It’s now 49 years ago that William Friedkin’s supernatural horror classic The Exorcist was first released (actually at Xmas in 1973).
The film is based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, which it follows very closely in depicting the demonic possession of a young girl and her mother’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism conducted by a pair of Catholic priests.
The cultural impact of the film, which also encompassed its treatment of Catholicism helped it become the first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture whilst it also became the biggest grossing box-office film of all-time (until the release of Jaws in 1975).
This is an unusual horror film in the way it is structured in that it doesn’t really have a main lead as it is largely an ensemble piece. Plus its main driving force, for me, is the crisis of faith in the character of Father Karras. The film was directed by William Friedkin who was the hot director at the time after the phenomenal success of The French Connection,
The film starts, eerily in Northern Iraq, where Father Merrin encounters a large statue of the demon Pazuzu.
The film then locates to Georgetown where an actress’s daughter gradually becomes possessed and is confined to her bedroom. After trying numerous medical tests, her mother, in an act of desperation, turns to Father Karrras, and, despite his ambivalence concludes that an exorcism is warranted where Father Merrin is summoned.
Ultimately both Father Merrin and Father Karras die during the exorcism but Karras sacrifices himself in tricking the demon to possess him as he hurled himself out of the window to his death.
The film is an exhausting experience with the viewer continually assaulted with images and sounds that still horrify today. For many the impact it had was visceral in that some viewers suffered adverse physical reactions, fainting or vomiting towards scenes in the movie.
Over the years it was followed by numerous sequels and prequels, none of which came remotely close to repeating the original’s success and impact.
12 thoughts on “WolfmanOz at the Movies #44”
Excellent understated performance by Max von Sydow, who was such a good actor. I only saw The Exorcist on TV, which was probably a good thing since in a cinema I think I’d want to hide under my seat! In this genre I have a soft spot for Constantine, with Keanu Reeves. It’s not so terrifying being based on a graphic novel.
Always good to read another’s view on a stand-out film
I saw it at the movies. It had a profound cultural effect – everyone suddenly became interested in the occult. Like so much of his writing, C.S. Lewis was prophetic about the growing fascination with the Devil.
For me at 18, it wasn’t particularly frightening, just disgusting. One of those instances where you see the movie and then read the book. It confirmed my suspicions – both writer and movie had taken liberties with the rite. As a movie, it had all the right elements – characterisation, a slow buildup, the crisis and denoument. Plus Tubular Bells which was a plus.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding it at the time including pickets and sermons. These days no one would turn a hair.
calli, I don’t think there’s a Hollywood movie yet that has not sacrificed accuracy for dramatic effect when dealing with any aspect of Christianity, including Mel Gibson’s powerful The Passion.
That being said, I think the film works thanks to the actors, particularly von Sydow, whose strong yet understated performances are key to the viewer suspending disbelief and turning what could otherwise have been a standard horror flick into a cinematic masterpiece that is still regularly rated above others in its genre that ame later & benefited (or not, from my perspective) from CGI .
Oh, and yes, it is revealing of where we were headed that a society just then experiencing the beginning of a precipitous decline in church attendance could express such a facsination with demonic possession!
Roger – These days they embrace it. It’s amazing that the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple even exist let alone being popular apparently. And the millions of practicing witches in America…madness on stilts.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, Bruce.
The messing with gender also comes from people in rebellion against God and his created order. We’re in a mess, to say the least.
The book was scary for a 14 year old.
Had had to read it only during daylight hours.
I often wondered why he made the Catholic Karras an ethnic Greek. There aren’t many of them around. Maybe it seemed more exotic or mysterious. An ethnic Italian perhaps is not as strange.
I think it was due to the casting off playwright Jason Miller who had read the novel, and told the director William Friedkin “that guy is me”, referring to Father Karras. Miller had had a Catholic education, and had studied to be a Jesuit priest himself for three years.
Casting jaundiced old eyes over the LSM, polliemuppets and general bureaucracy, one could easily become a stout believer in Demonic possession.
The third one is one of the best and most underappreciated sequels ever, IMO. My late mom took me to see it when I was a kid, and the nurse’s station scene aged me a few years.