If you know people who went to see “The Exorcist” (1973) in a movie theater upon its first release, you might want to ask them about that experience sometime.
by Alex Smith
Most likely they were surrounded by shrieks, and may have been shrieking themselves. With this film, director William Friedkin changed the horror movie forever. Once Linda Blair sprayed her bedroom with green vomit, there was no going back.
William Blatty’s novel The Exorcist was published in 1971, and Blatty wrote the screenplay for the film. Purportedly, the novel and movie were inspired by a number of actual events. The Exorcist takes place in a stately house within the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., where actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and daughter Regan (Blair) are staying while Chris shoots a film.
It’s not a happy stay, however, as Regan becomes possessed – by a demon claiming to be the devil himself. First the girl is just cursing uncontrollably, but soon enough she’s murdering the director of the movie her mother is starring in! Eventually, the Catholic Church enlists elderly exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to assist Regan, and it’s left up to Merrin and younger local priest named Damien Karras (Jason Miller) to finish the job.
The primary way The Exorcist broke ground was in its unyielding intensity. Unlike many other horror films, which might spend time with one victim before moving on to another and then another, The Exorcist focused on one girl. By staying with this single case of possession, the story is all the more horrific. Additionally, much of The Exorcist takes place within a confined space: a preteen’s bedroom. Just as Regan is trapped – she’s strapped to her bed – so too is the audience trapped. They’re stuck in semi-darkness, with little space to relax, to breathe.
That the movie deals with a possessed child, not a possessed adult, makes it even scarier. Most any parent will tell you that having a sick child is often more painful than actually being sick yourself. Thus, watching a mother watch her daughter undergo atrocities was an unbearable new twist for horror film presentation. And Regan – her voice hideously deep – spouts all manner of obscenities, language that the Motion Picture Association of America would simply not have allowed had the movie been made several years earlier. In 1973, hearing those words spilling from a girl so young would have been unsettling to most audiences, no matter the movie’s content.
The audience is also treated to an array of pre-digital, highly original special effects. In one of the most memorable, Regan’s head spins completely around, and for an instant her face is replaced by that of the devil. In another scene, Regan’s body floats and later she crawls up a wall like a spider. And, of course, there’s that vomit-o-rama. Most moviegoers in 1973 had never seen anything like those images before. The effects might have left them awestruck – had they not been terrified.
When The Exorcist was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1974, it greatly boosted the reputation of horror films, helping change people’s expectations for how “seriously” horror films could be taken. A genre once dismissed by most film critics soon became a proving ground for major cinematic artists. Within several years after the debut of The Exorcist, Brian De Palma made Carrie (1976), John Carpenter co-wrote and directed Halloween (1978), and Stanley Kubrick helmed The Shining (1980). It’s hard to imagine the existence of these and many other masterpieces without the example of The Exorcist.
The Exorcist also spawned a new sub-genre for horror: demonic-possession movies, which remain popular to this day. Consider films like The Devil Within Her (1975), The Amityville Horror (1979), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and of course the sequels and prequels to The Exorcist. The Exorcist has inspired international productions, too, including Spain’s Exorcismo (1975) and Turkey’s Seytan (1974). After “The Exorcist” came out, it was as though Satan had hired himself a powerful Hollywood agent – and found himself an audience!
Alex Smith is a freelance television and film blogger for DirectTVDeal.com.
Aside from having a strange obsession with horror films, particularly slasher flicks and sci-fi horror from 1970s and 80s, he is a (relatively) normal person.
Photo Credits: Stock XChange.