No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Hoya Prods./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885474g) The Exorcist (1973) The Exorcist - 1973 Director: William Friedkin Warner Bros/Hoya Productions USA Scene Still Horror L'Exorciste

Still Terrifying 45 Years Later: ‘The Exorcist’ (1973)

My love for The Exorcist knows no bounds, and December 26, 2018 marks the 45th anniversary of the celebrated classic, a film that has never strayed from my favorites list. This film profoundly moved me. It truly terrified me with my first viewing experience and has only crept under my skin in new ways as I became older and more aware of life. It continues its reign of terror in my subconscious because of the incredible level of empathy I feel for the characters from William Peter Blatty’s story and the epic questions that this tale raises.

I believe the stars aligned for The Exorcist to be what it is.

Writer William Peter Blatty once read an article in the newspaper while he was in college about a peculiar things happening to a young boy and his family. In 1949, the parents of the boy deemed it necessary to contact the Catholic Church and seek out an exorcism for their son. The article fascinated him, and for years Blatty kept it tucked away, hoping to revisit it in some capacity. When he finally did, he wrote a factually based and utterly haunting novel that was released in 1971 entitled The Exorcist.

It took him several tries to find what he described as “the right rhythm to begin the story,” and on the third attempt, he began with Father Merrin in the Northern Iraqi Desert. Traditionally, Blatty leaned heavily in the comedic side of writing but felt compelled to share this aggressively different venture with more of a heavy handed tone. Little did the author know that his fascination would be shared with another storyteller, a film director named William Friedkin that he finally entrusted his manuscript with.

Friedkin was enjoying the success of his latest feature, The French Connection (1971), and after reading Blatty’s manuscript in one sitting, he was excited to take on the project, along with Warner Brothers’ backing. What transpired has stood the test of time. The team of Blatty, Friedkin and the incredible cast and crew made a film that scared the living shit out of people since the first day of its release and continues to do so to this day.

Director William Friedkin and young Linda Blair as Regan

Friedkin and Blatty set out to make a “theological detective thriller” with The Exorcist. They never approached it as a horror film. The cast concur with this. They all give phenomenal performances that, I will admit, can be uncommon with other horror features. Ellen Burstyn is fucking riveting in her portrayal of Chris MacNeil, the desperate mother seeking help for her 12-year-old daughter, Regan. Linda Blair plays the young girl, and is equally as impressive in her screen presence.

Accomplished 44-year-old actor Max von Sydow dons heavy makeup to become the aged Father Merrin. Alongside Jason Miller as Father Damien Karras, the duo combat the ancient evil that threatens to consume Regan. The talent within the cast was stacked, and their unforgettable performances garnered several Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and wins, the first horror film to be considered for these awards. In a conscious effort by the filmmakers to add authenticity to the story, some real clergy members acted alongside these Hollywood legends. Father Dyer, the close friend of Karras in the film and the clergyman who gives him the emotional Last Rites after his tumble down the stairs, was an actual Jesuit Priest named Reverend William O’Malley. He really holds his own, too, bringing a valuable performance.

In addition to the top notch acting was the ingenuity demonstrated by the crew members of The Exorcist. Several unique camera rigs and harnesses were developed to achieve some of the shots Friedkin wished to capture. They even refrigerated an entire set to create the atmosphere needed for the showdown between priests and Devil in the third act. Another creative stroke of genius is the sound design that is so unnerving in many parts of the film. The film opens with that memorable Arabic hymn and then shifts dramatically to the dogs fighting and buzzing of bees, signifying what Father Merrin has been chasing. Later in the film, the clatter of medical equipment causes great discomfort, as does the transformation of Regan’s voice and appearance. Dick Smith did wonders with the makeup on young actress Linda Blair. Everything was a massive, successful, collaborative effort on The Exorcist, and a film that is home to some of the most iconic scenes in filmmaking history.

Regan is thrown around the bed in one classic scene

It’s mind boggling for me to know that film executives from Warner Brothers would visit the set, witness some of this magic, and still leave shaking their heads. They just did not see any potential in this motion picture. Well, fuck them, because The Exorcist ended up earning enough to be in the Top 10 highest grossing films EVER at the Domestic Box Office. The only other horror film to make it on this prestigious list was Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster hit, Jaws.

The Exorcist is one of those films where everything falls into place so perfectly, artistically speaking. But along with the Hollywood magic was an alarming amount of tragedies associated with the movie, helping spark the idea that just maybe the production was cursed. A set fire occurred as well as accidents and several unfortunate deaths, two of which were actors within the film. In a disturbing twist of fate, actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros both perish in the motion picture and then subsequently died in real life. Poor little Linda Blair had to have security assigned to her after death threats were received due to fanatical religious zealots feeling that the picture glorified Satan. Even Christ’s Crusader himself, televangelist Billy Graham, felt that there was a “power of evil in the film itself.” In semi-blasphemous glory, The Exorcist opened in theaters the day after Christ’s birth in 1973, and it has never looked back.

Despite the fact The Exorcist is widely regarded as a horror flick, as I mentioned before, the writer, filmmaker, and stars all vehemently oppose this. “It’s a story about the mystery of faith,” says William Friedkin. Well, your story is fucking scary, William, and I know countless others agree with me. To be honest, it hurts my feelings that most involved don’t believe it to be, or really want it to be, a horror film.

Embrace what it is, folks: one of the most revered, frightening films of all fucking time.

About Danni Winn

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