Regan is an adolescent girl, living with her mother in Georgetown in Washington. She exhibits strange symptoms, including levitation and great strength. When all medical possibilities are exhausted, her mother is sent to a priest who is also a psychiatrist. He becomes convinced that Regan is possessed and he and a second priest experienced in exorcism try to drive the spirit from Regan before she dies.
In 1998, the year of its 25th anniversary, you couldn't avoid The Exorcist. There were books, a television documentary and thousands of column inches to mark its theatrical reissue. It was re-viewed and reviewed, and the general consensus was that it was as good today as it had always been.
However, in a surreal twist of events, the British Board Of Film Censors still refused to grant the film a video certificate. The then BBFC boss James Ferman said, "The problem with The Exorcist is not that it's a bad film, it's that it's a very good film — one of the most powerful ever made."
Thus, in 1998, despite this sense that The Exorcist was back in the public domain, you still could not rent or buy it in this country. In effect, one of the most powerful films ever made was rendered even more powerful. Like Clockwork Orange (1971), The Evil Dead (1982) and The Beach Boys' Surf's Up album, The Exorcist attained the mythic power of unattainability. Then, in 1999, the spell was broken. The BBFC woke up, smelt the coffee, and finally saw fit to grant The Exorcist its requisite 18. Out it came on video, laserdisc and DVD.
Now the demon Pazuzu walks among us; he lurks in high street shops between A Bug's Life (1998) and Patch Adams (1998), he sits on Ikea shelves the length and breadth of the country, he is seen by under-age kids, kids of 12, the same age as Regan MacNeil. The question is, does a film as powerful as The Exorcist lose any of its power by being as accessible as Toy Story? Because we can now skip to a scene, or pause for a cup of tea, or view the film while its director provides a running commentary, does that subtract from the primal fear it tapped into more than a quarter of a century ago? The answer, thankfully, is no. However much the religious aspects of the film affect you (they seem to work best on the devout and the stubbornly atheistic), The Exorcist is still a terrifying movie, a fact proven by the great horror litmus test: even the bits set during the day are scary.
Halloween passes this test (Michael Myers among the washing), as do The Shining (1980) ("All work and no play...") and more recently The Sixth Sense (1999) (the hanging bodies in the school). Although, perhaps the most traditional shock in The Exorcist occurs in darkness (in the attic, in fact), a disarming sense of unease begins in the autumnal streets of Georgetown as fallen leaves dance to the strains of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. The very thought of The Exorcist can produce goosebumps at any hour of the day — that's how scary it is. Why does this film retain this power to unnerve and upset and how does it have the ability to drain the colour from our cheeks? It's about the Devil possessing a small child (Linda Blair), that's horrible enough, and it contains scenes of physical degradation that would make a coroner blanch. But that's just cheap gore and facile exploitation of our fear of graveyards — you might argue that the really scary thing about The Exorcist is the sound.
There's the aforementioned appropriation of Tubular Bells, there's Jack Nitzsche's sparing but eerie incidentals (insectoid strings underscore the revealing of the words " help me" on Regan's stomach). But put the music aside and concentrate on the actual sound edited by Robert Knudson and Chris Newman (who took home one of the film's measly two Oscars) and you will hear where the horror lies. Here's the heart of the film's subtle command over our synapses: the mysterious scuffling in the attic; the rising crescendo of wind and fighting dogs in Northern Iraq when Father Merrin (Von Sydow) faces the demon statue; the fading echo of screaming as a possession scene cuts to a more peaceful one; and the brilliant use of traffic noise: constant car horns, a deafening subway train, the plane which obscures the conversation between Karras (Jason Miller) and a younger priest in the church courtyard, overheard by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
But the film's piece de resistance, soundwise, is the demon itself, thanks in no small part to the dedication of actress Mercedes McCambridge. It is her guttural voice that provides the obscenities and her willingness to experiment with mushy apple and raw eggs that resulted in her (quite literally) coming up with the vomiting effects. A delicate blend of wild animals, loops and treated voices combined to create the full demonic chorus — so effective that it can be deeply disturbing even without the sight of Linda Blair under Dick Smith's makeup. When Karras plays back a tape recording in his apartment, we're just as spooked as he is.
Whichever way you slice The Exorcist it stimulates and rewards, time and time again. Indeed, the kind of young male who raves about the pea soup and the masturbation scene is probably missing the whole point.