Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: movies with "Exorcism" in the title tend to be barrel-scraping exercises indeed, and how nice of The Last Exorcism to remind us of that fact. It was not ever the case, though: why, one of the most blockbusting movies of all time happens to be a film about an exorcist.

Honesty demands that I start with a personal anecdote: I first saw The Exorcist in 2000, carrying with it all the baggage that anyone born after the film's 1973 release would tend to carry: for as far back as I could remember, I'd only ever heard that it was just absolutely the most damn scary movie ever made in history (except from my mother, who adored William Peter Blatty's novel and considered the film a wholly underwhelming adaptation). When I saw it, it was in the hopes of getting a good blast of unmitigated terror - then as now, one of my great goals was to find anything truly frightening in the thicket of generally idiotic and routine horror picture - and I was, to put it bluntly, hugely disappointed. While recognising the artistry, I found not one instant of the film to be at all scary, though some scenes had enough of a guttural punch to get a cheater's kind of disturbing intensity, not at all unlike some of the more aggressively violent slashers or torture films.

Over time, I came up with a theory as to why I responded so coldly to the most damn scary movie ever made: I do not take the threat of demonic possession at all seriously. This has always left me a touch unsatisfied as an explanation: I also don't take the threat of a haunted hotel at all seriously, and take the threat of a chainsaw-wielding cannibalistic maniac so slightly seriously it doesn't count, yet those films certainly got under my skin. Back in 2000, of course, I was a very self-serious, intensely atheistic young man, and perhaps considered myself duty-bound to dislike a film whose horrifying elements are based so resolutely and intractably within Catholicism. Nowadays, I'm much more of a jovial, frivolous atheist, and have learned to love a great many films intractably yoked to a particular religious tradition; and moreover, I've fallen head over heels for a great many horror films that don't scare me even a tiny bit, and it seemed absolutely fair to at long last revisit the hugely iconic film that I've only rarely thought of in the intervening ten years.

I still find that The Exorcist fails entirely to be scary in the slightest degree. Now, however, I'm not terribly bothered by this.

So now that you know my entirely un-worshipful relationship to one of the most beloved horror films of all time, let us consider the movie itself, non? You almost certainly know the essentials of the plot, whether you've seen it or not: in Georgetown, an actress and divorcΓ©e by the name of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) finds that her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is acting a bit peculiar, thrashing around and urinating on the floor at dinner parties and cursing like a sailor with Tourette's and all. Meanwhile, a Catholic priest and lecturer at Georgetown University, Father Damien Karras (John Miller), is suffering from a crisis of faith. These two plots come together when Chris, having tried every possible scientific cure for her daughter, approaches Karras (a trained psychiatrist) about performing an exorcism. After some reluctance, Karras is convinced that something very wrong is happening in the MacNeil home, and agrees to help - but he can't do it alone, which is when the archdiocese calls in Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), one of the few living priests to have ever performed an exorcism, who we first met in the film's opening sequence, at an archaeological dig in Iraq.

If you haven't seen the film, or haven't seen it recently, you might be surprised by how long it takes for that nice little plot synopsis to actually show up. In its original 1973 theatrical cut, The Exorcist is 122 minutes long, and more than half of that time is gone before Chris MacNeil even hears the word "exorcism". Merrin's arrival in Georgetown occurs with less than 30 minutes to go, including the credits. Which isn't to say that the film is structurally dysfunctional - it is, but not because the pacing is off. The first hour is devoted entirely to setting things up, and particularly to establishing the MacNeil's living situation, which is a rather good choice altogether. One can easily imagine a modern day version of The Exorcist (titled, say, The Unborn) that revs up so abruptly as to verge on incoherence, privileging thrills over any sort of human element that gives those thrills meaningful context.

If anything, it's the long warm up that makes The Exorcist anything other than a grubby shocker. We know a lot about Chris and Regan MacNeil before it becomes apparent that the girl's odd behavior is the result of something paranormal, and this investment in exploring them as characters, not just as cogs in a scream machine, lends the film significant depth. Much of the credit for this goes straight to Burstyn, in the role that made her a full-blown star after The Last Picture Show made her a New Actress to Look Out For. Her performance, easily the best in the film, is a magnificent portrait of a concerned mother, tormented by the almost complete ignorance in which she finds herself, helpless to do anything but watch: whether Regan is having convulsive fits in bed, strapped to a mercilessly austere device in a hospital, or being prayed over by a confused priest, all that Chris can ever do is stare miserably, and Burstyn captures the ragged desperation of her character with painfully raw verisimilitude. If it failed on all other levels (which it doesn't), The Exorcist would nevertheless be an excellent family horror story, with its depiction of a woman desperate to provide her little girl with the sturdiness of a "normal" existence in the face of daunting challenges (divorce, Hollywood), thrust face to face with the most abnormal situation imaginable.

Even so, the script - which Blatty adapted himself - is at times colossally messy, and one of the clearest ways lies in the fact that there are two distinct narrative arcs which have virtually nothing to do with Chris MacNeil's maternal trauma. We also have the story of Karras's crisis of faith to deal with, and buried deep in the screenplay, Merrin's struggle with the demon. The integration of the Karras and MacNeil material is more inelegant than anything else: a lot of cross-cutting in the first hour that only vaguely promises to go anywhere in particular. It's in the Merrin subplot that most of the really broken storytelling is found, beginning with the fact that in the movie itself, the whole Iraq sequence at the beginning doesn't really make any damn sense. What we know from the book (which I've never read firsthand) is that Merrin, years ago, struggled with the demon Pazuzu over the soul of a boy, that his excavations in Iraq reveal a Pazuzu statue and a totem which he understands to be the demon's challenge to a rematch - hence his decision immediately after finding the artifacts to fly to America - and it is none other than Pazuzu currently residing inside poor Regan. Of all this, only the offhand comment that about a dozen years back, he performed a tough exorcism, along with the ReganDemon's obvious knowledge of Merrin's history, makes it into the movie. If you know what it's all about (as Blatty did), the connections leap off the screen. If not - as I didn't ten years ago - it makes no damn sense whatsoever, and Merrin's entire function in the movie seems to be a cynical attempt to get a classy actor like von Sydow in on the fun.

The tripartite emphasis on each of three different character arcs has another negative effect on the story: once the exorcism properly begins, Chris MacNeil is shuffled offscreen for all but a couple of tossed-away scenes, and the movie loses its emotional throughline, becoming a very noisy, profanity-filled religious exploitation film. A good religious exploitation film, if that's your cup of tea. But it rather feels - to me anyway - that the conflict resolved at the end of The Exorcist isn't the conflict present in the first, better half of the movie.

Whatever story problems it has, it can't be said that it's not a gorgeous piece of work, though. Director William Friedkin was an unconventional choice (as though there was a conventional choice for this kind of material), whom Blatty insisted upon after Warner's choices (including Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, and the singularly unprepossessing Mark Rydell) all fell through, but he worked out every bit as well as the writer-producer hoped. Friedkin didn't have too many projects under his belt in 1972, but he'd just completed - and won an Oscar for - The French Connection, one of the best of the decade's many "gritty crime on the gritty streets of New York" thrillers, and he brought to The Exorcist a similarly on-the-ground depiction of Georgetown that isn't at all what you'd expect from a horror movie (the only explicitly "moody" image in the whole film is the Expressionist foggy night when Merrin arrives at the MacNeil home, used as the poster and pretty much every home video cover - and the fact that it's the only such image gives it that much more force when it occurs). The best way to describe Friedkin's direction of the material is "no-nonsense", which gives the Georgetown and Iraq scenes a simplicity that allows us to better engage with the characters, and gives the possession and exorcism scenes a physical grounding that plays well against the impossibility of the events being filmed - anybody can photograph a girl floating in mid-air, but not every filmmaker can make it look so ontologically wrong as Friedkin does, aided mightily by cinematographer Owen Roizman and his brilliant ability to capture an unstressed realism.

Friedkin, admittedly, made no friends on set; The Exorcist was an unusually acrimonious production, including something close to psychological torture inflicted on the actors for more "realistic" responses, significant physical damage to both Burstyn and Blair as a result of the effects work, and a good amount of bitter struggling for recognition on the parts of Eileen Dietz (who performed a good deal of ReganDemon, though Blair got all the praise), and Mercedes McCambridge (who had to fight for an onscreen credit, having provided every second of the possessed Regan's voice). But as contentious as the shoot may have been, the results are what matter; and they are fine results indeed.

Audiences in 1973 didn't know what hit them: till then, movies that wore their religion so openly (as opposed to movies with hugely religious characters) were generally turgid epics and sanctimonious fables, nothing at all like the soul-rending nastiness of this film, one of the flat-out ickiest movies of its generation, with all the pre-teen cursing, an infamous moment of sexualised violence, and stunning visual effects, nearly seamless, and still absolutely convincing in almost every respect. The film briefly took the record as the highest-grossing film in American box office history and became the first horror movie ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.* It inspired more direct and indirect rip-offs than just about any other movie ever made, almost all of which found some way to crib from its iconography. Even if I don't love the film (though I admire it), I have to respect that kind of impact.

Eventually, the film got brushed-up and decked out with an extended edition: The Version You've Never Seen, they called it, and I guess a number of people have already figured out, from the dates, that this was the one I saw for the first time, and maybe that had to do with why I didn't really get off on it. Because, frankly, the 2000 re-cut, supervised by Blatty, is absolutely misjudged. Not a single one of the changes works better than the original: the curiously unnecessary opening shot of a dark Georgetown street serves only to dampen the impact of the stark red titles that are the "real" opening, the end is a disastrous mood-killer, and most of the additions in the middle are just needless padding that briefly stretch out moments that were perfectly tight before. Only two elements really deserve consideration: first is the addition to several scenes of images of the demon, or of the Pazuzu statue, lurking in the background of the MacNeil home. These aren't altogether bad: certainly, Dietz's face in makeup is eerie as hell, and gives a little extra jolt whenever we see it. But there's a certain cheesiness to it as well. The other part is half of a scene, the infamous "spider walk" in which Regan sidles down the stairs in a grotesque crablike way: it's shocking and terrifying, but it breaks the narrative flow terribly. I'm glad I was finally able to see the film as Friedkin - a pretty damn good director - wanted it to be, not as Blatty - who seems, from everything I know about him - to be kind of a dick - though it should be. The Exorcist, in its original form, is tight and controlled, not flawless, but certainly better than the dross that was added to it, years after the fact, for no apparent reason other than marketing.

Reviews in this series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (Schrader, 2005)

*Fun fact: as of 2010, since 1939, every film to hold the status of being the highest-grossing film in American, or even world history (The Exorcist does not hold the latter distinction), has also been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar except one: Jurassic Park.