Is there another modern horror movie as influential and enduringly terrifying as The Exorcist?
Some might make a case for the atmospheric chill of works that preceded it, like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Others perhaps will point to subsequent hits — the brutal shocks of John Carpenter’s Halloween, for instance, or the mercilessly ratcheted suspense of Ridley Scott’s Alien.
But few, if any, horror films have left such an indelible impression, not only on the genre but on broader popular culture, as the 1973 demonic possession thriller that marked the peak of director William Friedkin’s long career.
Two years earlier, Friedkin, who died Monday at his home in Los Angeles, aged 87, had already reinvented the police procedural with The French Connection, a bristling neo-noir that to this day has few equals in its hurtling car-chase action, its viscerally immersive camerawork, its vérité character portraits and gritty use of New York City locations.
The stamp of that film — which dominated the 1972 Academy Awards, winning five Oscars, including best picture, director and actor for Gene Hackman as hard-boiled narcotics detective “Popeye” Doyle — can be seen on countless crime movies. Filmmakers from Akira Kurosawa to David Fincher to the Safdie Brothers have acknowledged a debt to The French Connection, while TV cop shows such as Hill Street Blues, The Wire and Southland have taken their cue from its unflinching documentary-style street realism.
But ask popular movie fans under a certain age what they know about the cop thriller, and many will respond with a shrug. Ask them about The Exorcist, on the other hand, and unless they’ve been living under a rock their entire lives, they’ll be able to cite a whole series of iconic freakout moments — projectile vomiting, 360-degree head-spinning, levitation, crucifix masturbation.
If they’ve seen the 2000 extended director’s cut with reintegrated scenes, they’ll probably add the reverse spider walk, which is echoed in so much J-horror.
That wide, cross-generational and global familiarity is no doubt due to the true mark of a movie’s cultural imprint: being the subject of as many parodies as homages and ripoffs.
I first caught The Exorcist as a young teenager in Australia a couple years after its initial release, when it hit the drive-in circuit. It was rated R, which meant no one under 18 could be admitted, but I hid under a blanket in the back of a friend’s van and finally got to experience the most frightening two hours of my life up to that point. To a kid with a Catholic upbringing, nothing hits home like religious horror.
My childhood home had a long driveway running alongside a front garden full of tall trees casting spectral shadows. By the time I made it all the way to the back door, my legs had turned to jelly. I still can’t hear those ominously chiming notes of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” without shooting a nervous glance over my shoulder.
Rewatching the film innumerable times in the decades since, its icy power has never diminished for me, and whenever I see it, the quasi-subliminal image of the demonic face that appears in key moments haunts my sleep. The one time I visited Georgetown in D.C., I made a pilgrimage to the 1895 concrete steps where the intense young priest Father Damien Karras, harrowingly played by Jason Miller, tumbled to his death. Even in broad daylight, I had to get away from there fast.
Friedkin’s skill remains extraordinary at creating atmosphere with sound and visuals, at orchestrating bone-chilling effects using pre-digital practical solutions — wires, hidden hands rattling a bed, air-conditioning so gelid it enabled us to see the actors’ breath in the bedroom where Linda Blair’s possessed teenager Regan lay tied to the bedposts, spewing satanic provocations.
So much of the horror that achieved mainstream success in the ‘80s and ‘90s was colonized by teens in peril, usually being punished for having sex. What’s great about The Exorcist is that it’s a supernatural movie for grownups, and sure, it’s not alone in that respect, but it did more than arguably any film of its period to lend respectability to the genre, legitimizing B-movies beyond horror in the process.
The mere fact of it being nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, was unheard of for a horror movie. That’s attributable not just to its staggering commercial success, with box office lines famously snaking around the block in major cities, but to the insistence of Friedkin and novelist-screenwriter William Peter Blatty on treating the material not as sensationalistic but as a serious drama about ancient evil in the modern world.
That extends also to the casting. In addition to Blair and Miller, Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s distraught screen actress mother Chris MacNeil; Max von Sydow as the senior Church authority on exorcisms, Father Merrin; and Lee J. Cobb as investigating officer Lt. Kinderman ensured that no matter how potentially lurid the scenes in that hellish bedroom became, they never surrendered their dramatic integrity.
With theatrical grosses of over $440 million worldwide on an $11 million budget (pushed somewhat higher than the original Warner Bros. figure by Friedkin’s perfectionism), plus massive home media revenues, it’s no wonder there have been many failed attempts to cash in on the film’s success.
Both the direct sequels — 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic and 1990’s The Exorcist III — are justly all but forgotten. Paul Schrader’s troubled 2004 prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning, much of which was reshot by Renny Harlin, was a flop. Fox’s TV series, also called The Exorcist, extended the franchise in 2016. But despite airing for two seasons, it now seems scarcely a blip on the horror radar.
That’s not to mention the endless unrelated films that came after, jumping on the religious horror bandwagon — I have a particular soft spot for 1976’s The Omen.
Longtime admirers of Friedkin’s horror classic will likely approach the upcoming reboot — in which director David Gordon Green will attempt to do what he did for the Halloween franchise — with caution. The first part of a planned sequel trilogy, The Exorcist: Believer, is due in October. I’ll see it eagerly and with an open mind, but I feel safe in predicting the power of Christ will compel me right back to revisit the towering original.