This classic tale of a girl possessed by a demon was the first and still is the best of its genre – a real, psychological terror movie. This is the one film that, no matter what your religious persuasion, getting to sleep after viewing may be something of a problem.
It all began on the day after Christmas 1973 . . . An unearthly screeching followed by the sound of the Islamic call to prayer pitched America headlong into the first screening of William Friedkin’s film: The Exorcist.
During an atmospheric prologue, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, Lankaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), digging in northern Iraq, uncovers the carved head of a demon, made to ward off the forces of darkness as “evil against evil”. But Merrin is troubled by a premonition of horror.
The scene switches to Georgetown in Washington DC, where twelve-year-old Regan, the daughter of a divorced actress, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), is wracked by bizarre convulsions.
One night, Chris hears noises from the attic and instructs her servant to set up traps to catch the rats she believes she’s hearing. The noises grow worse, and no rats can be found in the traps.
Then, one night Regan changes into a vile being, spitting foul language and using telekinetic powers to hurt others.
Countless doctors and psychiatrists examine Regan, who is seemingly getting weaker and weaker during the day and turning into an unspeakable creature at night. They are powerless to treat her and speculate that she may be demonically possessed.
After Regan has apparently committed murder, a young Jesuit priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), is summoned to help. Convinced that he is facing an authentic demonic possession, he asks the Church to arrange an exorcism.
The Church sends Father Merrin to officiate, and together the two priests struggle to free the child. The frail Merrin ultimately dies of heart failure during the struggle. Karras prevails, but only by forcing the demon into his own body and throwing himself to his death from the girl’s bedroom window.
The manifestations of the demon hit movie audiences extremely hard. In a guttural voice, the girl barks a stream of obscenity such as had never before been heard in a Hollywood film . . .
She vomits pea-soup; she levitates; she twists her head through a hundred and eighty degrees and she masturbates with a crucifix – and this is a 12-year-old girl, don’t forget!
Critics were appalled, but audiences were overwhelmed by the result. As newspapers reported viewers fainting, audiences lined up to see what all the fuss was about and then queued to see it all again.
In San Francisco, a deranged patron charged the screen in an attempt to kill the demon; in Harlem, a priest attempted to exorcise drugs from his neighbourhood; in Boston, a woman was carried from the theatre murmuring: “it cost me four dollars but I only lasted twenty minutes”.
By March 1974, the film had sold 6 million tickets in the US and was poised to sweep the world. Warner Brothers were quick to remind the world that The Exorcist was based on a historical case.
In August 1949, the Washington newspapers reported that a boy in Mount Rainier, Maryland, had been freed from demonic possession by the rite of exorcism.
It was an unusual step. The rite, as codified in 1614, was usually regarded as a relic of the dark ages before a modern understanding of mental illness.
But this was also an unusual case. The tormented boy had spoken in languages he had never studied, and strange symbols and letters had appeared spontaneously on his body.
The Exorcist retains cult status. To many, this is still the scariest film ever made and it never fails to raise the hair on the back of the neck.
It works on so many levels – Religion, fear of the dark, mortality, fear of churches, small children staring at you – you name it, and it’ll trace back to this tale of demonic possession – and worst of all, your subconscious, thanks to a nice bit of subliminal editing in the film.
Warner’s marked its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1998 by releasing a new version with a digitally remastered soundtrack.
It’s hard to overstate just how good or how important The Exorcist really is. The years and its legions of imitators might have deadened its impact, but few films still have the ability to generate such raw visceral emotion. Utterly unmissable.
Linda Blair became famous overnight as the possessed Regan, even though Mercedes McCambridge (voice) and Eileen Smith (body) deputised during the possession scenes. Both actresses had to sue to get screen credit. Mike Oldfield’s prog rock classic Tubular Bells was forever rendered eerie by its association with the film’s soundtrack.
Christian evangelist Billy Graham once claimed an actual demon was living in the celluloid reels of this movie.
Father Damien Karras
Father Lankaster Merrin
Max von Sydow
Voice of Regan