The Exorcist (1973) - The exorcists confront Pazuzu in a final battle for Regan's soul

The Exorcist (1973) – 50 Years of Sucking ***** in Hell


This year, The Exorcist (1973) celebrates its 50th anniversary. For many, it is the most seminal horror movie ever made. To others, it transcends the horror genre to become something akin to a shrine, or idol. You should all know the story. Pre-teen Regan McNeil (Linda Blair), the most unpopular girl in all of Georgetown judging by the dearth of friends, is so bored that the only joy she gets is going into the basement to conjure up demons via a Ouija board. One said demon by the name of Pazuzu, resident paedophile of the underworld who sports a rock-hard erection 24/7, decides angelic looking Regan is just his cup o’ tea.

The Exorcist (1973) - Of course the entire enterprise is anchored anchored by an astounding performance by Linda Blair
Of course the entire enterprise is anchored anchored by an astounding performance by Linda Blair

A quick change of name to Mr. Howdy, because apparently demons think kids love a cowboy (clearly they’ve not watched Jack Palance in City Slickers), and Pazuzu ends up possessing the young guileless Regan. What follows is two hours of Regan’s mother, Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn), watching her daughter turn into a typical teenager, one who pisses themselves in public, leaves their room a shit-tip, masturbates excessively, and vomits on some hapless bystander.

Okay, that’s a glib synopsis, but whatever your interpretation or opinion, The Exorcist has withstood its 50 years doggedly, enduring bans, controversy, and condemnation from the church, and proving to Hollywood naysayers that horror isn’t just for drive-ins and weirdos by gleaning a whopping ten nominations at the 1974 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Exorcist (1973) - Regan subtly begins her descent into hell
Regan subtly begins her descent into hell

All Hell Breaks Loose

Following the success of William Peter Blatty’s book, Warner Bros approached several directors to help transpose the story of a possessed young girl to the screen. The Graduate (1967) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) director Mike Nichols was one, but Nichols felt it would be near impossible to find the right child to carry the narrative successfully, so bowed out. Warner Bros even reached out to The Shining (1980) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) auteur, Stanley Kubrick.

Despite confessing that he wanted to make the world’s scariest movie, involving a series of episodes that would play upon the nightmare fears of the audience, Kubrick ultimately turned down the project to focus on the story of Barry Lyndon (1975), a young rapscallion who makes good in 18th century Europe. Maybe it was for the best. The question of God’s existence, the power of faith, the horror of humanity, all threads that bind the fabric of Blatty’s book together, may have been diluted, pulled apart, or overlooked (pun intended) in Kubrick’s version.

The Exorcist (1973) - Regan confronts Father Karras. He is still skeptical.
“That is far to vulgar a display of power Karras”

No, this project needed a gutsy, agnostic director with brass balls and a terrible infliction that makes them sound like Donald Trump; a director prepared to do everything to make their movies authentic; one not averse to slapping a real priest in the face (who doesn’t have that one on their bucket list?), and enjoys discharging a firearm to scare the bejesus out of his actors in order to elicit a genuine look of shock. Yes, that’s right folks, The Exorcist needed William-Fricking-Friedkin.

The story goes that William Friedkin got The Exorcist gig after Hollywood legend, Blake Edwards (producer of the Pink Panther series and Breakfast at Tiffany’s), invited him to adapt his hit show Peter Gunn into a feature-length movie. Friedkin, not one to beat out the bush, informed Edwards at his office that the script was a piece of shit, and would need rewriting completely if he took the job on. Unacquainted with such candour, especially from a relatively unknown director, Edwards issued a tirade of foul language on Friedkin that would have made Pazuzu blush.

The Exorcist (1973) - Max Von Sydow approaches the home to perform the exorcism
To this day, still one of the most iconic shots in all of horror

In the room at the time, another man was sitting quietly in the corner. As Friedkin left the lot, that man chased after Friedkin and thanked him for his honesty. He, like Friedkin, knew the script was poor, but no one was willing to tell Edwards how bad it was. When Friedkin asked who the man was, he said he was the writer of the Peter Gunn screenplay, and his name was William Peter Blatty. Blatty always remembered that encounter, and when it came around to looking for a director with chutzpah, Friedkin was the obvious choice for him.

It took a little longer to convince Warner Bros, but thankfully, Friedkin’s French Connection win at the Oscars helped, and what followed was a marriage of such creative talent it changed the way the world perceived horror movies.

What an Excellent Day for an Exorcism

Having cut his teeth in the world of documentary filmmaking, Friedkin’s vision of The Exorcist was always going to be gritty and uncompromising. But the legacy of what happened on set is just as notorious as the movie itself, with Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn sustaining lifelong injuries, to hiring radiology technician Paul Bateson, later sentenced to twenty years in prison for dismembering six men, and who ironically ended up inspiring Friedkin’s next movie Cruising (1980) about a serial killer murdering gay men in the West Village during the 1970s.

There was a fire that burnt down the entire set, except Regan’s room, and nine people associated with the movie died, something Max von Sydow disregarded as just the consequence of a long shoot, not the influence of some demonic tomfoolery.

The Exorcist (1973) - Regan's head does a dance for Father Karras
Regan’s head spin is endlessly parodied, but when it first hit the screen it shocked… nevermind where that cross has been

Regardless, it makes for a good headline, and helped bolster ticket sales, so much so that when Warner Bros released The Exorcist on December 26th 1973, people waited in freezing temperatures to be the first to see the movie. Many suffered adverse reactions like vomiting and fainting, with some cinemas later claiming of miscarriages and heart attacks, events that lead to one psychiatric journal publishing a paper on “cinematic neurosis” solely on the reaction of audience members who went to see The Exorcist. Friedkin had done it. For all his unethical practices, cavalier direction, and vainglorious exploits, he had created a cultural phenomenon that would ripple across the world for fifty years.

A Leap of Faith

By today’s standards, many horror hounds will sniff out The Exorcist and struggle to understand why it keeps the coveted title of the scariest movie ever made. A cinemagoer holding a barf bag in one hand, and a set of clean underwear in the other, may conclude the opening sequence in Iraq is confusing, slow, and hardly worth the two Imodium they dropped prior to entering the theatre.

The Exorcist (1973) - Regan wallows in a mess of her own vomit
Apart from spinning heads, everyone knows the legend of pea soup

Regan’s head turning 360 degrees may solicit more sniggers now, where before it left mouths agape. That the BBFC banned all home video sales, making it illegal to own a copy in U.K. until 1999, adds to its mythology as a movie so dark it will forever corrupt your mind and heart, something many now consider an accolade more befitting Terrifier 2 (2022). But The Exorcist’s reputation as the quintessential horror is unfair. What Friedkin and Blatty offered the world was more than horror.

A better logline would be, “One of the best movies ever made where horror is merely a backcloth to the struggles of humanity”. But I get that doesn’t scan well. For me, you get from a movie what you take to a movie. If you go into The Exorcist expecting to be scared shitless, you may end up disappointed. But if you take a leap of faith, interwoven among talk of male genitalia, your momma, and how she sucks them in Hell, are themes of hope and existentialism.

Beyond the visceral medical scenes where blood spurts from a cannula in Regan’s neck during an angiogram, you’ll find characters doing all they can to save not just a girl, but themselves. For every crucifix employed as a sex aid, there is symbolic parallelism to a lack of positive male role models and God in the McNeil household. For every gallon of pea soup expelled from Regan’s mouth, there are reams of dialogue pertaining to faith.

The Exorcist (1973) - The exorcists confront Pazuzu in a final battle for Regan's soul
Pazuzu spins Regan’s head one more time in the final confrontation in the battle for Regan’s soul

In one scene Friedkin cut from the original movie, Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) take a respite from the exorcism. Karras asks Merrin, “Why this girl? It makes no sense.” Merrin replies dully, “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God will love us.” Blatty’s message was to have the audience leave the theatres packed to the gunwales with hope, and that good things will happen if you have faith. Without faith, the Devil wins.

That Friedkin felt this was a little too on the nose is understandable, but it’s this message what underpins the spiritual and theological core of the movie. Sure, it’s disturbing watching a child become consumed by evil, but to see The Exorcist as only horror is myopic. As I say, you get from a movie what you take to a movie, and whether you revel in the film’s acting, makeup effects, narrative or direction, it will remain with you, and for many, continues to possess the soul 50 years after its birth.

Lest we forget that this movie ushered in a cacophony of imitators, many of which spawned in Europe. Make sure to check out this review on the Italian possession horror film, Beyond the Door (1974)Paul Lewis’ epic exposé #NineTenthsOfTheLaw covering an entire pea soup drenched decade of international possession horror!

Whether we see a 4k edition of this movie in 2023 is still uncertain. Warner Bros has made no official announcement at the time of writing this, but with fans the world over champing at the bit for a new print, and a reboot in the offing under the helm of David Gordon Green, I’d be surprised if Friedkin didn’t return to his magnum opus one final time. Until then, you can find out more about the making of the movie, Blatty’s influence behind the book, and much more in Session 10’s podcast episode dedicated to the greatest horror movie of all time, The Exorcist.

The Exorcist (1973) - 50 Years of Sucking ***** in Hell - Malevolent Dark
the exorcist one more head spin for max von sydow

Director: William Friedkin

Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:32

Editor's Rating:


  • Crazy demonic madness
  • Killer effects
  • Fantastic story by William Peter Blatty
  • Incredible direction by William Friedkin
  • Definitive performance by Linda Blair


  • Contains a lot of religiously abrasive imagery
  • Might offend those not into demonic possession horror

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