Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
Oscar Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay (William Peter Blatty), Best Sound Mixing (Robert Knudson, Chris Newman)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Best Film Editing (Norman Gay), Best Production Design (Bill Malley, Jerry Wunderlich)
SUMMARY: At an archaeological dig in Iraq, a Catholic priest named Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) finds an amulet with a familiar figure on it. Merrin recognizes the figure as Pazuzu, a demon he had encountered years ago and defeated. With the discovery of the relic, Merrin realizes that the demon has returned, and intends to seek revenge. Back in the United States, in Georgetown, Hollywood actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has rented a house to live in while her movie films on location. Chris has also brought her adolescent daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), along with her. One day, Regan experiments with an Ouija board; afterward, her behavior changes noticeably. One of the most obvious changes is her language: while previously a respectful child, Regan now routinely uses filthy language, and also makes odd noises. She has also recently become very physically strong. The strange occurrences continue when Regan goes to bed. Without knowing how or why, Regan makes her bed shake. Chris immediately calls the doctor, and eventually several of them come through, but none of them can find anything physically wrong with Regan. Things escalate further when the director of Chris’ movie comes over to the house one night, and Regan kills him. This gets the attention of police Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), who comes to investigate the murder. After learning of Regan’s strange behavior from Chris, Kinderman also talks to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a psychiatrist and priest (though Karras has lost his faith after his mother’s death). Without any better ideas, the involved adults decide to try an exorcism.
Chris has to get permission from the Catholic church to do this, and talks to Karras about getting said permission. Karras refuses, but continues to study and observe Regan. All trace of Regan’s own personality have now vanished; she has been completely taken over by the evil force within her. She begins speaking backwards, and when a message crying for help appears on Regan’s stomach, Karras is finally convinced that she is possessed. He agrees to perform an exorcism, but the Church choses Merrin instead, with Karras acting as an assistant. The exorcism takes place in Regan’s bedroom, where she has been confined in an attempt to limit her destruction. The demon, who proves to be Pazuzu, fights the two priests, especially Karras. Pazuzu taunts the priest, frequently bringing up the topic of his mother’s death. When it seems that Karras will be unable to withstand the stress, Merrin sends him away, and continues alone. Sometime later, Karras reenters the room and find that Pazuzu has killed Merrin. In a complete change of tactic, Karras convinces Pazuzu to leave Regan’s body and enter his own. Pazuzu complies, and instead possesses Karras. Almost immediately, Karras’ hands reach for Regan, clearly intending to strangle her, but Karras fights back, and pulls back his hand. After another internal struggle with Pazuzu, Karras throws himself out of the window to keep the demon from further harming Regan. After falling down a steps of stone stairs, he dies. Regan quickly becomes her normal self, with no memory of the possession, and she and Chris leave Georgetown as soon as possible.
MY TAKE: This is one of the few “woo-woo” movies that actually kinda gave me the creeps, although a lot of the sequences have become so famous that the thrill is gone. I think what got me is that the demon was so sinister – it changed Regan MacNeil from a normal 12-year-old into a monster, and obviously wanted to kill people. It wasn’t one of those things that came and went, like if something angered the demon: it was always on high-alert, spewing obscenities at anybody who came near. Famously, it also spewed pea soup (the gunk Regan throws up). The behavior is so unnatural to an adolescent girl that demonic possession seems to be a fairly logical conclusion. I was a little confused as to how Pazuzu came to possess Regan – ostensibly, she played with an Ouija board, but why did the demon pick her? If it had a history with Merrin, why didn’t it attack someone close to him? There has to be more than one kid who plays with an Ouija board on a given day. I was also confused about how the exorcism played out – if Merrin had defeated the demon before, why did it kill him as soon as he was alone? One would think that the faith and power of a priest would only get stronger as he got older. Even if it didn’t, you would think that he would be more effective than someone who has lost his faith. However, it’s Karras that manages to drive the demon out – and then he finds the inner strength/faith to counteract Pazuzu’s will inside his own body. I’m not doubting the power of faith, or saying that it’s impossible for someone to have a powerful faith from the beginning. The events around the exorcism just didn’t make sense for me. Obviously, though, a ton of people loved this movie: it was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Oscar (it actually received ten nominations), there have been a gazillion sequels, and certain scenes (like the head-spinning, pea-soup-puking one) have become part of the pop culture lexicon.
Fun (?) fact: The voice of Pazuzu was provided by Mercedes McCambridge, a famous radio/voice actress who also played Bick Benedict’s sister Luz in Giant.
RATING: Pretty good, for a supernatural movie.