#4: The Exorcist (1973)
The proof of the immortal power of director William Friedkin’s triumph is that nearly 40 years after its debut, the story of an innocent twelve year-old girl possessed by Satan remains as bone-chillingly shocking and powerful today as it was then. If this Best Picture Oscar-nominee (and well-deserved winner for adapted screenplay and sound design) has aged a day that’s only because, like a classic painting, the craftsmanship that went into the creation feels like a lost art. Furthermore, though many have tried, no film produced since has equaled the raw experience of this roller-coaster of terror. There’s just something unique about “The Exorcist,” and I think that something is that, creatively, it’s the most successful horror film ever. Storytellers always have a target in mind, and the best of them aim to make their audience feel a certain way. In this regard, there are only a handful of hole-in-ones in all of cinema, and “The Exorcist” is one of them.
More importantly, this explicitly disturbing, pedal to the metal, shock and horror extravaganza, is also one of the single most beautiful and moving expressions of what it means to be a Christian put on film in the last forty years.
Based on a true story that occurred in Silver Spring, Maryland back in 1949, “The Exorcist” opens in Iraq where an elderly Catholic priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), is helping to supervise an archaeological dig that unearths a number of unsettling omens that foreshadow what’s to come. Meanwhile, in the tony DC suburb of Georgetown, divorced movie actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her pre-teen daughter Regan (Linda Blair), begin to experience a number of inexplicable events around the house that include strange noises in the attic and the violent shaking of Regan’s bed. Soon, and tragically, the events are traced to something gone horribly wrong with the young girl, whose behavior is becoming increasingly erratic and even violent.
A team of doctors and specialists can’t find anything physically wrong with Regan, nor can the psychiatrists. Out of ideas and dealing with an anxious mother who won’t take no for an answer, they suggest the ancient Catholic ritual of exorcism, not because these men of science want to believe in such things, but because there’s a chance it might serve as a psychological way for Regan to find her way back. This leads Chris to Father Damien Karras (a perfectly cast and unforgettable Jason Miller), a Harvard educated priest who counsels local parishioners and is going through a potentially life-changing crisis of faith brought on, in part, by the recent death of his impoverished mother.
Karras is, to say the least, skeptical, but after a couple of unsettling visits with Regan he more or less agrees with the doctors about the psychological benefits of an exorcist. The Church also agrees and subsequently assigns Father Merrin to lead the ritual, one of the few active priests with experience in these matters.
Whereas “The Passion of the Christ” is cinema’s most powerful and loving depiction of Christ’s sacrifice on our unworthy behalf, “The Exorcist" is one of cinema’s most loving and powerful depictions of the Christian ideal of humility and self-sacrifice. If you look at the film’s individual characters what you see are archetypes that represent varying degrees of faith, or a lack thereof. You have the doctors who represent science; Chris, the secular actress; Father Karras whose faith is all but gone; and Father Merrin, a man whose unwavering faith has come with the terrible burden of having to fight evil face to face.
Touchingly, throughout the course of this story and for the sake of an innocent young girl, each will find it within themselves to selflessly act on her behalf. The men of science find the humility to admit defeat and suggest a turn to faith for the answers they don’t have. The secular mother, who was both outraged and terrified after finding a Crucifix in her daughter’s bedroom, begs a Catholic priest for an exorcism. The young priest who has all but lost his faith will not only find it again in the repulsive face of evil, he will commit the ultimate sacrifice to vanquish it. And the old priest, who has dreaded the tap on shoulder that signals his time has come to meet the terrible fate he’s known was inevitable since the dig in Iraq, willingly goes to meet that fate.
Yes, “The Exorcist” is, to put it simply, the scariest movie ever made, but it’s also a love letter to Christianity, one that declaratively says that what we Christians believe is true, that Jesus Christ is a powerful force for good in the world, and that the conflicted journey that leads to our own personal faith and the one that takes place afterwards, is frequently made difficult by our own complicated humanity. No one I know has ever found Jesus after falling to their knees in a sun-dappled field, and no one I know has ever found forever-bliss afterwards.
Faith is a responsibility, and yes, at times, even a burden; a constant psychological struggle to hold on to your belief in the face of a diabolical world, and a constant gut-check to work through what it is that God expects from us and then to follow through and do it. By accident or design, screenwriter and novelist William Peter Blatty might have wrapped all of this around a shell of pea-soup sensationalism, but within that shell is a level of respect and insight into what it means for many of us to be Christian that hits just as hard as the scares.
P.S. It didn't make the list, but the William Peter Blatty directed "Exorcist III" is one terrific chiller with more than a few scares that do it justice even in the overwhelming shadow of the original. Well worth a look.