Garnering a great deal of attention in this, its 40th-anniversary year, The Exorcist remains the most terrifying film ever made. Re-released in a Blu-ray edition with new commentary tracks and features showing screenwriter (and author of the original novel) William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin revisiting the Georgetown locations of the film, The Exorcist holds up remarkably well nearly half a century later.
Now a touchstone of horror-fests and a common allusion in popular culture, neither the book nor the film version of the The Exorcist was expected to have much market value. The 1971 book, unsold copies of which were being returned to the publisher at an alarming rate, got a huge boost from Blatty’s last-second substitute guest appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. That catapulted the book to the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for 57 weeks. The film, initially scheduled for limited release in art-house theaters, collected long lines at the box office and was quickly slated for wide release. So successful was it that, adjusted for inflation, it ranks as the No. 9 film all time for domestic gross and is the highest-grossing R-rated film in history.
It’s even more of a surprise that The Exorcist ever came into being in the first place. Although Blatty’s career is now largely defined by his writing of the novel and the screenplay, for which he won an Academy Award, he was known in the 1960s as an over-the-top slapstick comedic writer, who co-wrote the script for the first — and to my mind the best — of the Pink Panther films, A Shot in the Dark (1964). Blatty’s style of humor found its ideal vehicle in the manic genius of Peter Sellers.
As is now widely known, the idea for the book dates back to Blatty’s undergraduate days at Georgetown University in the late 1940s, where he heard a priest tell the story of an actual exorcism. Twenty years later, unemployed and enduring something of a crisis of faith in the aftermath of his mother’s death — a situation reflected in a subplot concerning the priest character, Fr. Damien Karras — Blatty retreated to a remote cabin near Lake Tahoe and started to compose The Exorcist. It was, he reminisces, “a period when my faith was more a hope than a belief.”
Now in his 80s, Blatty continues to be productive. Just a few years ago, he published a very fine novel, Dimiter. He has also founded the Father King Society in an effort to restore Georgetown’s fidelity to the Catholic faith and has submitted a petition to the Vatican requesting that Georgetown be stripped of its right to use the name “Catholic.” This from an alumnus whose famous film is, as Friedkin has commented, “a hymn to Georgetown.”
With good reason, neither Blatty nor Friedkin accepts the label of “horror film” for The Exorcist. As Blatty comments in a recent interview: “When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones.”
The modern horror film is usually traced back to the release of Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960 and to the appearance that same year of a lesser-known British film, Peeping Tom. But the horror film as we have come to know it dates from the late Seventies with the release of Halloween, a low-budget film with a very slender plot that features a seemingly unstoppable malevolent force, void of personality and emotion, that engages in serial acts of inexplicable terror. This genre, in which the evildoer is often the only interesting and compelling character in the film, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. What once surprised and tormented the psyche of viewers becomes well known and expected. There are only two avenues left to the horror filmmaker at this point. Either, as happens in what is now known as torture porn, he can engage in a contest with previous filmmakers and increase the quantity and explicitness of graphic depictions of slaughter; or, as happens in the Scream trilogy, he can play upon the jaded irony of the audience and turn the horror film into a form of quasi-comedic entertainment, which spoofs the horror genre from within.
The problem with the contemporary horror film is twofold. First, abandoning plot, it relies exclusively on the surface aesthetics of evil. Second, it ignores the fact that evil can be taken seriously only so long as goodness also is.
By contrast, Blatty gives us a complex plot with compelling and sympathetic characters: the divorced mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), trying to keep her acting career alive even as she devotes herself to her daughter; the middle-aged priest, Fr. Damien Karras (Jason Miller), undergoing a crisis of faith after the death of his mother and under the weight of his work as a psychiatrist for fellow priests; the elderly priest (Max von Sydow as Fr. Lankester Merrin, a stand-in for the 20th-century Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin) who has had an experience with exorcism before and trembles at the prospect of a second encounter; the homicide detective (Lee J. Cobb) investigating a bizarre death at the MacNeils’ home; and of course the twelve-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), whose sweet innocence is replaced by foulness and malice. It is difficult to find fault with any of these performances.
Blatty and Friedkin do such a marvelous job with pacing and with the building of suspense that viewers willingly suspend whatever disbelief they might have in demonic spirits. The characters meet the modern audience where it is, afflicted with doubts, confident in science yet sensing, wondering whether, there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our materialistic philosophy. The Exorcist aims to grapple with much deeper human questions than do standard horror films.
Rather than straight horror, The Exorcist should be grouped with a number of classic Seventies dramas, films such as Deliverance, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown that disclose the chaos and evil lurking just beneath the surface of civilization. Both the book and the film are intimately connected to the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s; the film within the film that brings Chris MacNeil to Georgetown features a campus antiwar protest. In the book, Blatty includes as an epigraph a line adapted from Aeschylus that Robert Kennedy made famous in his remarks immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.: “In our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
The main characters in the film are pushed to the brink of despair, by crises in their personal lives and by the confrontation with a malign, invading force. In one quiet scene — in this film, the use of sound and silence works with superb effect — the two exhausted priests sit outside Regan’s room. Blatty had this scene added to the expanded version of the film included in the recently released anniversary edition because he thought it crucial to the theology of the film. Karras asks, Why this girl? Merrin responds, “The girl is not the target.” He goes on: “The girl is us, every one of us in this house, and the purpose is to make us feel vile, bestial, rotten and corrupt so that even if there were a God, he could not possibly love us.” If the film begins by forcing us to take seriously the presence of evil, it ends with a greater mystery: that of goodness manifest in the sacrificial love of ordinary human beings in the face of supernatural malice.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.