I remember when I was a little kid just the word Exorcist was enough to fill me with dread and horror. The movie had quickly earned the reputation of being "the scariest movie ever" , and everyone who saw it in the theatre would tell of their revulsion and fear with a nervous laugh and a shiver. This was one of the rare cases in which I was relieved to be too little to see an influential release such as this, for it almost became a test of one's bravery and stamina to endure a screening. The anecdotes about green puke and blasphemous crucifix usage, not to mention twisting heads and the most hideous voice ever recorded became the stuff of mass cultural legend.
As I entered adolescence I developed a keen interest in horror literature and movies, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, helmed by the late Forrest J. Ackerman became something of a monthly obsession for me. I hunted down and watched as many of the genre classics as I could. But still, The Exorcist remained something of an intimidation to me.
Finally, when the age of the VCR dawned and it was possible to screen movies uncut and outside normal circulation I had to face it head on. My oldest brother rented the movie and we watched it. From the opening scenes at an archaeological dig in Iraq to the last in the misty grey streets of Georgetown I was spellbound. Here was a movie that happened to be concerned with horror; not a horror movie. The direction was mature and refined, the imagery profound. The acting was of the highest caliber. At times amusing, at times almost unbearably naturalistic, you sensed right away that this was a movie that was crafted, not cranked out. Certainly not the exploitation flick that its' reputation might lead you to believe.
I won't dwell on any details of the story; no doubt anyone reading this has probably seen it before, and if you are like me you have screened it many times. I will say that despite the obvious spiritual horror of the possessed girl, it is the medical horror of all the tests performed on the girl that really gets to me, especially now that I am a parent myself.
The story hinges primarily on the character not of the Exorcist, nor of the possessed girl or her mother, but on the battle being waged for the soul of the Exorcist's assistant, Father Damien Karras. He is battling with a feared loss of faith at the onset of the picture; frustrated by the impotency he feels in the face of his inability to "save" his mother from a decline in health leading to her despair and death. Indeed it is despair that seems to be the demon's weapon of choice as he uses the crucible of the girl's soul to take down all the characters concerned for her well- being around her. In the end, Father Karras overcomes his impotence of spirit and sacrifices himself-"Come into me!"-seemingly the true target of the sinister force-that the girl may be free. His crucifixion was a fatal header down an epic set of stone stairs, and the scene where his priest friend holds his bloody hand and administers a trembling Last Rites is incredibly moving.
It is in the film's final moment, as the mother and now- free child are leaving Georgetown and being seen off by Karras's priest friend that the big punch arrives. As they are saying farewell, the girl, Regan, who was raised in a strictly secular single parent family, focuses on the priest's collar , and in a spontaneous act of gratitude to the Almighty Power that collar represents, embraces the priest and seemingly "accepts" the Power . Not being terribly spiritually- minded at the time, I nonetheless was deeply moved by this, and I knew that the film I had come to I expecting to see "the greatest horror movie" of all time, was in fact one of the greatest" pro-Christian" films of all time; and a classic one.
It was certainly provocative then, and each time I view it, (once a year is my ritual), I get the same overwhelming meditation on trial, redemption and faith. It is a true classic. By the way, the re-released "version you've never seen" with added footage, while a somewhat interesting variant, is, in my opinion, inferior to the original cut, and should only be viewed after seeing the original cut if at all. The less said about the sequels and prequels the better.
This is an entertainment with religion; not a religious entertainment, and I think that is in general the best away to approach the subject; show don't tell.
And I must say, after all these years, I still get a tingle when I hear the word Exorcist, but at least now it doesn't just concern green puke...