While, IMHO, this isn’t the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen, The Exorcist wins the award for “Most Well Made” horror film ever and certainly deserves it’s top rankings on horror lists. This movie is way more than just a scary movie, it’s an immersive experience. It’s interesting that unlike scary movies now, The Exorcist takes it’s time preying upon its audience’s fears and misgivings. The filmmakers take every opportunity to present things to the audience as though this was real life and that it’s impossible to believe that something like this could happen to anyone, much less a little girl. We as an audience don’t even get to see the possession start till halfway through the film and after the film has built up that cache, it keeps topping it with iconic scene after iconic scene. The Williams (Peter Blatty and Friedkin respectively) create such a claustrophobic story that even with the shocking imagery, like the crucifix masturbation scene or the head spinning, you can’t turn your eyes away.
The acting in this film is superb, especially considering how difficult this must have been to make. Ellen Burstyn is so good at histrionics (see Requiem for a Dream) but she’s really contained here. Sure she gets a yell in and cries a lot, but you really see the character’s mental unraveling at how helpless she is to help her daughter. Linda Blair had the monumental task of being the possessed child and she really delivered. Though she’s aided by great makeup and another woman’s voice, the intensity she brings in the scenes before she’s really possessed is wonderful. Were it not for the precociousness of another child actress she would have won the Oscar. The real MVP, and co-lead character, of this movie is Jason Miller as Father Karras. While Regan may be possessed, its Karras who carries much of the narrative weight as the priest questioning his own beliefs. In his character, the film’s battle with faith and the devil is made literal as he makes the most powerful choice at the end of the film.
It was said that Friedkin was meticulous in making this movie, like filming the exorcism scenes on a refrigerated set, and his direction is a big reason why this film was nominated for 10 Oscars. In the original cut, there’s not a shot out of place or used for an exploitative reason. The “Version You’ve Never Seen” is a bit more gratuitous in including that infamous spiderwalk scene, but still a powerful film.