The Exorcist, which remains one of the most powerful, galvanizing, controversial, unsettling, and downright chilling films of all time, celebrates its 40th anniversary today.
Directed by William Friedkin (fresh off a cachet of Academy Awards given to his prior film, The French Connection, including Best Director) and adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, which had been released a few years prior and was a bestseller, The Exorcist remains so many things which elevate it from what on paper sort of reads like a hackneyed Z-budget William Castle/HG Lewis dime store narrative: A young girl gets possessed by a demon, and a priest is called to administer an exorcism, but everyone gets more than they bargained for in the process.
In the skillful cinematic jewelers hands of Friedkin, he injects a sort of intelligence, a calm queasiness from the first frame until the final one. Coupled with a handsome script by Blatty, (who won an Academy Award for his work) and interchanging cinematography by Owen Roizman (responsible for lensing other classic pictures such as the aforementioned French Connection and Network to name two), which flows from seamless sharp to muddled, claustrophobic, surrealistic warm hues, treating each mounting sequence of terror uniformly, but never mannered like the way a Stanley Kubrick film was photographed. Ultimately, from its opening excavation scenes in Northern Iraq in which the demon makes his presence felt, to the centerpiece of the film, in which the titular character finds himself in a situation which tests every amount of patience, mettle and above all, faith, The Exorcist hasn’t lost one iota of power, muscle, and most importantly, its scare tactics and intensity.
Beneath the main narrative of the film are sub-narratives which sort of tie and expand the prevalent themes on the surface. Guilt, insecurity, and shame befits one of the main characters, Jason Miller’s Father Karras (in a role originally offered to Jack Nicholson), whose mother has died and becomes the catalyst to question his faith in God.
Then there’s Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, who is an actress of a liberal type and stripe, who has a family life of calm, respectful tranquility with her daughter Regan (played by cult film star Linda Blair) in Georgetown, until that tranquility starts to slowly deteriorate from the demonic possession that has been inflicted within Regan, the result of which puts Chris in emotional states and places only imagined in her worst nightmares.
Friedkin administers a sort of pull the rug under the audience, the actors, and the narrative in a seemingly free form fashion. As the picture goes on, as the truths of the demonic possession get revealed, as the story slips more and more into an evil swatch of terror, as Regan’s actions become more intense, perverted, and blasphemous (longtime Hollywood actress Mercedes McCambridge provides the absolute chill fest of a voice, which spews bile filled, profanity laced verbiage of the most sinful order and ultimately, utterly terrifying), the audience is doubly shocked, not only by its cinematic manifestation of its ideas and themes, but also by the seemingly effortless manner in which Friedkin and Blatty’s script seems to keep pushing boundaries and limits within that narrative.
Friedkin spared no expense in shocking the audience and even the actors; stories are legion of him purposely not telling actors the way scenes would play out, so they would have naturalistic reactions. Examples being when Regan/Demon emits a long stream of vomit onto Karras, Friedkin only told Miller that the projectile would hit his chest before the scene was shot. Instead of course, once the cameras were rolling and the pea soup regurgitation commenced, it hit him square in the face, creating a sequence of absolute stomach churning and unsettling sheer horror.
In another scene, a stuntman was told by Friedkin to pull much harder than had been let on to Ellen Burstyn; she was tied with a rope and was to be pulled back, simulating the scene in which Regan/Satan’s massive force blows her back across Regan/Demon’s bedroom. The stuntman yanked it with true grit, and while it made for another effective scene, Burstyn had back problems and what probably amounted to a slight amount of distrust for Friedkin afterwards.
There were other examples as well which had been reported, one in which Friedkin open palm slapped an actor right before they started the scene to get the right emotional reaction. However brutal and unorthodox these methods were, in hindsight, these were factors which led to the film’s success with full aplomb. Friedkin coming up the idea to refrigerate the set in which Regan/Demon is lying in bondage in bed, creating steam coming out of the actors mouths, just added to the allure, color, and unique approach to a horror genre that for the first time, actually had a picture that had a sort of sense of class about it, even though its primary goal was to scare the living hell out its viewers, first and foremost.
Max Von Sydow, as the title character and Lee J. Cobb, the character actor possibly best remembered for (other than this film) his role as the terrifying kingpin underworld big man in On The Waterfront and who plays a police detective in this film, elevates the picture in many ways, much more than what a low-budget/less skilled cast would have done.
And then of course, there’s that sickly rich and deliciously nauseating theme song, “Tubular Bells,” composed by Mike Oldfield and which already puts a kind of ominous cloud over ones being when the opening notes are heard, became instantly synonymous with the picture. In a way, that song and the famous shot of Sydow in silhouette, with the hat on, outside the house, in the misty nighttime (which also became the main image on the movie poster), are the two most recognizable elements of The Exorcist, elements which gets one instantly thrust into its zeitgeist and gets held hostage, never let go, until it culminates with that creepy final shot of the film which goes to black screen and then to red credits. Friedkin made sure even as folks were getting up from their seats, walking up the aisles to the exits and out the doors, to still leave that queasy feeling in ones stomach and soul
It’s an emotional roller coaster of the truest sense watching the film. Apart from the metaphoric volts and amped up silent lucidity of the genre, just as a film, the A to Z mechanics of film, The Exorcist also sets itself ahead of the pack. The fact that it wound up grossing almost a half a billion dollars ultimately and was the very first horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar are just symbols of its legacy.
Upon its national wide release on December 26, 1973, (the film had made its premiere in New York City on June 19th of that year) The Exorcist became a smash hit, a phenomenon like The Godfather had been almost two years earlier, where audiences across the continents were jolted and shook from their placid prior film foundations, and it became a part of the pop cultural fabric, which to this day still endures as such. In fact, 40 years later, it’s considered so many things, a benchmark in the genre, a classic 1970s film, a film in which that genre reaches a zenith not attained again in terms of highbrow respect and adoration for a shock thriller kind of motion picture until arguably Stanley Kubrick released The Shining seven years after The Exorcist, in 1980.
Scores of rip-offs and so-called homages (which are still churned out assembly line to this very day) followed in its wake, along with sequels that are considered some of the all-time worst pictures ever made, in any genre. Exorcist II: The Heretic, in particular, gives new meaning to the term “wrongheaded.” Released in 1977, and directed by John Boorman, a respected film director who made films like Deliverance, Point Blank, Zardoz, and Excalibur to name a few, the film not only completely wastes Linda Blair, who resurrects her role as Regan, but also makes cinematic mincemeat of the respected actor Richard Burton. His performance in this film almost sets the blueprint for the two-fisted hamminess that was almost re-rendered by Rod Steiger two years later in another possession type film, the based on true events and also run into the ground with rip-offs and sequels, The Amityville Horror. But regardless of the watered down imitations and Z-grade lackluster ripoffs, make no mistake, The Exorcist stands alone on the summit.
The Exorcist is not the kind of film that one readily thinks of when one thinks of films to view during the holiday season. Warner Brothers had taken a mammoth chance in 1973 by releasing it the day after Christmas, and the gamble netted a huge dividend of a payoff. It’s even more mind-boggling when one realizes that The Exorcist is a film where one has to in essence ready themselves to view it, because simply put it’s that type of movie. It isn’t the kind of pop it in the Blu-ray and one is good to go kind of a film. One needs to emotionally psych oneself up to put themselves into the universe of the frayed wires in an electrical socket that The Exorcist is going to deliver. But as we all know, as forty years of generations of fans know, and the new ones who come across it because the word of mouth for it is still so Atlas strong, it’s well worth taking the ride of driving while blind on a road full of titanium sharp razor blades which is The Exorcist. Just start humming “Tubular Bells” in your head and see if you don’t walk to the cliff’s edge barefoot, feet bleeding from the sharp precipices, and take the plunge.