The power of The Exorcist compels you to be terrified.
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
Next up in our Horror of the Decade series is 1973’s The Exorcist, another film alongside Rosemary’s Baby which greatly contributed to codifying much of the film language we’ve come to associate with horror and suspense.
A possessed Linda Blair levitates as Max von Sydow attempts to cast out her demons.
From its initial release, reports across the country flooded in about theaters handing out “barf bags” for the number of nauseated patrons they were seeing, among many other exaggerated reactions. As the film was becoming a phenomenon in the early months of 1974, an article in Newsweek stated “On December 26 a movie called The Exorcist opened in theatres across the country and since then all Hell has broken loose”. Many aspects of the film proved to be controversial, from the very foundational subject matter of demonic possession to the type of special effects and dialogue present in the film that had some outraged over the fact that the film was rated R and not X. It is from these elements of controversy that the film built, and continues to hold to this day, its reputation as one of the scariest films of all time.
Interestingly enough, looking back on the film and its artistic intentions from the onset, director William Friedkin has said:
“I never had any concept of it as a horror film. We thought of it as a powerful, emotional, disturbing story. But we did not think of it in terms of a horror film, let alone a classic horror film, or a lot of the stuff that passes for horror films. We just both found this story, which was inspired by an actual case, you know, to be very powerful, and I thought would be cinematic. But I never thought in terms of horror films, like the ones that I appreciated, like Psycho and Diabolique, and Onibaba, and a handful of others. They are clearly horror films, and I didn’t think of The Exorcist to be one of them when I made it. Now I understand that the public thinks of it that way, so I don’t dispute it… It’s set in the real world, with characters who are portrayed as humanly possible. So I think that the fact the story is portrayed realistically is what disturbs people about the events in it. It was a very productive and exciting period to work with William Peter Blatty on his great creation.”
Director William Friedkin on set with child actress Linda Blair.
Friedkin, coming off of the critical success of 1971’s The Conversation, which won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, presumably had the cachet to direct any number of films. Again, similar to Rosemary’s Baby, Friedkin’s humanistic approach to supernatural material elevated what many previously hadn’t considered appropriate or desirable subject matter for a serious and effective film. The filthy language and convincing special effects may have brought many to the theater, but it’s everything else that is built around these elements that have made The Exorcist an enduring classic that sticks with people for the rest of their lives after having viewed it. There is a good reason that this film appears to have been the progenitor for an entire genre of demonic possession films, with enough entries fifty-plus years on to have created multiple sub-genres within that category.
I believe that Friedkin’s assessment is spot on as to why this film stood out originally and continues to do so, and that is chiefly because of the realism of the characters, their relatability, their fallibility, and their fear. It’s easy to see ourselves reacting in similar ways if we were somehow, some way, forced to deal with something that seems so terror-struck and nearly impossible, and yet, rooted in enough reality, let alone historical context, that it remains for many just barely within the boundaries of plausibility. As none other than Roger Ebert wrote in his original four-star review of the film, “even in the extremes of Friedkin’s vision there is still a feeling that this is, after all, cinematic escapism and not a confrontation with real life. There is a fine line to be drawn there, and “The Exorcist” finds it and stays a millimeter on this side”.
I hope to see you come and escape with us at The Moviehouse and determine for yourself which side of that line this film falls on for you.