In a much older land than ours, we see an archeological dig in what once was this Mesopotamian city. There we are led to an elderly Jesuit that has decided to reinvigorate his existence with the pursuit of ancient artefacts, and we know from this type of setup that he will find something astonishingly evil. The object in question is a pendant. “From a much earlier period,” says one of his Iraqi colleagues. One side of the pendant has an inscription whereas the obverse is effaced. He continues burrowing through the reddish earth until he comes across what he feared he might come across, a grinning icon that cannot be anything except unholy. This image was worshiped by ancient dwellers like a god, and a statue was even erected which, for some reason, has survived the ruins and erosion of time. It stands, dirty but fully intact, amidst the civilization that is no longer, and one gets the very unpleasant impression that it might have been instrumental in its demise. Our Jesuit, whose name is Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), senses this coming confrontation the moment the icon finds his hand and does what so many must do when evil crosses their path: he tries to convince us (with, wonderful to relate, almost no words) that his premonition was incorrect. But he doesn’t believe it and neither do we. He stands before the statue and sees a guardsman whose face is darkened by the shadows of the rubble; wild dogs, almost hyenas, fight and snap at one another; and suddenly he is standing mere inches away from the crazed, inhuman smile. Thus begins this monumental film.
We move continents to a genteel district beside the most famous of American Jesuit universities. There we sweep the steps of another priest, a Greek-American called Damien Karros (Jason Miller), who is destined to become the younger foil to Merrin. Karros is not only a Jesuit, he is also a psychiatrist, having been sent by the Brothers to study at Harvard and Bellevue, yet his actions and words belie his education. Karros prefers boxing (and physically resembles a young Sylvester Stallone) and bemoaning his lot at the local watering hole. How strange it is that the priests banter and gripe like policemen – spiritual policemen, one supposes – bereft of all purity of thought or intent! For all his training and exposure to both science and theology, Karros has still managed to lose his faith or at least enough of it to question why he still wears the collar. The Georgetown campus is also the site of a film whose star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has taken up residence in one of the area’s posher houses, with a view onto the Potomac and adjacent to a treacherous flight of steps. Materialist, rude, arrogant, hysterical, domineering, and devoid of any religious beliefs, MacNeil remains someone whose milk of human kindness has long since soured. She has a twelve−year−old daughter Regan (Linda Blair), but her estranged husband only appears as the target of her telephone jeremiads. Like all children, Regan intuits that the problems between her parents are far graver than her mother allows her to think and withdraws ever so slightly from activities. Even with little knowledge of the film’s progression, the viewer detects the contrapuntal relationship between the wealth and atheism of MacNeil and the horrific events to which her daughter will be subjected. That MacNeil’s first name is the essence of the faith she will require to save her child is obvious. Slapdash research shows, however, that in Gaelic MacNeil means “son of might,” or “son of a dark complexion,” or “son of a champion,” or “son of a storm cloud,” and Regan means “the king’s child” or “impulsive, furious” – all of which augments the suggestive nature of these names into allegory.
Regan becomes the battleground for two forces that require no introduction but much more information, which the film, as it were, wisely does not provide. This is not and never wishes to be a documentary. Although loosely based on purported events, the possession for which graphic detail seems to have been created has the savory, coincidental quality of fiction and is best kept in that realm. Instead, we are asked to consider the subtle touches. Should we remember the face of the homeless man sitting in the corner just a couple of yards away from a train Karros is about to catch? Will that face twist into the epitome of darkness? Perhaps his words will turn out to be more important. And what of Karros’s dream, where he sees that pendant (the first link between the two parts), a black dog, a glimpse at something horrible and inhuman, and then his mother, distant, far out of earshot, descending a subway station and himself powerless to stop her? And the ward where his mother is kept, as all the inmates accost and swipe at him as if trapped within a prison of souls, a small arc of one of hell’s larger circles? So when the baffled neurologists (all eighty−eight of them) suggest that Regan has “a disorder that we don’t see anymore except in some primitive cultures,” we laugh at their incompetence masquerading as smugness (topped only by that of an even more insufferable hypnotist). But their first instinct is in a way very right: familial strife breeds the worst type of behavior, and its collapse can destroy a person, especially a child, permanently (that is not to say, however, that we are watching an allegory for a failed family). Then a scene that has no scientific explanation takes place and we understand, at last, what we might be dealing with, while doctors insist that there is a lesion in Regan’s temporal lobe although their encephalogram indicates nothing at all. I suppose they didn’t notice that Regan had taken to drawing hyenas and black dogs.