There can only be one movie to claim the title of scariest film ever made. And it was made over forty years ago. Despite great enhancements in the fields of digital effects, millions more spent on production budgets and an audience more hungry for scares than ever before, no movie has ever topped the near universal claim that “The Exorcist” is the ultimate horror film of all-time. And it is unlikely that any film ever will.
Regan (Linda Blair) is a normal 12-year-old girl living in Washington, D.C. with her actress mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). She starts to act strangely, just in little ways at first (being rude, peeing on the carpet in front of guests), but then things escalate. Soon, she is performing supernatural acts of crab walking down stairs, tilting her head 360 degrees and moving furniture and other objects with her mind. No one is able to help Chris in the scientific community, and she is forced to turn to two priests, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who has lost his faith after the death of his mother, and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who has dealt with demons before. Together, they learn that an evil spirit has possessed Regan’s body.
In many ways, director William Friedkin set out not to make a horror film with Paul Blatty’s book. He rejects so many of the horror film tropes, and the film is shot is a dramatic, glossy style. The story is told with compassion, not looking to emphasize scares, but to convincingly and realistically tell the story of a poor girl possessed by the devil. Its attention to solid characters, believability and storytelling technique set it apart from its brethren.
Going in, the audience knows what the film is about, but the characters onscreen do not, and there is a lingering sense of dread as they discover the nature of the malevolent spirit inhabiting Regan’s body and the futility of their efforts. As Regan grows worse and worse, that sense of growing dread creates more of a lasting terror than any jump scare.
In addition, Regan, Chris and Fathers Karras and Merrin are not simply there to be killed off, but are actual characters we can relate to. They have emotions and conflicts and seem like real people and through that, we have an empathy with them. We care about them, and that brings the terror of the situation closer because we become part of the film.
And the movie, though dealing with supernatural forces, does not for one moment refrain from treating its subject seriously. There is never a wink or a nudge to the audience about the corniness of demonic possession. The effects are done in ways that still send shivers down the spine because they seem so real. It keeps the film far more grounded than perhaps any horror movie before or since and adds to the terror of the experience.
What truly makes “The Exorcist” so memorable though is the central conflict of the film, the battle over an innocent girl’s life. The struggle between good and evil does not need to take place over a large battlefield or in the stars, but can happen in a location as small as a young girl’s bedroom. Karras and Merrin are clearly in over their heads against the demon, but they try to save her anyway, out of necessity, out of love and out of faith. The courage of the two men against the ultimate evil that has terrified the audience up to the conclusion elevates the film into the realm of the mythic. It sticks with us in a way few films ever do, showing us the possibilities of our courage and the carnage of our ultimate fears. In short, it deserves the title of scariest film ever made.