing from a battle with a demon decades before and is given a horrific sign that he may have to go in to combat once again. Father Merrin is a man who dealt with evil and now must fight the war whether he wants to or not, in order to help this Regan.
Father Karris, on the other hand, is young, but much too vulnerable to fight the evil presence on his own. As we witness Regan being raped and torn to shreds by this demonic force, we’re given four narrative viewpoints allowing is to examine the narrative from all directions. Chris is a mother who must witness her child being ravaged but can not help her, Lee J. Cobb is Detective Kinderman, a man who sees this case as a potential murder and doesn’t know nor will he ever know what has really happened, while Father Karris and Merrin confront their mortality. “The Exorcist” maintains its great sense of character emphases first setting the stages for impending doom through getting to know these characters, and we’re aware of their problems that allow the demon an entrance. The film has build-up to the horrifying climax where we view the ultimate battle of good and evil unfold before our eyes. We feel a sense of intimacy towards these characters, which injects a sense of urgency and real emotional stakes being set.
Friedkin’s adaptation of “The Exorcist” not only deals with battling a demonic presence that exploits a broken family, but also centers on a series of characters all engaging in personal turmoil with their own demons of regret, guilt, isolation, and sadness. Everything from the performances, to Friedkin’s direction is pitch perfect, and “The Exorcist” is a work of cinema in its own league.