There is no doubt that The Exorcist has had a profound impact on the horror genre as a whole. When it was first released in theaters in December of 1973 (on the day after Christmas), it caused a immediate sensation.
At the time, it was only playing on 24 screens in the US, and regularly played to sold-out crowds. When the news began giving reports of audience members fainting, vomiting, or running out of the theater, that only made people want to see it even more, of course. The Exorcist was the highest-grossing R-rated horror film of all time until 2017’s It beat that record. Stop and think about that for a minute: The Exorcist made more money than any other R-rated horror film for 44 years.
Nowadays, younger horror fans often fail to see the significance of The Exorcist. They say it’s “boring” or “not scary.” Neither of these criticisms is valid, by the way. Despite its reputation, it is not really a very gory film, the biggest yuck factor is the pea soup vomit spewed by the possessed Regan. And it’s not action-packed…instead, it is very cerebral and tackles religion in a big way.
Unfortunately, many younger fans of the horror genre equate blood and a breakneck pace with being scary. On the contrary, in my own experience, films are more frightening if the plotline pulls you into the lives of the characters and spends time building the story up slowly and steadily. It’s what is commonly referred to as a slow burn film.
But, beyond the scare factor, The Exorcist was very important to horror because it proved that a horror film could and should be considered a cinematic work of art. It was the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and it actually won two of the ten awards it was nominated for. As we now know, horror is still not taken seriously where awards and recognition are concerned, but for that moment in time, the genre had a moment.
The shooting of the film was notoriously difficult. In addition to the heavy subject matter, director William Friedkin (who passed away on August 7) was pretty rough on his actors and crew. It is reported that he told Jason Miller (Father Karras) that the pea-green vomit would be spewed on his chest, but he instead made sure it hit him directly in the face so he could get a genuine reaction of disgust. Rumors of the set being cursed have persisted for years, there is even an episode of Shudder’s Cursed Films dedicated to the many problems experienced.
Both Ellen Burstyn (Chris) and Linda Blair (Regan) suffered lifelong injuries while shooting The Exorcist; Burstyn fractured her coccyx during the scene where her possessed daughter flings her into a bookcase, and Blair fractured her spine during the bed-shaking scene.
Friedkin himself later said he believed that there was a supernatural presence hanging around during filming. It’s reported that he even asked Father Bermingham, one of his technical advisors, to perform an exorcism. He declined to do so, and instead blessed everyone on set.
The Exorcist was not William Friedkin’s only successful project, he also directed such films as The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. and Killer Joe. But, it may be that The Exorcist will go down in history as his most important and enduring film. It’s certainly one of the most significant horror films in existence.