Released 40 years ago in 1973, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is still one of the most influential, and some would say scariest, horror movies ever released. Now four decades after its release, what keeps people coming back to this film?
The Exorcist had number of major impacts, on film industry and the horror genre in particular, and on the wider culture. Here are five things about that still The Exorcist resonate. Oh, and if you still haven’t seen the movie for some reason – spoiler alert!
A Price to Pay
Audiences expecting the good guys to walk away the victor were in for a shock when the credits rolled for The Exorcist. The late 1960s saw a shift in many major films that meant the heroes didn’t always survive. Perhaps a reaction to the Vietnam War, horror films especially saw an increase in the nihilism on display (see Night of the Living Dead as another example). In The Exorcist, the evil may have been successfully driven away, but the main characters pay a terrible price and we get a sense that life may never be the same for those left standing after the exorcism.
Science vs. Theology
In a post moon landing era, technology was seen as the answer to almost all of society’s problems. However, The Exorcist put these new beliefs up against some very old and terrifying realities. We get to witness the best 1970s medical technology has to offer in trying to diagnose Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) and explain her symptoms scientifically. Suffice it to say, these scenes provide their own horror. When science proves ineffective, the old, “rejected” beliefs of possession and exorcism are reevaluated more as a psychological tool to use in an attempt to heal Regan. There have been some critics that see the film as an attack on science, but this seems to ignore the fact that the protagonists are actually facing a supernatural threat in the film.
No Punch Pulled
The Exorcist has some amazing set pieces that have become legendary for their graphicality and horror. From “pea soup” vomiting, head spinning and a particularly lewd use of a crucifix, The Exorcist was not afraid to show the horror of what was happening rather than just suggesting it. This is a film that believes in the “show, do not tell” maxim of good storytelling. Since The Exorcist first breached the lines of what was considered eligible for being shown in a mainstream motion picture, horror films have reveled in pushing the bounds of graphic violence, gore and explicit horror.
Respect and Acclaim
Upon its release, The Exorcist received a split reception from critics, but audiences didn’t seem to care, as they flocked to theaters in droves. The film went on to become the second highest grossing film of the year. Furthermore, The Exorcist became the first horror film to be nominated for 1973’s Best Picture. Over the years, it has become one of the most highly regarded horror films in history as new generations are exposed to the film. In 2010 it was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The Exorcist ranks #3 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Thrills list.
Pop Culture Influences
Films that enter the public consciousness (or unconsciousness in some cases) stay with us for better or worse. With the release of The Exorcist (and Rosemary’s Baby a few years earlier), “devil films” became all the rage in the 1970s. To this day, any film dealing with possession usually offers a wink and a nod to The Exorcist. Plus, since The Exorcist’s immortal projectile-vomiting scene, the world has never looked at pea soup the same way again!
40 years after The Exorcist first premiered, it still retains its power to frighten on a visceral level, and remains superior not only to the legion of possession-themed horror films it spawned but even to its own lackluster sequels The Exorcist II and III. This longevity just goes to show that the boundaries The Exorcist crossed when it came out in 1973 weren’t transgressed just for shock value or as a gimmick: Friedkin, auteur that he was, was simply doing what he had to do to serve the story, and the results speak for themselves.