The Devil Comes to Hollywood: Revisiting Friedkin’s Terrifying Masterpiece The Exorcist

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The recent death of director William Friedkin has me reflecting on his seminal 1973 horror film The Exorcist. Friedkin was a master of suspense, bringing us classics like The French Connection and Sorcerer. But The Exorcist cemented his reputation in Hollywood legend and nightmares. On this somber occasion, let’s revisit the chilling film that shocked audiences, sparked outrage, and perfectly captured the culture wars of its era.

Medical Technology as Body Horror

I still get goosebumps thinking about those medical scenes. Friedkin pushes body horror to visceral new limits as doctors probe poor Regan’s illness. Seriously gruesome stuff, like needles puncturing her neck and squirting blood. High-pitched screaming fills the operating room while filming at a real hospital, ratcheting up the disturbing realism. 

Audiences were appalled as the elaborate angiography machine engulfed Regan’s head, searching her brain function as she moaned in anguish. Cinema had never before depicted such graphic medical imagery, now drilled into our minds forever.

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Neither Science nor Religion Can Explain

But for all their fancy equipment, the doctors prove useless against Regan’s affliction. Science fails. Next comes a chilling scene at the psychiatric clinic, where Regan’s mind and morality are picked apart through hypnotherapy. But the head psychiatrist can merely suggest an exorcism to cure her supposed “delusions.” What a quack. Psychology also comes up short in diagnosing the problem. 

Out of options, Regan’s mother turns desperately to the Catholic Church and Father Karras, a conflicted priest who is also a psychiatrist. He agrees something more sinister than mental illness haunts this child. Karras calls in an exorcism expert, the elderly Father Merrin. Their faith is put to the ultimate test against evil incarnate.

In the battle between ancient ritual and modern medicine, Catholicism triumphs over the demon within. But both priests must make the ultimate sacrifice.

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Reflecting the Angst of an Era

Released in 1973, The Exorcist arrived during a period of deep unrest and questioning of traditional US institutions. The Vietnam War had eroded trust in the government. Scandals like Watergate amplified disillusionment. Gender roles were rapidly evolving. New “alternative” lifestyles and spirituality challenged conservatism. The youth counterculture rebelled against rigid societal norms

Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn in the movie the Exorcist

It was the way The Exorcist tackled those issues that led horror legend Stephen King to call the film “a social horror film if ever there was one.” Authority figures like scientists, doctors, and priests seemed powerless to explain the chaos and uncertainty people felt. Their expertise was doubted.

The failure of medicine and psychology to cure Regan echoed this real-life loss of faith in the establishment. Counterculture flirtations with the occult exploded as religion’s influence waned. The Exorcist dramatized these tensions.

Outrage and Realism  

Given the blasphemous content, many churches condemned The Exorcist on its release. But behind the scenes, director Friedkin worked closely with scientists and Catholic advisors to authentically depict medical procedures and religious rituals. This lent the film a disturbing sense of realism that rattled audiences already questioning their institutions. While the church outwardly expressed outrage, the internal correspondence reveals a nuanced appreciation for the film’s pro-faith message.  

Studios exploited the religious controversy to boost publicity and profits. Stories of moviegoers fainting from fright fueled interest. Ironically, graphic medical rather than occult scenes caused most walkouts. But the forces behind The Exorcist recognized it as more than cheap exploitation. The film compellingly reflected society’s existential angst surrounding science, religion, evil, and our bodies and minds.

The Exorcist’s Influence on Modern Cinema

The ripple effects of The Exorcist on subsequent generations of horror movies are undeniable. As one of William Friedkin’s movies that created a template for horror, it blended psychological dread with visceral horror, establishing benchmarks for the genre. 

Linda Blair’s transformative performance as Regan set a precedent for child actors in horror films, proving they could carry a movie with as much gravitas as their adult counterparts.

The cultural impact of The Exorcist cannot be understated. For many, the horror film became a benchmark against which all subsequent horror films were measured. The genre had seen its share of horror classics, but The Exorcist struck a nerve in a way few films have.

One reason for its lasting impact is its willingness to confront challenging topics head-on. The film dives deep into the battle between faith and doubt, the cultural shift away from traditional religious values, and the inherent fear of the unknown.

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Jason Miller’s portrayal of Father Damien Karras, a priest grappling with his personal demons while trying to save a possessed child, added layers of complexity to the film. Karras’ struggle with his faith while witnessing the terrifying events unfolding before him reflected a broader societal trend of moving away from traditional religious beliefs.


But beyond the film’s thematic depth, its technical achievements can’t be ignored either. From the spider walk scene, a piece of haunting imagery that remains iconic to this day, to the guttural demon’s voice that sent shivers down the spines of even the most seasoned horror fans, The Exorcist was a masterclass in tension-building.

For many, Max von Sydow’s portrayal of Father Merrin set the gold standard. But perhaps the more pertinent question is, is The Exorcist the scariest movie ever? While that might be subjective, its place in the annals of film history is not.

The Evolution of Exorcist Movies

While The Exorcist stands tall as a pioneer, the exorcist movie genre has seen numerous iterations post-1973. Some have sought to replicate its magic, while others have redefined it in unique ways. The haunting theme of possession and exorcism continues to intrigue and terrify audiences globally. The legacy of The Exorcist and its subsequent adaptations signify the genre’s lasting appeal.

It’s easy to dismiss the second installment in The Exorcist series. But The Exorcist III is much better than you might think (although it has nothing to do with Friedkin). Absolutely worth a watch. 

Just look at how many films about exorcism have been released in recent years. The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005, the truly excellent The Conjuring by James Wan in 2013, and even the 2006 film Requiem are all testaments to the enduring legacy of Friedkin’s The Exorcist

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Behind the Scenes of The Exorcist

The journey from The Exorcist novel by William Peter Blatty to the big screen was a meticulous process. Friedkin’s dedication to realizing a faithful adaptation meant a lot of effort was spent ensuring the essence of the book remained intact.

The casting process itself was rigorous. Linda Blair’s performance as the possessed Regan made her synonymous with the girl from The Exorcist. Yet, finding the right child actor to bring the character to life was no small feat. Blair’s portrayal, combined with groundbreaking makeup and visual effects, solidified her place in Hollywood’s horror Hall of Fame.

Friedkin’s commitment to authenticity extended beyond the film’s narrative. He employed unconventional techniques to elicit genuine reactions from the cast. For instance, the chilly breath seen during the exorcism scenes was achieved by filming in refrigerated sets, an experience the cast often described as extremely grueling. These behind-the-scenes choices contributed significantly to the film’s authentic, haunting atmosphere.

The Legacy of Linda Blair in The Exorcist

Few performances in horror cinema are as iconic as Linda Blair’s role in The Exorcist. Her transformation from an innocent child to a demonic entity became the stuff of legends, earning her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win at a young age. While the role was physically and emotionally demanding, Blair’s dedication shone through.

For a young actress to portray such a challenging role with such depth and conviction was a testament to her talent. But what happened to the girl who played Regan after The Exorcist’s release? Linda Blair went on to have a successful career in Hollywood, but the shadow of Regan always loomed large. Her association with one of the best horror films ever made both helped and hindered her, catapulting her to fame but also typecasting her in similar roles.

The curse of The Exorcist wasn’t limited to Blair. Rumors and urban legends about the film being cursed arose after several incidents involving the cast and crew. From on-set accidents to personal tragedies, many started to believe the film had somehow invoked real supernatural forces.

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William Friedkin: A Directorial Titan

In the world of filmmaking, William Friedkin stands out as one of the most audacious and creative directors of his era. His expansive portfolio exhibits his versatility, showcasing his prowess across a plethora of genres—ranging from upbeat musical comedies and deep-rooted psychodramas to sharp political satires and riveting police thrillers. He was equally adept at adapting stage plays and crafting chilling narratives of supernatural terror.

Despite his vast success, Friedkin’s journey wasn’t devoid of hurdles. Notably, in 1977, his film Sorcerer, a remake of Wages of Fear, was met with harsh criticism and suffered at the box office. Ironically, with time, perspectives shifted. Today, Sorcerer is celebrated as a masterpiece in Friedkin’s repertoire, embodying intense and pessimistic suspense, drawing audiences into its haunting descent into profound malevolence.

However, it was the critically acclaimed The French Connection in 1971 that truly solidified Friedkin’s reputation. Winning the Best Picture Oscar, this thriller, rooted in a real-life colossal drug bust, enthralled audiences with its gripping narrative. Drawing stylistic cues from Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), Friedkin opted for a documentary-esque approach, infusing the film with authentic grit and realism.

This unfiltered and genuine portrayal was precisely what captivated William Peter Blatty, leading him to believe Friedkin was the only director capable of translating his best-selling supernatural narrative, The Exorcist, to the screen. Blatty’s instinct was correct. Under Friedkin’s helm, audiences felt the on-screen events were eerily authentic.

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The 1980s further showcased Friedkin’s relentless innovation. His film To Live and Die in LA (1985) was a testament to this, boasting a heart-stopping chase scene on a Long Beach freeway. This particular sequence mirrored, if not surpassed, the adrenaline-packed chase scenes that were Friedkin’s signature since The French Connection.

Friedkin wasn’t merely a filmmaker. He was a cinematic tempest, shaping and reshaping how stories were told on screen. His unique approach to storytelling, combined with his willingness to push boundaries, made him a formidable force in the world of film. From high-octane thrillers to intimate dramas, Friedkin’s style is evident in his meticulous attention to detail and commitment to authenticity. His departure leaves a void, but his legacy ensures he will never be forgotten.

The Exorcist: A Timeless Cautionary Tale

Amid the fear and dread it instilled, The Exorcist also served as a cautionary tale about the struggles of faith in a modern world. The film underscores the constant battle between belief and skepticism, urging viewers to introspect and confront their own convictions. As much as it is about demonic possession, it’s also about the human spirit’s resilience in the face of insurmountable odds.

In an era where it’s easy to stream and watch The Exorcist from the comfort of one’s home, the film’s themes remain ever-relevant. The age-old tussle between science and faith, the pitfalls of blind trust in institutions, and the profound complexities of the human psyche are topics that resonate even today.

As new generations discover and revisit this classic, its narrative continues to inspire reflection, making it more than just a horror movie. It remains a potent exploration of humanity’s deepest fears and eternal hopes. It’s no wonder that even after all these years, The Exorcist maintains its reign as one of the most compelling tales in cinema history.

A Master of Suspense

Watch The Exorcist alone late some night, and you’ll still feel those existential shivers. Friedkin expertly tapped the zeitgeist to craft a masterpiece that resonates across the decades. As digital media now bombards us with “too much information” and “alternative facts,” the film provokes timeless questions.

Which seemingly rational forces control our fate — science or religion? And what evils lurk in the dark shadows of our psyche?

Rest in peace, William Friedkin. Yours was a twisted creative genius that left us with eternal nightmares—and insights. Let me know your thoughts on this legendary film and the director’s legacy.

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