Scariest Movie #1 — “The Exorcist”

The Exorcist (1973, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Linda Blair)

Something beyond comprehension is happening to a little girl on this street, in this house. A man has been called for as a last resort to save her. That man is The Exorcist.

Quick plot: A 12-year-old girl is possessed by a demon, and an old priest comes to expel it from her.

Scariest scene: Gee, that’s like asking Dracula to pick his favorite blood type. There’s the headspin, the pea-soup vomiting, and that spider-walk scene that was cut from the original release, just to name a few. And don’t get me started on those split-second flashbacks to the demon Pazuzu’s true face. Those gave my teenage soul nightmares for weeks. But you can’t go wrong picking one of the most horrific scenes ever put on celluloid, where the possessed Regan stabs herself in the crotch with a crucifix as her horrified mother looks on.

Final say: Even in our jaded age where irony rules, there’s no messing with The Exorcist. It’s genuinely scary, and never lets up. The key is that, despite the outlandishness of what’s taking place, every moment of it seems absolutely real. Director William Friedkin brought the verite style he’d honed on The French Connection to this supernatural thriller that took its time getting to its money shots, and made us care about the characters. A special Oscar should have gone to Mercedes McCambridge, who provided the raspy voice of the demon. Something tells me that “Your mother (bleeps) (bleeps) in hell!” just wouldn’t have sounded the same coming from Linda Blair.

Sequel guide: Exorcist II: The Heretic is worth seeing on a kitsch level, featuring a woefully miscast Richard Burton at his most stentorial. Did I mention there are locusts? Lots, and lots of locusts? Exorcist III is quite underrated, and should be seen as the official sequel, since it’s based on a book by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the original. Blatty also directed. Of the two versions of the prequel that were released, neither are much beyond footnotes to the series, but Paul Schrader’s version is more satisfying than Renny Harlin’s hack job.