The first is: It depends on how you define "scary".
And the second is: Yes. It is. It absolutely is.
How do you define scary?
I have a rule by which I evaluate all horror movies. It can really be boiled down to one question. How soon do they let you see the monster? In my book, the longer you have to wait to see the monster, the scarier the movie.
Take the Halloween franchise. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes the official title of the first slasher movie, Halloween, coming out in 1978, was really the one that ushered in the slasher movie obsession that was to come. I was a kid in the 80s, so I remember slasher movies well, and the format of all of those that came after borrowed heavily from Halloween.
Here's the thing: Yes, in Halloween we do see the monster in the very first scene, but the monster is just a man. Actually, when we first see him, he's a six year old boy. Nothing menacing about that, except that he just brutally murdered his sister with a knife. Then he goes away for a time and no one else gets killed for...well...a good chunk of the movie. For me, it's the fact that the audience has to wait so dang long for the next person to die that makes Halloween scary. Because you're almost lulled into believing that it's not going to happen. That Michael Myers is just misunderstood. But you know it's a slasher movie, and you can't have a slasher movie without some good slashing, so you're expecting someone to die any minute. The tension builds to unbearable proportions. Every time someone goes off alone you're sure this is the moment. Only it's not. So the suspense grows a little more. And a little more. Until by the end you're absolutely terrified for the poor hapless teenagers in this film.
One thing to note about Halloween: Once Michael begins his killing spree, he only murders three people. And he murders them by either stabbing or strangling them. Remember that fact because it will be important later.
Then comes Halloween II. Ah, Halloween II. What can I say about the movie that confirmed for me my theory that all sequels are crap and filmmakers just shouldn't try? Well, first of all there is no gradual build-up of tension this time. Michael Myers begins killing right away. By the end he's killed something like eleven people (yes, I counted). And he kills them in over-the-top, ridiculous ways. Burning in a hot tub. Exsanguination via an IV tube. The list goes on. And it's not scary. Not at all. Why? Because it's not gore that makes a movie scary. It's not the shock value. It's the story. It's characters that you've come to care about, so when their lives are in danger you feel afraid right there with them.
So, back to The Exorcist. There is very little gore in this movie. And while there is some shock value (if modern audiences aren't shocked by a twelve year old girl masturbating with a crucifix, then I worry about society), the purpose of the movie is not to shock. It's to scare. And how does it scare? With story. With a plot that develops slowly enough that by the end you're so invested in the characters that the fact that they may all be killed by the devil absolutely terrifies you. I don't know what people mean when they say this isn't scary by modern standards. That the movie earned its reputation from the fact that 1973 audiences had never seen that type of thing on the screen before, but today's viewers would find it quite mild. I don't know what standards other people use to evaluate the fright value of a horror movie, but The Exorcist lives up to all of mine, and then some.
The Only Movie That Consistently Scares Me
Horror buff that I am, I've seen a lot of scary movies. And most of them scare me the first time around. But then I can go back and watch them and be relatively unfazed. Not so with The Exorcist. That movie scares the pants off of me every dadgum time I see it, and it never gets easier to watch. And I know I've seen it at least five times, probably more (I saw it first when I was eight, and honestly don't remember how many times I watched it during my childhood).
Why is it so scary? Well, there's all the criteria I mentioned above. There's also the fact that it's a child who gets possessed by the devil, and there are few things a movie can throw at me that are more terrifying than an evil child. I also find the whole medical investigation into Regan's issues pretty frightening. I mean, think about it, here are these people who are convinced there's a rational explanation for what's going on, so they happily spend time with this little girl who also happens to be the devil and are all the while totally oblivious to the danger they've put themselves in. No, none of the doctors die, but that only makes it scarier. That gradual build-up of tension, remember? That's important. A horror movie can't horrify without tension.
Also, for those of us who come from a Judeo-Christian background, the fact that this story is told from a Catholic point of view adds volumes to the creep factor. Why? Because what the movie shows us is a picture of the devil that looks a whole lot like the one we've all been taught to believe in. And for me personally, because I've hung on to my religious beliefs as an adult, there's just something about The Exorcist, some element of truth to the evil being depicted there, that kicks my body right on into fight or flight mode. Basically, the conclusion I've drawn is that, if the devil is real, he looks a heck of a lot like the thing that possesses Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think The Exorcist is still the scariest movie ever made? Or are you in the camp that says it doesn't terrify by today's standards? I'd love to hear the criteria you use to evaluate a horror movie, so please pop in and leave a comment.