I love the Exorcist, and after exposure to God knows how many horror films, the Exorcist remains my favorite within the genre. And even from a die-hard fan I have to admit, I hate hearing "scariest movie of all time" associated with this movie.
First of all, there's no reason to compare fright factor of films, so forget that anyone ever called The Exorcist "the scariest movie ever made." Take any movie I don't care what movie and stick a "greatest/scariest/best" whatever tag next to it, and you'll have audiences investing in what they *think* it should be instead of letting the film present itself for what it is. And all they see is that it is not what they expected (expectations, I might add, that are shaped by the current gimmicks and trends in Hollywood).
I love the Exorcist because it dared to defy my expectations. This is not a wall-to-wall, credits-to-credits montage of scary imagery inspired by a mere scenario that's supposed to pass as a plot. This isn't a movie about that long dark corridor and something waiting to jump out of the darkness and attack (which is always preceded by a false scare featuring a cat). It's not about that cheap gimmicky scenario of X amount of people isolated from the rest of the world, with a killer/monster/ghost/whatever on the loose.
The Exorcist is a very slow movie that actually features a full blown plot, its characters, and their associated arcs. The original ambition of The Exorcist was to scare the world with imagery and concepts never before seen in cinema. Shocking moments that the audience of 1973 could not believe they would ever see on the silver screen (from a major studio, no less.) After 30 years, the movie isn't so shocking because times have changed, and the success of the Exorcist has guaranteed countless imitation in all forms across all boards. However, the Exorcist is still one of the most ambition horror films ever made, because (are you ready for this?) the Exorcist dares to tell a story.
Everyone remembers the pea soup, the head spinning, the vulgarities spewed from the demon's mouth, the stairs, the infamous cut (now restored) spider walk. But I adore this movie for the things no one seems to bring up I love the setup in Iraq where Father Lancaster Merrin detects the signs of his final showdown, and how these abstract scenes on subsequent viewings give the movie a more epic feel. I love the transition from Chris MacNeil to Father Karras walking across campus that's reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. I became absorbed watching Father Karras caring for his aging mother and the close relationship they have, seeing him depressed and sharing a drink with a fellow priest as he discusses his own issues with faith.
And what impresses me most about a movie named the Exorcist is how it seems to reject the possibility of possession and exorcism as its ultimate and final solution. The characters in the movie don't want it to be true, and in fact don't really even know about the possibility of Exorcism, thus they explore and exhaust all other possibilities (both medical and psychological). I smiled with delight (after all the hospital scenes) in that priceless moment when Chris MacNeil asks Karras, "And how does one go about getting an exorcism?" which stops father Karras in his tracks as he, a man of the church, looks at her as though she's lost her mind.
The fact that the movie resists the temptation to jump right into the acknowledgment that Regan is possessed continues to build up the epic Good versus Evil, God versus Satan, the exorcist versus the demon, feel. Like the characters, the movie doesn't want it to be true, it doesn't want to go there and embrace that possibility, but we the audience know what must inevitably happen. And it's almost magical how the movie finally acknowledges Regan's only hope. There's no glorious fanfare nor is there boastful ultimatums, instead the movie lamentingly and silently surrenders to it as we watch Lancaster Merrin walking up the sunny garden path, staring down at a newly delivered envelope. He doesn't have to read it. He already knows what it says, as do we.
The imagery then fades to an ominous foggy night as a taxi pulls up to the MacNeil place in Georgetown, then we're treated to the haunting imagery that inspired the cover art. What must be done, must be done. I love how the movie implies that Merrin has faced this very demon before through its imagery, and through the dialogue as Karras explains he's identified at least three manifestations to which Merrin answers, "No. There is only one." I can address more the acting, the beautiful cinematography, brilliant makeup but I'll stop to keep from sounding like a raving fan who over hypes every inch of everything. I'll close with these thoughts: I'm not the type of person who will watch the same movie over and over and over. Most movies I see, the specific imagery and specific ideas don't make a deep enough impression to stick with me for more than a few months. I remember the Exorcist, not because I thought it was the "scariest movie ever made", rather because of the wonderful craftsmanship, the fact that it dared to tell a story, and it defied my expectations.
When Friday the 13th, the Grudge, Skeleton Key, and Cursed are reduced to vague memories and general ideas, I will still clearly remember the Exorcist.