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Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) can't help but noticing that her daughter
Regan (Linda Blair) acts a tad strangely, and her health seems to
deteriorate - especially her mental health -, but doctors are simply
unable to find any kind of cure and suggest a healthy diet of
tranqulilizers and electro shocks in the controlled enviroment of a looney
bin - something Chris is not too fond of. But when she takes her daughter
home with her, her boyfriend dies under mysterious circumstances while
looking after Regan, and to Chris it becomes more and more clear that
Regan is possessed by something or other - Regan herself at one point
claims it's the Devil - so she asks father Karras (Jason Miller) for help,
a priest and psychiatrist who happens to be the expert on all things
Karras, who is your typical priest who has lost his faith, at first
doubts that Regan is really possessed, but when the girl, who is by now
horribly disfigured, digs into his mind and plays on the guilt he feels
about his mother's death in an asylum - something the girl simply couldn't
have known - he comes to the conclusion that an exorcism actually would be
for the best of the girl and everyone around her. So Father Merrin (Max
von Sydow), one of the last official exorcists in the USA, is called in to
perform the rites - but whatever possesses Regan is stronger than a few
drops of holy water and puts up a fight, ultimately once again picking on
Father Karras' guilt - which is when Merrin sends him out to come to his
senses, but while Karras is out, the demon that possesses Regan has its
way with Father Merrin, who suffers from a heart condition, and before you
know it Merrin has died from a heart attack.
Now Karras has had enough, and he tries the hands-on approach against
Regan's demon by simply strangling the girl - to a point where the demon
leaves her and instead possesses him - at which point Karras throws
himself out of a window to his death ... and Regan is saved.
Lee J.Cobb plays an investigating cop who has surprisingly little to do
with the actual plot ...
The Exorcist is, of course, a legitimate milestone of horror
history, an unnerving and at the same time intelligent and thought through
piece of possession cinema that not only thanks to a big budget is miles
away from your usual grindhouse shocker, it's elegantly directed and it's
full of scenes that have made horror- and cinema-history all by themselves
- from Linda Blair's head spinning around to her puking pea soup and
hurling abuse and profanities at priests (in Mercedes McCambridge's
voice, actually) to the seemingly randomly interpersed subliminl images.
All that said, The Exorcist also isn't without its flaws, the
film's set-up is way too long: It's a full 40 minutes until the first
possession scene, and all this time is wasted with introducing the
characters in way too great detail, plus an elongated sequence of Father
Merrin in Iraq that while looking good adds little to the film's actual
plot and could/should have been tossed out altogether. Plus, at times the
film tries too hard to be intelligent on many an occasion to a point where
the pseudo-intellectual dialogue turns into a tired cliché. And
then there's Ellen Burstyn, whose exaggerated pseudo-method acting more
often than not misses the point and that at least from today's point of
view seems horribly dated and utterly annoying.
Still, the film's fortes outweigh its weaknesses, and even if you are
not into horror you might find yourself liking it, and no matter how you
turn it, it's a milestone film - but a flawed milestone.