Never has a movie been so adamant about scaring the holy shit out of someone as The Exorcist. Its goal is cause nightmares inside your nightmares, and it succeeds brilliantly.
Director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty build up the movie so well they go as far as to start it off almost like a straight drama.
Focusing on the relationship between Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her soon-to-be-pea-spitting daughter Regan (Linda Blair), as well as on Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) struggling with his faith, it would seem The Exorcist is an eerie character study. Then Regan’s heads starts spinning like an owl, her face covered in blood.
Immense props need to be given to the special effects and make-up department, whose work on the young child is now the stuff of legend. People around the world will forever be horrified and plagued by the images of Regan’s haunting face as she convulses and floats in the air.
These effects may not work on today’s audience watching it for the first time, being exposed to more blood in one Saw movie than this movie could even imagine using. But once little Regan starts crawling down the steps with blood pouring out of her mouth accompanied by demonic screams, its becomes hard for anyone to deny the sheer, horrific power of imagery.
What bolsters these scenes to even greater heights are the score (which has now been everyone’s ringtone at least once) and the ceaseless atmosphere of the home. The room where the possessed girl resides becomes such a beacon of terror the heart skips every beat at even the thought of going in it, a method used even today by movies like Paranormal Activity.
As for this Regan character she is played to absolute physical perfection by the then young Blair. Never has a young actor been so committed to a role, embracing the grueling effects as she gets thrown around the bed like a rag doll.
Burstyn and Miller are great too as the struggling mother and priest, but never have professional actors been so out-shined by a child.
As I said, there may be scenes that have not aged well—a death sentence for a horror movie—but the overwhelming intensity of the movie and the mythology (or reality) of the story is too hard to deny that The Exorcist has rightfully earned its place as one of the scariest movies of all time. It’s only competition is any movie where Mickey Rourke shows his face.