There are plenty of scary films worthy of mention, but none that shocked the population at large quite like The Exorcist. The story of a young girl possessed by the devil was the highest-grossing film of 1973 and is still considered one of the scariest horror movies ever made.
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful actress living in Washington DC who begins to notice some behavioral problems with her 12-year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Once a happy-go-lucky kid, she becomes uncharacteristically aggressive and unruly. Doctors perform a number of tests which come up negative and the problem is deemed to be psychological. Taken to a shrink, young Regan assaults the doctor. Meanwhile, a number of paranormal occurrences are taking place around the MacNeil home and, when a film director visits the house, he suffers a violent death. The police investigate and suspect the young girl is responsible.
At wits end, Mom brings in the Christian cavalry in the form of a young priest named Father Karras. When he meets the girl, it doesn’t take long to deduce that evil forces are at work and he decided to request permission from the Church to perform an exorcism. Thinking the priest might be in over his head, they send the more-experienced Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to assist. What ensues is a terrifying battle of good and evil as these men of the cloth do everything within their power to drive the devil out of young Regan.
The Exorcist was adapted from a 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty and based on similar events that purportedly took place in Maryland in 1949. William Friedkin directed the film and considered Anissa Jones (Buffy from Family Affair) and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) for the part of Regan before settling on the relatively unknown Blair. The part of Chris MacNeil was offered to Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft, who all refused. Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson were both considered for priestly roles. Suffice to say, The Exorcist could have become a very different movie but the casting choices proved ideal.
Friedkin took extraordinary efforts, bordering on abuse of his cast, to achieve the desired reactions in the film. He fired guns behind their backs, slapped them in the face before takes, and jerked actors around in harnesses violently enough to cause injury. The bedroom set was built inside a walk-in freezer, making the actors’ breaths visible in the scenes and making them miserable in the process. Needless to say, the unnerved facial expressions throughout the film are undeniably authentic.
Real priests were called in on a regular basis to bless the sets of The Exorcist. Despite their efforts, a number of strange occurrences happened during filming, including an unexplained fire that burned the entire house set except for Regan’s bedroom. Furthermore, a number of people associated with the film died either during, or shortly after, filming. Many of the cast and crew reportedly felt as if the film was cursed.
If it was, the box office was no indication. Adjusted for inflation, The Exorcist remains the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Thanks to the considerable hype and controversy, audiences flocked to the theaters to see the groundbreaking thriller and were so frightened by what they saw that some actually fainted or otherwise required medical assistance. Reactions such as these even caused England to ban the controversial film, the likes of which had never been seen before.
All told, The Exorcist garnered two Academy Awards from its 10 nominations, one for Best Sound and the other to William Peter Blatty for Best Adaptive Screenplay. To little surprise, the film also spawned three sequels. Exorcist II: The Heratic was released in 1977 and promptly flopped. 1990s The Exorcist III, which Blatty wrote and directed, received much better reviews and found moderate success at the box office. The fourth offering, Exorcist: The Beginning (released in 2004) was entirely forgettable.
On the other hand, nobody will ever forget the original, whose impact on the public at large and the horror genre is immeasurable. It remains a devilishly good time and guaranteed scare, perhaps the scariest film ever made.
If you have fond memories of this classic film, and especially if you saw it in the theater, we would love to hear your recollections and initial reactions to The Exorcist in our comments section, as we tip our hats to little Regan for giving us countless nightmares throughout the years.