Why 'The Exorcist' is Still the Scariest Film Ever Made
William Friedkin's horror classic has a reputation that precedes it. But does it live up to the hype? The short answer is - yes. Over forty years later it continues to terrify, and here's why...
Yes, it sounds like a cliche, but 'The Exorcist' is not heralded by many as 'the scariest movie ever made' without good reason. Recently, horror flicks of the last few years such as 'Hereditary' and 'Veronica' have been thrust in our faces with the tagline 'This generation's 'The Exorcist''. It's safe to say that William Friedkin's 1973 possession movie about the trials and tests of faith has a reputation that strides before it. And, of course, film is subjective. What some find scary, others don't, and that's ok. Yet, rather than flounder in comparison to today's contenders, 'The Exorcist' still holds up.
But why? There are many other films which have fallen prey to the test of time. While slasher flick 'Friday the 13th' (1980) is undoubtedly iconic, giving us one of the most renowned and recognisable horror villains in history, watching it now doesn't leave the viewer as unnerved as early '80s theatre attendees might have been watching Jason Vorhees take advantage of unsuspecting teenage campers. And sure, many of us won't emerge from watching 'The Exorcist' fainting or vomiting like the unfortunately unprepared cinema-goers of 1973, but it still has the ability to get under your skin.
The story of 'The Exorcist' was based on real-life events. Author of the original novel, William Peter Blatty, was a self-proclaimed comedy writer until he came across some 1940s newspaper clippings of the story of a boy named Roland Doe (a pseudonym to protect his identity) who was put through the trial of exorcism after some strange occurrences had befallen his household. These included the likes of him displaying super human strength and writing appearing on his stomach, as if the spirit of the boy was held hostage by some diabolical force and trying to claw its way out. His body was supposedly the conduit for something evil, but what? Mirrored in Blatty's novel, scientists were baffled, and the Lutheran family Roland belonged to were forced to turn to the Catholic rite of exorcism.
Historical origins aside, there are a whole host of reasons tied to the film itself as to why 'The Exorcist' remains one of the most chilling movies ever made. But what makes it so formidable as a film is just how good it is. It is nothing short of a masterpiece. Clocking in at over two hours long, the film is a behemoth of film-making. Innovative and challenging in its production, the film took cinema in directions it had never gone before. The craftsmanship behind the movie was out of the box, with the special effects team going as far as to refrigerate the set over night in order to create the authentic look of the demon (named Pazuzu) reducing the room to sub-zero temperatures in the final exorcism scene.
William Friedkin, a maverick director of sorts, even went to trying lengths to get the best from his actors. According to renowned film critic Mark Kermode, in the scene where Father Karras (played by Jason Miller) is listening to the tape of whatever is possessing Reagan (Linda Blair) and jumps violently when his friend Father Dyer shows up out of nowhere and interrupts, Friedkin used some questionable creative license. In order to make sure Miller was appropriately and authentically startled for the shot, prior to filming, Friedkin abruptly fired a handgun not far from Miller's face. Miller, rightly enraged, told Friedkin "don't you ever do that again". Miller was incensed, but Friedkin achieved the effect he wanted. Unorthodox but determined, Friedkin was a director wholly dedicated to this picture. From Blair's make-up being scaled back to allow us to not lose the image of a little girl under the demonic happenings, to abandoning the score last-minute for fear of it not suiting the film properly, Friedkin wanted perfection.
Arguably, one of The Exorcist's greatest weapons lie in its astonishingly clever use of audio. Audio has always been utilised heavily by the horror genre to turn a chilling scene into an unbearable one; take the blood-curdling violin score that sounds like nails on a chalkboard from the opening of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974), for example. Sounds can haunt more than visuals at times, and 'The Exorcist' manages to achieve a startling blend of both.
While it would be easy to comment on the infamous score attributed to the movie - Mike Oldfield's tinkling Tubular Bells - this is not the most frightening audio element of the movie. To me, one of the reasons why the movie continues to burrow under my skin after however many watches, is Pazuzu's gravelly, rasping tones.
The voice of Pazuzu, the demon cohabiting within Reagan's body, is provided by Mercedes McCambridge who reportedly chain-smoked and drank heavily prior to completing her audio recordings for the film. Neither distinctly male, nor female, the unearthly voice emanating from Linda Blair's childish, night-gown smothered form is something that makes my shoulders tense. Paired with Blatty's wonderful screenplay, simple lines such as "...in here, with us," when describing where Reagan resides become nothing short of chilling. In fact, the scene below where Karras meets Pazuzu in the form of Reagan for the first time is perhaps the best example of this. Despite the scene being littered with comedy as the two go head to head in a battle of wits, one finds oneself watching with total unease.
Evidence for some of the Exorcist's greatest scares lying within its audio are also evident within a scene where Karras is trying to decipher the myriad of garbled phrases recorded in Reagan's bedroom. Alone, only a frail light hangs over him as he listens to the messages, trying to conclude what language the demon is speaking in. The tape recording, played aloud for us to hear, is harrowing. Whispers, screams, groans and unintelligible strings of noise worm their way out of the recorder. The sound is enough to make the hair on the back of one's neck stand up. It makes you imagine a whole legion of unholy things residing in the shell of one little girl. What a harrowing thought to conjure in one's mind - yet the movie allows it.
Whenever I watch this scene, I imagine placing myself in Karras' position - imagine listening to that tape in the dead of night on your own. You'd have to have nerves of steel.
Another of the reasons why 'The Exorcist' remains untouchable in terms of scares is its imagery. Intricate and even subliminal in some of the later versions, the use of imagery is note-perfect. Take the scene of Reagan rising out of her bed and, bandaged hands thrown up to the ceiling, worshipping the Assyrian statue of Pazuzu that suddenly manifests in her Georgetown bedroom. The haziness of the cold in her room, the soft blues and shadows from the night and finally the imposing figure of Pazuzu in his most ancient form is haunting. It is a shot both eerie and beautiful and one that will stay with young long after the credits have rolled.
Another image used to stunning effect is that of Pazuzu's face, this time in a more humanoid form, presenting itself at opportune moments in a 'blink or you'll miss it' fashion. Popping up several times throughout the film, this pale angular face leering out from the pitch darkness is always the source of a scare, whether it be flashing up during Karras' dream sequence or even appearing over Reagan's during the final exorcism scene. It even appears subliminally in some versions. See if you can spot it.
Pazuzu's face has become a frightening image and a symbol of the terror the film can instill. Underneath pale white make-up, heavy black contour and streaks of scarlet is Eileen Dietz, Linda Blair's stunt double, who completed the more difficult special effects shots unable to be performed by the young actress, many of which remain in the final cut. Wide eyes framed by dark sockets of black and red, Pazuzu's ghostly face is a visual reminder of his unearthly power, lurking always under the surface throughout the film.
Finally, what arguably makes the Exorcist so terrifying after all this time has to be the concept.
Since its release in 1973 it has been imitated an endless number of times and done to death. The boom of possession movies in the 2000s failed to capture what 'The Exorcist' does so well - perpetuating the idea of this perfectly normal family unit becoming the unsuspecting object of desire for a demonic force.
As a host, Reagan is particularly unnerving and throughout the film we are hyper-aware of the fact that, despite the filth pouring from her lips, she's still just a little girl. By changing the gender of the possessee in the story, Blatty made a perverse but genius gateway into tapping into culturally taboo topics, set to both terrify and repulse us when watching. Indeed, the contrast between Pazuzu's acts of degradation he inflicts on her body and Reagan herself, who appears at the beginning of the movie as a sweet, lively little girl, is heartbreaking and unnatural. No film since has been able to replicate this feeling of utter horror at witnessing this creature which, appears outwardly as a child, masturbate violently with a crucifix and turn its head like an owl to hurl obscene truths at Reagan's mother. The mind cannot make head nor tail of what it is witnessing, because Reagan's appearance and actions do not match up.
The film's daring to present all of this, despite its disturbing nature, is what makes it so brilliant. It is unapologetic and frank in its treatment of the horror unfolding this little girl and her mother. It doesn't shy away from anything, and yet it also never fails to remind us of the sickening fact that it is a child which all of this abhorrence is happening to. This dichotomy it creates is where the real horror lies for audiences who have, over the years, slotted the tape gingerly into the VCR player or hesitated before hitting the space bar and settling down to watch it.
On a personal note in discussing the film, when I first plucked up the courage to watch 'The Exorcist', aged 15, I had shied away from it for years prior due to its reputation. Yet, I watched it on my own in bed and once the film finished I felt a sense of relief. "It wasn't that bad," I said to myself "It was a great movie but it didn't scare me as much as I thought it would".
However, on the second watch was where he gravitas of the film hit me, and I realised why this film is hailed as one of the scariest ever made. Things I had not noticed on first watch - such as Pazuzu's face flickering across the screen at odd moments - and the creepy inhuman tinge to Pazuzu's voice, as well as the sheer implications of seeing a young, innocent all-American girl be overtaken by this malevolent force, really sunk in. They didn't leave my brain in a hurry. They stuck with me. Now every time I come to re-watch or simply think of the film, a flurry of images and associations swarm into my mind like a biblical plague. I watch it now, not loving the film any less (probably more in fact), but with some reproach because I know I'll have to relive the things that have never realy left my mind since the previous viewing.
'The Exorcist' as a film, is a masterpiece is without doubt one of cinema's greatest achievements. It has wonderful performances from Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow and Lee J. Cobb, not to mention an astonishing one from the young Linda Blair. It is also inventive, its special effects are convincing to this day and its cinematography, particularly in its Iraq-based opening sequence. For this reason, it remains one of my favourite films of all time. It also just happens to be one of the scariest celluloid has to offer, if not the scariest.
The title of 'scariest movie ever' has been bandied about, with some beginning to attribute it to films like 'Hereditary'. But 'The Exorcist', in my opinion, has not been overstepped by any of cinema's most recent contributors. It may take a few watches to absorb the full seediness of Pazuzu and his diabolical plot to possess Reagan, but I encourage you to do so. It will allow your mind to stew over the many layers the film gives you. For all its shocking and controversial scenes, I believe 'The Exorcist' is a slow-burner. The more times you watch it, the more appreciative of its cinematic excellence.
You'll also become more scared.