October 17, 2018

Horror Favorites: The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist theatrical release
By Ross Dunn [CC BY-SA 2.0]
The Exorcist (1973) is considered by many to be one of the scariest horror movies of all time. While I can think of films I found scarier, I cannot think of very many that affected audiences quite like this one. Maybe it is not the scariest film ever, but it deserves its reputation as one of the scariest available (especially for those who believe in demonic possession). I'd also not hesitate to give it a spot in my list of horror favorites.

The first time I saw The Exorcist, I was probably about 13. I caught it on TV, and that means I saw a heavily edited version that first time. I was vaguely aware of the film's reputation, and I remember being very excited that I was finally able to see it. Despite my best efforts to turn off all the lights and give it my full attention, my parents were getting ready for a night out and kept turning on the lights so they could see what they were doing and interrupting me as I tried to watch. By the time they finally left, I felt like I had missed enough of the backstory that I was not sure what was going on.

Less-than-ideal viewing environment aside, I enjoyed the film and found it scary. It was a great story, and I think it may have been one of my first exposures to the demonic possession theme. It just didn't have the same impact that some of my other horror favorites did when I first saw them. I do not remember turning away from the screen at any point or jumping out of my chair in fright. I do not recall having any nightmares afterward. Based on this first viewing, I think it would be safe to say that I thought it was a good but not great scary film. What I did not realize at the time was that my first experience with The Exorcist was lacking some key ingredients that would transform the experience into something very different.

I was in high school the next time I saw The Exorcist, and this viewing experience could not have been more different from my first. The film had been re-released to play in the theater, and this was where I saw it. It was one of those fantastic old movie theaters that have all but disappeared. The interior would have looked creepy no matter what was playing. I went with a friend of mine, his new girlfriend, and a friend of hers I had not previously met. Of the four of us, I was the only one who had seen the film before. My friend and I figured it would be a good make-out movie, but we were wrong. None of us could take our eyes off the screen. Thanks to the big screen, the dark theater, the lack of interruptions, and the fact that they were showing an unedited version, the film was far better than I had remembered.

But all of that pales in comparison to what really made this viewing an experience so different. For the first time, I got to see its impact on others. It was not just that I could feel the girl next to me jumping or burying her face in my shoulder to get away from the images on the screen; it was what I saw as I glanced around the darkened theater. A few people actually ran out during the movie. I had heard about people having that reaction to The Exorcist and other scary films, but this was the first time I had seen it happen. There was a woman a few seats away who kept crossing herself in terror. Needless to say, I finally understood that this film was special.

Even though I had seen it once before, The Exorcist was far scarier and more impressive during this second viewing. I found myself thinking about it for a long time afterward. I think this might have had something to do with all the god-related questions I was having around this time. The theatrical viewing came along at just the right time to make the film scary in a more deeply existential way than I had bargained for.

I have seen The Exorcist a few times since I picked up a copy of the director's cut on DVD many years ago. It holds up fairly well, and I have enjoyed it every time I have seen it. At the same time, I have to admit that it is a bit long and slow-moving compared to many more modern films about exorcism. While I would not call it boring, I can see why some might. If I put myself in the shoes of a younger person who has seen several of the recent possession films but has never watched The Exorcist, I am not what I might think while watching it for the first time today.

There have been more films about demonic possession than I can count, and I have seen lots of them. The Exorcist still stands out to me as one of the best of the genre. This probably has as much to do with how influential the film was and what it accomplished for its time as anything else, but I still find it worth watching today.