‘The Exorcist’ is an American supernatural horror film directed by the celebrated William Friedkin, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his 1971 novel of the same name. The book, inspired by the 1949 exorcism case of Roland Doe, deals with the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and her mother’s desperate attempts to win back her child through exorcism conducted by two priests.
The film features Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, and Mercedes McCambridge (Hollywood star with a grating harsh voice lending her voice for the possessed girl). It is one among a cycle of ‘demonic child’ films produced from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, including ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Omen.’
The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, winning two (Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay). It also won several awards from Golden Globe . It became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, making over $441 million worldwide. It is also the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Best Picture.
The film has had a significant influence on popular culture. It was named the scariest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly and Movies.com, by viewers of American Movie Channel in 2006, and was No. 3 on Bravo’s The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry. In 2003, it was placed at No. 2 on Channel 4’s ‘The 100 Greatest Scary Moments’ in the United Kingdom. The film begins in an archaeological dig in Iraq. Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), an archaeologist and a priest, discovers an amulet and realises it matches that of a statue of Pazuzu, an evil demon Merrin defeated years ago. Merrin suspects the time has come to face the demon once again.
In the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., an actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) begins noticing strange and frightening behavioural changes in her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), which includes constant swearing, using four letter words and abnormal strength. When medicine fails, Regan goes through a few unpleasant tests, but X-ray results prove ‘negative’ much to the confusion of the doctors. In reality, Regan is now possessed by Pazuzu, who earlier pretended to be her imaginary friend ‘Captain Howdy’ through Ouija board.
Burke Dennings (Jack McGowran), the director of Chris’s latest film, dies mysteriously after falling from Regan’s open bedroom window. His murder is investigated by detective William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), who questions both Chris and a young priest named Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who has lost faith in God after the death of his ailing mother.
Chris begins to suspect that Regan has a role in Burke’s death. After Regan assaults a psychiatrist, the doctors decide that if Regan believes she is possessed, an exorcism may be Regan’s only hope to restore her sanity. Chris however is not so sure, as she and Regan have no religious beliefs.
Karras agrees to see Regan but refuses to perform an exorcism. But further supernatural phenomena force him to accept that Regan needs an exorcism. Karras is given permission by the bishop, who, at the request of the university's president, hires Merrin to help, since Karras has no prior experience with exorcism.
Working together, Karras and Merrin attempt to exorcise Pazuzu from Regan, who now refers to herself as the Devil, but the demon taunts them, especially Karras for his weak faith and guilt over his mother's death. Karras is dismissed after a break, as Merrin knows he is not mentally fit for a second attempt. Despite this, Karras returns to the room where he finds Merrin dead. In a fit of rage, he assaults Regan and orders the demon to take him instead. Pazuzu obeys and Karras throws himself from the window.
Linda Blair, who shot to fame with this film, was not on the list of probables to play the role. Many artists, known and unknown, were thought of, but the persistent efforts of Linda’s ambitious mother, who met Friedkin many times, succeeded in getting the girl the part.
Two sequences created history. One was the sequence of Linda, who jumps on the bed and suddenly turns her head 360°.
How was this scene shot? Friedkin, Blatty and others worked with experts who made a dummy of Linda. With an arrangement inside the dummy that enabled the head to turn with a remote control operation, shots were taken using the dummy and then superimposed on the shots of Linda. This was done using computer technology, which was just making its way into Hollywood.
Another sequence which invited a lot of comments was when Linda seizes a crucifix and masturbates, screaming four letter words! This scene was censored in some countries, mainly Roman Catholic lands. In the later versions, when the film was re-released, the sequence was left without any cut around the world.
Expectedly, there were sequels, documentaries about the making of the film and books. Some critics did not think much of it.
William Friedkin (pronounced Fredkin), a brilliant filmmaker of what is known as the ‘New Hollywood’, has made classics which are too many to mention. But mention must be made of ‘The French Connection’ which created history in cinema.
Movie goers underwent many strange experiences while watching ‘The Exorcist’.
Besides screaming and jumping, some even rolled on the ground in sheer terror. In a recent screening in a small town in the U.S., a pregnant woman screamed that she was about to deliver a child! It continues to thrill, shock and terrorise people even today, nearly 40-plus years after its release. The true hallmark of an immortal classic!