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EXORCIST, THE (director/writer: William Friedkin; screenwriter: from the novel by William Peter Blatty; cinematographer: Owen Roizman; editors: Norman Gay/Evan Lottman/Bud Smith; music: Steve Boeddeker; cast: Jason Miller (Father Damien Karras), Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max Von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings), Barton Heyman (Dr Klein), Reverend William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Rudolf Sch√ľndler (Karl), Reverend Thomas Bermingham (Tom, President of University); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: R; producer: William Peter Blatty; Warner Bros; 2006)
“Totally ludicrous.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the revolting but somewhat entertaining horror shocker that helped launch a whole series of devil and demonic possession films (please forgive it, for it doesn’t know what harm it caused to the movie industry with all the cheap copycat and slasher films to follow). It’s totally ludicrous and its scary effects depend entirely on special effects (in other words, everything about it is rigged). It takes a serious dose of suspension of disbelief to stay with all the hokum. It has the distinction of being one of the first ‘blockbusters’ in film history. This version adds 11 minutes to the 15 that were cut to keep it at two hours, which comes as the writer’s cut instead of the director’s. It’s based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin (“The French Connection”/”Sorcerer”). The film is one of those that shows its true colors with repeated viewings, as it seems to get worse with each showing. It spawned three sequels: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) by John Boorman (regarded by many as the worst sequel of all-time); The Exorcist III (1990) by William Peter (a more subtler film than The Exorcist); and the prequel Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) by Renny Harlin (it was given a theatrical release while the one in 2005 by Paul Schrader was not released because the studio thought it lacked value as a scare film.

It’s set in the affluent Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., where famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a bitchy divorcee is on location shooting her latest film and suddenly finds that she can’t comprehend the increasing hyperactivity (diagnosed as a nervous disorder) of her testy 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). When the medical doctors and psychiatrists fail to understand her increasing violent behavior, they suggest she see a priest about an exorcism. Regan mouths the most foul obscenities, masturbates with a crucifix while screaming out that Jesus is fucking her, urinates on the floor in front of company, her bed mysteriously shakes with great force without a rational cause and her mom’s director friend (Jack MacGowran) is pushed out Regan’s bedroom window and his head is twisted around backwards by a supernatural force. Which brings police Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) to investigate, or rather absurdly make small talk to the parties concerned about actors John Garfield and Sal Mineo. Chris meets with the priest Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a brooding young Jesuit who studied psychology at Harvard and whose elderly mother just died after living in a NYC slum and being hospitalized in a shoddy city hospital. The priest is guilt-ridden about not being there for her and is having doubts about his own faith. After investigating Regan, the priest concludes that she’s possessed by a demon and gets the church to agree to an exorcism to be performed by him and, because he’s inexperienced, he’s to be aided by the veteran elderly priest Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow).

It builds in tension to the exorcism sequence, where Regan talks profanely like a man, spews out green slime vomit, manages a spectacular levitation (like one would expect to see at a Las Vegas magic show) and eventually gets free of her straps and overcomes the two priests with her supernatural power.

The film flounders in saying anything real or important about exorcism, and serves only to assault our rational senses through cinematic magic and sensationalism. It becomes annoying mostly because of all its pretenses. In the re-released version the Von Sydow character’s speech is restored where he tells why the demon chose Regan: as an example for humanity to keep the faith. It therefore reflects more openly Blatty’s vision of the work as a Catholic treatise on Evil than did the original film and it sets out to prove that when it comes to the important questions in life science is inadequate. But I would think anyone who takes the occult seriously would find it hard to embrace a film that makes no sense and so blatantly attacks science without proper cause. Blatty makes a curious statement about the exploitative nature of the film that can’t be ignored: “I know how to do it. I just throw everything at the audience and give them a real thrill. That’s what they want. They don’t want to go into a theater and treat it like a book. They don’t even read books!”

This is a reactionary film that lays claim that what’s wrong with children these days (the 1970s) can be blamed on the Devil: that’s why they are no longer innocent, drop out, take drugs and protest. It calls for children to get rid of the Devil to be cured–as did President Reagan–and go back to obeying their traditional conservative parents and the church. It assumes the world will be just fine again once this conservative formula is followed.

REVIEWED ON 11/20/2006 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”