On the day after Christmas in 1973, Warner Brothers released William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Based on screenwriter William Peter Blatty’s own 1971 novel, the film was a critical and financial success. It was one of the highest grossing films of that year, bringing in $66 million dollars on a $12 million dollar production budget. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best director, best screenplay, best cinematography, and was the first horror film to ever be nominated for best picture.The Exorcist was also a cultural milestone, changing the horror genre forever.
Prior to this film’s release, horror films were strictly B-level entertainment featuring classic movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man… or drive-in double features showcasing sordid grindhouse exploitation. But The Exorcist comes with a mainstream pedigree, rivaled only by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Director William Friedkin had just won the Oscar for Best Director for the classic 1971 crime drama The French Connection. An auteur, Friedkin took the original 85 day shoot and increased it to more than 200. His onset exploits are legendary, firing a gun near an actor to get an authentic shocked reaction, slapping another actor before a take to get the proper emotion from the scene, and injuring his two leading ladies by having them yanked around in harnesses. But for all of that, Friedkin was able to craft, arguably, one of the scariest movies ever made.
The cast also helps to elevate this film. Every actor turns in superbly understated performances. Linda Blair plays Regan, the pre-teen victim. She’s very natural pre-possession, never falling into cutesy kid actor antics. Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s mother Chris, probably has to do most of the emotional heavy lifting here as she goes through this stressful ordeal. It’s a challenging performance but Burstyn makes it look easy. Max Von Sydow is so uncontrived as Father Merrin that viewers might think he was an actual priest. Credit must also go out to makeup artist Dick Smith for turning the then 44 year old actor into a senior citizen. Veteran actor Lee J. Cobb avoids the hard boiled cop cliché and gives Lt. Kinderman a dry sense of humor that makes his few scenes memorable. Jason Miller plays the troubled hero priest Father Karras. It was his first onscreen role, and he was exemplary in it. Like the rest of the cast, he turns in a strong but very low key, natural performance.
Revisiting this film after a long separation, I had forgotten how leisurely paced it is. Like most films of the era, The Exorcist doesn’t play to a specific audience. This movie was not influenced by marketers and focus groups. Friedkin made the picture he wanted to make without the heavy hand of the studio guiding his every move. The Exorcist is as profane and violent as we all remember, but it’s also a slow burn. The filmmakers take their time and let the audience get to know the characters before unleashing the horror. They’re all fundamentally “good” people, so you care about Regan, Chris, Karras and Kinderman. One of the mistakes far too many modern horror films make is that they’re designed to play to our baser instincts. The films are lazy and disposable. The scripts don’t give us three-dimensional characters that garner our sympathy; instead opting for unlikeable archetypes that we want to see killed in clever ways. They want us to sympathize with the monster or killer and not the victims, because it’s easier to write an unstoppable killing machine than it is to write actual people.
The Exorcist, even with its relaxed pacing, still manages to be unnerving. I’ve seen this film several times but still found myself, literally, on the edge of my seat while watching it. It’s truly an experience. The imagery and (more importantly) ideas stay with you for days after. I’ve grown with this film. There a time where I wouldn’t even watch the trailers. Even the original cover of the novel unsettled my young mind. My first viewing was the heavily edited network television version, and it still scared the shit out of me. I would lie awake at night, fully believing that a fully possessed Regan was eventually going to find me. I would imagine her scarred face grinning at me from my bedroom doorway. Later, when it was released on home video I finally took the plunge and rented it on VHS. And yes, it still scared the shit out of me. But I was older and was affected beyond Dick Smith’s prosthetics and the film’s sound design. Now I was beginning to notice Owen Roizman’s camera work even if at the time I didn’t fully understand what cinematography was. Then the remastered DVD was released and I almost bought a copy but chickened out and rented it instead. In 2000, the film was re-released in theaters as an extended cut. Here was my chance to finally see it on the big screen the way the filmmakers intended. And of course I went…to a midday screening.
Saying that I love The Exorcist would simplify a complicated relationship. I love it because it’s an example of excellent craftsmanship. It’s the kind of film I aspire to make. But I also hate it because honestly… deep down inside… I’m still that little boy completely freaked out by everything about The Exorcist. I’m gonna go and watch the behind the scenes documentary now. I think that makes me a masochist.