But what if science fails us? What if logical explanations fail? What if our own sense of values folds up when confronted with real evil? The Exorcist throws these questions at you like 100 mph fastball flying towards your head.
The Exorcist suggests two things: 1)Evil is real and 2) We dismiss the supernatural at our peril.
Director William Friedkin's documentary filmmaking background brought the right sensibility, making every scene feel natural. William Peter Blatty's smart dialogue and philosophical themes brought structure and irony.
After a ten minute prologue filmed in Iraq the story jumps to contemporary Washington D.C. where movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has arrived to shoot her latest film. She's raising her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) after a separation from her husband. Early in the film Chris and Regan are playing with an Ouija Board (I've heard too many creepy stories surrounding Ouija Boards over the years I will never get near one) and angelic Regan first mentions her imaginary friend "Captain Howdy."
As Regan's behavior grows increasingly erratic the sense of dread grows unbearable. The WTF scene occurs during an evening cocktail party. Everyone's having a great time singing around the piano until Regan walks up to the astronaut and tells him he will die and then proceeds to urinate on the floor. We've entered into uncharted territory. All sorts of awful possibilities enter the mind of what might be coming next.
As Regan undergoes various medical procedures doctors fail to diagnose her change in behavior. The way Friedkin shot the spinal tap and CAT scan scenes feels medieval and unnecessarily cruel - recalling the real witch hunts from history. As Father Karras explains to perform an exorcism would be like going back to the 16th century.
In the lead up to the exorcism scenes I believe a sea change happens with the audience: We are ready to fight for Regan. It feels (and looks) like a confrontation with the heart of darkness.
In addition to the excellent writing and direction, the cast did an amazing job under difficult circumstances. Jason Miller brought courage and a tragic sense of fate to his part. Max Von Sydow looks like he literally walked off a Bergman film, a face made for theological thrillers. Ellen Burstyn rightly earned an Oscar nomination (she would win the following year for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore).
Behind the scenes tales on The Exorcist have taken on a life of their own. Friedkin fired guns on the set to scare the actors for their close ups. A mysterious fire set back production for weeks. Nine crew members died as well, on the DVD documentary Burstyn still seems shaken by the experience (a Priest had to be brought in to bless the set).
Legends aside, The Exorcist works as a smart and relentless horror: challenging the audience to think about faith, not in the way dopey religious movies do, but by presenting evil and the precarious nature of good.