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The Exorcist

Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller and Linda Blair
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel
Directed by William Friedkin

[Rated R for strong language and disturbing images. 130 minutes]

The Exorcist is what pushed the envelope for horror and effects back in 1973.

If you're not familiar with the story, it is a cross-continental epic, beginning in Northern Iraq, where archeologist Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) unearths icons of an ancient evil, a demon called Pazuzu. In Georgetown, near our nation's capital, a couple of stories are playing out. Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), staff shrink for the local diocese, is burnt out. His mother is dying in a New York tenement. His family can't afford proper hospital care for her. His faith is burned out. Damian, himself, is in need of a good shrink.

Cross-town, successful actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is shooting a movie. She's moved her staff and daughter Regan (Linda Blair) in from LA and everyone is enjoying their stay. Then, Regan starts behaving, to be kind, bizarrely. A battery of painful medical tests and some heavy duty hypnotherapy (we're not going to give away any of the fireworks involved, though one will bring a police detective played by Lee J. Cobb into the picture) leave every scientist baffled. As Regan devolves into a foul mouthed, self-destructive and abusive raving maniac claiming to be The Devil (voiced by Mercedes McCambridge), one doctor suggests that Chris bring in a priest, for an exorcism. He calls that "a type of therapy." And so we begin . . .

The reason they don't make movies like this anymore is that the current audience would never sit still for 'em. Director William Friedkin's realization of writer William Peter Blatty's screenplay is a deliberately paced, carefully constructed piece of work. It scared the hell out of crowds who had devoured Blatty's novel as well as packed houses of people who hadn't. As I wrote last year, as the utter bore of The Blair Witch Project was making a play for acclaim as the scariest film of all time, fear is contagious. It helps to have a full house of folk expecting to be scared to help generate the feeling. The fact that The Exorcist didn't need a website to explain the story (not that there were such things in 1973) only makes the case for writing a good story even stronger.

But it sure takes its time getting to the part you want to see -- and that's being written by a guy who was scared silly by the flick at 16, and sat down to be scared again (sans notepad so that nothing would get in the way). By the time the first firecracker (sic) went off, a quick look at the watch showed we were an hour and forty minutes into a movie which now clocks in at two hours eight. That meant the actual exorcism sequences -- what everyone is waiting for -- took up far less screen time than a twenty year memory told me they should have.

Funny thing about The Exorcist. When it first was released, and first scared the crap out of yours truly, we all shuffled back on line to do the ride again. Second time out, about halfway through, someone in the new audience started to laugh. From that point onwards, The Exorcist was a scream. Literally. Hysterically funny. This time out, in 2000, we recognized the funny point -- it's the worst acted scene in the movie. If you feel the urge, do as we did -- stifle. That I was sitting with a non-responsive crowd didn't help. Net suggestion: leave your watch at home and make sure you get to a theater for a showing with a big crowd. I'll say it again: "Fear is contagious".

We stopped rating re-releases a while back. So, aim to sit with the largest audience possible. Good luck.

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