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The film opens with elderly priest Father Merrin on an archeological dig in Iraq where he finds a demonic statue. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. an actress has rented a house with her daughter Reagan while she works on a movie. Strange things begin happening in the house: there are noises in the attic, presumed to be rats and at a dinner party, Reagan comes downstairs and urinates on the carpet. Her worried mother takes her to hospital where she undergoes a series of tests where nothing wrong is found. Reagan eventually admits to having used a Ouija board and Father Merrin is called in to perform an exorcism.

So much for the plot.

The Exorcist is infamous for some of its key scenes: when Reagan pleasures herself with a crucifix and when her head turns round 360 degrees and she projectile vomits pea soup being the main ones. But the film’s strength lies in its examination of some of life’s Big Questions. Central to the film is faith. What is it? How far can we bend without losing it? Is it strong enough to face up to the ultimate evil? Reagan’s mother has to consider whether or not her little girl is truly evil and how far she is prepared to go to protect her. One of the priests, Father Karras, loses his mother to illness and he finds himself questioning his faith as his mother blamed him for her ending up in a place with few facilities when she  fell ill. And for Father Merrin, the recognition that the old evil he must face again is, indeed, a heavy cross to bear.

William Blatty (who wrote the screenplay and book) based the story on a real life case involving a young lad, 14 year old Douglas Deen of Washington D.C. in 1949.

The film was immediately controversial on its release and this has changed little in the almost 40 years since then, mainly because Linda Blair was so young. I watched it again recently and was surprised and a little saddened at how tame the horror in it appears to be now. Things have changed a lot since 1973. We have become a society immune to visceral horror and movie makers are forever upping the ante, making each new film gorier than the one before. I watched Hostel a few years ago and found it so distasteful, I never did get to the end. So while The Exorcist might seem nothing compared to Chucky and Saw, it is still a great example of old school horror with, perhaps, a deeper message too.

The Exorcist stars Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn.
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