#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.
#12. Winter Light (1963)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Gunnel Lindblom
My favorite Ingmar Bergman film is one I hesitate to call a “favorite” simply due to the nature of the subject matter explored in his 1963 film Winter Light. The film is the second in a loose thematic trilogy of Bergman-directed movies exploring themes of faith and its effects on people of all walks of life. The trilogy also includes Through a Glass Darkly and Silence, both of which are excellent films in their own right. Winter Light follows Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) over a day as he prepares for his afternoon service in a neighboring town. Over the course of the morning, he has interactions with Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), who feels depressed after reading about China developing an atomic bomb, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), an atheist who is in love with Tomas, and Karin Persson (Gunnell Lindblom), the distraught wife of Jonas. Tomas, who is struggling with questions about his own faith in God, fails to help Jonas with his depressive feelings, which eventually leads to his suicide – leaving his wife Karin alone with their children. Ingmar Bergman is a director who is notorious for exploring difficult themes, most notably about death and faith – two things that almost nobody likes involved in their escapist entertainment. Winter Light is Bergman at his most uncomfortable and instigative – it’s a film with almost no hope and no light. It’s a cold, bitter, challenging, and deeply personal experience in every sense. The bleak nature of Bergman’s script allows for serious questions about God’s silence and one man’s struggle with his once rock solid faith to come across as urgent and deadly serious, especially after it leads to the death of a member of his congregation. Gunnar Bjornstrand’s performance as the Pastor Tomas Ericsson is terrific, allowing members of his congregation to speak at him about their worries and troubles even when he is not sure about his own future with the church. His internal struggle throughout the film is palpable, and makes his interactions with others seem cold and businesslike. Max von Sydow’s performance as the mentally tortured and horribly depressed Jonas Persson is erratic, panicked, and absolutely devastating. When Jonas’ final moments come, the little light truly begins to drain from Winter Light. While it truly is a difficult moviegoing experience, Ingmar Bergman’s film is also one of the most intellectually-challenging experiences I’ve ever had – nothing has ever resonated in my mind quite like Winter Light. I can’t recommend it to many readers, but if the experience sounds like it may be for you, then I can promise you’ll never forget your short time with Winter Light – it’s an unsung masterpiece from one of cinema’s greatest.
#93. The Virgin Spring (1960)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ulla Isaksson (based on 13th-century Swedish folktale Töres döttrar i Wänge)
Starring: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson
Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman is no stranger to tackling heavy subject matter, and his 1960 film The Virgin Spring is a perfect example of this. Bergman’s movie based on a medieval folktale deals with themes of revenge, faith (or lack thereof), and the brutality of man. The Virgin Spring follows young Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) and her servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) as they travel by horseback to deliver candles to their church. Along the way they encounter three sinister young herdsmen who eventually rape and murder Karin as a frightened Ingeri watches from a distance. The men later accidentally seek shelter at the house of Karin and Ingeri, where her mother and father learn of the murder and seek revenge against them. The Virgin Spring earned Bergman his first of three Academy Awards, and helped the Swedish filmmaker break out on an international stage. Bergman is at his very best when he’s dealing with themes of faith and innocence, as he was never afraid to ask unanswerable questions. The Virgin Spring is a visceral, all too realistic trip through Medieval Sweden, and certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. For anybody looking for a challenging and intellectual – but rewarding – experience, I highly recommend it.