Justin Bertolero

The Legacy of a Classic: A Review of William Friedkin's The Exorcist

In the genre of horror, few films hold more cultural impact and critical praise than 1973’s The Exorcist. Often referred to as “the scariest film of all time”, it broke box office records, boasting 7 oscar nominations and two wins. According to boxofficemojo.com, The Exorcist, adjusted for inflation, is the 9th highest grossing film of all time. Following its release, people were so horrified by the shock of the film, they were reported to be throwing up, shaking, and crying after leaving the theater. But what is it about this film that caused such a reaction amongst its viewers?

For a film so widely known and praised for its envelope pushing profanity and grotesqueness, The Exorcist relies heavily on its snail like pacing throughout the first two acts. The slow progression into Reagan’s possession creates a constant grinding sense of unease and helplessness. By not only relying on the somewhat easier shock approach to horror (of which The Exorcist achieves in spades), the subtle style applied to the first half of the film sets up something beyond a simple horror scenario; The Exorcist serves as a dark drama portraying a helpless parent losing their child.

Despite this excellent dramatic pacing, these elements are often, and understandably overshadowed by the film’s in-your-face gross out moments. As shocking as the crucifix masturbation or head-spinning scenes may seem now, these images were beyond horrific in 1973 mainstream cinema. This is not to say that these scenes are only powerful because of their historical context; most can agree there is a strikingly different effect between The Exorcist’s darkest scenes and the newest Eli Roth “torture porn”. Why this film ultimately succeeds, and for that matter, what makes for the most gut wrenching horror, is a tone of stark realism. There is nothing funny about The Exorcist. The Nightmare on Elm Street and Hostile franchises are handled with a sense of tongue in cheek, over the top nature. They have teenagers having sex and getting slashed, and for the most part you don't care, but in The Exorcist, something more sinister crawls under your skin. While it does have a supernatural premise, every scene is painted as entirely believable. Accompanied by only a few chilling piano chords, the movie is almost entirely devoid of music, driving the viewer even deeper into the character’s universe.

While the movie is undoubtably scary and shocking, there is another factor specific to this story that places The Exorcist as one of the “scariest films of all time”. While many viewers can turn off the film and feel safe that a possession will never happen to them, a majority of audiences were not so sure. According to ABC News, 83 percent of Americans identify as catholics, a religion which gives credibility to the possibility of exorcisms. When this film’s religious theme and blunt realism was juxtaposed with the extreme sexual radicalism and satanic imagery, the product was too much for some moviegoers to handle.

As we move deeper into the modern age of cinema, horror is being downplayed into a series of cash grabs and slasher soft core. Some films in recent years (It Follows, The Babadook) have garnered critical praise for its return to old school realism. Despite this recent trend, contemporary gore and “torture porn” films have desensitized us from the simpler scare tactics of early horror. While older movies like Jaws may not be as terrifying to young audiences as they once were, the image of Reagan wagging her tongue and writhing on the bed in The Exorcist still disturbs me far more than any Saw sequel ever will. 

Justin Bertolero studies marketing and communications at Ithaca College and grew up in Liverpool, NY. He is a film-buff, musician, and occasional writer. His work has been featured in FILMIC Magazine and The Ithacan. He likes long walks on the beach and angsty folk punk music.