Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father/Dr. Damien Karras), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant William Kinderman), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings)
Director: William Friedkin
My rating: 7.5 / 10
Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), a Catholic priest, is on an archaeological dig in the ancient Iraq city of Hatra. There he finds an amulet that resembles a demon of ancient origins which scares Lankester enough to leave the dig and return to the USA.
In Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is living on location with her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Chris is starring in a film about student activism directed by her friend and associate Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). Chris is a very successful actress with a support staff and an invitation to a dinner at the White House.
One night after playing with a Ouija board and contacting a supposedly friendly spirit whom Regan calls Captain Howdy, the MacNeil household in general and Regan in particular start getting haunted. Reagan begins acting strangely, using obscene language, and exhibiting abnormal strength. There is interesting activity in the home at night.
Chris hosts a party, during which Regan comes downstairs unannounced, tells one of the guests—an astronaut—that he will die “up there” and then urinates on the floor. Later, Regan’s bed begins to shake violently, further adding to her mother’s horror. Chris consults a number of physicians including Dr. Klein who find nothing physiologically wrong with her daughter, despite Regan undergoing a battery of diagnostic tests but still thinks this is a mental issue.
One night when Chris is out and her support staff member Sharon (Kitty Winn) shopping, Burke Dennings is asked to babysit a heavily sedated Regan. Chris returns to hear that he has died falling out of the window. Although this is assumed to have been an accident given Burke’s history of heavy drinking, his death is investigated by Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb). Kinderman interviews Chris. He also consults psychiatrist Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest struggling with his faith, which only worsens after the death of his mother who he had already been feeling bad about leaving her alone in New York city.
The doctors, thinking that Regan’s aberrations are mostly psychological in origin, recommend an exorcism be performed, reasoning that believing oneself to be possessed can sometimes be cured by believing that exorcism works as well. Chris arranges a meeting with Karras. Karras agrees to meet Regan but as a psychiatrist not a priest as he doesn’t believe this is a possession. However after Regan speaks backward, in different voices, and exhibits scars in the form of the words “Help Me” on her stomach, Karras is convinced that Regan is possessed. Believing her soul is in danger, he decides to perform an exorcism and seeks permission from the cardinal. The cardinal agrees but selects the experienced Merrin to perform the actual exorcism with Karras only assisting.
Both priests witness Regan perform a series of bizarre, vulgar acts during the exorcism. The entity in possession of Regan claims to be the Devil himself, toying with them, especially Karras. Karras shows weakness over the loss of his mother and is told to leave the room by Merrin who decides to attempt the exorcism alone. Outside the room Chris asks if her daughter will die but Karras strongly states ‘no’ and renewed he goes back to Regan’s room.
Karras enters the room later and discovers Merrin has died during the attempt. After failing to revive Merrin, the enraged Karras confronts the mocking, laughing spirit, and wrestles Regan’s body to the ground. Karras begs the demon to possess him and it leaves Regan’s body to possess Karras.
In a moment of self-sacrifice, Karras throws himself out of the window before he can be compelled to harm Regan, killing himself and thus defeating the demon. Lt Kinderman rushes up to the room with Chris to find Regan distraught in the corner but apparently exorcised. Father Dyer, an old friend of Karras, happens upon the scene and administers the last rites to his friend.
A few days later, Regan, now back to her normal self, prepares to leave for Los Angeles with her mother. Although Regan has no apparent recollection of her possession, she is moved by the sight of Dyer’s clerical collar to kiss him on the cheek.
What’s to Like
The haunting music, the tension, the depth of the story.
What’s not to Like
Not seeing how Burke Dennings dies. Some of the imagery can be a little to disturbing.
The only horror movie on the Top 100 movie list and it is incredibly tense with very disturbing imagery especially the scene with Regan being intimate with a cross. The acting from the very young Linda Blair is outstanding especially given how she had to sell the movie from innocent happy kids to evil possessed devil even if only listed as a supporting actress. Linda Blair receive a supporting actress academy award nomination, it’s hard to understand what more she needed to do to win but I guess the subject matter makes it hard to win such and award.
The iconic screen of Father Lankester Merrin arriving at the MacNeil’s doesn’t occur until late in the movie and is very haunting.
It’s easy to understand why this is consider a horror classic.
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (William Peter Blatty) – winner
- Best Sound (Robert Knudson, Christopher Newman) – winner
- Best Picture (William Peter Blatty) – nominee
- Best Actress in a Leading Role (Ellen Burstyn) – nominee
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jason Miller) – nominee
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Linda Blair) – nominee
- Best Director (William Friedkin) – nominee
- Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman) – nominee
- Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Bill Malley, Jerry Wunderlich) – nominee