Here’s the truth: there are some scenes from movies that are simply iconic. The shower scene in Psycho. The “I Am Your Father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back. The “you can’t handle the truth!” scene from A Few Good Men. The Exorcist has not only some of the most iconic scenes in movie history, but the shot above? Perhaps the most universally recognisable single shot from any film ever.
This was my first time watching this movie, but of course I’d seen that frame a hundred times before and I knew exactly where it was from. Everything about it is wonderful: the composition, that ghost-like mist… even the way the street lamp is angled is utter perfection. But does the rest of the movie live up to that seminal image?
The Exorcist needs no synopsis really, because the title says it all. When a young – usually bright and happy – little girl suddenly changes, her mother is led to believe by psychiatrists that she’s suffering from sort of mental illness. When witch doctors and priests try to persuade her differently, she wants to hear none of it. Then, of course, it becomes blatantly obvious that she’s been possessed by a horrific, evil spirit, and the only person who can save her is an exorcist of the highest regard.
I began this review by alluding to the brilliant imagery attached to such a shocking movie. But there’s something to be said about the sound here too. When talking about The Exorcist, everyone seems to mention Tubular Bells. And rightly so. But William Friedkin’s use of silence in this movie is so masterful and something I don’t recall anyone mentioning all too often. Sometimes a lack of sound is all you need to create palpable tension, and Friedkin understands that better than perhaps any other horror filmmaker in history. No wonder this movie is so iconic.
At the risk of sounding reductive, I’ve never seen a horror film so cinematic before. Possibly the only director who comes even close today is Ari Aster. Not only is the cinematography absolutely brilliant, but the camerawork is phenomenal, with several of the film’s shots being framed in such a way that have since influenced not only horror films, but films of all genres.
What seems to be mentioned very rarely are the performances, but for me, Ellen Burstyn’s mastery is what really ties the whole movie together; the look of sheer despair and terror on her face suggests she’s a direct reflection of the audience within the film’s walls. Without her pitch perfect and skilful portrayal of the distraught mother, I’d hypothesise that viewers would have a much harder time connecting with the film. Therefore, this movie owes a lot to her technical ability.
To say that The Exorcist is a huge influence in the landscape of today’s cinema would be a gross understatement. Barring one or two reservations I have with the pacing and length (it’s much longer than it needs to be and I won’t hear any argument otherwise), this is the perhaps the closest to immaculate you’ll ever get in a horror film.
The Exorcist is free to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK until the end of November.
TQR Category Ratings:
Costume & Set Design:
Overall Enjoyability Rating: ½