#4. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: William Peter Blatty (based on The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty)
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb
The Exorcist has long been considered to be the scariest movie ever made, and for good reason. William Friedkin’s intelligent take on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name is one of the most successful horror films ever made, both on a critical and financial level. The Exorcist follows actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) as they live their quiet, but busy, life together in Georgetown. After Regan plays with a ouija board and becomes acquainted with “Captain Howdy”, strange things begin to happen all around the MacNeil house. Soon, it is apparent that something is wrong with Regan – she is experiencing seizures, using obscene language, and displays abnormal levels of strength for a 12-year old girl. After countless rounds of medical testing, Chris is tired and desperate for answers – she contacts Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who reluctantly agrees to perform an exorcism on the young Regan. Karras along with the veteran Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) prepare for the long, exhausting, and dangerous exorcism on Regan MacNeil, who grows worse by the hour. The Exorcist is an incredible example of the power that pacing can have on a film – the mounting level of intensity and mystery builds to a boiling point in the movie’s final act, and what follows is one of the most memorable scenes in horror movie history. Director William Friedkin used manipulative hands-on techniques behind the camera to get reactions out of the cast, and it works to great effect in The Exorcist’s more horrific moments. Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair (with help from Mercedes McCambridge) deliver incredibly physical performances, with the two women hitting each other and interacting with various parts of the set. Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil tries to remain brave and fierce for her young daughter, but by the end is exhausted and at her wit’s end – the journey is an incredibly taxing one for Chris. Friedkin went as far as firing blanks on the set in order to get reactions out of Jason Miller and Max von Sydow during the film’s climactic exorcism scene, and clearly the obnoxious technique paid off. Both Miller and Sydow perform brilliantly as Fathers Karras and Merrin, with Sydow bringing a great deal of wisdom to the role. Miller’s Karras is a deeply conflicted and complex character, which is greatly appreciated for any supporting character. Aside from the terrific pacing and acting found in The Exorcist, the film’s special effects still hold up today. The transformation of Regan MacNeil from innocent 12-year-old girl to the horrifying being known as “Pazuzu” is incredibly effective and creepy, with uncredited actress Mercedes McCambridge lending the unique and horrific voice to the character. Other impressive practical effects include large household items violently sliding and flying across the screen seemingly on their own volition towards Ellen Burstyn’s character. The score performed by Mike Oldfield and Jack Nitzsche adds a great deal of mood to the film’s already thick atmosphere, most notably with the creepy “Tubular Bells” theme. The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1974, include Best Picture, Best Director (Friedkin), Best Actress (Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Miller), and Best Supporting Actress (Blair) among others, bringing home only two for Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay (Blatty). The success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains unparalleled for a horror film, and the movie continues to age like a fine wine. It’s horrifying, thought-provoking, full of great performances, subtle writing, and rich with creepy atmosphere – it’s the greatest horror film ever made.