I read William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist when I wasn't that much different in age than twelve-year old Regan (Linda Blair), the protagonist of the film. As the the film became popular, it was a bit of a dare to watch the film late at night in relatively empty theatres. I thought the novel itself was gripping but not scary, and even though I never let anything supernatural get to me, the film did unnerve me for a few days after I first watched it.
What I also recall is that the movie began and moved very fast, soon as Regan starts expressing her possession. The revamped never-before-seen version moves a lot slower. The first half-hour of so is completely useless and could've been reduced to five minutes. That's the only complaint I have about this great film which remains one of the scariest of all time, combining suspense and supernatural horror in a clever manner.
Regan is a precocious young girl who starts behaving strangely. At first, the doctors believe it be just some psychological disorder and prescribe a lot of drugs. When that doesn't work, they resort to more invasive procedures. What they don't know is that Regan is possessed by an evil spirit, one that considers itself to be the devil. Desperate, Regan's mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) turns to Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and a psychotherapist, to perform an exorcism. Karras recruits Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an exorcist who has already confronted his demons, for help. Together they try to drive out the demon and save Regan's life.
As I said, the movie is indeed scary, particularly with the clever use of subliminal imagery (which seemed more scary when I was younger). I believe that technique is vastly under used in that film and other films of that nature. The digitally-enhanced sound track is impressive, and adds to the atmosphere of terror that The Exorcist attempts to project. Part of this atmosphere is accomplished through the use of some strikingly disturbing scenes (the crucifix scene) and some through plain creepiness (Regan floating above her bed). Most of these classic scenes are still effective, and the scene where Regan does a backwards crawl on steps, which is newly included, is arguably the best one.
The Exorcist was a film that made Linda Blair a star and defined her career, and while I personally felt that what she did did deserve that Oscar, the fact that her role was greatly supported by the voice of Mercedes McCambridge and the use of a dummy was considered a strike against her. Still, her performance is impressive. The rest of the cast do a great job and lend an aura of dignity to what is essentially a scary movie.
What I didn't recognise when I first read and watched The Exorcist was the commentary on how doctors who don't understand how our body works speculate at the cost of the patient's health (the use of Ritalin is particularly funny). While our medical knowledge has improved tremendously (thank goodness for MRI), we're still not doing much better given the number of psychological disorders diagnosed in a nonrigourous manner.
I highly recommend watching the revamped version of The Exorcist during a midnight showing in a theatre with a good sound system.