Vintage Movies: “The Exorcist”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

The Exorcist (1973, 122 minutes)

While shooting a film in Washington D.C., actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) hears a thumping sound late at night in the attic of her Georgetown rental home. She asks Karl the handyman to set out several rat traps.

In the middle of a party the next evening, Chris’ 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) appears downstairs in her nightgown, looking dazed. Shockingly, the sweet-natured pre-teen urinates on the carpet in front of everyone and says, “You’re gonna die up there,” to one of the guests, an astronaut. Later that night, Regan’s screams wake her mother from a sound sleep. Chris finds her in bed, being shaken like a rag doll by an unseen force.

When their family physician, Dr. Taney (Robert Symonds), describes the incident as “a spasm,” Chris protests vehemently. “That was no spasm! The whole bed was rising off the floor and shaking—with me on it!” “Mrs. MacNeil,” says the doctor,” the problem with your daughter is not her bed, it’s her brain.” The seizure, he believes, was caused by a lesion in the temporal lobe. “It’s a condition that can cause bizarre hallucinations, usually just before a convulsion. Fortunately, all we have to do is remove the scar tissue.”

He orders an EEG and, surprisingly, finds no vascular displacement in the girl’s brain, although the symptoms persist. “You fuckin’ bastard!” Regan shrieks at a technician giving her an injection, then spits in his face. Discussing this extraordinary case with Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman), a neurosurgeon, while making his hospital rounds, Dr. Taney gets an urgent call from Chris that Regan is much worse.

The doctors find the girl in bed, moving in a manner that defies gravity. She’s flailing back and forth from the waist, doing sit-ups while bouncing a foot in the air, like a demented Olympic gymnast. Her eyes have rolled back in her head, and she’s speaking in someone else’s deep baritone voice. Dr. Taney approaches her with a sedative in a syringe, and the girl hits him on the jaw with a two-fisted punch, knocking him halfway across the room. She growls, “Keep away. The sow is mine!”

“She’s heavily sedated,” says Dr. Taney, afterwards, taking a deep breath. “She’ll probably sleep through tomorrow.” At her wit’s end, a sobbing Chris begs the doctors, “What’s going on in there? I don’t understand how her whole personality could change. How could she fly off the bed like that? ” Dr. Klein replies, “Pathological states can sometimes induce accelerated motor performances. A 90-pound woman sees her child pinned under a truck and lifts the wheel half a foot off the ground.” It’s a last-ditch attempt to explain irrational behavior so terrifyingly unpredictable, so paranormal it defies the conventional analysis of medical science. Unfortunately for Regan, it is also the incorrect diagnosis.