To see William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” when it opened in December 1973, I had to leave the country. Unlike the blockbusters of today, which typically open on thousands of screens, this high-profile horror movie was showing only on single screens in a few cities. The closest to me was the Stanley Theater in Vancouver, B.C.
I was living in Seattle, and the three-hour bus ride to Canada seemed a small price to pay to see the picture everyone was talking about. It would not arrive in Seattle until February 1974. Yet before 1973 was over, reports on national television were already claiming that the movie had become a phenomenon. (The latest spin-off, “Exorcist: The Beginning,” opens in theaters Aug. 20.)
People stood in line for hours for the privilege of fainting and even hurling at the sight of a possessed child doing rude things with a crucifix while speaking with a guttural devil’s voice. Warner Bros. milked the publicity machine shamelessly. The longer they waited to let audiences see “The Exorcist,” the more the studio created a sense of anticipation — and palpable fear.
The Vancouver audience watched the picture with relatively innocent eyes; they jumped and screamed, but they were responding to what was on screen. In Seattle, quite a few audience members laughed nervously before the curtain opened, and they continued to titter and shriek, sometimes responding to the movie, but more often just to relieve the tension.
This couldn’t happen today, when the latest “Scary Movie” or remake of “Dawn of the Dead” arrives in multiplexes everywhere at the same time. But three decades ago, the buildup to the arrival of a blockbuster was part of the game and part of the fun. Perhaps no horror movie benefited more from this arrangement than “The Exorcist.”
Unprecedented success and controversy
The restricted early release broke box-office records, and when the movie finally went “wide” and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (unheard of for a horror film at the time), it continued to dominate the weekly lists of top-grossers. Not even Hitchcock’s most popular and shocking thriller, “Psycho” (1960), made such an impact.
Several explanations were offered for the picture’s unique success. The Watergate nightmare was in progress, and President Nixon was about to be exorcised from office. Another theory held that parents were offended by anti-war protestors, their children included, and experienced the film as a kind of revenge fantasy.
Some claimed that only Catholics could respond fully to the story of two priests battling the devil. The United States Catholic Conference did seem unusually sensitive about the film, arguing that it deserved an X rating. Its members objected to the R rating assigned by the Motion Picture Association of America.
The R rating remained unchanged, though a Washington D.C. theater owner was warned by police that he could be arrested if he allowed minors to see the film. Attempts to ban the movie failed in Hattiesburg, a Mississippi town, and, inevitably, Boston, where a judge dismissed the case because “it does not meet the guidelines of obscenity as laid down by the United States Supreme Court.”
Possibly because the Motion Picture Academy wished to distance itself from the controversy, Oscar night turned out to be a disappointment. All three of the film’s nominated actors lost out: Linda Blair as the possessed child, Ellen Burstyn as her bewildered mother, and Jason Miller as a priest so wracked with guilt over his mother’s lonely death that he becomes an easy target for supernatural forces.
Years later, reflecting on what made the film so effective, Burstyn claimed the careful casting had much to do with it. Max Von Sydow brought gravitas to the role of an older, more experienced priest. Friedkin pursued Burstyn because she was known for playing fiercely independent women.
“I think what was needed was an actress,” she said. “I think that’s what makes it so good, so deep. The characters are real. You get into the experience.” Von Sydow dominates the extraordinary opening sequence, set in Iraq, where his character’s discovery of a demon statue is accompanied by the unnerving sounds of snarling dogs. It pulls you right into the story.
Friedkin, who had won the best director Oscar two years before for “The French Connection,” lost this time to George Roy Hill for “The Sting,” a clever con-man caper that swept most of the awards, including best picture. But “The Exorcist” did earn Oscars for its innovative sound recording and for Blatty’s script, which, like his novel, was based on a 1949 Maryland newspaper story about an inexplicably tormented child.
Seen today, “The Exorcist” is still a pretty scary movie, and superior in every way to the sequels and spin-offs that followed — although “Exorcist: The Beginning” could challenge that claim. Action-movie director Renny Harlin (“Deep Blue Sea”) is credited with directing the version that will play theaters. But a director’s cut by the more introspective Paul Schrader (“Affliction”), who was fired during production, will probably surface later on DVD. Stellan Skarsgard takes over Von Sydow’s role; the prequel is said to emphasize that Iraqi demon again.
The first of the sequels, John Boorman’s willfully bizarre “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) was a notorious flop, though a few critics who hated Friedkin’s film argued that Boorman’s movie was visually more stylish. Few defended Blatty’s attempt to direct another sequel, “The Exorcist III” (1990), which brought back Jason Miller from the first film. During the same year, Linda Blair returned for “Repossessed,” a feeble spoof of the series.
In late 2000, “The Exorcist” was reissued in a longer “director’s cut” with a spiffed-up stereo soundtrack and a protracted, sentimental finale. It grossed more than $40 million, suggesting that there’s a considerable audience waiting for the next installment.