Print the legend, they say; and when it comes to The Exorcist, every legend and even myth about it has been told – and then some.
Released in 1973 to an unsuspecting public, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel changed the course of horror cinema forever. It earned huge box office figures, critical acclaim and a place in the Horror Hall of Fame, all the while having a profound affect on movie audiences the world over. Many elements of its production and release became something akin to an urban myth.
A tale of possession and religious belief, the story of The Exorcist really needs no introduction. The film concerns itself with the plight of Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her teenage daughter Regan (an iconic performance from Linda Blair), the latter finding herself possessed by a demon – or possibly something more – prompting Chris to call in Catholic priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) for help, who in turn calls in Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to perform an exorcism on the possessed Regan.
Directed by William Friedkin, scripted by William Peter Blatty from his novel, utilising famous use of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and featuring iconic, famous, sensational make up work from Dick Smith, the plot outline to The Exorcist hides many spiritual and thematic complexities that run throughout. Its life on the silver screen has never fully died away, reaching beyond to become one of the most famous films ever put to screen, and in some respects almost mythic to anyone in the UK born after its release and who grew up during the 80s and 90s.
Released into US theatres on Boxing Day of 1973 no less, the film was an instant smash hit, catapulting itself into the minds and imaginations of cinema-goers to powerful effect. Deeply controversial upon its release also, the film found itself the subject of much protest from religious groups who deemed it to be abhorrent and evil, as well as objecting to what was felt to be blasphemous dialogue and imagery, while audiences of the 1970s who had never seen special effects as detailed or imagery as startling as this put to screen where, in some cases, overwhelmed by the power of the film and the effect of watching it; there were many reports of cinema patrons collapsing in shock or in some cases either falling victim to vomiting or incontinence.
Of course, these reports only added to hysteria and mythic quality of the film; growing up a teenager in the 90s in the UK meant that The Exorcist was unavailable on home video until the successful 25th anniversary re-release in 1998, with posters boasting of critic Mark Kermode’s assertion that the film was the greatest ever made. The Exorcist was like a work of urban legend that I first came across through an article that appeared in the magazine XPose. It really made my teenage self want to watch the film – only to be told (to my disappointment) that it was effectively banned from video and that was evil I was never to watch it, or words similar to it.
This made it even more mythic. Stories of its troubled production were plentiful, from Friedkin’s choice to lower the temperature of the set in order to capture the performer’s breaths on film, to his unconventional choices in how to elicit a great performance from some of his actors – with one of the most famous being his asking Father William O’Malley (who was portraying Father Dyer) if he trusted him, to which Dyer replied yes, and was then promptly followed by Friedkin slapping him in the face and using his resulting emotional reaction on film.
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Rumours even circulated of someone dying during production, not to mention many were convinced the quick second cutaways of the demon’s face during Father Karras’ dream were, in fact, evidence of either subliminal messaging or that actual, pure evil had made its way into the film itself.
On top of that were stories of audiences either urinating (or worse) on themselves during those very first screenings in the 70s, while the idea of protests from religious groups and the fact it was banned from home video, all made The Exorcist into some weird mythic beast that felt as if to watch it was to place your life in imminent danger or something close to it.
The Exorcist never being given a VHS release was in itself an urban myth; the film did, in fact, make it to UK video briefly during the early days of the format, but with the emergence of the draconian Video Recordings Act that came about as a result of the “Video Nasties” scare of the the 1980s, the film was quickly withdrawn by Warner Bros. and subsequently found itself unable to get past the then head of the BBFC James Ferman and onto the shelves of any video store or owner when submitted for video classification.
Of course, this just made the film even more infamous in the eyes of many; banned, stories of an extreme production, protests, and audiences unable to control their bowel movements when watching, the film seemed like a brilliant challenge in itself.
Eventually, the ban was lifted when Ferman left the BBFC and the film then found itself on the shelves of many homes, and for a film that was decried as evil itself, it’s very strange to find oneself able to buy it in either an Asda or a Tesco during the Halloween period after growing up never being allowed access to it at all.
The stories of its infamous production and audience effect can also hide the fact that there is a very intelligent film at the centre of it. It puts themes of faith and belief front and centre, boasting superbly layered performances from Burstyn and Miller.
Yes, Linda Blair is amazing and her performance deserves its place in the Horror Genre Pantheon right next to the likes of Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, but once again it shows how horror can sometimes be acclaimed (or vilified) as an over-the-top genre and not an intelligent one. There is great intelligence here, great themes and scenes, but yes, it is a very scary film and one for the ages that has lost none of its power in what is now, amazingly, its forty-fifth year in existence.
With many choices of director turning it down (being a Warner Bros. film meant that the call was put to Stanley Kubrick) it was The French Connection‘s William Friedkin who called the shots and ensured the film’s status as one of the most (in)famous ever produced. Many of his choices, from his casting to selecting Dick Smith to do the film’s famous prosthetic effects, instantly found their way into the pop cultural sphere and have been paid tribute or spoofed many times; from the Linda Blair starring spoof itself Repossessed, to episodic genre television such as The X-Files, Angel and Supernatural, to other movies that deal with the subject of the supernatural and possession that have invoked the feel of Friedkin’s film, such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Conjuring, while three years later The Omen would feel like a variation of a theme.
After 45 years, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells can still retain a chill because of this movie. The mention of pea soup also brings up images of Linda Blair vomiting it, while everyone has at some point tried to do an impression of Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal performance as the demon and talked of misbehaving children as possibly either having the ability to turn their heads 360 degrees, or, in tribute to The Omen, having the mark of the beast in their hair. It’s always been wonderfully strange how two horror movies that can be thought of as evil in many respects can find their way into conversations over badly behaved kids so easily.
Some may laugh it off as not being very scary anymore, but let’s face it, it still is and anyone saying so is simply overcompensating. The power of its initial release will never be diminished and its forceful velocity never leaves you, even after all this time. It bulldozed its way into the Horror Hall of Fame, and that’s where it deserves to stay.