Why 'The Exorcist' remains peerless in horror, 50 years after release

'The Exorcist' placed horror in the middle of everyday life


The year that The Exorcist came out―1973―was strange, to say the least. The US was failing to come to terms with the trauma of the 1960s and early 1970s―the breaking of American traditions with the Vietnam War, the advent of the counterculture, and the adoption of an alternative approach to just about everything from science to religion and, most importantly, cinema. The 1960s finally brought the curtain down on ‘Old Hollywood’. No longer were stars ruling the roost; relative unknowns like Roman Polanski and Dennis Hopper were now defining the zeitgeist.

Amongst the younger crop, The Exorcist’s director, William Friedkin, generated great interest for a host of reasons. He had won an Oscar for best director for The French Connection (1971), and could not care less for authority, a trait that did not win him any favours with the big Hollywood studios.

Friedkin’s decision to adapt William Peter Blatty’s book, The Exorcist, made instant news, and one of the reasons could be the genre―horror―which was not one that A-listers gravitated to. While there had been a few exceptions―like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968)―horror was still largely seen as ‘B film’. You had the stereotypical serial killer (M, 1931), monster (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954) or zombie (Night of the Living Dead, 1968).

The Exorcist placed horror in the middle of everyday life―a mysterious entity possesses Regan (Linda Blair), a teen girl. Her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), seeks the help of two priests―Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller). Friedkin’s decision to “root the picture in time, recent time” enabled the audience to have realistic and rational perceptions of what was happening to the seemingly innocent Regan. It made The Exorcist homely and the horror, sensationalistic.

Horror had long been a dicey genre because of the difficulty in suspending the audience’s disbelief, but The Exorcist spun this around in unimaginable ways. For starters, it introduced the supernatural as a part of real life and, therefore, something that could happen to anyone. Secondly, it brought to fore the fear that modern science might not be able to offer a cure, which convinced the viewer of the impending doom. With such thoughts firmly enmeshed, Friedkin turned the screws―Regan’s vile physical appearance, the projectile vomit, the infamous spider crawl on the staircase. It left the audience scared and scarred. Reports of requests for exorcisms and strange behaviour at cinema viewings only spread the film’s fame. With The Exorcist, horror became real. The devil was scary, but scarier was the realisation: Could God abandon you?

Over the years, The Exorcist’s influence and impact can be seen in the genre. David Cronenberg came into his own with Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Richard Donner’s supernatural thriller The Omen (1976) was probably the classiest Exorcist copy yet. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) reinvented the genre. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) took some of the best elements of The Exorcist to an entirely new level. Closer home, the film remains the greatest inspiration for Ram Gopal Varma, who rejuvenated the Hindi horror genre with his seminal Bhoot (2003). There have been multiple films on the same theme, but William Friedkin’s unnerving masterpiece remains peerless five decades later.

Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and author of the best-selling Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna