The Exorcist (1973)

Directed by William Friedkin. Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair. Warner Bros (1973; 2000 recut ed.).

Decent Films Ratings

Entertainment Value
Value (+4/-4)
? +2-3

External Ratings


Content advisory: Very strong obscene and profane language and imagery; satanic abuse of a child; ambiguous treatment of religious themes.

By Steven D. Greydanus

In the winter of 1973, in the heyday of gritty Hollywood postmodern sophistication so beloved by critics of the subsequent era of Star Wars and Superman, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, a stunning horror film took US moviegoers by storm, ratting even the jaded, sophisticated audiences of the day with its stark, horrifying vision of absolute evil in all its obscenity and banality — and its unapologetic context of institutional religion, in the form of the Catholic Church, as the framework in which to understand and combat evil.

In his book Monsters from the Id, Catholic writer E. Michael Jones connects the fascination of horror to the debunking of Enlightenment rationalism, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist certainly supports his case. Postmodern areligiosity, the decline of marriage, casual dabbling in such occult phenomena as Ouija boards, and the therapeutic culture are all indicted in this horrifying tale of a bubbly, increasingly troubled young girl whose single mother turns for help to doctors, tests, and prescriptions.

“You just take your pills and you’ll be fine, really,” Chris (Ellen Burstyn) promises her daughter Regan (Linda Blair), but part of the film’s brief is that pills aren’t the answer to everything, and faith and religion may have answers science doesn’t.

Very strong obscene and profane language and imagery make The Exorcist a shocking, harrowing experience, but arguably the film’s most troubling factor is the lack of true redemption in the twist ending, which resolves the demon possession without allowing good to triumph over evil.

In Terence Fisher’s Hammer horror films in the 1950s and ’60s, the power of the cross or holy water over satanic powers was absolute. That may have been overly optimistic (in Catholic theology, sacramentals aren’t intrinsically efficacious), but The Exorcist errs in the other direction, depicting a demonic presence that is ultimately expelled by God’s power, but induced into departing.

Christian novelist Stephen Lawhead argues that the film depicts evil as powerful, but good as merely “lucky,” winning by a “surprise tactic.” That’s not good enough.

Tags: Exorcism & Demons, Priestly, Horror, Religious Themes, Thriller

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Mail: Re: The Exorcist (1973), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

The Exorcist review needs “Satanic forces” upper-cased “S”, as do all name-based words. The Shoes of the Fisherman needs references to the Telemond character to delete “German” since this role was based on a French priest whose works were under suspicion.

  1. “Satan” is not a name, but a word, roughly meaning “adversary,” that sometimes functions as a kind of title for mankind’s chief Adversary. But not always. For instance, Jesus’ words to St. Peter in Matthew 16:23 can be rendered “Get behind me, you satan!” As I used it in my review of The Exorcist, the term “satanic forces” is a middle case, denoting the powers of darkness, i.e., “enemy forces.”
  2. The character in the original novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, Jean Telemond, is presumably French (like his inspiration, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). However, the character in the movie, David Telemond, played by German-born actor Oskar Werner, is presumably German (felicitously resonating with Hans Küng).

So, what I have written, I have written.

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Mail: Re: The Exorcist (1973)

[Spoiler alert – SDG] In your review of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, you say: “Although Emily Rose is more grounded in the real world than The Exorcist, both films are ultimately about failed exorcisms.” I recall that in the latter movie, the exorcism succeeded. The demon(s) left the girl, went into the priest, he jumped out the window, then received absolution before he died. At any rate, the girl was exorcised. Am I wrong?

You’re not wrong about what happened. We just need to nail down what “exorcism” means. I’m using it to refer first of all to the Church’s exorcism rite, and more generally to casting out demons by whatever means. In this case, the exorcism rite certainly fails — nor does the priest cast out the demons, which implies an exercise of spiritual power or authority compelling the demons to depart. Rather, the priest bargains with them. So just because the demons come out doesn’t mean there is a successful exorcism.

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