The most infamous and scary horror movie I’ve ever watched is ‘The Exorcist.’ On the 26th December 1973, those who were bloated after their Christmas turkey and weary from last minute Christmas shopping may have taken refuge at the local cinema. Some may have even ventured in and settled into their seat to watch the new William Friedkin directed movie that was released that very day. They may have even heard about it, it was difficult not to, with its religious subject matter of the devil possessing a twelve year old girl.
What they would have experienced was the product of a gruelling 224-day shoot; a film so powerful that is was banned in some countries and refused a home release certificate in the UK. The film even caused the Evangelical Reverend Billy Graham to state that ‘evil itself’ resided in the very film stock. Boxing Day would never be the same again, as that movie was ‘The Exorcist’, and would become one, if not the most famous horror film of all time.
The film was adapted from a novel by William Peter Blatty, who was in turn inspired by supposedly true-life events. In fact, Reverend William O'Malley who played Father Dyer and was also credited as the movies Technical Advisor has claimed that the only differences between the ‘truth’ and the fiction were the gender of the possessed teen and the story’s location.
Combine this tantalising fact with the stories of mysterious fires and so-called curses on the set, the deaths of several cast members and the hysteria, fainting and vomiting that occurred during screenings and the legend of this horror movie is complete. I myself was brought up with ‘the curse of The Exorcist’, and I have friends whose parents felt the same about the film; that odd things, even awful things happened after watching it, and with that many deaths on a film set – it’s hard not to believe in the power of the psychology behind it alone.
In 1974 The Exorcist was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, but ended up going home with only two (for Best Sound and Best Writing) after ‘The Sting’ beat it in most categories (I’ve never seen ‘The Sting.’ It faired better at the Golden Globes with Friedkin taking Best Director, Blatty taking Best Screenplay, Linda Blair taking Best Supporting Actress (deservedly so) and the film itself winning Best Drama.
The film was released theatrically in the UK in March 1974 and rated X. The BBFC’s (British Board of Film Classification) director, James Ferman, never allowed the film to be submitted for classification on home video due to his reluctance to cut the film, something he considered inevitable, so it remained the staple of independent cinema’s until 25th February 1999.
On the whole this was not such a bad thing. Watching ‘The Exorcist’ is a very emotional experience and much of its power and ability to scare relies on being engrossed in the unfolding story, and of course the psychological fear from the audience that they’re watching a cursed film; with ominous tales including the deaths of nine people associated with the production and stories about a mysterious fire that destroyed the set one weekend. Burstyn indicated some rumors to be true in her 2006 autobiography ‘Lessons in Becoming Myself.’ The interior sets of the MacNeil residence, except for Regan's bedroom, were destroyed by a studio fire and had to be rebuilt. Friedkin has claimed that a priest was brought in numerous times to bless the set. Blatty, after the difficulties encountered in New York production, asked Fr. King to bless the Washington crew on its first day of filming, at the foot of Lauinger Library's steps to 37th Street. The incident was recounted in Fr. King's 2009 Washington Post obituary. Other issues include Blair's harness breaking when she is thrashing on the bed and heard on film shouting for the director to stop filming, injuring the actress. Burstyn noted she was slightly hurt when Regan throws her across the room. Actor Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings) died during filming – these tales all make the film more uneasy to view. This power can be easily lost when it is viewed at home, but if you’re watching the film as you should, with full interest, then you should have the full experience; especially after it’s recent digital enhanced DVD release which showed pristine picture and sound, causing me to notice creepy little extras I’d never noticed before.
The movie is available on DVD and buyers have a choice of two different versions, the 25th Anniversary edition and ‘The Version You’ve Never Seen’ (an alternate title of which is ‘The Version You Haven’t Seen Yet’.) The 25th Anniversary edition features a commentary track, deleted scenes and a superb BBC documentary and ‘The Version You’ve Never Seen’ has a different commentary track and restores the deleted scenes into the film along with a few digital touches – which is the really scary one. The BBC documentary is essential viewing for fans though, and a lot of audiences prefer the untouched original.
The Exorcist frequently appears in the top 5 of ‘scariest film’ lists and is one of the most successful horror/drama movies ever made. Terrifying (there is nothing funny about this film when you’re sat alone), extremely well-acted, especially by Linda Blair, poignant and, contrary to popular belief, distinctly pro-religion in places, the film deserves a place in every horror fans collection. I myself have only ever watched the film once with a friend the entire way through; the second time I tried – the infamous “spider-walk” sent me running up the stairs to my bedroom. If it has been sometime since you last ‘experienced’ ‘The Exorcist’, how about re-living what those unsuspecting cinema goers saw all those years ago by revisiting ‘The Exorcist’ this Boxing Day?