We all have our own personal take when it comes to the films that scare us the most. For me, growing up in a strong Catholic household, there was one element/character that scared me more than any slasher film could ever hope to. With all due respect to characters like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, nothing – and no one – could keep me on the edge of my seat and haunt my dreams the way the Devil could.
While horror movies like Jaws, Psycho, and Alien rank higher on my list of the greatest films of all time, to me there has never been a scarier movie than William Friedkin’s classic: The Exorcist.
Based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty (who won the Oscar for adapting the screenplay), The Exorcist delivers a tale spun right out of Catholic lore. 14-year-old Linda Blair plays Regan, a young girl who displays increasingly strange behaviors much to the alarm of her movie starlet mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). As the situation worsens, and doctors are unable to explain Regan’s peculiar condition, Chris reaches out to the church in a last act of desperation. In response, the church sends Father Karras (Jason Miller) – a young priest struggling with his own faith – and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) – an aging exorcist who becomes entangled with the entity Regan plays host to, a demon that even the experienced Merrin has never seen the likes of.
One of the make-or-break components of any horror film (in my opinion) is the pacing. Build too slowly, and you risk losing your audience. Build too quickly, and you might fail to develop your characters fully. What Friedkin did – as masterfully as anyone has ever done, mind you – was construct a story arc that builds slowly but intensely, mounting one shocking sequence after another, and culminating in an extremely engrossing climax.
The film not only deserves to be at the top of any list that ranks the scariest films of all time, but also demands respect for transforming the genre entirely. From the Academy Award winning script and sound, to the maniacally constructed sets, makeup, editing, and cinematography, The Exorcist is a finely crafted and marvelously performed fable that speaks to the power of good vs. evil, and manages to hold up exceptionally well over 40 years later.
I simply love this film: ★★★★