1970’s Horror: The Exorcist (1973)

Regan (Linda Blair) glares and dares the audience to look away from her repugnant demons.

In the fourth of my series of blogs discussing the importance of 1970’s thrillers, we FINALLY reach the King (or is it Queen?) of Horror. Let’s face it, even if you chose never to read or lay eyes on “The Exorcist”, no doubt you have some idea of the concept. An ordinary 12-year-old girl is seemingly possessed by The Devil and her distraught mother must turn to the only salvation possible, the Church – in the form of an exorcist who banishes demons from their host bodies. But did you also know the mother exhausts every avenue of medical science first? These scenarios play out in graphic depictions of doctors giving her daughter painful tests that prove nothing clinical is happening. Did you know it’s well over an hour into the film before the true, ancient demon, Pazuzu – not The Devil himself – is revealed in all its hellish, deceitful detail? And here friends is where the making of horror films takes a huge turn that will forever affect every single picture made after. William Friedkin (Oscar-winning director of “The French Connection”, 1972) took William Peter Blatty’s 1971 bestseller and shot his film documentary-style. He doesn’t bother to explain the supernatural events, but makes his audience bear witness to them, in a perfectly ordinary hometown setting, at the exact same moment the characters do. We are subconsciously drawn into the events unfolding, just as if we were standing right alongside these characters in extremely harrowing circumstances, escalating the audience’s tension and fear. And this, in essence, is the real reason why fans like me LOVE horror movies so very much! In the best horror films (or any films for that matter), we are lifted out of our seats and take part on the roller coaster ride of emotions, and feel like a part of the movie. This is why stalker/slasher films became all the rage in the late 70’s/80’s. Audiences want to escape their ordinary lives, be sucked in, and feel thrills and chills for a few hours. The best stories stay in our minds/imagination for years after seeing the films!

So much information is online about this classic film that I won’t bore you with details you’ve already heard. It is interesting to note that author Blatty was friends with Shirley MacLaine and used her as a basis for the actress/mother Chris McNeil in his novel and hoped she would play the role onscreen. The studio wanted Audrey Hepburn (imagine!), Anne Bancroft and even Jane Fonda (who allegedly turned it down). Ellen Burstyn reached out to director Friedkin and asked for the part. Relatively new on film, Ellen received acclaim and award nominations for “The Last Picture Show” (1971). For the role of the exorcist, the studio wanted Marlon Brando, but producers went with Swedish actor, Max Von Sydow. Theater actor Jason Miller won the supporting role of Father Karras, after the studio replaced Stacey Keach in favor of an unknown actor, and passed on Jack Nicholson. It is important to note, that by disobeying the studio’s wish to present a cast of familiar Hollywood stars, Friedkin also cemented his film in realism by casting yet-to-be discovered faces. Each actor disappears into their role and a new layer of reality is added. This is true of many successful films. If the audience is able to believe the characters are real and honest, we invest more emotions into their plights. And each of the lead actors became stars in their own right following this horror’s worldwide success. Note that Barton Heyman, from “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”, appears as Regan’s Doctor Klein.

So much information is online about this classic film that I won’t bore you with details you’ve already heard. It is interesting to note that author Blatty was friends with Shirley MacLaine and used her as a basis for the actress/mother Chris McNeil in his novel and hoped she would play the role onscreen. The studio wanted Audrey Hepburn (imagine!), Anne Bancroft and even Jane Fonda (who allegedly turned it down). Ellen Burstyn reached out to director Friedkin and asked for the part. Relatively new on film, Ellen received acclaim and award nominations for “The Last Picture Show” (1971). For the role of the exorcist, the studio wanted Marlon Brando, but producers went with Swedish actor, Max Von Sydow. Theater actor Jason Miller won the supporting role of Father Karras, after the studio replaced Stacey Keach in favor of an unknown actor, and passed on Jack Nicholson. It is important to note, that by disobeying the studio’s wish to present a cast of familiar Hollywood stars, Friedkin also cemented his film in realism by casting yet-to-be discovered faces. Each actor disappears into their role and a new layer of reality is added. This is true of many successful films. If the audience is able to believe the characters are real and honest, we invest more emotions into their plights. And each of the lead actors became stars in their own right following this horror’s worldwide success. Note that Barton Heyman, from “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”, appears as Regan’s Doctor Klein.

Jason Miller (Karras), author William Peter Blatty and Ellen Burstyn (Chris) on set

And thus, this film hinges on the pivotal role of daughter Regan MacNeil. I’ve read that author Blatty based her name on the cruel daughter in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. Again, after considering established child actors who were older than 12 years of age, Friedkin gave up hope of ever finding a perfect match. In walks a mother with her daughter, Linda Blair, and everything falls into place after she tests with Ellen Burstyn, and proves she can handle the adult material. You simply must understand that this film went places never seen on screen before to appreciate how textured and skillful Linda’s portrayal is. She not only had to act every stage of being possessed – becoming ill, acting mentally ill, hurting herself, performing effects never seen on film before, masturbating on screen with a crucifix, swearing left, right and center, and glaring with insidious intentions – REALISTICALLY – and still make an audience feel an urgency to rescue her from Evil. She does this beautifully, effortlessly and masterfully. For example, watch in an early moment her innocent, cherubic smile as she coaxes the Ouija board to introduce her invisible friend “Captain Howdy” to her mother. Flip then to the climax, as her disfigured demon thrall sits at the end of the bed, giggling menacingly as Karras tries to revive the dead exorcist who’s heart has stopped. It is but a moment, and yet – any semblance of innocence or purity is completely GONE from Linda’s persona. Stunning. Chilling. Always frightening to me.

When they re-released the film at theaters for a (2013) 40th anniversary showing, I got chills, and understood why 1970’s audiences were terrified, many to the point of becoming ill themselves and leaving the theater (mostly because of the hospital tests Regan endures painfully.) Watching this classic in the company of fellow patrons, swept up on the Horror roller coaster, the fear is palpable. In modern Dolby Surround Sound, Regan’s possessed wheezing and growling swallowed the darkness around us and pervaded the entire theater with feral menace. Even those viewers who don’t believe in the supernatural are hard pressed not to squirm as Karras enters Regan’s bedroom for the first time, and the hideous demon child quips, “What a marvelous day for an exorcism.” in its abhorrent voice (supplied by Mercedes McCambridge.) Remember that the All-American family had never been attacked like this onscreen before. Now, the Forces of Evil came into the bedroom, where the child slept in comfort every night, under her mother’s roof. Films like “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Last House on the Left” (1972) had introduced humanoid horrors invading from the outside. Yet here, the demonic horror came from within the child. Perhaps only “The Bad Seed” (1956) had introduced this idea before. But that murderous child was born B-A-D. Linda’s Regan is corrupted, manipulated and cruelly abused on screen, before our very eyes. Later classics, like “The Omen”, “Poltergeist” and “Hereditary” owe a lot to the bravery of these creatives.

“The Exorcist” was released in December of 1973 and earned $1.9 million in its first week, grossing $7.4 million nationwide after its first month, often with audiences defying severely harsh winter weather to wait in long lines for tickets. Until Stephen King’s “IT” was released in 2017, this 70’s classic held the record for top-grossing R-rated horror movie. Critics called it ‘claptrap’ or ‘classic’, and Roger Ebert called it “raw and painful” to watch, while praising the acting. Still, this film endures even today, without CGI digital effects, all due to the stellar performances and production values. Dick Smith employed many of the first ever “practical” special effects to be shot on film. Many cities, Boston among them, tried to ban the final film from theaters. The MPAA ratings board gave the film an X-Rating, until the director cut it back to win an R-Rating to reach the most audiences. And yet, it received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (winning only 2: Best Adapted Screenplay for Blatty and Best Sound Mixing.) Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and Linda Blair were all nominated, and Blair took home the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Blair lost her Oscar to Liza Minnelli for “Cabaret”. Not too shabby at all. I can find no evidence of any other horror film being nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Picture.

In fact, the academy has only nominated 6 horror films for Best Picture: The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1976), The Silence of the Lambs (1991, the only winner in this category), The Sixth Sense (2000), Black Swan (2011), and Get Out (2017). Also important to note: “The Exorcist” spawned 4 sequels and a Fox original TV series (2016-2017), starring Ben Daniels, Geena Davis, Alan Ruck and Sharon Gless. For the first time, an R-Rated horror hit gave birth to money-making sequels, and the ’80’s and ’90’s would flourish with this marketing ploy, making household stars of the Alien, Predator, Freddy, Chucky, Michael Myers and Jason.

For me, after several rereads of the book and hundreds of viewings of the film, the horrors that stay with me the most happen mostly off-screen. For example, before the story starts, Regan has already started communicating through a Ouija board with a presence she calls “Captain Howdy”. My mind races – just what has Howdy been saying to little Regan. Later, a statue in a church is defiled with the same clay creations Regan has been working on in her mother’s presence at home. Worse still, the mysterious death of the mother’s director/friend, Burke Dennings (played to the drunkard hilt by Jack MacGowran.). We are told that Burke must have visited Regan’s sick room while mother and her assistant were out of the house. During that time Burke must have confronted the demon-infused Regan and she must’ve plunged him out a window and down a flight of stairs across the street. But not before she must have twisted his head completely around. Every time I encounter this moment, it fills my imagination with awful dread, considering just how this played out for that poor character. Horrors written or filmed which in turn affect an audience so deeply must surely be pure genius. This classic tale unsettles me each and every time. I dare you to watch it in the dead of night. (5 out of 5 stars).

Next time: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

About the author

David Chrisom

David joined Boston Super Blog in May of 2019. His vibrant personality is rivaled only by his creativity in his artwork and writing. We're lucky to have him on board sharing his thoughts! In his spare time he's a member of the New England Horror Writers.